Today is the Fourth of July, the day each year when Americans celebrate the birth of our nation. Nearly 250 years ago on this day, the United States of America declared its independence from the British Empire. Patriotism is a natural human instinct, but how does this relate to religion, one might ask? Why should a church, just because it’s based in the USA, celebrate Independence Day and preach a sermon about national pride?
Although Christianity transcends any nation, any political or geographical grouping of human beings, the United States of America has a rich history of striving to embody the national ideal of God’s chosen people — a holy people, set apart for a special purpose in the world, much like the self-conception of the Biblical Hebrews.
As John Winthrop, the Puritan leader who became governor of colonial Massachusetts, wrote in a 1630 sermon called “A Model of Christian Charity,” the settlers of America must “follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. [Mic. 6:8]. … We must entertain each other in brotherly affection.” If we do this, says Winthrop, “We shall find that the God of Israel is among us…” and “we shall be as a city upon a hill” — an example to the nations — and “The eyes of all people are upon us.”
The city upon a hill to which he was referring was Jerusalem, the holy city of God. Winthrop envisioned America as a New Jerusalem, from which the light of goodness and truth shall go out unto all the world.
Centuries later, President-Elect John F. Kennedy spoke of this vision in the context of the moral challenges of his time, such as the struggle for equal rights for African Americans: “Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us — and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.” America, in Kennedy’s view, had an awesome responsibility to be a righteous nation, living up to its high calling of justice and brotherhood for all.
Indeed, the metaphor of America as a holy city upon a hill, shining with the light of God, has persisted and transcended political divisions. In President Ronald Reagan’s farewell address to the American people, he said, “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”
That’s how many of us see America — the America we have been striving to be. On days like the Fourth of July, when we look up at that flag, put our hand upon our heart and sing the national anthem, we remember the high aspirations of generations of Americans, and we imagine a country that God has blessed with faith and virtue and nobility of character.
Sometimes, our most beautiful visions of America remain largely in our imagination — for like any nation, the United States of America has often failed to live up to its ideals. Today, it is fashionable among many to roll their eyes at expressions of patriotism, to hang their heads in shame at the terrible evils that have been committed by Americans in the past and the lingering legacy of injustice in our country today. Some people are so disgusted by America’s flaws that they choose not to salute the flag or to stand for the national anthem, in protest against what they see as a wicked and degenerate nation to which perhaps they only reluctantly belong.
In ancient Israel, there were likewise people who focused on the sins of their nation. Some of them were remembered as prophets who called Israel to repentance, and their words have been recorded in the Scriptures.
The Hebrew prophets were often harsh in their assessment. Jeremiah, in particular, is known for his exaggerated rhetoric about divine judgment upon the nation for its wickedness. He says that the fire of God’s wrath against Jerusalem and Judah will not be quenched [Jer. 4:4, 7:20], that the city and nation will be smashed like a potter’s jar that “cannot be repaired” [19:11], and that God’s anger will burn forever [17:4]. He says to his fellow Hebrews that “Your wound is incurable, your injury beyond healing. There is no one to plead your cause, no remedy for your sore, no healing for you.” [30:12-13].
If that was all Jeremiah had to say, he wouldn’t have been much help to Israel. His excessive negativity would have snuffed out any desire among the people to repent of their sins and do better in the future. But in the very same chapter of the Bible where he mentions the supposedly “incurable” sins of Israel, Jeremiah also says, “‘I am with you and will save you,’ declares the Lord … ‘I will restore you to health and heal your wounds,’ declares the Lord.” [30:11,17].
The key to salvation is repentance: “‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will frown on you no longer, for I am merciful,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will not be angry forever. … How gladly would I treat you like my children and give you a pleasant land, the most beautiful inheritance of any nation.” [3:12,19].
People who criticize the flaws of their country are often unpopular, but they play an important role. They call to our attention the need for change, so that we may examine our hearts and our laws, and improve upon the past and the present.
Unfortunately, in too many cases in America today, our prophets of repentance don’t follow the example of Jeremiah who saw his nation as a land that God is eager to bless rather than only to curse. The tragic result is that instead of inspiring repentance, some of the loudest voices of criticism of the flaws of our nation inspire mainly anger and reactionary rejection of the elements of truth contained within their unpleasant message.
One of the most noteworthy examples of this phenomenon is the issue of racism. Throughout American history, people of non-white races have faced discrimination simply because of the color of their skin. Overcoming this terrible sin has been a long and difficult process. We fought a Civil War which resulted in the abolition of slavery. One hundred years later, we had a civil rights movement to abolish segregation and establish equal rights for all people regardless of race or color. Today, about 60 years later, we are still dealing with lingering problems such as racial profiling by law enforcement. America has come a long way on the path of repentance, but there’s still more work to be done.
Some of the outrageous history of race-based violence in America, such as the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, has only recently received widespread attention, as part of a national reckoning about the oppression that has been suffered in this country by people of color at the hands of white supremacists. Most Americans can hopefully agree that we should teach the full reality of American history — including the most embarrassing parts — but there is a great deal of disagreement about the way we should frame the story. Is America essentially a righteous nation that has sometimes, in some ways erred, and has gradually overcome its greatest sins and grown into a fuller manifestation of divine goodness? Or is it fundamentally a wicked nation that is filled with unrepentant sinners who routinely oppress innocent victims — a nation that must be constantly reminded of an ongoing, perhaps never-ending division between the oppressors and the oppressed?
I believe it is important that we tell ourselves stories of redemption, of the American journey of progress — not only materially, but morally — and that we put aside narratives that would condemn us to endless shame and conflict. America has not always been a righteous nation, but more often than not, we have sincerely aspired to be. Our understanding of the demands of righteousness has grown and matured over time. A nation that began with Black slaves eventually had a Black president. A nation that didn’t give women the right to vote until 1920 now has a female vice president, one hundred years later.
And there are many more examples of how far we’ve come in our progression unto righteousness. I believe that when God looks at America, the Source of Divine Perfection sees a nation that is worthy to be that shining city upon a hill — but only if we embrace this calling rather than forsake it.
America is a land to which people from all over the world have come seeking freedom and opportunity — a land where no matter who you are, no matter what you believe, you can pursue your dreams and live according to your own values and creed. America is a nation where all our citizens have the right to vote for the government that serves us, and where we have never yet succumbed to a military coup, a fascist dictatorship, or a communist takeover of our cherished liberties.
But will America remain this way? That’s largely up to us — yet all great nations eventually fall. Today, Americans have much to be proud of, but we’re also in danger of destroying ourselves as a people, because of our loss of faith in God and our deepening hatred of one another.
Sadly, the source of our hatred is our amazing diversity — one of America’s greatest strengths. Because our country contains so many different kinds of people with widely differing backgrounds, ideas, and lifestyles, only if we can come together and unite upon some basic principles are we capable of remaining united as one nation. Among the essential principles of America are freedom for individuals and communities, a democracy with free and fair elections, equality for all citizens regardless of their personal characteristics, the rule of law and equal justice under the law, and civic virtue and ethics in government. When we adhere to such principles, we create a society in which, as George Washington often said, quoting Scripture, “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.” [Micah 4:4].
It may be impossible to maintain such noble principles as a nation without a strong religious faith. In the words of John Adams, the second president of the United States, “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
America was founded as a refuge for people of many different churches and creeds to live in tolerance and peace with each another, but it was not intended to be a country where the teachings of religion are cast aside entirely. If secularism becomes America’s dominant belief system, upon what authority shall we love one another despite our differences and disagreements? What motivation shall we have to live together in brotherhood, rather than as different factions of people despising one another and fighting for the triumph of their own political, ethnic, or cultural tribe?
In Divided We Fall, a must-read book that was published last year, Christian political commentator David French rightly warns that “the continued unity of the United States of America cannot be guaranteed. At this moment in history, there is not a single important cultural, religious, political, or social force that is pulling Americans together more than it is pushing us apart.”
The teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition — as well as other great world religions — call believers to forbearance, compassion, and moral decency. A righteous nation must uphold these virtues, so that all people may be free to live according to their own choices while respecting the rights of others.
As we celebrate Independence Day, let us remember that America was intended by its founders to be more than just a country. It was envisioned to be a manifestation of the holy city of God, ever striving to become more like the kingdom of heaven on earth. And if we will look not to this vision, there is a very real danger that the world may look no longer upon the great nation that has been called the United States of America — for before long, it may no longer exist except as a memory of something that once was special.
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