For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
Today is the 245th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Churches across America will likely sing “God Bless America,” “America the Beautiful,” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The songbook from my church did not have the “patriotic songs” section found in the Baptists, Methodist, or Presbyterian hymnals of my youth, so we never sang these songs in my church. We only sang very traditional hymns, like “Rock of Ages,” “Amazing Grace,” etc. Nothing adorned the knotty pine walls of the small church I grew up in. The only decoration in the church was a side table with a large Bible on a lower shelf and a vase of flowers on top. Two very plain simple cane bottomed deacon chairs sat behind the pulpit. It was the only church I knew with such simple décor. The Southern Baptist church where I was forced to attend vacation Bible school every summer was far more elaborate. Behind the pulpit stood the Christian flag and the American flag. The same was true of the Presbyterian church where I had piano recitals and the Pentecostal church my best friend attended.
Politics or patriotism rarely made an appearance in my church, but it did in many other churches across the country. In many churches, patriotism and religion have been interwoven into their theology. These churches believe in a Christian faithfulness where God desires America to do great, to be great, has ordained America to be at the top, and that America has been baptized by the Church. While this is not something I was taught or ever believed, it’s unrealistic for us not to realize that in the United States, Christianity and patriotism are seemingly inextricably woven together. As the world changes and equality and acceptance grows, the United States will no longer be able to claim (whether it was ever true or not) that America is a beacon of freedom, “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” If we do not either follow the ethical tenets of most religions, including the teachings of Christ or throw off the chains of the uniquely American version of Christianity, then America will fall further and further behind the quest for human rights for all.
Even though the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” religion has been intricately laced in with American history. In 1630, the first ships of the Great Puritan Migration sailed to the New World, led by John Winthrop. During the crossing, Winthrop preached a sermon entitled “A Model of Christian Charity.” He told his followers that they had entered a covenant with God according to which he would cause them to prosper if they maintained their commitment to God. In doing so, their new colony would become a “City upon a Hill,” meaning that they would be a model to all the nations of Europe as to what a properly reformed Christian commonwealth should look like. Since then, politicians have used the “city upon a hill” analogy for political purposes to push for American exceptionalism.
“A Model of Christian Charity” serves as an important text in United States history, conveying the optimistic, confident, community-focused mindset in which the New England colonies were founded. Perry Miller, a historian considered one of the founders of American Studies, wrote that the sermon “stands at the beginning of [the] consciousness” of the American mind. Several figures in U.S. politics—beginning as early as John Adams—have referenced this text in public speeches when trying to convey themes of unity and idealism, most often citing the symbol of “a city upon a hill.” In his 1980 Election Eve speech, Ronald Reagan asserted his belief that “Americans…are every bit as committed to that vision of a shining city on a hill, as were those long-ago settlers.” More recently, public figures have utilized the sermon to argue how far the United States has strayed from its values. In his blistering critique of the then-presidential candidate and future twice impeached and disgraced former president, 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney posited that “[Hair Führer’s] personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.” The disgraced former president tried his hardest to destroy the United States, ironically, with the help of American evangelicals.
However, most politicians do not pay attention to the rest of Winthrop’s sermon. They focus on the “city upon a hill,” but not on the rest of the message. Winthrop used logical reasoning combined with a sympathetic nature to make his point to the new Puritan settlers. To remove this work’s central arguments about love and relationships is to lose the sense of the whole completely. The Governor laid out his argument for charity and decent human behavior in the community. While exceptionalism was one of the sermon’s themes, Winthrop explained how God chose the few people on the boats to go to America to carry out their mission. He also mentioned how the rest of the world would watch them. This is the part that politicians have always latched onto, but they often ignore the other main points of the sermon. Winthrop believed that charity, giving to others who need help—not only the poor but also the community—would make the new lands the “city upon a hill” in his view of exceptionalism. Winthrop also believed that communalism reflected the Puritan ideals of “love, unity, and charity.” He mentioned that people have different things to offer each other, and this induced a need for each other, helping the community. He also said that different types of people were on the ship during the sermon but had the same goal of serving God. This was also represented by people being different parts of one body. Through his use of language connected to women’s work, such as “knit,” Winthrop suggests the importance of women in holding the community together. It’s amazing how much is forgotten by the politicians who use a small part of the sermon for their purposes.
Many patriotic evangelical Christians use the Bible to defend their ideas that God is pro-government (or, more specifically, He favors their preferred brand of government). They often use Matthew 22:21, in which Jesus says, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” It’s a radical statement publicly declaring that Caesar and Rome weren’t God. Most Roman emperors advocated the belief that they were gods and should be worshiped. In this passage, Jesus is warning us to avoid such thinking.
Romans 13:1 is also often used by people to defend their political allegiances: Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. But these texts have a significant caveat, where the authors presuppose that this “submitting” is coinciding—and never contradicting—the supreme call to love God and love others. This becomes obvious when looking at other passages that explicitly say so, such as Matthew 22: 36-40:
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
Christians using Romans 13 as a defense to support various political viewpoints at the expense of loving others are also ignoring the words of Peter in Acts 5:29 when he tells the apostles, “We must obey God rather than men” and the teachings of Jesus himself when he proclaimed in Matthew 6:24, “no one can serve two masters.” Separating patriotism and Christianity is difficult for many modern American Christians to comprehend because they often incorporate nationalism and patriotism into much of their religious expression and even their faith. Churches celebrating the Fourth of July by adorning their sanctuaries with American flags and incorporating America and American nationalism into songs of worship would have been alarming and even considered blasphemous for the very first followers of Jesus.
The challenge for Christians is to simultaneously honor the virtues of sacrifice, service, and freedom without idolizing American exceptionalism and Christian nationalism, celebrating bravery without romanticizing violence, and realizing that our salvation comes from the sacrifices of Jesus and not the wars of men. For those raised in churches that interwove Christianity with patriotism, it may not seem a big deal that our country’s flag stands alongside a pastor onstage but try to imagine the apostle Paul and the earliest churches pledging their allegiance to Caesar and the conquering legions who were slaughtering anybody who stood in their way. As citizens of the United States, we’re trying to follow Christ within a similar context as the earliest Christians—living within a powerful empire and susceptible to state-sponsored religion, where it’s socially, politically, and economically advantageous to adhere to certain political beliefs and leaders—even to the point of becoming a pseudo-theocracy.
Unfortunately, Christians have been historically gullible to nationalistic “Christianity.” They often treat our faith as a civic religion to establish a voting bloc and create enough influence to legislate laws, gain wealth, and consolidate power rather than sacrificially serve and love others. The American version of Christianity often perverts the life and mission of Jesus because instead of forgiving enemies, the state spends billions of dollars to kill them, instead of caring for the poor, we villainize them, instead of accepting the foreigner we ban them, and instead of helping the oppressed we further alienate them. While it’s clearly possible to be both an American and a Christian, we must realize that the goals of our country’s government and those of Christ are rarely the same and often directly contradict each other, especially under Republican administrations.
Many right-wing politicians and evangelicals Christians are terrified of the phrase “separation of church and state.” The problem with the comingling of church and state is that only one brand of religion gets instituted for all people in the country. In America, it is often the perverted version of American Christianity that tries to legislate our morals and bodies. Suppose American Christianity had latched onto the charity, communalism, and unity in Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” instead of American exceptionalism. In that case, the link between religion and politics might not be so bad, and that’s why the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Founding Fathers knew that when it came to church and state if you gave an inch, religious leaders would take a mile. There had to be a clear separation of church and state.
Two hundred forty-five years ago today, fifty-six delegates to the Second Continental Congress put their signature to the following words:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.