MAGA? Well, What Made America Great in the First Place?

The president’s successful campaign slogan Make America Great Again (MAGA) is entirely legitimate, but I’m not sure that most Americans know what made our country great in the first place. It wasn’t our natural resources or two massive oceans that separated us from Europe and Asia. Nor was it even our military might or system of government or character of our citizens, though all of these contributed to our greatness. Rather, it was the providential hand of the Triune God and our substantial submission to him and his word and gospel that made America great.

The United States wasn’t founded as an explicitly Christian republic, and people who argue that it was only embarrass themselves. It was, however, launched as an implicitly Christian nation, and secularists who deny this truth are equally embarrassing.[1] All of the founders were either Christian or influenced by an establishment sort of Christianity.[2]

Christianity is a holistic Faith. We often hear about holistic medicine, that is, medicine that addresses not only the physical dimension of the person but also his spiritual and emotional and psychological aspects. Holistic means: the whole thing. Christianity is designed to shape and influence and impact all of life, the entire cosmos. God placed the man and woman in the Garden to live eternally as obedient worshippers. Their entire lives were to be lived in the presence of God for his glory, obeying his will in toto.

Anti-Compartmentalization

Christianity became great because it refused to be compartmentalized. You might remember that this word entered the national lexicon during the Clinton presidency. Allegedly one factor contributing to his political success was his ability to compartmentalize.  For example, he could compartmentalize his private life of sexual immorality from his public life of politics. On an even darker side, Nazi executioners at Auschwitz could gas Jews during the day and to go home to their loving families at night. They were the consummate compartmentalizers.

The Christian Faith is averse to compartmentalization. Since the Triune Creator God is sovereign in his universe, and since Jesus Christ is Lord over the entire cosmos, we’re not permitted to seal off certain aspects of life from God’s loving, compassionate authority. Christianity is in part an anti-compartmentalization program.

How Christianity Made the West (and America) Great

With this comprehensive view of Christ’s authority, it’s no wonder that Christianity changed the world.[3] What we know as Western civilization would’ve been impossible without Christianity, because it refuses to compartmentalize religion into airtight “spiritual” containers. Therefore, it transforms all of life. For example …

Dignity of human life

 Christianity restored the dignity of human life at a time when life was cheap (remember the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome?). Abortion and infanticide were rampant. Christians knew man was created in God’s image, so they opposed abortion and rescued abandoned infants. If you want to know why Western civilization until recent decades treasured human life, why medical doctors worked so hard to preserve it, why automobiles pull off to the shoulder when an ambulance races by, why murder is a capital offense, why humans go to extraordinary lengths to rescue individuals trapped under rubble or in collapsed mines — it’s because of the influence of Christianity.

Had Jesus Christ never been born, had Greco-Roman civilization simply continued to develop, we have no good reason for assuming that our world today would be any different materially from the ancient world and its cheap view of human life. It’s radically different today because of Christianity. Unfortunately, as our culture is apostatizing and turning its back on Jesus Christ, the classically pagan disregard for human life is returning. Departure from Christianity necessitates departure from the dignity of human life.

Exaltation of women

Second, ponder the exaltation of women. Feminists today blame Christianity with oppressing women, but primitive Christianity did just the opposite. Ironically, modern radical feminists often revive the pagan worldview that degraded women in the classical world. By contrast, the Bible depicts women as not inferior to men, but as their partners. This is God’s arrangement set forth in Genesis 1:28–30 in the cultural mandate, humanity’s call to exercise stewardship and dominion over the rest of creation. Both husband and wife are heirs together of the grace of life (1 Pet. 3:7).

Purification of sexuality

Third, think about the purification of sexuality. If you’d visited a home in the Greco-Roman world, you’d likely be stunned by least one factor: the depiction of raw sexual acts, including perversion, on everyday items like wall fixtures, oil lamps, vases, bowls, and cups. Pornography was routine and ubiquitous. There’s a harrowing explanation for this pervasive pornography. Marriage and sexual fidelity were looked on with derision and disgust. Sexual fidelity in marriage was a rarity. Sadism, masochism, and sexual orgies were common. Common bathhouses were magnets for heterosexual fornication, not to mention rampant sexual perversion in society.

The Christian approach to human sexuality was decisively different. The sexual act is a beautiful gift from God to be reserved in marriage between a man and woman. Intercourse is designed for both delight and procreation within the divine ordinance of marriage. Interestingly, it was Christianity that introduced the now widespread notion of sexual privacy. Sexual intercourse is a private, not a public, act.

Rise of modern science

Fourth, think about modern science. No weapon in the arsenal of atheism, agnosticism, and secularism has been wielded as frequently against Christianity in the last century than this: Christianity is at war with science. There’s only one way honestly to answer this charge. It’s flatly false. Modern science could never have materialized apart from Christianity.

Gregor Mendel, Augustinian friar, and father of modern genetics

In the ancient world, what we today call empirical science was unknown. The Greek philosophers and Roman thinkers were deductive, rational thinkers. Their way of arriving at a conclusion was to begin with axioms they were already committed to, and from those axioms arrive at their conclusions. Nobody employed what we today call the scientific method. Almost nobody put theories to the test by conducting experiments in the physical world. This meant that if there was scientific advancement, it came by accident.

Christianity is in part an anti-compartmentalization program.

What Christian thinkers began to understand, in addition to the divinely ordered universe, is that since the Creator is separate from creation, we can and should study creation on its own right. We can and must be inductive thinkers.

The newly translated book from 1904 by Herman Bavinck titled Christian Worldview[4] points out that Christianity recognizes that knowledge arises as our sensations interact with the real, concrete world. We don’t begin by turning away from the external world and into our private thought world. We start thinking as we immerse ourselves in the created world as the theater of God’s glory. This is precisely what modern science did, and how it developed such remarkable, life-enhancing and -prolonging  advances.

De-stigmatization of labor and vocation

This brings us to the fifth way Christianity is great. One reason the Greco-Romans were so undeveloped scientifically is because they believed manual labor or working with one’s hands is an inferior, demeaning task. The wealthy and upper classes left manual labor to slaves. If they were intellectuals like Plato, they relished deep thoughts that couldn’t be disturbed by physical labor. This silly idea cut the Greco-Roman world off from important developments that only intellect wedded to manual labor could produce.

The early Christians were different. They knew that their Lord was a carpenter before he was a rabbi and teacher. The apostle Paul labored with his hands and encouraged others to do it. In fact, he taught that if one doesn’t work, he shouldn’t eat (2 Thes. 3:10). They were hard workers, and as a result, they made money. In fact, the Romans sometimes criticized the Christians because they were wealthy. This fact turns on its head the misperception that all the early Christians were poor and from the lower classes.  They worked with their hands, and their work produced wealth.

The Reformation, in particular, exalted work and vocation. Ironically, today many evangelicals teach or imply that only those in “full-time Christian ministry” are serving the Lord most faithfully. The Reformers didn’t consider this caste system to be biblical. It introduced artificial distinctions into the Christian church. So-called secular vocation itself could be, and should be, holy. We might call this the sanctification of vocation, and it had a profound effect on culture. It meant that the shoe cobbler or wool merchant could look on his work as distinctively Christian. 

If today the plumber and flight attendant and software architect and waitress is honored for working hard and not held in contempt, it’s because of Christianity, notably Protestant Christianity. Had Christianity never disturbed the Greco-Roman world, it’s possible that even today manual labor would be looked down on, and vocation would be considered secondary to higher, “intellectual” callings.

Liberation of economics

Sixth, ponder the liberation of economics. In the Greco-Roman world, there were essentially two economic classes, the rich and the poor, who were usually slaves. Most economic growth was the result of slave labor, or of the conquest of new territory. The idea of what we term a “growing economy” within a society was virtually unknown.

Christianity laid the foundation for the free-market economy that has enriched the world, wherever it has gone. Why? For one thing, God’s law protected property rights; your property couldn’t be merely stripped by the state or by criminals. This meant that people could freely trade. The integrity of personal property grew out of the Hebrew (biblical) law.

Commerce in colonial Jamestown

Individuals could work hard and produce for themselves and in this way gain wealth. This, in turn, created what we call the middle class. No longer was everybody either rich or poor. There are some people who are moderately wealthy but neither rich nor poor.  Later came the Protestant work ethic: Christians were called to work hard and save and not engage in conspicuous consumption. In this way they amassed wealth.

This also means that we are constantly serving each other. I’m helping you, and you are helping me. In fact, I can’t get what I want unless I serve your needs. The free market turns everybody into a servant, though not a slave: the wealthiest CEO must serve his costumers’ needs if he is to remain successful.

The economic success of the West was erected on the generic Christian foundation of property rights and hard work, as well as the Protestant work ethic, which stressed thrift and saving. The Bible forbids the state to redistribute wealth for purposes of so-called “social justice” and “welfare” and, more poisonous still, social engineering programs. Charity is the job of the individual, family and church, the so-called “private” sector. By radically reducing the power of the empires, and what we today call politics, Christianity liberated economics from its ancient stranglehold and fostered massive wealth. This fact leads to the final factor contributing to Christianity’s greatness.

Spawning of political liberty

 “Liberty has not subsisted outside of Christianity.”[5] So said the Catholic historian Lord Acton. Christianity shattered the unity of the ancient, pagan world. The source of that unity was the state, usually identified with society itself. At the head of the state was a great political ruler, a king or emperor, thought to be a god or god-like. The unity of the ancient, pagan world consisted of the divinization of the temporal order in the form of the state: Egypt and Babylon and Persia and Greece, and especially the Roman Empire under whose government Jesus Christ was born. Christianity recognized “another king” (Ac. 17:7).

This recognition set early Christianity on a collision course with classical politics. Early Christians were savagely persecuted not because they worshipped Jesus Christ, but because they refused to worship the Roman emperor. 

The most vicious, violent, and murderous political regimes in the history of mankind have been non- or anti-Christian

Constitutional limitations on political power, the roots of modern classical liberalism, started in Christian England with the Magna Carta. Out of these limitations arose the practice of 18th and 19th century constitutional democracies. England also delivered the first successful assault against the evil doctrine of the divine right of kings during the Puritan Revolution.

The founding of the United States was perhaps the greatest experiment in political liberty to that time. It was classically liberal, and it operated self-consciously on certain distinctly Christian premises. The Founders, for example, recognized the Biblical doctrine of original sin and human depravity, and therefore fashioned a system of civil government that divided decision-making among several branches. They didn’t vest any single branch of civil government with too much power.  They argued that the role of civil government is to secure the rights of “life, liberty, and happiness,” with which God as Creator endowed all men. Recognizing the Biblical doctrine that civil government should protect minorities (Ex. 23:9), they drafted a constitution to which they attached a Bill of Rights. This inhibited tyranny arising from quick political change at the whim of democratic opinion.

Political liberty as reflected in the separation of powers, as well as checks and balances; the role of the state in protecting life, liberty, and property; and the constitutional protection of the rights of minorities all these were bequeathed to the modern world by Christianity.

The idea that the West should get rid of Christianity and embrace secularism in order to preserve political liberty is not just mistaken: it’s embarrassingly false. The most vicious, violent, and murderous political regimes in the history of mankind have been non- or anti-Christian: the primitive pagan humanism of ancient Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, and the sophisticated secular humanism of revolutionary France, the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and other modern secular states like North Korea and the “new” China.

Humanism is and always has been a recipe for political terror and tyranny.

Today the West languishes under the violence of abortion and euthanasia, the scourge of homosexuality, the poverty of materialism, the coercion of socialism, the stranglehold of public education, the chaos of judicial activism, and the injustice of a forced racism and sexism. These tyrannies are all the direct result of the abandonment of biblical Christianity.

The Western world has increasingly accepted the proposal of that first modern political liberal, Jean-Jacques Rousseau:[6] the state will emancipate you from responsibility to all non-coercive human institutions like the family, church, and business, if only you submit yourself to the coercion of the state.  Modern man has been willing to trade away responsibility to the family and church and business for subjugation to an increasingly coercive and violent political order. We’re returning to the classical, pagan world in which the coercive state is the unifying principle for all of life.

The only hope for the return of political liberty and the free society it fosters is a return to orthodox, biblical Christianity. Christianity isn’t merely a matrix in which political freedom flourishes; it is the only foundation on which to build a free society.

Conclusion

In review: the dignity of human life, the exaltation of women, purification of sexuality, the rise of modern science, the elevation of labor and vocation, the liberation of economics, and the spawning of political liberty — these are just several of the numerous ways in which Christianity is great, and made our world great.

We may not compartmentalize Christianity or say that Christianity is designed to be great in the family and church but doesn’t much matter in science or sexuality or economics or politics or entertainment or education. If Christianity is great, it should be great everywhere. And everywhere Christianity goes, despite the sinfulness of Christians, it makes the world great. The only way to MAGA is to make Christianity great again.


[1] Daniel L. Dreisbach, “The Constitution’s Forgotten Religion Clause: Reflections on the Article VI Religious Test Ban,” Journal of Church and State, 38 [Spring 1996], 261–295.

[2] M. E. Bradford,  “Religion and the Framers: The Biographical Evidence,” Original Intentions (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1993), 87–101.

[3] For this entire section I am greatly indebted to Alvin J. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001).

[4] Herman Bavinck, Christian Worldview (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2019), 36–39.

[5] Lord Acton, Essays in Religion, Politics, and Morality, J. Rufus Fears, ed. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1988), 491. 

[6] Isaiah Berlin, Freedom and Its Betrayal (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002), 27–49.

Author: P. Andrew Sandlin

I am founder & president of the Center for Cultural Leadership, core faculty of the H. Evan Runner International Academy for Cultural Leadership and De Yong Distinguished Visiting Professor of Culture and Theology, Edinburg Theological Seminary, and an ordained minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity. I am happily married to Sharon Lynn Sandlin (nee Habedank) and have five adult children and four grandchildren.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s