HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOURSELF? First, as an American, or as a Christian? A Patriot, or a member of the global Body of Christ? As Americans (or Australians or Russians, or you name the country) and Christians, how do we live with and reconcile the tension between the two? And we can ask ourselves some hard questions, like: Do I see politics as important or ultimate? What is more important to me, state-craft or Church-craft?
While I normally don’t tread into politics in my blog, I wanted to do one more post on patriotism (and maybe misplaced patriotism it is) in the month of July, being my country’s independence anniversary month and all; and it really does more to do with theology than politics. And maybe it’s because I feel as though the Lord has been convicting me about these issues for some time, and our pastor’s July 2 sermon on the topic hit home for me.
BEING THE BEST CITIZENS WE CAN BE
Pastor Mark quoted Russel D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, when he said, “We can be Americans best if we are not Americans first.”
And then he reminded us that, while our country was founded by many devout Christians who believed in, followed, and cherished God’s word, and said that the principles of this country were founded on Biblical principles, it was not founded as a strictly Christian nation. That alone is pretty hard for many of us to hear and take.
Then Pastor Mark referenced Second Chronicles 7:14, the passage we so often use on our National Day of Prayer to redeem this nation and swing it back to God. But Pastor Mark, as did Russell Moore) pointed out that this passage was specifically addressed to God’s people (the Israelites) and not to an ethnic group or a nation. And it isn’t addressed to a nation today, either. And there are several other things this passage emphasizes:
First, it emphasizes our need for prayer.
Second, we need to be earnest in our prayer and relationship with God.
Third, we are the ones who need to do the turning back to God and away from our wicked ways. We literally need to experience a type of metamorphosis.
Fourth, after we do these things, then God will forgive and heal us.
It's one of those "if then, so" premises, statements, arguments and conclusions many of us learned in logic class.
Do I think this means that we should abandon the National Day of Prayer? No. I think it’s important for people to gather together to pray earnestly for their nation and its leaders. I do think, though, that we need to have the right perspective with it. We can’t get around the fact that, as Christians, we are sojourners in a foreign land, and our country is always going to feel oppressive to us in some way because it’s not truly our home.
May I repeat that truth? (Which, by the way, you'll find in one of Peter's epistles.) There is no getting around it. Christ followers are going to feel oppressed.
A CALL TO EXAMINE OUR PRACTICAL FAITH, AND POLITICS
In my curiosity, I did some on-line researching and found Moore’s 2016 Erasmus Lecture. Evidently it got him into a lot of trouble with people in his church and hardline conservatives, and he nearly lost his post. He calls our behavior and attitudes into question, our sudden idiosyncratic behavior to wave off things we shouldn’t be dismissing and sometimes (truthfully, oftentimes) slaying our own and looking too much like the world.
While the entire paper is worth a read, here is an excerpt from it. Don’t skim through it. Read it carefully, with a heart and mind open to exhortation.
“I am an heir of Bible Belt America, but also a survivor of Bible Belt America. I was reared in an ecosystem of Evangelical Christianity, informed by a large Catholic segment of my family and a Catholic majority in my community. I memorized Bible verses through “sword drill” competitions, a kind of Evangelical spelling bee in which children compete to see who can find, say, Habakkuk 3:3 the fastest. The songs that floated through my mind as I went to sleep at night were hymns and praise choruses and Bible verses set to music. Nonetheless, from the ages of fifteen through nineteen, I experienced a deep spiritual crisis that was grounded, at least partially, in, of all things, politics.
The cultural Christianity around me seemed increasingly artificial and cynical and even violent. I saw some Christians who preached against profanity use jarring racial epithets. I saw a cultural Christianity that preached hellfire and brimstone about sexual immorality and cultural decadence. And yet, in the church where the major tither was having an affair everyone in the community knew about, there he was, in our neighbor congregation’s “special music” time, singing “If It Wasn’t for That Lighthouse, Where Would This Ship Be?” I saw a cultural Christianity with preachers who often gained audiences, locally in church meetings or globally on television, by saying crazy and buffoonish things, simply to stir up the base and to gain attention from the world, whether that was claiming to know why God sent hurricanes and terrorist attacks or claiming that American founders, one of whom possibly impregnated his own human slaves and literally cut the New Testament apart, were orthodox, Evangelical Christians who, like us, stood up for traditional family values.
I saw a cultural Christianity cut off from the deep theology of the Bible and enamored with books and audio and sermon series tying current events to Bible prophecy—supermarket scanners as the mark of the Beast, Gog and Magog as the Soviet Union or, later, Saddam Hussein or al-Qaeda or the Islamic State as direct fulfillments of Bible prophecy. When these prophecies were not fulfilled, these teachers never retreated in shame. They waited to claim a new word from God and sold more products, whether books or emergency preparation kits for the Y2K global shutdown and the resulting dark age the Bible clearly told us would happen.
And then there were the voter guides. A religious right activist group from Washington placed them in our church’s vestibule, outlining the Christian position on issues. Even as a teenager, I could recognize that the issues just happened to be the same as the talking points of the Republican National Committee. With many of these issues, there did seem to be a clear Christian position—on the abortion of unborn children, for instance, and on the need to stabilize families. But why was there a “Christian” position on congressional term limits, a balanced budget amendment, and the line item veto? Why was there no word on racial justice and unity for those of us in the historical shadow of Jim Crow?
I was left with the increasingly cynical feeling—an existential threat to my entire sense of myself and the world—that Christianity was just a means to an end. My faith was being used as a way to shore up Southern honor culture, mobilize voters for political allies, and market products to a gullible audience. I was ready to escape—and I did. But I didn’t flee the way so many have, through the back door of the Church into secularism. I found a wardrobe in a spare room that delivered me from the Bible Belt back to where I started, to the Lion of the tribe of Judah.
I had read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and its sequels as a child, and found something solid there. As the other Inklings knew, the Narnia series wasn’t great literature or a carefully constructed myth such as Middle Earth was. My experience was similar to that of science fiction writer Neil Gaiman: “The weird thing about the Narnia books for me was that mostly they seemed true,” as if they “were reports from a real place.” So when, in the middle of my spiritual crisis, I saw the name C. S. Lewis on the spine of a book called Mere Christianity, I was willing to give him a chance—and he saved my life. Mere Christianity is not the City of God or the Summa Theologica or the Institutes of the Christian Religion. It didn’t need to be. All I needed was for this drinking, smoking, probably dancing and card-playing man on another continent to tell me the truth, to point me to a broad, bustling Church that took serious questions seriously and could be traced all the way back to an empty hole in the ground in the Middle East.
Most faiths that persist are tested and questioned and tempted along the way. But for me, the question was whether I was a beloved son or a cosmic orphan. It seems to me that my spiritual crisis is similar to a larger one that threatens to engulf religious conservatism in America. The religious right—whether we trace it to the school prayer skirmishes of the 1960s or the segregation academy controversies of the 1970s or the response to Roe v. Wade and the sexual revolution—was always a multifaceted coalition. After all, Jerry Falwell adopted Paul Weyrich’s language of a “moral majority” because the movement encompassed not just born-again Protestants but also many traditional Roman Catholics and Latter-day Saints and Orthodox Jews. But while the movement was in many ways informed by sources such as John Paul II’s theology of the body and Richard John Neuhaus’s The Naked Public Square, the entrepreneurial energy almost always came from Evangelical Protestantism. For that and other reasons, American Evangelicalism is enmeshed with the religious right psychologically, institutionally, and in terms of reputation in ways the Catholic bishops, the Mormon apostles, and Orthodox rabbis just aren’t.
The fate of religious conservatism is important, though, and not merely for its own sake. Ross Douthat is quite right that America—left and right—needs a strong religious conservative movement. The religious right, at its best, modeled the kind of civic engagement and civil society that James Madison and Alexander Hamilton wanted for this country. At its best, the religious right reminded all of us that there are realities more important than political or economic success; that we are a nation under God, one that can be weighed in the balance and found wanting. At its best, the religious right kept the focus on a vulnerable minority that easily becomes invisible to those with power: unborn children. Douthat is correct that without some form of religious right, the space left behind can all too easily be filled by European-style ethno-nationalism or Nietzschean social Darwinism. The religious right must, in some form, be saved. But how and in what form? That question, of course, brings us to the 2016 presidential election.
See, for instance, the use of 2 Chronicles 7:14 (“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and heal their land”) by many in the Evangelical wing of the religious right. The text is employed to speak of national “revival,” defined in terms of renewed civil religion and moral awakening. The “land” is assumed to be the United States of America. No recognition is given that this Old Testament verse is speaking of the temple—a temple the New Testament identifies with Christ himself and the living stones of his Church. God has made his covenant with his elect, not the American nation. Such considerations are often seen as beside the point. The text is useful for a political purpose, and so it is put to use. This is theological liberalism. When Christianity is seen as a political project in search of a gospel useful enough to advance its worldly agenda, it will end up pleasing those who make politics primary, while losing those who believe the Gospel.”
Moore has a lot of strong, thoughtful comments to make on the issue, don’t you think? If you enjoy, and are up for reading thought-provoking (and maybe convicting) treatises, you will want to peruse his entire lecture printed on line at First Things—The Institute on Religion and Public Life at this link:
Let me leave you with some soul-searching questions this week.
Do you, like C.S. Lewis points our, take serious things seriously?
How are you doing on the patriot scale? Super patriot? Super Christian? Having difficulty with the tension between the two?
Where do your loyalties lie? With God and His blueprint, or with the party line? Do you compartmentalize the two?
Maybe if we were better Christians, we’d be better Americans (or Lithuanians, Japanese, French, English, Germans or Scots—you fill in your country). And our countries, states, cities and neighborhoods would be better for it.
Until next week (and Music Monday!),
May you prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers (3 John 2).
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