Was the US never really a ‘Christian country’, or was US Christianity corrupted by politics?

You don’t have to be a world-renown historian to know that blurring the lines between Christianity and the State never ends well. Even the average Joe Christian knows that. But somehow in the decades since “In God We Trust” became the official motto of the United States (US) in 1956, it has seemed like the modern US version of the story might be headed for a happier ending. The US really did seem to be a particularly Christian country.

Of course Australian Christians were sceptical when, year after year, every Grammy Award winner thanked God in their acceptance speech. It became a cliché – an anecdote that was sure to get a laugh and make a point in a sermon. Yet many wondered whether the cliché pointed to something good – to a society so saturated in Christianity that acknowledging God was second-nature, even in the music industry.

No successful secular music artist in Australia ever gave God any credit for their achievements – and we understood why. Even artists who were full-blown believers would struggle to make such a public declaration, given the reality that they would lose fans and face ridicule as a result. Surely the ubiquitous “I just want to thank God” speeches of US artists was a good indicator for Christianity?

Over the years, Australian Christians have even begun to take a little pride in the mainstreamed US Christianity that made its way across the ocean. Kanye’s Jesus is King album promotions plastered across an enormous wall seemed to be a real statement in our Australian cities – and certainly worth a photo for social media.

Yes, it did seem odd that celebrations of the military and the flag and Jesus happened at the same time, on the same stage – and often in churches. But the way every US politician threw out a quick “God bless America” at the close of their speeches seemed almost like a prayer. How could a prayer-ish request to God do any harm? And as for putting their national motto “In God We Trust” across every printed US dollar … well, it almost seemed a bit like tithing.

Then there was the way US Christians engaged in politics.

In Australia, a politician who declares themselves to be a Christian engendered a huge amount of scrutiny. Australians watch closely to ensure the politician’s personal faith does not interfere with them making decisions that represent the beliefs of all Australians – the vast majority of whom are not practising Christians.

An Australian Christian politician may get some additional Christians votes, but it is far from guaranteed. In general, Australian Christian voters need to be won over the same way other voters are – with policies that appeal to them. Policies, I stress, because Australian Christians don’t vote year after year over any single issue. Despite some lobby group’s best efforts to follow in the footsteps of US Christians and focus on a handful of key social issues, currently election campaigns in Australian do not involve candidates or parties taking a stand on controversial matters such as abortion. Rarely is there a clear “pro-choice major party” in Australian political life. As a result, Australian Christians weigh hot-button “Christian issues” alongside other social and economic policies, and vote accordingly.

But in the US it is clearly different. It even seems like having a Christian faith might be an advantage for a US politician. Imagine!

Writing now, as an increasingly tumultuous US presidential term comes to an end, Australians’ efforts to keep politics free of faith seems justified. But there certainly have been times when Australian Christians have watched their conservative brothers and sisters in Christ wield their political power and have been tempted to consider building a similar force here in Oz.

The thought of being able to hold government officials over a metaphorical barrel to a faith-based standard, on those issues Christians care most about, can certainly appear to be a justifiable means to an end. It is clear that in the US, from the self-declared “decade of the evangelical” that marked the Reagan era of the 1980s, mainstream evangelicals and Pentecostals were swept into a political movement that promised – and achieved – political power.

(Some, such as Billy Graham, urged caution, saying “only God can do that” in relation to the expectation that a conservative administration could turn the country around).

Christians are, after all, instructed in the Bible to be salt and light in the world.

Under President Trump, conservative Christians in the US have gotten the pro-life judges they want more than anything – and they have even gotten the occasional Bible photo op. And so what if the Bible is held upside down? Surely the mere fact that the President of the United States considers the Bible so powerful that he should clear a square to hold it up for a photo has to be worth something good, doesn’t it?

But the events of the last week have brought this whole fantasy to an abrupt end. The deal that many conservative Christians in the US made with President Trump has unravelled and one thing is clear: Christianity and politics is a match made in hell.

As the dust settles, it is clear that it was actually conservative US Christians who were being taken for a ride during the Trump presidency. Having traded everything to advocate for the unborn, they appeared to find themselves unable to advocate for the living – even those who were children.

Conservative Christians from other countries – and some in the US – looked on in disbelief as Christian leader after Christian leader acted like a gambling addict who had bet the family home on the roulette wheel. They were all in to defend a President who lied incessantly, stoked racial division, and promoted violence. It seemed that almost all Christian values were surrendered in exchange for the ultimate prize of pro-life judges.

Apparently, President Trump had become a Christian, some Christians said, so all us Christians across the world waited for the evidence of a transformed heart to make its way onto President Trump’s policies – or even just his Twitter feed. It never did.

All of this is not to say that most Australian Christians believe that Christians should eschew the realm of politics entirely. Clearly the kind of service a Christian can offer his or her fellow countrymen in any of these types of representative roles is of great value. Nor would most Aussie Christians suggest that Christians should refrain from contributing their beliefs in the “contest of ideas” of civil society that informs policy. Christians are, after all, instructed in the Bible to be salt and light in the world.

But Australian Christians of all varieties generally do share a conviction that when Christians interact with the State, it should be done in a manner that represents Christ well.

After last week’s Capitol siege, it is clearer than ever that Christians throwing around their collective weight as a voting bloc in order to get what they want – not to mention ransacking the highest government building in the land when they don’t get it – is behaviour that is antithetical to Christ and his teaching.

And watching televised images of Americans wearing Trump/Jesus merchandise, waving Trump/Jesus flags and shouting “In Jesus’ name” as they stormed the Capitol last week, I wondered about what part had broken first.

Worst of all, Christians who hold this kind of a mindset actually misrepresent Jesus to themselves …

Was the whole idea of a US Christian identity broken to begin with, or did the conflation of Christianity and politics alter it? Did the US only ever appear to be more Christian than other countries, or was its Christianity corrupted by politics?

To put it frankly, are the people who declare themselves to be Christians in the US really just ‘cultural Christians’ – people who are ethnically descended from nations where Christianity was the primary religion? Or people who have taken on the outward form of their grandparent’s faith? Have they ever actually had a moment of conversion where they have decided to accept Christ as their Lord and Saviour? Do they read their Bibles to try to learn what God is like? Do they pray and listen for his direction?

Perhaps the US’ dollar-bill declarations were never about trusting in the God of the Bible, I realised. Maybe when US politicians declare “God bless America”, they aren’t really referencing the God Australian Christians follow at all.

God’s Kingdom is not an earthly one, of course, and any nation’s Christians are going to misrepresent him if they imply that seeing his will established on earth is going to primarily take the form of a State legislating Christian values. They misrepresent him to unbelievers, who conclude Christianity is merely a political movement with historically religious roots. They misrepresent him to others in the community of believers, who assume seeking political power under a Christian banner equates to following Christ. And given statistics that reveal a large percentage of “evangelicals” in the US do not believe Jesus is the son of God, it does seem that politics literally defines Christianity for millions of Americans.

But worst of all, Christians who hold this kind of a mindset actually misrepresent Jesus to themselves – and tragically relegate themselves to the ranks of those who were so focussed on looking for a Saviour with military might, that they missed him altogether.

The only time Jesus ransacked a place was when he went to the temple and discovered religious leaders holding a fundraiser that basically sold atonement. So, when Christians reimagine Jesus to become a powerful political group that uses force to get what they want, they reject Jesus’ example. Some might even say, they reject the Saviour we got.

The Saviour we got was Jesus – a foot-washing, servant king whose political declarations took the form of the Beatitudes, and who went willingly to the cross. And while Jesus may not be the Saviour that Trump-supporting US Christians have imagined they were following, after the events of last week, I’d suggest he’s exactly the kind they need.