Is it possible to be a patriotic American and a Christian? Is it OK for a Christian, who has sworn his allegiance to Jesus Christ, to put his hand on his heart say, “I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag…”? Can a faithful Christian really call Jesus “Lord” and still swear allegiance to anything else?
One of my mentors is Karen Cukrowski. He was just named the new Dean of the College of Biblical Studies at ACU. I was a student of his while I was an undergraduate student at LCU and later as a graduate student at ACU. When Kim and I were in our early married years (pre-kids), Ken and Karen mentored us. We would often spend evenings in their home watching movies, and we always paid special attention to how they raised their girls. I continue to ask Ken questions about how he and Karen raised such good girls.
In one of those conversations, he told me about an interesting evening at the Cukrowski house. It was the year 2000, and the family was sitting down to watch the Olympics together. The runners were stretching before the big race, and as you know, before the race begins, we typically get biographies of the most prominent runners. So, Katie & Krista Cukrowski listened carefully to the stories about these runners. One story, in particular, caught their attention. The story centered on a Christian runner from another country. Just before the race began, there was the Cukrowski family dressed in their red, white, and blue. Just before the race began, one of the girls looked up to Ken and asked the question: “Daddy, who are we cheering for? Are we going for the American or the Christian?” OK, parental experts, how would you answer that one?!
God and country: the two seem almost synonymous in some circles. This week, our nation will celebrate its Independence on the 4th of July! This is the time of our nation’s birthday--a day that brings all of us together in so many ways. It’s appropriate at a time like this to ask the question: What does God have to do with country? And, is it possible to be a patriotic American AND a Christian?
One of the reasons this question is so complicated has to do with our vision of our beginnings. American people have always had a tendency to glorify the past. Now, we know something about that, don’t we? We in Churches of Christ have always had this pristine image of the 1st century church. We think (or even say out loud): “Things were better back then. If we could only be like them, we’d really be the ‘church’ God intended for us to be.” But, in doing that, we tend to forget that the 1st century Christians had problems, just like we do. They were not perfect. If you don’t believe me, just read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians this week!
But we’ve not only looked to the past as Christians; we’ve also done it as Americans. If you read some publications today, you would think that George Washington was a saint! Some have described Abraham Lincoln as a messianic figure! But, I guess it shouldn’t surprise any of us to realize that they weren’t perfect either. In fact, Abraham Lincoln was often criticized during his presidency for not attending church services. The media really raked him over the coals for that! He was even accused of being an atheist! He and his wife were known to have held séances in the White House to communicate with their dead son. Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers, had this to say about the purpose of religion:
“…think how great a portion of mankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women, and of inexperienced, inconsiderate youth of both sexes, who have need of the motives of religion to retrain them from vice, to support their virtue, and retain them in the practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great point for its security.”
Did you hear it? According to Franklin, the primary purpose of religion is to keep weak and ignorant men, women, and children in line! Religion, in other words is really the “opium of the masses.”
How is it that these details have escaped the attention of so many?
To answer that question, we have to realize just how “special” America really was in the 18th century. America was the first nation in the world to be founded upon the idea of full religious liberty. Religious “Liberty” was revolutionary. Some other countries had religious tolerance, which meant there was a preferred religion with others being “tolerated.” Adherents to the preferred religion had special rights and privileges in those societies. Most nations had established religions, or a “state religion.” If you were English, you were part of the Church of England! For a long time if you were French, you were Catholic! There were some early American leaders who wanted to adopt this model for America. Men like Patrick Henry wanted to make Christianity (broadly conceived) the established religion of America. He was in a heated debate with James Madison over this issue. At the end of the day, however, America was founded upon the ideals of full religious liberty. America would be home to Evangelical Christians and Jews and Quakers and Catholics and atheists. All of these people could live here with all the rights and privileges of this country! That reality is what set America apart. That reality is what made America so special.
There was a byproduct of this full religious liberty that no one expected. You see, in those other countries—the ones that had an established religion—that “state” religion bound people together. It was the one thing everyone had in common. You can even see it in the way towns were laid out. At the center of every community was the place of worship. Homes & stores & market places were built around this one symbol of unity for everyone. Though they were different in so many other ways, they were all “Catholic,” or they were all members of the Church of England or they were all “Lutheran.”
One thing not many people thought to ask when America was founded was this: what will bind these people together? In the past, in all of those other places, religion was the common unifying force, but what about a nation that didn’t have a common religion?
Believe it or not, Americans found that unity in their nationalism. In fact, our nationalism took on many characteristics commonly reserved for religion.
Those who study religions often ask the question: Why do some religions endure while others do not? Why have Christianity & Islam & Judaism endured for centuries, while other groups (Shakers, Branch Davidians, smaller sects) die off relatively quickly? There are some things that all enduring world religions have in common. They all have a sacred book: The Christian Bible, the Jewish Old Testament, the Muslim Koran, and some now even point to the Book of Mormon as the sacred text of a new and emerging world religion. Each of these enduring religions also has special sacred rituals: Christian baptism, the Lord’s Supper, or my favorite, church potlucks! Each of these enduring religions has special “holy” days of the year like Easter, Christmas, or Pentecost. Finally, they also have sacred symbols, such as the Christian cross or the Jewish star of David or the Muslim Star and Crescent.
You may notice that over time, America has taken on many of these enduring religious characteristics. America has a “sacred” book, the Constitution. That document is exegeted on a daily basis by lawyers and politicians. America has special “sacred” rituals: the Pledge of Allegiance or the singing of the national anthem. Think of the reverence associated with these rituals! America has special “holy” days of the year: the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day. America also has her “sacred” symbols: the bald eagle and the American flag
Now, you may say, “Yes, America has those things, but they are not ‘sacred’ in the minds of Americans.” Really? Think of the recent debates that have taken place in this country over flag burning or the Pledge of Allegiance. These are not political debates. If you listen to the passion in these discussions, you’ll notice a strong resemblance to religious debates. In a country that couldn’t unite around a single religion, Americans found a way to unite around something else. We may not all be Catholics or Jews or Evangelical Christians, but we are all Americans.
I have been traveling to Branson, Missouri with my family since I was in grade school. I’ve been to just about every show up there over that period of time, and I’ve noticed that they all end the same way. The second to last song is always a gospel song. It is a very religious crowd, and they all appreciate those songs. They all clap loudly during those songs. But the last song is always, without exception, a patriotic song, and when the performers sing those songs, something altogether different happens. Everyone stands. A certain reverence comes over the room. “America” has taken on religious significance in our country.
One of the dangers in a society like ours, a society that loves its country so much, is that if we are not careful, we will forget where our ultimate allegiance lies. One of the reasons I love the Psalms is that they consistently call us back to what is most important. Listen to these words from Psalm 30 (NRSV):
I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me.
O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.
O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.”
By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed.
To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication:
“What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be my helper!”
You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
The Psalmist here reminds us of some very important things, church. Only God has the power to lift us out of the depths. Only God is worthy of our praise. Only God can give us real mercy. Only God can turn our mourning into dancing. It’s very tempting in a wonderful country like ours to put our trust in other things—to believe that our ultimate salvation will come from a strong economy or a powerful military, to believe that we just won’t be able to survive if the right person is not elected to Congress or the White House, or to give the impression that the world will end if the Supreme Court makes decisions with which we disagree.
Here is what I want to say during this season of national celebration. We live in a wonderful country! I thank God often that I was born in this place with the freedoms that we enjoy. I am thankful, in inexpressible ways, for the men and women who gave their lives for this country. I plan to watch fireworks and cook out and celebrate this nation’s birthday like most of you this week. So, do I believe it is possible to be a patriotic American AND a Christian? Yes. I believe even the apostle Paul bears witness to this in Romans 13 when he encourages Christians to submit to governing authorities. Jesus himself said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.”
But brothers and sisters, especially during a season like this one, let us not forget that Jesus Christ alone is Lord. In Jesus alone is our salvation. In Jesus alone is our hope. Through Jesus and Our Father, we have been given life. And, through Jesus and Our Father, we have been promised a greater life to come!