A thorny question that always pops up this time of year (and seems to get thornier with each passing year) is how and to what extent the churches should acknowledge Independence Day here in the USA. A lot of Christians in this country perceive a special link between conservative politics and conservative theology. To a superficial degree, that is true. But the “agenda” of politics and the “agenda” of the Gospel are utterly different. Yes, they can work together in certain areas of overlap, but their ultimate missions are different.
So what do we do on the Sunday nearest to the 4th of July? I have heard of a pastor wanting to have a presentation of the national flag in the church building, followed by the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and a worship director being fired for conscientiously objecting. I have heard of churches singing patriotic songs like “God Bless America.” How far do we go? How much patriotism is appropriate, and where is the line of idolatry?
There are more questions than I can answer (or even tackle) in a single blog post. For now, I’d like to highlight one of the few direct teachings in the Bible concerning how the churches are to approach the state: 1 Timothy 2:1-6.
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, the testimony to which was borne at the proper time.
This, I believe, captures eloquently the two different “agendas” of Church and State. The government is charged with maintaining a state where a “quiet and peaceable life” may be lived by its citizens. The Church, following God’s lead, however, is to “desire all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” It is interesting to see St. Paul putting these two agendas together. He seems to imply that we are to pray for our government rulers, that they may enable a peaceful earthly life, so that the Church will be the least hindered in her mission to convert all to Christ.
Something I have observed among politically conservative Christians in America is an interest in the political well-being of our country for its own sake. There appears to be more concern for what’s on the country’s lawbooks than for the state of its citizens’ eternal souls. Perhaps their hearts are not as screwed up as they appear, but the very fact that many give this impression is, at least, a red flag for concern. If the State is “peaceable” and “godly” but the Church is not bringing others “to the knowledge of the truth,” then the whole arrangement is meaningless. Considering God’s greatest desire is to see “all men to be saved,” then clearly it is better to have a terrible government and a healthy church, than a “godly” government and a sterile church.
And so, in the spirit of keeping this right order of priorities in mind, I offer this rather epic hymn, O God of Earth and Altar.
O God of earth and altar, Bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter, Our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us, The swords of scorn divide,
Take not thy thunder from us, But take away our pride.
From all that terror teaches, From lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches That comfort cruel men,
From sale and profanation Of honour and the sword,
From sleep and from damnation, Deliver us, good Lord.
Tie in a living tether The prince and priest and thrall,
Bind all our lives together, Smite us and save us all;
In ire and exultation Aflame with faith, and free,
Lift up a living nation, A single sword to thee.
Remember the Tower of Babel: earthly peace and unity for its own sake ends up as opposition to God. But, as St. Paul wrote to Timothy, earthly peace and unity as a means for the proclamation of the Gospel is “good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior.“