(This was originally published on an earlier blog in 2009. It resonates still as a message for Christians on American Independence Day.)
What follows is a bit of a rant about the relationship between Christian faith and American patriotism. That may seem like old news or a closed topic to some of you, but I’m getting the feeling that it’s about to make a comeback. I write this as someone with ties to both camps, as an American and a Christian, and also as an historian of the relationship between the two. Mark Noll introduced one of his books by saying that he was writing as a ‘wounded lover,’ and I think I’m beginning to understand what he meant. With that said, here goes.
I’m proud to be an American.
There, I said it. That may be one of the most unpopular things a guy can say these days, especially when he lives outside the US.
I love the country that gave me birth and provided a place where I could meet Jesus freely and without fear of persecution. I love the ideas that illuminated the Founders and drove them to the truly audacious conclusions that became our Constitution. I love the size and diversity and complexity of the place, and the way that, at its best, it welcomes newcomers eagerly and with the expectation that they will bring some new and necessary ingredient to the table. I’m proud, hopefully in an appropriate way, to be an American. Now that doesn’t mean I think the place is perfect or above criticism…far from it. The resources and ingenuity and freedoms of this country mean that we may have even more of a responsibility to be just, generous and humble. It’s on these items that we might be judged most harshly; it’s in these precise areas that we fail most often.
Being a Christian and an American is a difficult dance sometimes. Some of my friends think it’s impossible to be both, that the exploitive and violent acts in our history mean that the nation’s legacy has to be abandoned along the way to mature discipleship. Others see the same events and practices and arrive at the opposite conclusion. ‘America is God’s chosen and ordained nation,’ they say, ‘the greatest force for good in the history of the world.’ To be an American, they might say, necessarily includes being a Christian.
The ‘America-as-villain’ point of view is easy to find these days, but check this out if you’re not convinced about the ‘America-as-New-Israel’ orientation. There’s a new edition of the Bible that is targeted at American Christians who believe that God has set the USA apart from all other nations in the history of the world. This reframing of the Scriptures, called The American Patriot’s Bible (Thomas Nelson Publishers), is just the latest in a long line of attempts to position American history (which I love) in a narrow understanding of God’s plan for his creation (which I reject).
So let me get this straight. The choices appear to be to see America as the pinnacle of God’s work among the nations, tied inextricably to his plan for the world, or to dismiss the nation as so bloated and sinful and deviated from holy purposes as to be beyond the pale. Hmmm…
I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to disassociate from both of these positions.
Instead I talk a lot to Christians about balancing our responsibilities as citizens with our deeper identities as followers of Jesus. I was raised to be proud of my country, and when I was old enough to choose for myself I found that didn’t change. As a historian I know that there are episodes in our past that erode our image and faithfulness to our values, but unlike stone, that erosion is repaired quickly by the generosity and courage of other Americans. For every injustice there are multiple examples of people who work for fairness and the marginalization of tyranny. For every corrupt politician whose indiscretions dominate the news, there are hundreds of public servants who do the right thing…even if they could earn far more in the private sector.
I suppose the point here is that I have been reminded lately that the idea of America is a living thing—it heals its own wounds and renews its own depleted energies through the commitment and creativity of its citizens. Completely apart from religious belief, there is something unique and special about the inception and development—and even the future prospects—of the United States.
What really matters about America is the network of new ideas that formed its foundation. Bernard Bailyn, one of the great historians of American history, said this about the creators of the American Constitution in a series of lectures that later became the book, To Begin the World Anew (2003).
“We know for certain, what they could only experimentally and prayerfully propose, that formal, written constitutions, upheld by judicial bodies, can effectively constrain the tyrannies of both executive force and populist majorities.
“We know, because they had the imagination to perceive it, that there is a sense, mysterious as it may be, in which human rights can be seen to exist independent of privileges, gifts, and donations of the powerful, and that these rights can somehow be defined and protected by the force of law.
“We casually assume, because they were somehow able to imagine, that the exercise of power is no natural birthright but must be a gift of those who are subject to it.
“And we know, what Jefferson so imaginatively perceived and brilliantly expressed, that religion—religion of any kind, secular or revealed—in the hands of power can be the worst kind of tyranny…”
All of that is great. I loved re-reading it and writing it for you because I believe it and hope to pass it on to my son as he develops his own ideas of what it means to be an American. But the awareness and careful stewardship of my American-ness is has to be balanced—overshadowed, even—by my core identity as a follower of Jesus Christ. I think I should say that in a more declarative way.
My identity as an American resides as a distant second to my standing as a redeemed child of the living God.
Why go into all of that?
Because some of my American Christian friends are starting to sound a bit shrill in their complaints about the direction of their country. They picture themselves as patriot-heroes, but in reality they’re (mostly) middle-aged, middle-class professionals dreaming of a new Revolutionary War. Each new edition of the Drudge Report sends them to new levels of panic and anger. Taxes? Too damned high. Gun control? Some gibberish about their ‘cold, dead fingers.’ Cooperation with other nations? No! Only America’s interests matter!
They talk about intrusive government and the gay lobby, and they rail about Communism just like their dads did. I’ve heard some talk about panic in the streets and a brewing revolution in ways that used to be caricatured in films and TV shows about skinheads and other crazy radical groups. Some worry constantly that between homosexuality, Islam and Barack Obama, America is going to hell in a handcart.
What calms me is the reminder from Dr. Bailyn that the idea of America is based on restraint and the rule of law. The idea of America—which is really its core essence—will survive the attempts of the good and the not-so-good to steer it off its path.
What gives me a sense of peace is the more important reminder that my identity as an American resides as a distant second to my standing as a redeemed child of the living God.
What is sad to me, though, is that some of the people most likely to affirm that last statement are also among the most likely to be threatened by what it means.
Because if we’re honest and faithful (in addition to being historically and biblically accurate), then our allegiance to Christ subsumes or even replaces all other allegiances, including the one we used to pledge every morning at school. Throwing our eternal weight on the one who made us, redeemed us and sustains us is a higher, bigger and more important thing than any earthly citizenship. To believe differently is to miss the point not only of the Christian faith, but also of what it means to be American.
Of course there were strong Christian influences on the founding of the United States, but it’s so important to know that the Christianity practiced in those days would be virtually unrecognizable to contemporary evangelicals. Evangelical Christianity as we might know it doesn’t really emerge until 1740 or so, and without any effective mass media it takes almost a century for Christianity to become the dominant cultural influence in America. People toss around the term ‘Deism’ as if it described just another variant of the Christianity they would find at their church. From that faulty foundation too many will build a continuity of faith and practice between then and now which simply does not exist.
Why is that important? Because the result is a misunderstanding not only of what was present at the founding, but also a near complete misreading of what is under threat today. Some of my friends will lament the growing dominance and acceptance of lifestyles which might not align with how we read our Scriptures. But they miss the point when they equate a loss of Christian control or influence over American politics with a decline of Christianity in America.
The two were never—nor were they ever meant to be—one and the same.
The strong link between Christian faith and American political life left us with a generation, oddly enough, of conservative American Christians so dependent on their influence in politics that they ended up (get this) too lazy to compete in their own religious free market. What a shame.
Now they perceive a new president’s liberal vision as being imposed on them from the outside, when the fact is that all partisanship should have been seen that way. As Christians we should hold all political and national loyalties lightly, not least to prevent us from mistaking them for the one loyalty we should hold above all others. The complaints I’m hearing about the threat to Americanism are sadly much louder and heartfelt than any complaints I’ve heard about the nation’s treatment of the poor, or the lack of biblical literacy among many Christian adults and children, or for any unrepentant sinner who hasn’t yet heard a credible expression of the gospel.
For Christ’s sake—seriously—for Christ’s sake! How can any Christian complain, say, about the loss of the freedom to own an assault rifle when people are living lives apart from the good news of Jesus Christ. Just what, exactly, is so evangelical about that?
Bernard Bailyn was right when he talked about religion in the hands of the powerful as “the worst kind of tyranny.” That makes the shrill complaints of today’s frightened American evangelicals even more hollow. It’s not really tyranny that they fear, but rather, in too many cases, the loss of their own leadership role in that tyranny.
It should concern us that in discussions about God’s standards for his American faithful, some evangelicals seem more comfortable quoting John Winthrop’s sermon than the Sermon on the Mount. Winthrop, in a 1630 sermon given to his shipmates on the Arbella, said this:
‘For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken… we shall be made a story and a by-word throughout the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God… We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us til we be consumed out of the good land whither we are a-going.’
That ‘city upon a hill’ line is from another, far more important sermon—a sermon for all people, not just Americans. In its original context Jesus said:
‘You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 5:13-16)
Not much there to support the idea of American or any other kind of national exceptionalism. Not much there to indicate that Jesus was saying: ‘Wait about 1600 years, when my true followers get their country started, and you’ll see how this is really supposed to look.’
Later in the same sermon Jesus clarifies where our true allegiances should be:
‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.’ (Matthew 6:19-24)
When American evangelical Christians (of whom I count myself one) realize that the faith they have inherited, when joined with the resources they control, could be a force for good and freedom that would exceed even that of the entire nation, then we’ll see a real revolution that matters. But as long as there are those among us who would serve two masters, who would trade the redemption of the world for nationalist glory or financial security, we’re going to continue on as if paralyzed somehow.
Patriotism that isn’t shaped and informed and fully yielded to Jesus Christ and him only is doomed to be the very problem it seeks to remedy. Without that crucial level of submission we won’t get any farther, or accomplish anything greater, than a dog chasing its own tail. What a shame.