My whole life I’ve been torn between two opinions of America.
In one version, America is the endangered Christian nation. It was founded by godly men on Christian principles, but it’s being consumed by sin and faces imminent disaster. Christians need to engage with politics in order to restore America to its former Christian glory. Our prosperity is a testament to our goodness, but judgment is looming. This view is very patriotic, and it’s a story American Christians have been telling themselves for a very long time.
The other America is just another nation, nothing special. If anything it might be called the Great Distraction. It wasn’t founded by Christians, it’s never been Christian, and it never will be Christian, so we should leave it alone. Preoccupation with America is borderline idolatrous, and preoccupation with politics is at odds with Christ’s Kingdom which is not of this world. Nations will rise and fall by God’s command, so we should just invest in the worldwide Church and take whatever we can get in the process.
I was raised in a conservative, politically-conscious home, but we weren’t especially patriotic or activist. I think we probably took a soft version of the first story for granted. That is, until college and seminary where those views were challenged. I didn’t know enough to say one way or the other, so I became something of an agnostic toward questions of church and state.
But I never stopped believing there was an answer out there, and one worth finding. Today I believe I’m closing in on that answer—a new perspective from which to view and think about Christians and the political world.
First of all, I take it as fact that America was not really founded by Christians—although the Christian faith still had a strong influence on the culture of Europe and America at the time. I find Gregg Frazier’s “Theistic Rationalism” a compelling explanation for the principles that have guided our country. A rational belief in a personal God has been very compatible with Christianity, but is not itself Christian.
That being said, America has been a great home for Christians since the beginning, and that should not be ignored. It has its faults, no doubt about it, but we have enjoyed great freedom and prosperity here. God has blessed His Church through America. And I believe that God has also blessed America through His Church (with all its flaws as well!).
So America is a secular nation, a very diverse nation, and one with the heavy burden of being a world leader in the past century. But it is no less home to many Christians, and just as much used of God. Rather than seeing America as everything or as nothing in God’s economy, we ought to see it as one nation among many, all of which play a part in God’s story. So rather than seeking to dominate it or to ignore it, I believe our duty as Christians is to be a blessing to the nation in which we live.
We ought to bless it with our prayers, seek its peace and prosperity, and live as model citizens. This is true no matter where we live! And it’s an example we see frequently in Scripture when God’s people lived outside the Promised Land. In America we must prove ourselves worthy of the First Amendment, and that freedom of religion is good not just for religious people but for the whole nation.
We are outside the Promised Land. We aren’t building heaven on earth, and America is not the new Israel. Our duty is not to reclaim or purify the country any more than it is to blindly follow earthly leaders. Ours is not to fight for power and influence, neither do we hide in shacks and condemn the establishment. We are guests on an extended stay, and good guests are a blessing to their hosts—and they don’t complain about the food.
At this point some of you might be thinking “what about our call to proclaim the Gospel?” That mission has never changed. But it’s the Church’s mission, not the State’s, so I think it would be wrong to manipulate law and authority to try to accomplish this. Salvation is about personal faith in a personal God, so individuals should be free to choose Christianity or reject it. That seems to be the example that Jesus and the Apostles set. For this reason I believe deeply in religious toleration. We all have a right to be wrong.
So while I am personally committed to Christ and His Church, my commitment to non-Christians takes on a different tone in the public square. We seek common ground to work toward the common good. Even though I am convinced that some ruling ideas and practices in our country are sins, it is not my job to make sure the laws reflect that. It’s my job to make a case for my convictions based on common ground for the common good and let the system take it or leave it.
This 4th of July, for the first time in decades and perhaps more than ever before, I can honestly say I’m proud to be an American. I’m grateful God has allowed me to be a guest in such a rich land that values liberty. I can take pride in my country not because it’s better than other countries or more Christian, but because it is the one God has placed me in, and in that way it is my stewardship. I’m blessed to enjoy religious freedoms in this secular nation, to pursue my convictions amid a great diversity of values. I don’t have to pretend our leaders are always right or be ashamed because they are not perfect. All I have to do is give my country the best I can of myself in hopes that it might become a better place for all, and a better neighbor to other nations.
There’s truth in the well-worn evangelical phrase “this world is not my home,” but at the same time it most certainly is my home! It’s not my final dwelling, but I make my home here in the meantime. And I believe investing in common ground for the common good here and now is one of the ways I honor Christ as I wait for Him to return and make all things new.
I invite you to join me—and hold me to it.