Independence Day, Patriotism, and Christianity

I’m a patriot.

(I’m also a Patriot’s fan—and please no e-mails from Jets fans. Every coaching staff does the same video-taping thing, including your guy! Get over it.)

And I'm a Christian.

I'm just not sure how to be both at once.

I legitimately love the United States, more so now that I don’t live there. It is really interesting to hear the kinds of comments that Canadians and especially French Canadians make regarding the US. On the one hand, you can’t get across the border into the US on the weekends in less than an hour because a large portion of the Canadian population floods into “the States” to buy cheaper gas, milk, meat, manufactured goods and even—no joking here—Canadian bacon and maple syrup. On the other hand, the Canadian editorials are constantly worried about how “North American” Canada is becoming. To be clear, if you tell a Canadian that her city is very European, she takes it as a compliment, but if you tell a Canadian that his town reminds you of the US, it’s an insult. I don’t get it.

I miss the convenience, the cheap dairy, and the ample parking in the US. I miss real baseball and football. I miss the two-party system. I miss miles, pounds, and inches, and green money and one-dollar bills. I miss an efficient mail system, and inefficient (or non-existent) public transportation. And I can’t wait to go to Target again for socks and light bulbs, to get a cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee, and to have someone honk at me (I mean a good old fashion east coast honk) if I don’t gun it as soon as the light turns green.

I love my country. And I love it the most in July when the sun is high and watermelons abundant. This is all a preface to my concerns about July 4. Independence Day is always a tricky time in the American church. Is it a religious holiday or isn’t it? I don’t doubt that the American experiment in popular government and civil liberties is one of the greatest developments in human history and an advancement in the general conditions of humanity. America’s problems have seldom come from its ideals, which have been largely noble, but from its failures to live up to those ideals and to make them realities for everyone in its borders. America is a great idea, but I’m less and less comfortable celebrating the birthday of the United States as a Christian holiday.

A dozen or so years ago, when John Ashcroft was still Gov. Ashcroft of Missouri, I attended a fairly conservative church in the Midwest, where Gov. Ashcroft was invited to speak on “God and Country” Sunday. I do not remember the content of his sermon (I believe I was in grade school at the time) but I very much recall my surprise at just how many patriotic songs were in our hymnal. Not only the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” but also “America, the Beautiful,” “America,” (though in what seemed an odd nod to the UK and Commonwealth countries the text to “God Save the Queen” was also printed) “The Star Spangled Banner,” “God Save America,” and “God of our Fathers” [Hymns of Glorious Praise, Gospel Publishing House, 1969] were all included. I remember thinking at the time how strange it must be for children in other countries to have American patriotic songs in their hymnals.

This fluid relationship between God and country remains an issue of concern in the church, and I do not need to add my voice to the already tangled chorus of commentators on the subject of church and state relations in the US. The conservatives will point to the allegedly semi-divine origins of the country as a refuge for the free expression of early forms of evangelical Protestantism and argue that a nation birthed from biblical principles carries with it the tacit obligation to perpetuate and enforce those Christian claims. The secularists (this is a tough caricature to pass up) will suggest that we ought take a bottle of white out to the Constitution and the greenback, remove references to God in our public documents and ceremonies, and ban nativity scenes on public greens. These competing ideals, respectively embodied in the conflicting imagery of a public courthouse with the Ten Commandments emblazoned over a witness stand and a public “holiday display” of swirling galaxies and joyous revelers with absolutely no iconic reference to any particular religious tradition are, I think, unappealing to the vast majority of sincere Christians in our republic. (Take a drive through Cambridge, Massachusetts in December and try to figure out what exactly the abstract light displays are meant to celebrate. Perhaps they are there merely to encourage the retail merriment of December shopping.) How might moderate Christians begin to move past this impasse?

We ought to begin by admitting to ourselves that it is easier to live and move in a world that shares our basic assumptions. This fact can be driven home by something as seemingly trivial as spending time in a place where people do not by default walk or drive on the right hand side, but it can be even more forcefully encountered by living among people who speak another language. Every time I step out my front door, I am reminded that I live in a place that does not share my language and habits. And, to be perfectly honest, I do not enjoy this. Everything is more difficult because of this. As a child growing up in the midwest of Reagan’s America, I didn't have to worry about having many of my most basic habits challenged. Everyone seemed to speak my language, belong to my religion (even if my people looked with some suspicion on the Catholics and Mormons), and share my holidays. Many of us now share the assumption (perhaps uncritically) that diversity is always good, that having one’s basic assumptions challenged is good, and that embracing difference is good. However, it is one thing to announce that we treasure diversity, it is quite another to pause and recognize that while embracing diversity may be necessary, it also engenders difficulties and pain that need to be addressed. Let’s pause, for a moment, and admit that in gaining diversity we loose something—perhaps something that is worth mourning.

Let me offer the following analogue. My wife and I share a language, many political and philosophical ideas, and similar upbringings. We share certain assumptions about family and the good life. We share ten years worth of stories, experiences, common friendships, frustrations, and inside jokes. We share a home, a budget (maybe the most fraught commonality we share), a car, a child, and common assumptions about who cooks (me) and who does the laundry (her). Because of all of these shared habits and commonalities, we are able to have rich conversations. We can begin with shared assumptions about what is important. We can laugh at one another’s jokes, even when they aren’t voiced. We can travel together, because we each know what the other expects and needs. We are able to communicate with and support one another at a level of sophistication that we would be unable to achieve with a person whom we just met. Our relationship has a learned elegance (the synthesis of complexity and simplicity) that cannot be attained without a shared history. When our harmonious relationship is disrupted—say for instance when we have a house guest or a new child—chaos ensues because our finely tuned habits no longer work. It takes us a while to relearn what the other wants and how best to communicate. Our easy relationship with one another is an achievement that we have had to work diligently on, and it still breaks down from time to time. I suspect that something similar happens when any hegemonic culture is challenged from without by the introduction of something new (immigrants, technologies, ideologies). Old assumptions (Of course we’re closed on Sunday mornings! Of course the husband’s career comes first.) may no longer hold, and our easy relationships, habits of commerce, and public rituals may no longer support one another. Something of value is lost when we move from being a country with one language, one religion, and one set of shared values, to a country of many languages, religions, and moral conventions. Those of us who were previously able to move with ease between the realms of family, work, and civil society, knowing that in general our decisions in one realm would support and be supported in turn by our actions in another, lose this easy relationship. Our lives become less coherent, less integrated.

Of course our progressive twenty-first century selves scream out the problems with the previous paragraph. Of course these easy relationships were only a reality for men—white men—straight white men—straight white English-speaking Protestant employed men! There have always been those in America for whom the American ideal of an intellectually, politically, and spiritually integrated life were an impossibility because that ideal did not recognize their needs or even their full humanity. But by pausing to note the pain that a disintegrated world can cause, we may also come to understand better the desire shared by conservative Christian Americans and secularist Americans to have their religious ideals reflected in their political world and their political commitments echoed in their religious institutions. Further, we can also begin to assess the almost religious character of this desire for wholeness and integration.

We all want our deepest intuitions and convictions to be mirrored in the world we inhabit, the institutions we cherish, the people we love, and the governments that rule our lands. When this does not happen, there is emotional pain and existential anguish. And though these may vary by degree, we ought to recognize the actuality of the hurt involved, even in those cases where we must clearly stand up against the forced homogenization of institutions. Could one stand for civil rights and yet empathize with the pain of white southerners who felt their way of life coming apart? Can we empathize with the pain of American workers who fear loosing their livelihood, while still supporting justice for migrant workers? Can we empathize with those who fear loosing their churches, even while we support those who face sexual and gender discrimination as they pursue a church calling? Can we understand and empathize with Americans who dearly want to keep their worlds integrated and advocate a Judeo-Christian nation and the unification of civic and religious life? I am absolutely committed to preserving a strict separation between government and religious institutions, but recognize that most of us, myself included, are not able so easily to partition our emotions and intellects. We need relatively coherent worlds, and so our love of God and our churches and our love of country tend to grow together. If we want to take up the difficult but necessary cause of keeping religion and government somehow separate, then we need to begin with a full recognition of the emotional and psychological difficulties that this entails. Churches need to help Christians deal with the perhaps necessary trauma of maintaining an intentionally disintegrated worldview. Perhaps “trauma” sounds too extreme, but I think the term is appropriate to describe the real sense of loss that can accompany the realization that the goals and methods of the Church as the followers of Christ do not—and more importantly should not—align with the goals and practices of the government.

This realization is a key to what I think should be a second step that moderate Christians can take to move beyond the polarizing options offered by conservatives and secularists. We need to look beyond the American church, not only in terms of missions with an emphasis on exporting American aid, ministers, and ideas, but as importers. We need to decentralize the American church, recognize that we are not the font of every good idea and ministry, nor the exclusive home of the Holy Spirit. We must open our eyes and ears to the churches of Africa, Asia, and South America. This radical move, originally advocated by Paul as he moved to decentralize the Jerusalem church and open Christianity to gentiles, almost immediately gives the lie to the stunted options offered by both sides of the church/state debate in the US. On the one hand, the conservative desire to shape the state in the image of the church is shown to be an ad hoc strategy that most Christians routinely reject when it is proposed in other countries. Conservatives may cherish the idea of a Bible-based theocracy in North America, but would they really advocate a Papal theocracy in Brazil, a Quoranic theocracy in Turkey, a Chinese government based on the Four Books of Confucianism, or a Vedic Indian government? On the other hand, would radical secularists really expect the government of China to totally divest itself of Taoist and Confucian influences? Do they expect Thailand to remove any reference to Buddhist observances or virtues? The larger point here is that in the United States secularists who want no mention of religion in schools and conservative Christians who want no mention of Darwin in schools are fighting a bumper sticker battle on provincial grounds. They argue about how religious the framers of the Constitution were, and argue about the relevance of Washington’s prayer life and Jefferson’s skepticism. As a liberal evangelical I no longer care. It does not matter to me whether the three branches of the American government outlined in the Constitution reflect a divine and Trinitarian inspiration. This myopic concentration of the United States misses the larger issue: ought Christians in any country expect to integrate their religion and their government? How integral to Christian discipleship is the generation and preservation of integrated political and religious worlds? Does the Gospel call us to generate coherent lives and worldviews?

If we can reframe the question regarding the proper relationship between religion and government so as to move beyond the issue of church/state relations in the US and encompass the bigger question of coherence, we may find a moderate strategy of circumventing reactionary squabbles. As Christians we cannot consistently advocate for the dissolution of the distinction between governmental and religious methods and goals or we give tacit support to oppressive theocrats of all stripes around the globe. Once we identify this fact, we can turn our attention fully to the psychological and existential impulses that drive us to enlist governments and other institutions in our fight for intellectual and emotional coherence. How should we interpret our yearning for coherence? If we cannot give in to it and succumb to the desire to shape our schools, military, laws, and courts in the likeness of our faith, what religious sense can we make of this desire?

I suggest that we name this desire what it is, a longing for the simplicities of Eden. It is a primal longing to inhabit a world without cognitive, emotional, and social dissonance, a world in which my ideals are mirrored in those of my family, my neighbors, my government, and nature at large. The Bible tells us, most forcefully in the first several chapters of Genesis and in the Crucifixion narratives in all four Gospels, that this longing must remain unrequited. What we have in the ministry of Jesus are strategies for ministering to and in this broken and hurting world. We do not find in the Gospels a mandate for reshaping the world and its institutions to reflect our habits and desires for comfort. Even if we envision our mission as working to build the Kingdom of God on earth, the bible reminds us at nearly every turn that the shape of the Kingdom will not reflect our expectations.

I should close with an honest appraisal. I do not expect the church/state debate in the US to die down any time soon. Secularists and conservative religionists in many countries will continue to tug at the reigns of power in the hope of shaping governments in their own image. As moderates and liberal evangelicals I do not expect that we will argue either side out of its entrenched position. However, as we resist the too easy desire to enforce integration between religious, governmental, and social institutions we have a more powerful tool at our disposal than rhetoric and argumentation. We can utilize the power of empathy. With empathy we can step back from the sturm and drang of provincial political battles and judicial decisions and see the larger social, psychological, and existential forces at work. And we can respond not as pundits or partisans but as ministers. We can recognize fear and pain in all of its guises for what it is, a desire for a more integrated, less dissonant world. And we can respond with compassion, regardless of what side of any particular debate we may ourselves favor.

My hope during this patriotic season is that crusaders for “prayer in schools” and “equal time for creationism” as well as those who would ban menorahs and nativity scenes on the public green might appear to us less as political opponents or allies and more as hurting fellow creatures, longing to feel at ease and at home in this world. If we can see one another in this more generous light, then perhaps we can understand the almost religious significance that Independence Day holds for many of us Americans, even as we refuse to conflate a celebration of our nation with an endorsement of our faith and savior.