Brantley Gasaway presented the issue of whether or not it is appropriate to consider Britain as a Christian nation the other day at Religion in American History. A very interesting question, and one that is getting attention because of Prime Minister David Cameron’s comments on the subject.
Gasaway begins his piece with an acknowledgement that many readers may be somewhat tired of thinking about the idea of a Christian nation. I certainly hope not! A large share of my scholarship addresses the question of whether America is a Christian nation or not. But he also raises a really important point–Americans aren’t the only ones who have ever considered themselves a Christian nation.
One of the best books I have ever read on the history of religious exceptionalism and nationalism is Anthony Smith’s Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity. In this work, Smith locates four objects in what he calls “the sense of the sacred” in national identity: 1) the community, which considers itself chosen by God, 2) the land itself, which the nation considers sacred, 3) what Smith calls “the glorious past,” that is, the mythological/glorified past of the nation, and 4) “the glorious dead,” and the sacrifices of those who laid down their lives for the causes of the nation.
One of the many values of this book is that Smith shows how western civilizations going back to the fourth century have considered themselves the chosen people of God, and uniquely Christian. Americans are only one of many western societies that have considered themselves Christian, and the British are another.
The British have historically seen themselves as a Christian nation, and sometimes have even seen themselves as the only true Christian people in the world. In the eighteenth century for example, the British considered themselves to be the Christian answer to the Anti-Christ, which was embodied in the French nation. The wars Britain fought with the French in the 1700s were seen by them as an apocalyptic struggle of true Christianity against the forces of the devil and the Anti-Christ of Catholic France. And any nation that styles its monarch as “Defender of the Faith” has a much more explicit claim on being a Christian nation than America ever did.
Still, I’m with Gasaway on remaining open to questioning the propriety of classifying any nation as Christian. What is a Christian nation, anyway? I deal with the ambiguity of the term “Christian nation” extensively in One Nation Under God. Defining precisely what a Christian nation looks like is a thorny path indeed, and I have never found anyone who has met with success in the endeavor.