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Our Long, Uneasy Tension Between God and Country
The Fourth of July is a confusing holiday for many Christians. We’re not quite sure what to do with it. Some globally-minded Christians are uncomfortable with its nationalism. Depending on who is sitting in the Oval Office, Christians of various political persuasions have trouble bringing themselves to celebrate a nation when they disagree with its President. Some who are spiritual view it as idol worship. Some who are young view it as naive. Some view it as ignoring the stain of slavery or other forms of oppression in our nation’s history. A popular view among Christians uncomfortable with the holiday (and patriotism in general) is that it’s a distraction—we should be lifting up the name of Jesus, not pledging to the flag. I can only imagine the conflicting emotions the Brits have about it.
All of these various groups have an argument.
Despite this, evangelicals, in particular, have long been comfortable with a bold, unapologetic patriotism. A
shows that even today, in what many consider a “post-Christian” America, white evangelicals are the most patriotic religious group in the country. This intense patriotism has contributed to America’s “civil religion” in a substantial way, and with that our national discourse.
President Ronald Reagan became beloved by evangelicals for melding an American optimism and religious language. America, he said, was a “shining city on a hill.” The memorable phrase was taken from John Winthrop, who took the phrase from Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 5:14b). Winthrop used the phrase during a sermon aboard the ship, Arbella, which carried puritans commissioned by King Charles I to establish Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. Winthrop told his shipmates: “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 and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and byword through the world.” For Winthrop, the idea of a city upon a hill was not about God’s exceptional favor, but the accountability they would be under as professing Christians to personal obedience and faithfulness.
Still, this story—and so many others we collect about the founders’ faith, the history of our Constitution, and references to God on our monuments and by our nation’s leaders through the years—have led some to suggest Winthrop’s vision of what ought to be actually came to be. Until very recently, some Christians acted as though the idea that America is not a “Christian nation” is heresy. As Christians, we are at war with ourselves to love and follow Jesus fully, yet we have sometimes communicated that our nation—a nation full of people with diverse faiths and no faith at all—consistently represents God’s will on earth. This is a dangerous patriotism. It lacks common sense, and it is bad theology.
The fabrication of a unitary national morality does not just lead us to faulty conclusions about God’s favor, but also his judgment and condemnation. How many times have we heard one of our evangelical political “leaders” suggest America was becoming like Sodom and Gomorrah in the wake of an unwelcome national development? What is ignored at the expense of a political point is that while God condemned Sodom and Gomorrah, he told his servant Abraham he would spare the city if just ten righteous people could be found in it. Sodom was obliterated because its people were condemned. A public law wouldn’t have changed that.
A misappropriated patriotism is one that ties our personal faith to our national identity. Just as salvation is personal, holiness is personal. Each individual person is called to be like a city on a hill. Ten righteous individuals are cause enough for a city to be spared. Our nation has a unique history of acknowledging God, not of obeying Him. Americans are not God’s new chosen people; those who love Jesus are.
But we can still be patriotic. Christians are not required to believe our nation has a special relationship with God in order to feel pride in the country in which God has placed them. We should look to Jeremiah for an idea of a Christian’s patriotism.
In Jeremiah 29, we’re told God’s people found themselves exiled in a strange land among people who despised them. However, God did not call them to violently overthrow the government. God didn’t even call them to condemn the Babylonians for their pagan ways. Instead, God, through Jeremiah, told the exiles to “build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce … seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
A Christian patriotism is not grounded in a nation’s righteousness, but in a God-ordained commitment to love our neighbor and seek the welfare of the nation to which He has carried us. To paraphrase Chesterton, we are not to love America because it is great, but because through our love it might be greater. Patriotism does not require acquiescence in the face of injustice. True patriotism requires our loving pursuit of an ever-expanding domain of justice in our nation. The tension for the Christian is not in their devotion to the United States; God has called us to that! The tension of Christian patriotism is in insuring our patriotism stays true by seeking the peace and prosperity of our nation when various pressures and perspectives seek to misdirect that pursuit.
So, today, put on that awful red, white and blue outfit that embarrasses your kids. Grab a hot dog, watch the fireworks, wave the flag. Thank God for the many blessings we have received as a nation, and pray He would help us understand how to seek the peace and prosperity of this land we love. Praise Him who is restoring all things.
Happy Fourth of July.
Michael is one of America's top voices at the intersection of faith and culture, having served as President Obama's National Faith Vote Director on the 2012 Obama for America campaign and as a leader in the White House faith-based initiative. He is now the Senior Vice PResident for Strategy and Communications at Values Partnerships, a new social enterprise connecting organizations to the faith community. You can follow Michael on Twitter:
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