As dismaying as the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage was, there was something especially painful about seeing the White House lit up that evening with the rainbow colors of the gay pride flag. It almost seemed sacrilegious. But “sacrilegious” is not quite right, because Washington, D.C., has nothing to do with our eternal Jerusalem.
For American Christians, the connection between God and country has been deep and understandable, even if it put us at risk of a corrupt civil religion. Christians have been linking their faith to America since the time of the founding. Protestant ideals were inextricable from the establishment of the North American colonies. Christian principles such as equality by creation, and the flawed nature of all people, undergirded the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
But even in 1776, there was no Christian consensus on the great questions of the founding. Was the Revolution justifiable in light of Romans 13 warning against resisting the established powers? Could Christians support independence, when so much of America’s wealth depended on slave labor? Could Protestant dissenters like the Baptists support Patriot authorities who often persecuted them for their faith? What should African American and Native American believers do, when they had suffered enslavement and discrimination at the hands of many Patriot leaders?
Our nationalistic mixing of faith and state can make it difficult for us to see when the nation has gone wrong. It can also make it hard for us to know what to do when the nation has patently wandered from the truth.
There was never any unified Christian answer to these questions. An uneasy relationship with America is nothing new for Christians. Christian support for the American nation was always contingent, and always secondary to the kingdom of God. Or it was supposed to be.
War breeds intense patriotism. Its sacrifices require transcendent justifications. Even starting in the Revolution, certain pastors and chaplains began to speak of America and its history as if it were close to the center of our faith. On the two-year anniversary of the Revolution’s Battle of Saratoga, Baptist chaplain Hezekiah Smith told troops that the victory was “the grandest conquest ever gained since the creation of the world.” It should remind them of “another conquest, which so far exceeds the one now mentioned as scarcely to admit of comparison,” Christ’s victory over sin and death in his resurrection from the dead. Saratoga afforded “the happy prospect of earthly felicity,” and the resurrection delivered “the most pleasing hope of celestial happiness.” Smith’s striking conflation was an early example of some evangelicals’ tendency to blend American history with the Christian history of redemption.
It’s easy to see in retrospect how inappropriate Smith’s juxtaposition was—he was right, the resurrection and Saratoga should not have admitted any comparison. Yet American Christians have often put the things of America and the things of the kingdom in uncomfortable proximity. (Christians in other nations have done so too.) As proud as we may be of the American tradition, our nationalistic mixing of faith and state can make it difficult for us to see when the nation has gone wrong. It can also make it hard for us to know what to do when the nation has patently wandered from the truth.
So here we are, a week after the gay marriage mandate, and the Fourth of July is upon us. What should we do? One appropriate option—one we have always had—would be to politely ignore the Fourth of July in our families, and our Sunday services. Again, what does 1776 have to do with our worship? Around the world, our Christian brothers and sisters from Nigeria to Nepal will not say anything about the Fourth of July. Why should we?
Pastors, if you do say something about the Fourth of July, steer between two extremes. One extreme would be to follow President Obama’s one-time pastor Jeremiah Wright, who famously called on God to damn America for its sins (in Wright’s case, he meant sins of racial injustice). The anger over the gay marriage decision is fresh, and the temptation to denounce is strong. But we remain citizens of our nation, we are still allowed to worship in freedom, and we have duties as Christians to respect our leaders and pray for the country.
The other extreme would return to the old patriotic mode, mixing in nationalistic anthems with our songs of worship to the Lord Jesus. We see more clearly than ever how wrong it is to do that. We Christians have a mission to America, but we will never “take America back” and return to some mythical Christian era. Perhaps there was a time when a higher percentage of Americans were believers, or when Christianity had a deeper cultural influence. But there was never a time when America acted as a fully Christian nation, for nations of this earth cannot do so.
If you choose to acknowledge the Fourth of July, the best thing you can do is simply to pray for our country, which is one nation among all the nations of the earth, and which (like other nations) needs the Lord. Let us pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the cities in which we live. Let us pray that our political leaders would be given godly wisdom, perhaps in spite of themselves. Let us pray that our pilgrim church will have an undefiled witness of faith to the millions of Americans who so desperately need the Lord.