Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Collect for Independence Day, The Book of Common Prayer p. 242)
We are fast approaching another birthday. Not my birthday or your birthday (though perhaps yours is close as well), but the birthday of the United States, the anniversary of the adoption of Declaration of Independence, appropriately called Independence Day. This Fourth of July will mark the two hundred and thirty fourth year since the declaration was adopted by the Continental Congress. Two hundred and thirty four years is a respectable amount of time. It may only be a drop in the bucket in terms of length of existence compared to some nations, but it’s definitely a good amount of time for a people to live under a democratic form of government. Our cultural roots in North America may not extend so far into history as some other nations, for instance, in Europe, but our stability as a republic is unmatched. Not only that, but we have many accomplishments and freedoms to celebrate. The honoring of individual liberty is part of the DNA of the United States, and through its influence, this trait has been shared with or expanded in many other nations.
In recent years some Christians in attempting to shine a light on some of the unhelpful ways the Church has accommodated itself to the culture, have pointed out an unhealthy link between certain patterns of thought masquerading as Christianity, which serve to prop up negative versions of nationalism or to blur the distinction between the Kingdom of God and the United States of America. In an attempt to combat this “Constantinian” turn, these folks have called attention to the ways in which Americans, like the English, Germans, Russians, Holy Romans and Byzantines (pick a country) before us–and contemporary with us–have sometimes justified wrongful national ambitions and actions in religiously steeped language. Since all of these have been culturally Christian nations, that language has often taken the guise of Christian speech. This is a helpful critique, and one that we should always be mindful of–all nations (indeed, all human institutions and every one of us individually) have a drive to self-justify. And yet we should not let a drive to prevent the baptism of national vices stop us from appreciating the fruits of a hard won and costlily preserved Godly liberty. And I would argue that one of the positive things we Americans have inherited and expanded from our English forebears is a conviction that freedom is a gift of God, and that freedom rightly exercised is a virtue both private and civil.
The line that all Christians must walk is the one that recognizes our status as resident aliens, citizens of another country first and foremost. The Lordship and claims of Christ subvert and overcome all earthly claims and yet, I would argue they are not necessarily opposed to all earthly claims, helping us to prioritize and–at our best–become loyal citizens, patriots and ardent critics of our nation. This is the line that Christians have had to walk since Constantine made the faith a licit or legal religion–I might repurpose the term and call this the “Constantinian line” that Christians have to walk. You see, it’s rather easy to determine one’s relationship to a state that is hostile to your beliefs, and the New Testament is clear: be good citizens and follow the law unless it conflicts with your faith, then be willing to die for Jesus. It’s a much more difficult situation to define one’s relationship to a state that doesn’t persecute, but even protects you and your right to worship. This is the tension that our Christian forebears had to deal with, as they went from a position of being persecuted, and therefore withdrawing from public life, to one of being a legal–even an official–religion and then called upon to take up roles in civil affairs that they had never participated in before.
The way that Christian communities have chosen to walk this Constantinian line is one that has helped define them throughout history. There have always been more sectarian groups that looked with greater or lesser degrees of skepticism on the claims of the state; the Anabaptist tradition is one example (think of the Amish or Mennonites), as are some forms of revivalism and holiness traditions. Anyone who has seen the old movie “Sergeant York” will have seen an example of a revivalism committed to Christian non-violence come up against the claims of the state (and, we can tell from the title, how things played out). Movements, like individuals, have changed their stances over time–the Assemblies of God, for example, were officially pacifistic until the 1960’s. Our own tradition, as Anglicans, has been less skeptical of the authority of the state, and, sometimes to our detriment, more willing to work with the nation (England, and later the United States among others). On the positive side though, our refusal to absent ourselves from public life has meant that we have attempted to fulfill a calling to act as a conscience to the nation, calling it back to its own best principals, celebrating triumphs and mourning failures.
It is this role as public conscience that I would argue we as a body of Christians are called to exercise, and in large measure this is most helpfully and fruitfully realized when we as individual Christians take up our roles in civic life as Christians, guided by the moral compass of our faith and calling our leaders–and ourselves–to account to the “better angels of our nature.” This is where the true heart of Christian patriotism resides, not in justification of every act of the state, but in the love of neighbor that extends out to the love of home and nation.
The great philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre once compared being called to sacrifice for the modern bureaucratic state as something akin to being asked to die for the phone company (Ethics and Politics: Selected Essays Vol. 2, p 163). If that were all our nation consisted of, he would be right. But as any veteran will tell you, no soldier fights for a bureaucracy–at least not for very long–instead, people sacrifice for their neighbors, their loved ones, the people right next to them, the fellow members of their units, and those virtues of their homelands that they believe make life worth living, and which they believe are worth dieing for. The heart of Christian patriotism is the love of neighbor, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends (John 15:3).” The best way to honor these sacrifices, I believe, is to honor the virtues that have made this country worth sacrificing for. Senator Carl Schurz said the following in 1872:
The Senator from Wisconsin cannot frighten me by exclaiming, “My country, right or wrong.” In one sense I say so too. My country; and my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.
These words echo very well the call of the Collect for Independence Day, which asks that we be granted the grace to “maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace.” On this two hundred and thirty fourth birth day of our nation, let us give thanks to Almighty God for the many gifts and blessings he has bestowed upon our homeland, lets take this day and celebrate, enjoying the freedoms that have been won and held at so dear a cost. And let us also, as faithful followers of Christ, exercise our calling to be in the world, not to retreat, and to work to make certain that this great and virtuous nation has not yet seen its greatest or most virtuous day, and that it remains one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.