Minority Report

Jesus said “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It is a statement every Christian knows, but surprisingly few seem to consider when they think about the problem of civic identity and the nature of their national home. Particularly among that group that identifies itself as “conservative Christian” there is a strong emphasis on the United States as a nation based on “Judeo-Christian values.” For them the Biblical ten commandments are understood as the basis of law, and civil and human rights are a gift from God.

Is asserting these ideas and their political consequences, in a nation where Jews and Christians share both citizenship and national identity with a large number of people of other religions and no religion, in keeping with Jesus command? Well let’s ask, as Christians, is this what we would want non-Christians to do to us – assuming they were the majority, and historical majority, in a nation where Christians are a minority.

This isn’t a theoretical question. Christians are a minority in many modern nation-states, and some types of Christians, like Protestants, are a minority in many more. As it happens for 20 years I lived as a minority Christian; in Malaysia, then Singapore, and finally Austria. In Malaysia loud voices among the Muslim majority were insisting that Malaysia should be an Islamic state. Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists would be tolerated and could freely worship, so long as they didn’t offend Muslims and recognized that Muslim values were the basis of the national culture.

I probably don’t need to tell you that Christians were not happy with the idea of living in an Islamic state, even if they weren’t subject to many aspects of Islamic law. No. The real problem was that as long as Malaysia was a nation based on Muslim values then Christians were politically marginalized and could no longer identify themselves as Malaysians. They were effectively excluded from all the processes of decision making in society and were limited to working within their own communities. (Dr. Ng Kam Weng of the Kairos Institute in Malaysia has written much on these problems.)

The situation in Singapore was different, as was the situation in Austria. But even in Catholic Austria we Protestants ran into problems. Public schools, for example, had required religious or moral instruction. Roman Catholic children could have Roman Catholic religious instruction in almost any public school because as a large majority there were plenty of Roman Catholic religious instruction teachers available – all paid by the government. But there were not enough Protestants to have a Protestant teacher in every school. So our Methodist children had to come after school to classes in the church to get the necessary credit in religious education. It was a reminder that as a minority we weren’t really given the full rights of citizens, simply because cultural Catholicism was accepted as the official norm.

So back to the United States. If we Christians do not want to have done to us what is done to Christian minorities in most Muslim and many Roman Catholic countries, why would we want to do these things to non-Christian minorities in a country where we are the majority? If we don’t want to be politically marginalized, why would we want to politically marginalize others? If we don’t want to be socially marginalized, why would we want to socially marginalize others?

Obeying Jesus’ command in a modern, religiously plural, nation turns out to be harder than just insisting that our Christian identity be recognized in public life and hoping that others will recognize that we are good people who mean well. It means asking how we can live as Christians even if it is not recognized in the public sector or as a foundation of national values – because asking that question is the only way to answer Jesus’ command that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. A Christian nation may turn out to not be very Christian. Something the founding fathers of our nation apparently understood very well.