Evangelical culture warriors long for days gone by when America was a nation uniquely blessed by God. Many, especially in the Bible belt of the south, patriotically voice their pride in being a Christian American.
Beyond the oxymoronic concept of a ‘proud Christian’ and the counter-Christian synthesis of parochial nationalism and the Christian ethos of the redeemed as being citizens of another Kingdom, one not of this world, we may find, at times, a confusion of civic religion with authentic Christian faith in the rhetoric of the public square. We find at times, too, a core and deadly confusion of Law and Grace.
I believe that, to a substantial degree, the primary religion of America has always been one of moralism and patriotic hubris more than a humility-inducing love for the Gospel. Many pulpiteers and parishioners have waxed nostalgic for the days when prayers were recited in classrooms and the Ten Commandments were posted in public buildings. While I think the display of the Decalogue is a very good thing, my question would be this: What actually was the prevailing faith of those days?
I cannot help but think of the old song, The Last Kiss by Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers. Follows is an excerpt:
The Lord took her away from me
She’s gone to heaven
So I got to be good
So I can see my baby
When I leave this ol’ world”
This song, written in 1964, a vestige of waning ‘50’s sentimentality and idealized white-bread wholesomeness and innocence, encapsulates, I think, the overarching civic religion of evangelical America’s assumed golden years. Wrapping itself with Biblical language and allusions, we find a religion where ultimately we have to be good to get to heaven, obeying the Ten Commandments, so we can enjoy unending delights in the afterlife. Religion was, and most often is, defined as adherence to moralistic principles.
I believe much of the church of American history felt their call, and not entirely incorrectly, was to uphold ethical mandates and suppress the darker impulses of humanity. We were to shoulder the providential task of elevating the stature of America’s greatness on the world stage, of building a New Jerusalem, of realizing our God-ordained Manifest Destiny. I find it interesting that we could oft find, in America’s most recent evangelical Golden Age, the Ten Commands posted in court houses, but did one ever find the Gospel proclamation hung on a wall? I think that if you asked the typical man on the street in any American city, someone who probably was raised in a church, about the core of Christianity, you would receive a reply that implied Christianity was about performing good deeds and exhibiting moral behavior, essentially moral imperatives. The Gospel declarative would probably be absent. Sometimes I think the ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps’ religious ethos of America’s golden years has more in common with Andrew Jackson that Christ.
I find so many ironies in the religious history of America. Many colonists and clergy thought it God’s will, even in light of Roman’s 13, that they secede from England over the issues of taxation without representation, but a following generation of clergy and parishioners thought it wrong that the South secede from the Union. The South, champions of state’s rights, with much of the southern clergy proclaiming to be Biblical literalists and using such to validate the supposed civil right to keep slaves, claimed a Biblical mandate to secede, and the North laid hold of a moral mandate, based both on Biblical and Enlightenment ideals, to abolish slavery and to maintain the integrity of the Union. Using Biblical proof-texts, two bitterly and diametrically opposed factions voiced ownership of God’s favor.
When we look at the documents that give foundation to the American experience, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence for example, we find ‘God’ words, but we do not find Christian words. We find flattened allusions to a God that could be honestly approved of by a Deist, by a Unitarian, or by an orthodox Christian. In fact, one of the observations by some clergy of the Confederate States was that the American Constitution was far too secular for a nation that declared itself to be ‘Christian.’
I think, too, of the first settlers from the new world, the Pilgrims, who, by virtue of being both early settlers from the Old World and being Christian, are used as rhetorical fodder by culture war pundits to bolster the claim, correct or not, that America was founded as a Christian nation. Persecuted Puritans from England, their practice of Christianity, their ethos, would probably not be recognized by the average church goer of today. While I do not infer that all their practices and attitudes were correct and all contemporary practices and attitudes are inferior, their focus, I think, on eternal things were a bit sharper than ours. One need only peruse the literature produced by the Puritans and compare it to what we find on the shelf of the typical American bookstore to discern their focus was far more Christ-centric than the human-centric ‘best-life-now’ fodder typically found on contemporary bookshelves. I think the Pilgrims, in their austere practices, understood more clearly than we that the human heart was an idol factory. For example, they did not celebrate Christmas or Easter, holidays not appointed in Scripture. Pilgrim pastor John Robinson taught that “It seems too much for any mortal man to appoint, or make an anniversary memorial” for Christ. Perhaps with some irony, only certain cults think in such terms, now.
Ultimately, it does not matter to me if America is or is not a self-identified ‘Christian’ nation. My only skin in this game is that history is being revised by both the secular and the religious to bolster sectarian arguments.
Sometimes I think the idealized America of many moralistic religious pundits is probably more dangerous for authentic Christianity than some alternatives. An America where the streets are safe from crime, where there is no poverty and prosperity is achieved by all, where America is the sole super-power, where the American churches are full every Sunday with people basking in the light of moral imperatives achieved, and there is, of course, a Christ of sorts there to help us, an America satisfied with herself would be a place Satan would approve just as easily he would a pagan nation. Perhaps persecuted Christians in hostile lands understand the need for a Savior more dearly and are more satisfied with Christ alone, with faith alone, with Grace alone. They have no need for nationalistic hubris.
The primary inspiration for this post is this: On the way home from work a few days ago, I was listening to the radio, listening to a Christian culture warrior, a talk show host. After bemoaning all the social ills du jour, as he always seems to do, and rallying the listeners to take America back by judicial means, he shilled for something called The Patriots Study Bible (available in a camo addition!)
Sometimes the church loves to engage errant syncretism and idolatry when she wraps the Cross with a flag. As an aside, in the few times I have listened to the aforementioned Christian talk show, I have never heard the Gospel proclaimed.
I said it before, I used to have a deep and broad interest in politics, and there isn’t anything wrong with that at all. I have lost that interest for the time being, but will probably engage political issues again at some point in the future. I do have some sophomoric, peripheral and perhaps overly simplistic thoughts, though, on politics…and Christianity.
Though I do lean a bit to the right side of the political spectrum in most hot-button issues, I think, in my gift for stating the obvious, that neither the Democratic nor Republican party clearly reflect the Kingdom. In simplest terms, the right affirms that people need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and be self-sufficient and responsible for their destiny. True in the realm, to great degree, of human affairs and governance, but Kingdom thinking states that I cannot pull myself up by my on bootstraps. I have nothing to bring to the table, I have nothing to offer, there is nothing I can do by my efforts to improve my status before the triune God. I cannot climb the ladder to glory. I am utterly helpless and completely dependent on a ‘handout’ that I do not deserve. I am not a spiritual victim, a pawn of circumstance beyond my control who just needs a bailout to get back on my feet because I was done wrong by the man, by the power brokers. I am and we are, in our natural, unregenerate state, in rebellion against God and deserve nothing better than hell. I am alone responsible for my sin, my guilt is real and judicial, and I cannot pay off that debt to God. Thanks be to God that I am redeemed by faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. Without regard to the rhetoric of the old Moral Majority, maybe the politics of the conservative Christian Right do not align with the politics of the Kingdom in the substantive fashion that some would seem to infer. Could it be, too, that the Christian Right seemed to confuse moralism with the Gospel?
The left, on the other hand, and I am painting with very broad and quite crude brush strokes, sees everyone as entitled to the ‘good life.’ Without regard to earning ability, everyone deserves equal access to education, health care, good housing, and it is the role of a benevolent state to provide those things for every one. I want all of that. Who doesn’t? But at what cost? Who pays? Ideally, we all pay collectively, some more than others. Perhaps such an ideal state could say that each ‘gives’ according to one’s ability and each receives according to one’s need, if you know what i mean.
I think the problem here, in terms of Kingdom thinking, is one of aforementioned perceived entitlement, especially in identity politics. That being said, and quite frankly, I am recently quite attracted to the social awareness of much of the left and think that it is in some ways more reflective of the Kingdom than the rugged, self-focused individualism of the right. What happens on the left, though, is a devaluing of the individual for the sake of the collective, especially when some groups within the overarching collective are more equal than others. No original thought here, I know. That being said, the evidence of this devaluing of life by an ideology that wants to provide a good life to all plays itself out in the specter of abortion on demand, in the specter of forced euthanasia, in the specter of rationed health care. Remember Terri Shiavo?
Also, can true altruism be birthed by the forced redistribution of wealth? In the end, the state becomes god from which good gifts flow, and the state will exact a price from all who fall under its watch. In the Kingdom, though, from Who was the price exacted? Where, too, is that Kingdom? Do we expect our best life here and now, or do we defer to something much better later?
I guess what I am trying to say is this: the Christian left, the new evangelical left, is ultimately no more reflective of Kingdom principles than the Christian right. You see, I do not deserve the good that I receive in the Kingdom, that is the nature of grace. I receive because I am adopted by my Father. My recent disenchantment with the political realm is merely descriptive and by no means intended to be prescriptive for anyone. As a bookend for this post, I just have X amount of time and energy and would rather direct those personal resources elsewhere, a place where politics are just on the edge of my radar screen.
That all being said, here are some things in a similar vein I have been thinking about recently and may put to word….
- What does it mean to ‘take America back for Christ?’
- Was America ever really a Christian nation?
- Why is it important to you that it was (or was not)?
- Do believers in other nations want to blend Christian and national identities? (Let’s take England back for Christianity!…..wish it would happen, too. Is Europe turning Islamic?)
- Is there a danger of a diluting synergism in blending even appropriate patriotism and Christianity?
- Are the founding documents of America Christian or more Enlightenment deism in there origin? To put it another way, are there Gospel implications to found in those documents?
- Is the validity of the claims of Christ diminished if America was historically not as Christian as we want its history to be?
- Do Christians in other countries wonder or fret about their nations role in end time scenarios to the degree the many American Christians do? (I used to really wonder about that issue, of America’s role in certain eschatological perspectives. Is that not narcissism on a national scale?)
- Here is the kicker….Christians, Reformed or not, affirm (I hope) God’s absolute sovereignty over the affairs of nations. How much nervous hand wringing do Christian’s need engage as we interact with the political world…and I think we do need to engage it to be salt and light… while reminding ourselves that we are on a journey to the Celestial City.
Okay, I am no historian or theologian, and I realize that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Having said that, I affirm that, Biblically, Christians are to submit to authorities and render unto governing bodies that which is owed – taxes, for example. What of the American revolution, then, a revolt against an established governing power primarily over, if I have accurately retained my high school American history over the last 30+ years, taxation without representation?
Perhaps this is a simple-minded question, but without regard to the moral character of those who participated on both sides of the conflict and while also unabashedly affirming God’s sovereignty over the affairs of mankind, was it a ‘righteous’ revolution in view of those verses that affirm that we are to submit to authorities as long as such does not lead to disobedience to God?
Part of the motivation behind asking this question arises from my rising consciousness and concerns over the errant synergism of church and state found in some pulpits and congregates, both on the left and right side of ecclesiology and politics. It arises, to, from the nervous hand-wringing of many that precedes recent presidential elections.
As an aside, I recently watched a bit of a local church service on television wherein two or three songs/anthems of a patriotic nature were performed prior to the sermon. Without regard to the tone and content of this post, I am not anti-American or unpatriotic. However, does the national anthem or patriotic tunes have a place in worship? Yea! Another poll for you!
Romans 13:1-7 (ESV)
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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
“Ἀπόδοτε οὖν τὰ Καίσαρος Καίσαρι καὶ τὰ τοῦ Θεοῦ τῷ Θεῷ” Matthew 22:21
I have been, over the years, a bit of a political junkie. My political consciousness was initially raised in the late 1970′s, but with the rather recent advent of political ‘blogging’, I found my interest in things ideological sent on a rather steep upward trajectory. I would voraciously read political blogs from both sides of the divide; I lived on a steady diet of, for example, the DailyKos and the Huffington Post as well as Little Green Footballs and Powerlineblog. I enjoyed spirited debates with those on the opposite side of the ideological aisle, be it in person or on internet forums; I invested quite a bit of time and energy on political rhetoric.
However, I began to develop a bit of unease with my focus. I began to question if my energies were being directed appropriately. I asked myself if my conversations on deeper, more important things, things of eternal import, were compromised by the political baggage that I had left on the table. Was I primarily identifying myself, even if not intentionally, with a political label, or was I seeking to declare my identity as a disciple of my Savior?
While politics are not necessarily unimportant and political activism is not inherently wrong and to always be avoided, I have come to understand more clearly that I must remember where my citizenship lies. I must remind myself constantly that I am merely a sojourner upon the earth whose only call is serve my Savior in whatever capacity He may chose for me. We in Christ are in the world, but not of the world. I will not wrap the Cross in a flag or use it as an anchor for a political ideology. To allow anything to compromise the lordship of Christ Jesus in our lives, be it our politics, our work, our possessions, our families, or our hobbies is a disservice to our Messiah and to those whom we are to carry the Gospel in order to make disciples.
I Timothy 2:1-2
I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercessions and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority that we may live peaceful and quiet lives…
Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.
1 John 2:15-17 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever.
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.