It’s that time of year once again. Hang the red, white, and blue streamers. Fire up the barbecue grill. Take to the roads, the beaches, the boats, and the fairgrounds. Light the fuse and send those fireworks to the moon and prep for your best Kate Smith impersonation as she belts out “God Bless America!” And it’s the time of year I typically generate as much heat with this column as a pyrotechnic display.
Almost every year for the last decade or so, I have used this space on Independence Day weekend to temper the church’s love affair with American nationalism. Even as you read this, a “God and Country” rally is being planned inside a church near you, with the stars and stripes draping the building and booming patriotic songs being piped through the PA.
This isn’t all bad, mind you, but it does remind me of Tony Campolo’s nimble words: “Mixing government with the church is a lot like mixing horse manure with ice cream,” he said. “It doesn’t affect the manure very much, but it really ruins the ice cream.”
For the most part, Christians in America haven’t been able to tell where the preaching of the kingdom of God ends, and the waving of the red, white, and blue begins. We have long believed that church and state could make great partners if only the two would cooperate. More bluntly, we have concluded that things would go much smoother if the church could control the state. But these are dangerous, ruinous assumptions.
Of course, these assumptions aren’t a novelty. Not long after Jesus ascended to heaven and the Apostles died, somebody decided it would be a good idea for the church to join forces with the empire. “Imagine how many people could be converted, influenced, enrolled, and evangelized if the church was more powerful!” was the thinking.
Thus, the deal was made and the church’s coffers ran over with gold; kings and queens began seeking their ministers’ approval on policy; Christian soldiers marched onward at the head of the empire’s crusading armies; God, purloined by this new arrangement, was used as armament to keep the populace in line; and there were no more of those unsightly martyrdoms (unless, of course, you were someone who opposed this new arrangement).
Ever since, and that was centuries ago, Christians have more or less pined for the seats of power, believing that such an approach would enhance the work of God. What actually happens is a stinking mess. Here is a lesson we must relearn, hard as it may be to accept: Power, simply has a way of corrupting spirituality.
So this weekend, in my own church sanctuary, yes, I will pause and thank the heavens for my country, its freedoms, and acknowledge that God has indeed “shed his grace” on us. But I want no part in creating a “Christian America,” for such an effort might taint my ability to be a Christian who happens to reside in America.