Friday, July 4, 2014

Should Christians be Patriotic? An Independence Day Sermon

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, we pray, that we and all the peoples of this land may have grace to maintain these 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.

          I have to confess to having some reservations about marking a national holiday with a Church service. Throughout our nation’s history there has sometimes been a dangerous blurring of the lines between Christian identity and national identity. I say this is dangerous not because I’m concerned about our national ideals being influenced by the Gospel, but because I’m concerned about the Gospel being influenced by national ideals. Tony Campolo made an insightful remark about the mixing of Church and politics. He said it is sort of like mixing ice cream and manure.  It may not ruin the manure, but it sure spoils the ice cream!

Sociologist Robert Bellah has argued that the United States has "an elaborate and well-instituted civil religion" which exists alongside of and distinct from our various religious traditions. There is a generic, benevolent, creator God associated with this civil faith—that presumably all Americans can worship, although our national God has become more and more controversial as our religious landscape has evolved beyond Jews and Christians.
Our civil faith has saints like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr.  It has its shrines and temples like Mt. Rushmore, the Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty, and the Lincoln Memorial, we have national hymns like the Star Spangled Banner, and it even has holy days like the Fourth of July. The influence of our civic religion is pervasive, giving most Americans—even the unchurched—the vague impression that they are at least in some sense religious.

Our civil faith serves as the foundation and moral justification for our national identity and mission. This religion serves as a powerful motivation for action. It can inspire people to go to war and even lay down their lives. All of which is extremely noble when in the service of the truth, but what happens when the values of our society conflict with the Christian faith? The allegiance of some Americans to this civil religion is far greater than any nominal commitment they may have to the Christian faith. For instance how many Americans would lay down their life for the truth of the gospel? The civil faith has a more powerful grip on the hearts and minds of the people. Christianity is judged by the standard of our civil faith, rather than our civil faith being judged by the standard of Christianity. This is true whether our civil faith is of the liberal variety or the conservative variety, for of course it too has its denominations.

If there is a dangerous side to patriotism, there is also a positive one. The love of one’s homeland is a natural and a wholesome thing, especially when one’s nation has such evident virtues as ours clearly has. Philosopher Jeffrey Stout says that piety is the virtue associated with gratitude toward the sources of one's existence. It is therefore appropriate this day that we give thanks to Almighty God for the liberty and prosperity we in the United States enjoy. Whenever our allegiance to our nation leads us off the path of discipleship to Christ, we must willing to pluck out that eye, as dear as it is to us.

Jesus does not object to wholesome patriotism. He clearly had a deep love for his own people and homeland. Even when he was confronted with the question of whether Jews should pay taxes to Rome, he said, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." If someone lives in a nation and enjoys its privileges, they should acknowledge that debt and be thankful for it, even if their ultimate allegiance belongs to God.

Patriotism should arise from natural affection, gratitude, and thanksgiving rather than jingoism or pride. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Patriotism of this kind is not in the least aggressive. It asks only to be let alone. It becomes militant only to protect what it loves. In any mind that has a pennyworth of imagination it produces a good attitude towards foreigners. How can I love my home without coming to realize that other men, no less rightly, love theirs?”

Jesus directly challenges jingoistic nationalism. He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

As Christians we have an identity that transcends national borders. God’s family is made up of people of every tribe and nation. We are citizens of the Kingdom of God first and citizens of the United States of America second. Our reading from Hebrews tells us that we to live as pilgrims and strangers on this earth, seeking a city with foundations whose builder and maker is God.
When the People of Israel were in exile in Babylon, the Word of the Lord came to Jerimiah and declared,

 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

The Lord wants us too, to seek the welfare of this nation in which he has placed us by his providence. We should put down roots here and contribute to its culture and government. We should have a wholesome pride in our country celebrating and affirming everything that is good, but raising our voice in dissent when necessary. The words of American statesman Carl Schurz are often used as an expression of extreme Jingoism, but mark the lesser known second part,
“My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”