A Christian nation?

A few days alter the 2008 election, I was walking toward the Largo Argentina on a cool, clear Roman evening, when I noticed a magazine kiosk and wandered over to have a look. There were journals from all over Europe: France, Great Britain, Germany, Holland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, wherever. Every one of them featured a glowing portrait of Barrack Obama, photographed in side- or quarter-profile and looking up with a calm, secure gaze—not altogether unlike like Jim Caviezel’s Jesus at the end of “The Passion of the Christ,” on the morning of the Resurrection.

Messianic politics had returned to Europe, big time.

President Obama was greeted rapturously during his recent European tour, and why not? He told Europeans—or at least western Europeans—everything they’ve been longing to hear for eight years: that America had been dissing them and now appreciated their leadership role in world politics; that their womb-to-tomb social welfare states were models of humane, sensible governance; that Russia’s recent imperial assertions were nothing to worry about; that the West wasn’t at war with Islam; that peace in the Middle East was at hand; and that the war against terrorism was just about wrapped up, such that that unpleasant term could be retired back to Texas along with the warmongering evangelical cowboy, Dubya.

None of these soothing reassurances bears close examination. Europe’s inability to play a leadership role in world politics was amply demonstrated before the president even got home, with the NATO countries failing to ante up for larger roles in pacifying Afghanistan. The European social welfare state will be bankrupt in less than two decades, thanks to Europe’s demographic suicide. Russian aggression may be nothing to worry about, unless you’re a Ukrainian, a Georgian, a Pole, or anyone in the E.U. looking to heat their home next winter, should Ivan cut off the natural gas (which he’s already done in blackmailing Ukraine). No, the West isn’t at war “with Islam;” but virtually every shooting war in which the West is involved has been triggered by Islamic extremists, who don’t seem to understand that the strife is o’er, the battle done. Peace in parts of the Middle East is somewhat closer, thanks to the success of the surge and the beginning of real politics in Iraq; but peace between Israel and Palestine is no closer than it’s ever been, thanks to the murderous rule of Hamas in Gaza and the utter corruption of the PLO on the West Bank.

Long after the president had gone through the familiar litany of liberal foreign policy shibboleths, however, it was another comment of his that stuck in my mind—and that was his suggestion, in Turkey, that America is not a Christian nation.

Which is, of course, true in one sense: the United States government does not endorse Christianity or any brand thereof as the official national faith. But as a cultural matter, it seems odd to say that America is not a Christian nation when three out of every four Americans claim that Christianity is the source of their deepest commitments—including, one might assume, their commitments to civility, tolerance, religious freedom, the rule of law, and democracy.

My friend Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek, tried a parallel argument in his magazine’s Easter issue, suggesting that falling numbers of believing and practicing Christians over the past two decades mean that, while Christianity remains a prominent cultural force, it’s just not possible to speak of a Christian nation any more, if by that term we mean a nation in which Christianity plays a determinative, or even significant, role in politics. What holds America together, Brother Meacham argued, is our shared commitment to each other’s liberties.

That strikes me as a weak foundation for a nation that robustly protects religious freedom, however. Better that the American people believe that it’s the will of God that they defend the religious freedom of those who have different ideas about the will of God, as Richard John Neuhaus used to say. Whatever happened at the founding, that conviction is what keeps religious freedom alive in America today. We’d better hope it stays that way.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.