The “Culture Wars” of the last several decades have pitted those who think of America as fundamentally a Christian nation against those who see America as essentially secular. Hosts of books and internet sites purport to prove one side or the other by selectively quoting from America’s founders or various court decisions. And there is an abundance of quotations available for both sides to use, often from the same founder!
The reason the founders are so helpful to both sides of the debate is not that they were confused about their beliefs. It is that the two sides are partly right and partly wrong. American founders assumed a basic morality derived from their Judeo-Christian heritage, and most believed in a Creator who providentially guided human events. Most also were devoted to the ideals of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, which was philosophically grounded in human reason rather than God’s revelation. Most thought of themselves as Christians, but were far from orthodox, and, certainly not evangelical. Many had a deistic God, but one who was nonetheless involved in human events in a real though non-miraculous way. They were not secularists in the sense of, say, modern France; that is to say that did not believe religion should be banned from the public square. But at the same time most were leery of establishing an official state religion, and advocated freedom of religious belief and practice.
John Wesley was a priest in the established church in England. Like his parents, he was devoted to the Church of England and not at all opposed to its being the national church. At the same time, he strongly supported the legal toleration of Dissenting churches—at least those that were Protestant—and opposed persecution of persons for their beliefs. He was as strong an advocate of English liberty as any American colonist. But he had a much higher view of the monarchy as the protector of those liberties than did the revolutionaries across the Atlantic.
Wesley had distinctive views on what actually constitutes a Christian nation. In his 1744 sermon “Scriptural Christianity”—the last sermon he was ever invited to give at Oxford—he begins his “plain, practical application” with this question: “Where, I pray, do the Christians live? Which is the country, the inhabitants whereof are ‘all…filled with the Holy Ghost’?…cannot suffer one among them to ‘lack anything,’ but continually give ‘to every man as he hath need’? Who one and all have the love of God filling their hearts, and constraining them to love their neighbor as themselves?…. With what propriety can we term any a Christian country which does not answer this description? Why then, let us confess we have never yet seen a Christian country upon earth” (§IV. 1).
For Wesley, a Christian nation is one whose people exhibit in their dispositions and actions the marks of the new birth, most especially love for God and neighbor. In other words, they manifest holiness of heart and life. Wesley believed this would not only impact personal attitudes and relationships in the narrow sense, but would characterize more broadly the life of communities and the nation itself.
This was a perspective Wesley continued to have throughout his life. In his 1783 sermon “The General Spread of the Gospel,” he asks what acquaintance the western churches have with holiness and happiness. “Put Papists and Protestants, French and English together, the bulk of one and of the other nation; and what manner of Christians are they? Are they ‘holy as He that hath called them is holy?’ Are they filled with ‘righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost?’ Is there “that mind in them which was also in Christ Jesus?’ And do they ‘walk as Christ also walked?’ Nay, they are as far from it as hell is from heaven!” (§7).
Things do not have to be this way, of course. In fact, in the later sermon Wesley insists God is renewing persons in love such that in the end the entire creation will reflect God’s holiness.
But what he also reminds us is akin to what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. Being faithful to God is not a matter of grudging obedience or meeting minimal moral requirements—it requires a heart transformed by God. Wesley was certainly concerned that nations have moral laws, and would halve welcomed a law that made slavery illegal. But what in the end makes a nation Christian is not its laws but the hearts and lives of its citizens.