I reached out to my dear friend Ahnna Ellie Cho Park who is a pastor based in Colorado. Here is her take on everything that is going on in our world.
Ahnna Ellie Cho Park
The America I Know
When I was 12 years old, my family moved to the United States of America from Saudi Arabia. We were in the Kingdom of Saud (KSA) as a missionary family for eight years. My father spent a total of 11 years out there. Our work was mostly hidden because KSA is a fundamental Islamic nation; the entire country abided by the teachings of Islam, down to the food they eat, to the dress they wear, and the clockwork prayer times that were designated for the whole nation; even TV programs and trafficstopped five times a day, to me and my sisters’ frustration. Ramadan was even worse. We couldn’t be seen chewing gum during the day in the whole month of Ramadan, or we would be arrested. Christianity was illegal in KSA and worshiping a deity other than the Allah was criminal activity punishable by imprisonment, fines, beatings, confiscation of property, deportation, and public execution.
After the Gulf War of 1991, life in the KSA became more difficult for foreigners and Christians like us. The mutawa, or the government sanctioned religious police, enforced regulations at much stricter levels. When the opportunity came, my fatherchose to send my mom, my sisters, and me to the United States of America. He told us that unlike Saudi, the US is a Christian nation, a land blessed by our God, and one where Christians like us will be protected. In 1994, my family (minus my father) immigrated to the United States, to the small town of Morrilton,Arkansas.
The first two years in Morrilton proved my father right. My sister and I attended a wonderful private school called Sacred Heart Catholic School. I met wonderful Christian families there. Even though we were Protestant, we found that in the Catholic faith, Jesus was honored, and teachings of the Bible were lived out in the daily lives.
In 1996, my father joined us in the States and our family moved to the Denver Metro Area. My sister and I were put into public schools. And that year, my understanding of America was turned upside down.
At Columbia Middle School, I saw kids my age making out in the hallway, shouting profanities at one another, and flaunting gang signs across the cafeteria. I hung out with friends who did drugs during passing periods. My friends’ friends often braggedabout their biggest criminal activities, ranging from shoplifting to stealing cars. Then came high school. I enrolled in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program at Smoky Hill High School, where teachers often highlighted their lessons with winning points for atheism and Darwinian evolution. It didn’t matter whether I was in the biology class or the philosophy class or the literature class; the overwhelming message the school preached to the students was “God is fake. Christians are phonies. And science is king.”
Keep in mind I came to the United States believing the US to be a “Christian nation” that would uphold my ways, the way Saudi Arabia was a Muslim nation that upheld the Muslim ways of life. Well, middle school and high school were a huge reality check. Feeling so belittled and attacked for my Christian faith, I started to wonder that maybe America is not any more friendly towards Christians than Saudi Arabia is. And I began to think, maybe the US is not a Christian nation that my family believed it to be.
My college and postgraduate experiences fully verified that unsettling hypothesis. I went to a fabulous school in Colorado Springs called Colorado College. CC too was a liberal school. Given the political milieu of 2002-2006, Christianity was often the butt of all jokes. My philosophy professors often mocked the idiocy of the Christian faith, and the few Christian faculty I knew seemed extremely reticent when it came to speaking about their faith. The same was true in graduate school. The LGBTQ agenda was so prominent that homosexuality was read into every text, even my all-time favorite, John Milton’s 17th century epic poem Paradise Lost (Adam’s interaction with angel Raphael is colored with such language that it conveys their mutual homosexual attraction, and so on). After my time at the University of Colorado at Boulder, I decided America is very much an anti-Christian nation.
Since then, I went to Denver Seminary, found company in American evangelicals, and started working in the churches. Then Donald Trump became president. And I noticed that the political tables have turned somewhere in there; the Christians were now the ones voicing their strong preferences in the public arenas. I noticed that many people who have been in the US longer than I have, spoke with fond recollections of a Christian America, one that perhaps enjoyed its heyday before the 90s when I joined in on the American experience.
I became a naturalized citizen of the US in the early 2000s. I took an oath to love and stand with this country. I am thankful to be an American. Yet, I’m still learning about my country. Recently, I’ve been relearning America’s history in light of the violent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. I’m taking more interest in politics because I know it is part of my civic duty to be an informed voter. I care about the Denver Metro Area that I call home and I celebrate every reform it brings to ensure equality, freedom, and safety of all citizens.
At the back of my mind though, I keep asking the question, “Is America a Christian nation?”
This can be a complex question. I know there are many American evangelicals who believe so, and there are people in the south or small towns whose entire lives support the beliefthat America is indeed a Christian nation. And I believe their convictions are valid, given their personal experiences.
My American experience tells a different story, though. At the same time, my American experience is just as valid as any other. Additionally, I can’t help but evaluate the statement, “America is a Christian nation” in light of my experience of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I know exactly what it means for a country to be a Muslim nation; it means nothing other than Islam is tolerated. It indicates unwavering commitment to the ways of Islam. So with that in mind, I ask myself, is America a Christian nation?
Unsurprisingly, the only conclusion I can draw is “No, it is not.”In fact, because the Constitution of the United States promisesreligious freedom to all, we cannot be a Christian nation in any legal sense. Yes, there may be a considerable number ofpracticing Christians in the US and we may be “heavily influenced” by Christian traditions of the past; but the official, bona fide position of the United States of America is that we area pluralistic nation that grants religious freedom to all. We can’tjust ignore that piece of detail. And by the way, religious pluralism is not compatible with the Christian doctrine. To be Christian means to surrender our very selves to Christ. To be Christian means we cast away all other idols to only worship the Yahweh. It’s not hard to see that the American and the biblical value systems are founded on two mutually exclusive premises.
It is worth noting the lingering culture of Christianity is not what makes a nation truly “Christian.” Only the unwavering allegiance to Christ at the national level would afford any country the honor of being called a Christian nation. As wonderful a country the US is, we fall vastly short of meeting that criteria, even if we have historically been characterized byChristian traditions.
With the November election in view, the fight over culture, morality, and ethics is growing louder and louder. I see so many American evangelicals fighting for one party as if it is the equivalent of making America “Christian” again.
While I cherish the Christian traditions of this nation, I want to nudge my Christian brothers and sisters that by the virtue of the Constitution of the United States, our country legally championsreligious pluralism, not Christianity. To make our countryuniformly Christian would mean we’d have to rewrite theConstitution itself. I absolutely believe there are ways we Christians can exercise our American citizenship with wisdom and faith, but there is nothing that will make the current Constitution an obedient servant of the Word of God. Consequently, there is no one uniformly Christian way to vote this November either.
I know so many people mean well when they want to champion Christianity through American politics, but I think Christians’ passions and energy can be better applied to sanctifying the churches— the actual communities of faith— rather than trying to purify the de facto pluralistic society of America. I think we can invest more creativity and passion into letting our gospel shine brightly in our own lives and communities, instead of trying to force Christianity down Americans’ throats, regardless of what they have chosen to believe for themselves. Remember, we Americans are held together by the social contract of religious freedom, and we have the civic duty to respect each other’s choices as citizens of this country. Now is that Christian? Not necessarily. But is that what it means to be American? Absolutely.
America is not a Christian nation. Still, I believe America is a wonderful country. I love this country and I wouldn’t be surprised if it is the greatest country in the world for many years to come. But let us be reminded that the glory of America pales in comparison to the glory of the eternal Kingdom of God. Don’tforget that the eternal Kingdom of God, not the pluralistic America, is the true Christian nation we believers have beenlonging for and we continue to long for. I think we will only deepen our commitment to the True Kingdom of God when we surrender our pipe dreams about America being a Christian nation that it is not.
While we await the dawn of the Eternal Kingdom, let us be the best American citizens that we can be, respecting everyone’s rights, and voting to the best of our knowledge and wisdom. Let us learn from Jesus and render to America the things that are America’s, and render to God the things that are God’s (Matt. 22:21). Again, those two are not the same—make no mistake about that. Let’s remember now more than ever that we are pilgrims here on earth. And as such, let us wish our country peace and prosperity (Jeremiah 29:7). But our hope does not hang on the future of the USA, because we await to receive our True Country and True Home in the Promised Dwelling with our Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 25:34).