By Michael Bryan
Merry Christmas to you and yours.
I find myself musing this Christmas day on whether the old bromide that America is a “Christian nation” is actually true in any meaningful way.
It is true that the various denominations and sects of Christianity, lumped together a as monolithic religion (a questionable proposition in itself) is by far the most common religious allegiance of Americans. 65% of Americans self-identify as Christian in 2019. This is down considerably over the past few decades, from 85% in 1990, and to 78% in 2012. If we can be considered a “Christian nation” by such a metric, it is a rather swiftly declining majority.
But that is not the sense that preoccupies me today. The sense that I am contemplating is whether our nation, in that we express our values through public policy, practice, and norms, in any way comports with “Christian values”.
One must inquire, “what are Christian values?” Are they the lessons of the Christ, whose advent in this fallen world we ostensibly celebrate on this, his canonical birthday? I can’t see any more relevant and common sense of what Christian values might be if not those demonstrated by his life, teachings, and death.
I would argue that at minimum Christian values, upon which most self-identified Christians might agree, regardless of their particular dogmas and habits of worship, would include care for the poor and sick, and for the children, especially those without the solicitude of a family to turn to for support and succor. Were not the central lessons of Christ’s own ministry and life, and much of his teaching, centered around love and care for one’s fellow humans? I believe so, according to my own readings of scripture. And I dare say few would disagree much, except perhaps whether that was the central tenet, or merely “a” central tenet.
By that standard, does today’s America embody and celebrate those values?
I don’t think so.
To care for the poor has never been much a pre-occupation of our government. We prefer to leave such charity to private conscience, rather than offer an open hand from government. The thought being, I suppose, that public largess tends to be corrupted and abused, whereas private charity is less likely to pose such a risk.
When the “President” seeks to cut the food aid to hundreds of thousands of needy Americans just before the holidays, one wonders how highly our government values kindness toward the poor. Some might be quietly outraged, but I heard no groundswell of outrage among the self-identified greet Trump’s initiative. Indeed, despite the myriad ways that the current Administration has sought to punish and further immiserate the poorest among us, his support among the self-identified remains strong, especially among white evangelical Christians. So, at least among the most self-anointed avatars of “Christian values” in America, actual concern for the poor doesn’t seem to count for much.
And concern, as expressed in public policy, for the sick does little better in today’s America. The main way of providing healthcare in this nation remains private, corporate insurance systems. I can’t imagine Christ referring the sick and lame to sociopathic, profit-seeking corporations to underwrite his ministrations, or even accepting payment in any form.
In this nation, falling between the many cracks in the employment-based healthcare system is often to fall outside of the interest and profit models of the insurance industry entirely, or to be brutally priced out of it. There are government options for the elderly and most destitute among us, but they face constant budgetary pressure to purge the rolls and squeeze expenditures, even if you are unfortunate enough, or make it to sufficient age, to qualify.
It is conservatively and rigorously asserted by published health research that as many as 45,000 premature deaths per year of those under 65 are attributable to lack of health insurance coverage. Let rephase: tens of thousands of Americans under 65 die every year because they lack access to health care.
Would Christ want us to do better than allow untold thousands to die to feed the maw of a greedy and immoral corporate healthcare insurance industry? I think so. I think he would weep at what we have wrought.
What about the little children? Christ had a special concern for the most vulnerable little ones among us. Yet today, on his birthday, thousands of minor children as young as one year old, sit in detention centers, alone, cold, hungry and without their families, because they are not American citizens and their families had the audacity to seek asylum from terror and want in the land of the free. This travesty is due purely to official U.S. policies to forcibly separate immigrant families.
Would Christ approve of such treatment of children because they are from Canaan or elsewhere, not Israel? I think not. This is not policy consistent with Christian values, yet we tolerate it – some even celebrate it and defend it.
So this Christmas, perhaps we should give some thought to how we express our Christian (or other) values when we exercise our civil rights to participate in public discourse and government.
I reflect on our poor going in want, innocent children suffering cruel and even fatal detention, neglect and abuse, and the sick dying for lack of proper medical care, and I don’t believe I live in anything approaching a Christian nation. My Christmas wish is that someday soon, I will.
Wealth, health, and the support and love of your families to you all. You need it all in our “Christian nation”. In fact, you can’t live without it.