by Chris Ritter
“Let us confess we have never seen a Christian country upon the earth.” -John Wesley
On this weekend before the 4th of July many sanctuaries will be festooned with the trappings of patriotism. Songs will be sung like “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and “America the Beautiful.” It is right that we pray for our nation. We have much for which to be thankful. And our nation needs divine intervention. Some preachers will take an opportunity this weekend to renew the debate on whether the United States is a “Christian nation.” Arguments will inevitably include the faiths of our Founders, the sources of our Constitution, and the multi-textured character of the current American salad bowl.
But John Wesley argued we are not a Christian nation. By his metrics no nation is.
If America has a legitimate claim to being Christian, how much more so England? After all, the Church there is an officially established part of the state. The monarch is styled as the defender of the faith. Yet, before his fellow British subjects Wesley proclaimed that “we have never seen a Christian country upon the earth.”
Preached at Oxford University in 1744, Wesley’s words caused such controversy that pamphlets were printed against him (the social media of the day). He ended up publishing the full text of his sermon “Scriptural Christianity” just so that people could see his words in context. The sermon is classic Wesley.
To say that Wesley set a high bar for what and who could bear the name Christian is a grand understatement. One only needs to read “The Almost Christian” to see that he did not throw the term around loosely. Sacraments, ceremonies, and sanctuaries were for him the mere husk of the true kernel of the faith found alone in a heart transformed by the love of God, through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Accept no substitutes. Wesley called his fellow faculty and their students a generation of triflers… “triflers with God, with one another, and with your own souls” for their passive settling.
Yet, his message was more constructive than critical. In describing the true faith, Wesley theorized on the features of a Christian nation:
…the inhabitants whereof are all thus filled with the Holy Ghost –are all of one heart and of one soul cannot suffer one among them to lack anything, but continually give to every man as he hath need; who, one and all, have the love of God filling their hearts, and constraining them to love their neighbor as themselves; who have all “put on bowels of mercy, humbleness of mind, gentleness, long-suffering” who offend not in any kind, either by word or deed, against justice, mercy, or truth; but in every point do unto all men; as they would these should do unto them? With what propriety can we term any a Christian country, which does not answer this description? Why then, let us confess we have never yet seen a Christian country upon earth.
In a Christian nation, the transformed heart of each citizen would be compelled by the Holy Spirit toward mutual love and care. The Golden Rule would be the standard for ethics. Humility would crown each head and mercy would be the watchword. Gentleness and patience would define each conversation and justice and truth would be exalted.
In a way, Wesley did for Oxford what Jesus did for the scribe who asked, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10) Instead of engaging in an esoteric debate over who is in and who is out, he put it back on the listener. Want a Christian nation? Be Christian to one another. The love and care we have for one another forms the very spiritual environment in which we live. Opinions, pedigrees, and even chapel services like the one his listeners were attending were merely the outward form. The true power is in godly living.
Even Wesley’s detractors admit that he was a fearless evangelist. Some miss the extent to which he was a fearless theologian. He doggedly believed that we could live the abundant life of faith described in the New Testament. When the Bible says, “Be holy” he took it to mean that God would give us the empowering grace to perform that daunting command.
Contrast Wesley’s approach to how many proclaim the intersection of Christianity and America on the 4th of July. “We are Christian because our founders were Christian.” “We are Christian because important events were inspired by Christian faith.” “We are Christian because God has blessed us in many ways and with many things.” All of this tends to do what Wesley consistently refused to do throughout his long ministry: Define Christianity down. (I pause to think here of the strained efforts of some of my fellow Evangelicals who argue that our current president is, in some way, Christian: “He is an.. er… um… baby Christian?”) Wesley didn’t bring the term “Christian” down to where he or anyone else could reach it. He left it high and actively sought for grace to attain it.
Talk of America as a “Christian nation” is so often a way of couching the debate about who should now be in control. Wesley flipped the script and called Christians in his nation to deeper loving and higher living.
Arguing we are a Christian nation inevitably leads to compromise in a quest for control. Instead, let’s pray for the grace to be Christian in the nation. Both Progressive and Traditionalist believers are guilty of “trifling with God.” (We orthodox folks should remember that a favorite phrase of Wesley was “orthodox as the Devil.”) We play and posture instead of produce the fruit that Jesus said would mark his followers. We need the inner transformation that Wesley spent his life proclaiming.
A truly Christian nation? Now wouldn’t that be something to see!