How Not to Build a Christian America

Bettina Krause
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By January 1 next year all public school classrooms in Louisiana, from kindergartens to universities, will display posters of a Protestant version of the Ten Commandments in “large, easily readable font.” Depending on your perspective, this is either a much-needed step toward “acknowledging the Christian foundations of America” or a disturbing step toward an America in which the state puts a heavy thumb on the scale in favor of one religion.

Will this law survive the constitutional challenge that has already been filed? Almost 45 years ago the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar law in Kentucky, finding that its “plainly religious purpose” violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause. But the answer this time around could be different. Not only have Louisiana lawmakers attempted to frame their law as having an educational purpose rather than a religious purpose, but this Court has shown itself as less-than-friendly toward meaningful church-state separation.

Putting aside constitutional issues for a moment, though, how should Christians feel about this new law? From a Christian perspective, could there be some social or even spiritual benefit to giving this biblical passage more public exposure?

Before we get to that question, though, consider these two stories.

Story 1: Rice Christianity

It was during a work trip to India in the early 2000s that I first began to understand the utter distain with which many Hindu Indians view so-called rice Christianity. I was helping organize a visit to India by a Christian leader—a visit during which he would meet with various national and state political leaders, as well as the media.

Before the trip I researched current political and religious issues that might arise. It didn’t take me long to realize that one of the most politically sensitive religious issues in India is the perception of aggressive and unethical Christian proselytism, especially among the Dalits—members of India’s lowest social caste. And indeed, this issue did arise multiple times during the trip.

For many years “rice Christianity” has been a slur thrown at both missionaries and new Christian believers not just in India but around the globe—from countries of Africa and Asia to the islands of the Pacific. It implies that new Christians haven’t experienced a genuine conversion but have switched religions for pragmatic reasons. It’s an insult that suggests Christian missionaries, whether intentionally or unintentionally, have “sweetened the deal” with material benefits: food, medical care, education, or the suggestion of an elevation in social status.

Questions around motivation for conversion are messiest in places in which Christian missionaries followed in the path of colonizers—whether British, American, Spanish, French, or Portuguese. Were those who embraced the Christian faith motivated by fear? by a belief that it would curry favor with their new rulers?

Unfortunately, the historical record shows that Christian mission practices have not always guarded against these evils. And where this has been true, the reputation of Christianity has suffered immeasurably.

Story 2: Jesus or Jail

In the Colorado case of Janny v. Carmack, everyone agrees that someone had their First Amendment religious liberty rights violated. But who? Was it Mr. Janny, a man recently released from prison and needing a place to stay? Or was it Mr. Carmack, the director of the Denver Rescue Mission, a Christian ministry that provides for the “spiritual and material needs of vulnerable people”?

The facts of the case are simple enough. In 2015 a parole officer organized a bed for Mr. Janny at the mission run by Mr. Carmack. But along with the bed came certain expectations: first, that Mr. Janny would participate in Christian worship services, and second, that he would receive spiritual counseling. As an atheist, Mr. Janny refused, and asked either to be excused from religious activities or to be moved to a nonreligious shelter.

The parole officer and Mr. Carmack gave Mr. Janny a choice. Mr. Janny could comply with Mr. Carmack’s conditions, or he could return to prison. The upshot? Mr. Janny was sent back to prison, where he served five additional months.

After being released a second time, Mr. Janny sued, and in 2021 the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in his favor. The court said that the Christian shelter had violated Mr. Janny’s First Amendment rights by requiring his participation in religious activities, knowing that if he refused, his parole officer would send him back to prison.

Lawyers representing Mr. Carmack and the Denver Rescue Mission, however, had a different take on whose religious rights had been trampled. They argued that the Tenth Circuit decision violated the mission’s religious free exercise rights, forcing its leaders to decide between offering free help to people in need or compromising its religious mission and identity.

They missed an obvious irony. In many countries around the world today, oppressive regimes regularly give faithful followers of Christ a choice between Jesus or jail. In Janny v. Carmack, that same ultimatum was delivered by Christians to an atheist.

Building Authentic Christianity

The point is this: authentic Christianity is the result of personal commitments, freely made. Anything else is not Christianity.

Attempting to affix a large “CHRISTIAN” label to America by whatever means possible does not make our country more Christian. Insisting on the primacy of the Christian faith in American history does not make America more Christian. Leveraging the “Christian vote” to pass laws that favor Christianity does not make America more Christian.

And posting the Ten Commandments on classroom walls does not make America more Christian. At best it’s window dressing. At worst it confirms a growing belief that some Christians—in their determination to Christianize America—will happily run roughshod over other people’s rights and beliefs.

Building a more Christian America is much harder than passing ten-commandment laws, and comes with no guarantee of success. Building a more Christian America requires the authentic transformation of lives, one by one. It requires Christians to reject anything that smacks of coercion. It requires humility of spirit. It requires Christians to follow in the footsteps of the Carpenter of Nazareth, who mingled with people, showing sympathy and compassion—no strings attached—and then, and only then, inviting them to follow Him.

Article Author: Bettina Krause

Bettina Krause is the editor of Liberty magazine.