The idea that America is a Christian nation has a long, contested history. Believers can find evidence that confirms the thesis and unbelievers evidence that disconfirms it. The reality, in other words, is complex, and therefore our history writing should be nuanced.
I had America’s history in mind as I read Nick Spencer’s The Evolution of the West, which looks at how Christianity shaped the values of Western Europe and especially the United Kingdom in the course of its long history in those lands. Spencer opens the book with a nod toward New Atheists’ denial that Christianity formed the modern world in any meaningful sense but negation. In other words, modernity is the rejection of religion’s influence, not its effect. He then concedes that, going in the opposite direction, some Christians are prone to a simplistic affirmation of Christianity’s formative influence. “There is no end of cheap proof-texting that can show how the West owes everything to Christianity—or rather everything it currently holds dear.”
Spencer’s argument is that Christianity’s influence is real (against the New Atheists) but complex (against the proof-texting proponents of a Christian West). Using a theatrical metaphor, he writes: “Christianity has played a leading role in this show—indeed it has played the lead for much of the last 1,500 years—but the play has been no mere soliloquy, and the lead has had a somewhat ambiguous relationship with the overall plotline.” The book’s twelve successive chapters then take up the complex story of Christianity’s influence over a variety of topics.
Rather than summarize the contents of each of the book’s chapters, let me highlight one chapter as an example of Spencer’s method throughout. Chapter 3 examines the influence of Christianity on the Magna Carta, which celebrated its eight-hundredth anniversary in 2014. Spencer highlights three principles embodied in the charter’s legal mandates: “due process,” “the arbitration of the king’s affairs,” and “the extension of liberties and rights…to those who did not occupy the top strata of English society.” He shows that, in each case, Christianity influenced the development of these practices “in the realm of ideas, of theology.”
“Magna Carta,” he writes, “was written after, and drew on, a century of ongoing development of (a theologically reflective and coherent) canon law. This was a great renewal and systematization of theological and legal thought (best embodied by a book by Gratian entitled Decretum, otherwise known as the Concordance of Discordant Canons). It provided intellectual foundations for key aspects of Magna Carta,” specifically, the three principles mentioned above.
Moreover, there were practical ways in which what Spencer calls “the fact of the Church” shaped the charter’s limitation of the king’s power. He writes, “Magna Carta and the legal culture in which it grew were profoundly shaped by the Church; not just by Christian beliefs but by an institution that was shaped (in theory) by those beliefs and protected itself fiercely from outward interference with them and it.” (The charter’s first clause states, “the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired.”)
As I understand him, what Spencer is arguing is that the combination of the Church’s beliefs and its institutional freedom both inspired voluntary obedience to moral norms and put boundaries around the growth of the State. The latter curbed the expansion of state power through positive law, while the former produced a citizenry capable of acting justly without a need for detailed legislation. What worries him (and frankly me) seems to be whether the State can be limited in the absence of Christian belief and the Church as a strong institution.
“In the absence of those deep cultural norms,” Spencer writes, “those religious and social conventions, which were historically embedded in institutions, there is a temptation to turn to the law to settle all disputes. And if that law is somehow seen as extra-political”—that is, outside the scope of democratic adjudication—“…then not only is society weakened but so, ultimately, is democracy.”
Obviously, the emergence of this kind of Western political norm—i.e., the limitation of law—is not a simple or straightforward affair. It is, to use Spencer’s biological metaphor, an “evolution.” We think of evolution as a process of “unrepeatable randomness.” As Stephen Jay Gould famously wrote, “If you could rewind the tape of life, erasing what actually happened and let it run again, you’d get a different [result] each time.” In that understanding of evolution, the conjunction of Christianity and Western political norms is an accident of history.
There’s a different way to think of evolution, however, one that is less accidental and more teleological. It draws on paleobiologist Simon Conway Morris’ concept of “convergence,” which is “the recurrent tendency of biological organization to arrive at the same ‘solution’ to a particular need.” Spencer comments, “For all the randomness involved in the process, there are certain inherent invisible conditions and constraints and contours that shape it towards ends that, if not predictable, are certainly probable.” In other words, re-running Gould’s “tape of Western history, erasing what actually happened and letting it run again, we might, assuming the same deep Christian conditions and commitments, end up with a set of values that, while superficially different, bore a striking resemblance to those we recognize today.”
If that is the case, then Christianity’s influence on concepts and practices such as human dignity, rule of law, welfare, humanism, capitalism, science, human rights, nationhood, ethics, democracy, and even atheism and secularism represents the outworking of a deep cultural logic, not a happenstance of history. It’s not a straight-line development, as some Western Christians might want it, but it’s not the New Atheists’ nothing either.
And perhaps that is a model for how American Christians might think about the influence of their religion on their own nation. At least that’s the thought The Evolution of the West caused this American Christian to think.
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Nick Spencer, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values (London: SPCK, 2016).