I have friends and family who consider themselves American patriots, as well as devout Christians. Somehow they and millions of other Americans have figured out how this works. I have not been able to.
Our nation has always been deeply influenced by Christian thought, but it has also been shaped by other ideologies. America’s founding fathers were affiliated with Christian churches of one sort or another but they were also influenced by such Enlightenment philosophers as John Locke. Many of the fathers were adherents of Deism, a heretical version of Christianity in which God “wound up” the world at creation and then let it go to see what man would make of it.
Near the end of his life, In 1790, Ben Franklin provided Ezra Stiles, president of Yale, with his views on Christianity: “As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his divinity…”.
Thomas Jefferson devised his own version of the New Testament, in which he excised references to the deity of Jesus, as well as the miracles. Franklin and Jefferson may have thought themselves Christians, but their words and actions verified that they were heretics.
There certainly were orthodox Christians among the founding fathers, such as Samuel Adams, John Jay, and Patrick Henry. But, in any case, creating a Christian theocracy was not on the minds of the founding fathers. The American idea was fundamentally a vision that sought to establish the right citizens to follow their own consciences.
Christianity, born out of Judaism, grew rapidly throughout the Roman empire, but as a counter-cultural ideology, not well appreciated by the polytheistic establishment. In 313 AD, Emperor Constantine issued the edict of Milan, which officially ended persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. By 380 AD, Christianity had essentially become the State Church. Western culture continued for more than a thousand years with Christianity, primarily through the Roman Catholic Church but also through the Greek Orthodox Church, serving as the civic religion of Europe.
Then, another political/theological shift shook Europe via the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. A series of radical reforms followed, establishing Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anabaptist, Anglican, and a growing variety of other denominations within Christendom. Politically, the Reformation brought chaos to Europe, as the theocratic model continued to be the arrangement between religion and government. Denominational changes drove regional political changes. It could work in reverse, as well, as political powers chose particular denominations as requirements for regional loyalty. It was a dangerous time for those of deep conviction, who happened to live in a region where the official religion was different from their own.
Besides commerce, the driving force that established the American colonies was the desire of dissenters to get away from religious and political pressures to conform. Even so, dissenters generally brought the theocratic idea along with them to the new land. New England was largely Congregationalist. Maryland began as a haven for Roman Catholic but eventually, like the Carolinas and Virginia became Anglican. The more southern states were Baptist and Anglican. There were exceptions. The Anabaptists, a Protestant tradition in which the Mennonites and Amish are rooted, were early proponents of the separation of church and state. Quaker Pennsylvania allowed for religious freedom. Rhode Island was established largely for the sake of religious freedom. In 1689, English Monarchs William III and Mary II, pushed through the Act of Toleration, which gave freedom of religion to all Protestants, though it did not exempt them from paying taxes to support state churches.
By the time of the Revolution, Enlightenment philosophy, which proclaimed inalienable rights for individuals, had strengthened the idea of the freedom of individuals from religious coercion by church or state bodies. The willingness of the colonies to join together against the British, in spite of their varied denominational ties, illustrates this fact.
This idea of separation between State and Church was then embedded into the Constitution, even as the colonies redefined themselves as united states, rather than a tight affiliation of separate states. (Separation of Church and State was not meant to exclude religious thought from impacting civil legislation. This notion would have been unimaginable in 1787 and, frankly, while often proposed today, remains nonsensical. All ideologies are expressions of belief, and it is not possible to be human without thinking in the context of an ideology. Beliefs determine the subjects and intentions of all legislation. People cannot leave their beliefs at the door when they enter the civic arena. Any who claim they do are either stupid or dishonest, which is reason enough to leave them at the door.)
So one of the brilliant elements of the U.S. Constitution is its provision for pluralism, i.e., a society designed to be accepting of wide-ranging perspectives. We say, “In this country, you are free to follow your conscience to the extent you cause no harm to others. It is not necessary for all of us to conform to the same ideals; we will be tolerant and cooperative with each other, anyway.” This idea is a relatively comfortable one for Christians, partly due to the differences between denominations within Christianity, but also because Christianity, properly understood, is made up of volunteers. The Church on earth is made up of all who proclaim themselves to be a part of it. (Admittedly, there are some who call themselves Christians who have taken liberties with what that means…but I will not pursue that issue here.) The point is, conscientious assent is a central idea in Christian thought.
At the same time, distinctions between the U.S. Constitution and Christianity must not be overlooked. The ideals represented by the two, while overlapping in many instances, are also contradictory in others. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed “self evident” truths; Christianity maintains that truth is only knowable through God’s revelations. The Constitution codifies the importance of freedom by guaranteeing freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble peaceably, and freedom to petition the government to make corrections of injustices. Freedom is thus defined as the right to act in accordance with one’s own conscience. Christianity recognizes freedom as submission to Christ, who alone is wise and who alone gives right guidance for all of life’s choices. The Constitution provides guidance for a group of individuals to live cooperatively for as long as the the nation survives. Christianity is about an everlasting Kingdom over which Jesus reigns as benevolent dictator. The Constitution stands as the core of American government, subject to interpretation and amendment. The Bible stands as authoritative for the Church, with no permission granted for alterations.
There is God; there is country; but there is no God-and-country. The Apostle Paul had dual citizenship. As he put it in the third chapter of his letter to the Philippians, he was of the tribe of Benjamin and a “Hebrew of Hebrews”. We learn elsewhere that he was a Roman citizen, as well—a status he called on to insure legal protections when he was accused of wrongdoing. But in Philippians 3.20,21 he writes, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him to subject all things to himself.” There was no question in Paul’s mind that heavenly citizenship was crucial, while earthly citizenship was not.
It is possible to love America and to love Jesus Christ, but they are very different loves. I love America because it is the context of all my experience. I love America because there is much about it that is wonderful. In some ways I am a quintessential American. I was born on the west coast; raised in the midwest; spent my college years in the deep south; and have lived my adult years on the east coast. My family and friends, with few exceptions, are Americans. America has had much to do with my formation, and in small ways, I have formed America.
But America has many serious problems. It is the most militant country in the world, and while it has at times sacrificed greatly for the sakes of other countries, it has also foolishly engaged in many conflicts, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, and to the destabilization of numerous nations. America is the land of conspicuous consumption as well as one of the world’s worst polluters, due to its waffling approach on environmental stewardship. America practices violence against the unborn, and provides unreliable care for its most vulnerable citizens. Only a few small countries can compete with America’s murder rate, America’s violent character magnified by its proliferation of hand guns. America esteems democracy but its elections are decided by propaganda funded by mega businesses and other powerful lobbies. Our elected officials increasingly lack principles, courage, or interest in the public wellbeing. Laws are written to favor the wealthy, while the masses are distracted by the opiates of consumerism and entertainment. Americans espouse inclusivity but are increasingly splintered in their tribal identities, defining inclusivity not as tolerance but as concessions made by others. Under its shiny surface, America is a deeply disturbed society.
American Christians are citizens of the United States and, as such, are compelled to be model citizens, as long as doing so does not include the clear practice of evil. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” – Romans 13.1
But American Christians are also citizens of the Kingdom of God. This kingdom includes creatures from the heavenly realms, but also from all the nations of the earth. This kingdom is a growing kingdom that is everlasting in nature, and so it is far, far more important than any earthly nation. Furthermore, while it is populated by imperfect beings, those imperfect beings are on a path to incorruptibility, and are even now committed to being incorruptible. A Christian’s true patriotism must be reserved for God and his kingdom, for God is the only true Father.
I know of a sincere Christian church with a prominent flagpole in its front yard. The pole displays the American flag and, under it, the Christian flag. This is troubling symbolism on a number of levels. Why would a Christian church display an American flag, at all, when, the Church is an international entity? It is against the law in this country to display any flag above the American flag. Okay, but why fly a Christian flag beneath the American flag? Does this not display a message of Church in subordination to nation? And what about this Christian flag, anyway? A flag is a symbol of a nation…but the symbol of the Christian nation is surely the cross, not a flag, even if that flag has a cross on it. Notice that the Christian flag is red, white and blue, and that it includes a small blue rectangle in the top left corner, just as the American flag does. It was designed in the U.S. in the early 20th century and clearly pays homage to the American flag. In this sense, the Christian flag itself disrespects the international Church, points away from Christ, and points to America.
Perhaps this example is all about symbolism, but symbolism has a way of showing up in practical ways. Our ideas translate themselves through our hands, our feet, our words, and our intonations.
Another example has to do with how “freedom” is defined differently by the Constitution than by Christianity. The Constitution represents freedom as the removal of restraint to the extent reasonably possible. For Christians, freedom is, paradoxically, about submission. Freedom is the ability to recognize the best choice in every situation, and then to have the will, strength, and courage to make that choice no matter the repercussions. Having no impediments is the American idea. Having no impediments is a wonderful thing but, in an important sense, irrelevant.
Consider a scenario in which you are standing next to a reservoir of water and you see someone drowning not far from shore. Even if you are only a moderate swimmer, the free choice, the right choice is to make an effort at rescue. If you swim out to the flailing victim and a careless speedboater happens to crash into the two of you, killing you both, this does not negate the value of your choice to attempt rescue. From a Christian’s perspective death, however tragic, does not have the last word. To die attempting to save someone’s life is actually an honor, and resurrection wipes out the tragedy. Freedom for the Christian says that it is better to fail while attempting the right choice than it is to succeed at making the wrong choice.
The American idea of freedom has led it down many false paths. The pursuit of the right to have sex without commitment has, ironically, led to isolation, depression, decay of the nuclear family, poverty, rampant abortion, and…less sex. The pursuit of the right to bear arms has led to a country that is easily the most violent of all developed countries. The pursuit of freedom for America among nations has produced the country with a military budget that exceeds the next eight largest national budgets combined. In a land deeply in love with freedom, where do we stand in terms of percentage of citizens incarcerated? Number one. No developed nation is close to our rate. And though we are concerned about citizen freedom, what action are we taking to resolve the residency question of the illegal alien underclass, most of whom have lived in this country for more than 20 years? America’s idolization of its idea of freedom has resulted in pervasive moral myopia.
Can Christians celebrate America? Yes, I think so…but we have to maintain our reservations when we celebrate America. America is far from the good nation it could be…and, to a large degree, is not interested in being that good nation. We cannot praise her for what she is while remaining silent about what she isn’t. Christians must labor to make her a more just nation, not only internally but in her treatment of other nations. I think non-Christian Americans are terrified at the thought of Christians passing legislation that represents Christian ideas of justice. I understand this; I find non-Christian legislation terrifying, as well. I don’t know the solution to this fear in a pluralistic society other than God’s words from Isaiah 1.18: “Come now, let us reason together…”
But, from a Christian perspective, we must not lose sight of the profound differences between the two nations. We do not want non-Christians walking about, pretending to be Christians, however much we would rejoice at their genuine conversions. Neither should we walk about pretending that America is intrinsically one with the Kingdom of God.