What is the relationship between the Christian faith and the history of the United States?
Wow. Even I’m standing here thinking, “We’re starting out this way, are we?!”
But I think it’s an important question, because it comes around so often as a passionate point for many to say that this is a Christian nation, and that our values and our laws should be shaped and influenced by the Christian faith. This is all over the news and social media today, in analysis of Supreme Court rulings and in debates between political candidates vying for public office.
So what is the relationship between the Christian faith and the history of the United States?
A starting point for much of the discussion lies in the words written in the Declaration of Independence: “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.”
So the question becomes, what was the problem that these words were seeking to address?
Essentially, it was a statement that King George did not possess a divine right to be the king, and a rejection of the idea that kings were who they were because God created them to serve and to rule, made them special and in possession of something unique in their souls which made them fit to serve as God’s lieutenants on earth. Think about Henry the VIII, who when separating from the Roman Catholic Church made himself the head of the Church of England. We would think that’s a pretty daring move today, that the ruler of a nation would also be the leader of a religious denomination–today we would call that a cult. But it was totally in line with the idea that the king ruled because they had a special anointing from God, that what they did was blessed by God and therefore unquestionable and unchallengeable, and therefore being the head of the Church of England made sense. After all, the Catholics had the Pope, who had a lot of political power in Europe at the time.
Thomas Jefferson then, when writing the words of the Declaration of Independence, soundly rejecting this idea, and instead put forward the ideals that those who rule do so at the will of the people. And because the ability to rule was not a divine appointment, anyone could serve in this role–at the will of the people–because all have been created equal in this respect.
So I look at that, and I think, it’s quite a jump to go from that, a statement of values that are influenced in part by the religion of Jefferson (who we would not recognize today as a Christian), but also significantly from political and philosophical values here, of the writings of people like John Locke–whose writings called for broad religious tolerance because forcing religion upon individuals or a nation would be disastrous, and how could anyone discern between competing truth claims of various religions.
So what is the relationship between the Christian faith and the history of the United States.
This is a nation founded on values that had to address the Christian question because of the English Monarchy–it was unescapable, because there needed to be a justification for rejecting the divine right of kings. But at the core, our break from England was founded on philosophical principles–liberty and equality–which align with general Christian thought because the Fathers of the nation were largely English people, and religion was part of everyone’s life to one extent or another, because the Church of England was part of everyone’s life, to one extent or another. It had been the official state religion since for over 200 years at that point, and was an inescapable part of life.
So, now we’re at the place where the question is, what is the point of all of this, and what does it mean for our lives?
Well, first of all I am grateful for the freedom to worship and believe as I choose. There are many places around the world where people don’t have that right. There are countries where it is very dangerous to be a practicing Christian, and where you could pay for it with your life to come together for worship or to pray or to study the Bible with others. Sometimes even possessing a Bible can get a person imprisoned or killed. So I am grateful for the ability to come together on a day like today, with you all, and to worship our God as we see fit.
Along with that, I believe that if I am going to enjoy that ability and that right to worship as I see fit, that I should extend that same courtesy to others, and that all people should be able to practice their faith freely and without restriction or coercion from other religions to curtail their practices or engage in those with which they are not comfortable. The practice of my faith should not infringe on the practice of another person’s faith. Now, all of this assumes that the practice of any given faith is not harmful to others or in violation of basic or just laws. But if I’m going to practice my faith as I see fit, I should allow others to do the same. I think this gets to the collect for the day, which quoteth the greatest commandment, to love God and to love our neighbors.
And finally, to be thoughtful about how the values that I derive from my faith transfer or move out from my private expression of faith and into the public sphere. And this is a hard question. We see this plainly in the matter of abortion today, which is very much in the public spotlight today and has clear connections to the values of different religions or denominations. But what about other matters, like the death penalty? Or like social welfare programs to help the poor, those struggling with mental health, or the disadvantaged and oppressed? How do our values as followers of Christ, in the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement, speak to these issues and others in how we engage with the world around us?
Here’s where I am struck by the words of St. Paul in the letter to the Galatians: “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” That in light of all that I’ve shared here, that for Paul, being a disciple of Christ and being called to follow in the path of the cross was of utmost importance, and all else has become subservient to it, including this world. The tone gives this impression, that there has been a separation between the follower of Christ and the world, that we have been freed from it and its paradigms and values, and free to live into the values and priorities of the Kingdom of God.
Yes, it’s wonderful being a citizen of the United States, but it’s nothing compared to being a citizen of the Kingdom in Heaven. That is where our hope and joy lie. And yes, we are called that as long as we are citizens here in this life, to seek to spread the love of God and all that this entails, we are also reminded that our allegiance now lies with the Kingdom that is above, where God is, and where Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father. No kingdom on earth can even compare to the greater joy of being citizens of the City of God.