America -- a 'Christian' nation?

Any researcher who comes to the United States of America to study how people talk will find plenty of people who speak languages other than English.

Some don't speak English at all. Many speak English and another language. Many others -- computer-software pros, for example -- speak dialects blending English with various unknown tongues. But statistically, the U.S. is an English-speaking nation.

"OK, that is true," said Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor-in-chief of First Things, a journal of religion and public life. "This is not to say that most Americans speak English very well. But when they are speaking a language very poorly, it is English that they are speaking."

What about religion? Anyone who offers a parallel analysis of religion in America will hear howls of protest.

Want to start a fight? Call America a "Christian nation."

But do the math, said Neuhaus. Surveys show that 90 percent of Americans call themselves "Christians" and 80 percent claim some link to a specific church. Even backsliding Baptists and Christmas-Eve Catholics feel some of the ties that bind.

Thus, Neuhaus dares to speak the words "Christian America."

It is a "matter of extraordinary significance how people think about themselves," said Neuhaus, speaking an ecumenical conference at Samford University's Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala. "It's not for us to say, 'Oh, you think you're a Christian, but let me judge you -- you're really not.'

"We may find someone to be a very imperfect Christian, a very muddled Christian, a very confused Christian, an inwardly contradictory Christian. But, in their minds, they think they are Christians."

Yes, most Americans do an inadequate job of practicing their religion, he said. Yet it is also true that when they are "practicing a religion very inadequately, it is Christianity that they are practicing -- overwhelmingly."

Neuhaus has a knack for punchy statements that make academic and media elites nervous. He emerged as a major voice in church-state debates in 1984 with his book, "The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America." As a Lutheran pastor he marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, he is a Roman Catholic priest. Anyone who wants to understand the views of culturally conservative Christians -- such as the current occupant of the White House --- pays attention to this witty New Yorker.

One reason it's hard to speak the words "Christian America" in public is that so many people use these words in such radically different ways. Osama bin Laden says America is a "Christian nation." Then again, so does the Rev. Pat Robertson. This is the kind of synergy that makes people nervous.

Neuhaus said many scholars admit that America can be called "Christian" if this is understood in cultural, not doctrinal, terms. Even then, most would insist that this language is too dangerous to use in public life.

"There are troubles in talking about a 'Christian America,' " he said. "You can say, 'Well! America, even in moments of patriotic fervor, such as we have witnessed and continue to witness does not deserve to be called 'Christian.' "

There are other problems. Many Catholics resist using "Christian America" because this term has historically been so popular with Protestants. Also, there remain small pockets of believers who -- if they had the power -- would gladly replace "One nation, under God" with "One nation, under God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit" or even "One nation, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ."

Meanwhile, some critics -- on left and right -- now believe that "we live in a 'post-Christian' America. At one time it was Christian, but now ... it is essentially a pagan America," said Neuhaus. Some leaders on the religious left insist that it's time to joyfully embrace the fact that America can be described as "One nation, under many gods."

Lots of people wish the subject would go away.

Perhaps many Christians have a reason to ignore the complex and disturbing statistics that define the paradoxes of faith and public life in America, said Neuhaus. Perhaps, just perhaps, "We Christians don't want to take responsibility for what a overwhelmingly Christian society would look like. It looks an awful lot like this one -- filled with sinners."