Religion and Politics in America: A Bigger Challenge Than We Think

Yesterday was Memorial Day (when I was young, “Decoration Day”), and my wife and I went to the festivities in Ballwin, MO, in west St. Louis County.  It was a low key affair with a two flag/two rifle honor guard and about 80 in attendance.  What caught my ear was the language.  First, the invocation by a local Roman Catholic priest who prayed “in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord.”  Later, a quite old and noble woman, Terri Whitaker, sang a piece entitled “Sleep Soldier Boy” (with appropriate updating, including lines with the words “Sleep, soldier girl, sleep”).   It was clear from the song that those patriots sleeping now in their graves would be raised on the last day to glorious kingdom of the Father.  This evening, Fox News played an audio tape of a speech/prayer given by Franklin D. Roosevelt over radio in connection with the D-Day invasion in 1944 that ended with these words, “Father, receive thy heroic servants into thy Kingdom.”  Clearly, the thought is that those who defend this country and who have given the ultimate sacrifice to preserve freedom for this land are righteous in God’s sight and inheritors of the Kingdom of his Son.  This close entwining of American patriotism and Christianity can be seen in many hymns/patriotic songs, such as Francis Scott Key’s “Before the Lord We Bow” (TLH, 575 [cf. LSB 966]).  The third stanza begins as follows: “

May every mountain height
Each vale and forest green,
Shine in Thy Word’s pure light
And its rich fruits be seen!

Note the capitalizations in the third line.  Indeed, it is not hard to draw a close analogy between the OT people of Israel and the nation of the Christian hymn writer.  Anne Steele, an 18th century minister’s daughter, composed the following (TLH 579) concerning England, but these words are sung in the United States and are, thus, “applicable” to us, as well:

Almighty Lord, before Thy throne
Thy mourning people bend;
‘Tis on Thy grace in Christ alone
Our failing hopes depend.
Oh, turn us, turn us, mighty Lord;
Convert us by Thy grace!
Then shall our hearts obey Thy Word
And see again Thy face.
Then should oppressing foes invade,
We will not yield to fear,
Secure of all-sufficient aid
When God in Christ is near.

Parallels of this hymn to 2 Chronicles 20 and the prayer of Jehoshaphat could not be more apparent.

All of this is a challenge for a Lutheran.  We are not godless atheists who believe that nations are simply concoctions of human desires and ingenuity.  We believe that there is a creator who works both in the ecclesiastical arena through his “right hand” means of Word and Sacraments, and in the political arena, through his “left hand” (i.e., not achieving his ultimate purpose) means of human government.  With his “left hand” activity God seeks to promote goodness and order for his creatures, and he acts through “masks” that conceal whose will is really being carried out.  These two realms—and their ends—dare never be confused.  Therefore, in the present context, giving the “ultimate sacrifice” for one’s country and/or for a noble cause (“left hand issue”) does not qualify one for the blessings of the reign and rule of God in Jesus Christ (“right hand issue”), pace President Roosevelt.

And yet a nation that embraces Christian ideals may seem to prosper, in the main (see Britain in the 19th century, the USA in the 20th century).  Why is that?  Luther’s insight concerning the Law is germane here.  In his August 27, 1525 sermon entitled “How Christians Should Regard Moses” Luther contends that the entire OT Law—including the moral law!—has been done away with in Christ, who is the τέλος, the “end,” of the Law both in the sense of “goal” and in the sense of “finish”).  Why, then, do we embrace the 10 Commandments (as Luther does in his catechisms) and use them in our lives?  Because they comport with the natural law, which is incumbent upon all and which orders the world in general.  And, those who conform themselves to God’s general will for all will themselves prosper generally in this life, also in the political sphere.  Thus, a “Christian nation” will have citizens that repent of wrongdoing, that embrace the Golden Rule of doing unto others as they would have them do unto them, and that act toward other creatures (both human and non-human) as gifts of God’s benevolent hand—and in so doing they will conform themselves to the natural law that rules men and women everywhere.

 All of this involves fine distinctions and drawing fine lines, and we will have a chance to do so again in this country at the beginning of July.

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  1. Doug Stowe May 29, 2012

    Jim, re: your statement,’a nation that embraces Christian ideals may seem to prosper.’ Didn’t Gibbon make exactly the opposite argument about Rome, namely, that Rome’s success was due to a number of factors but that the eventual rise of Christendom hastened its decline? My point is simply that empires rise for a number of reasons, and I would be disinclined to suggest that one’s embrace of Christian ideals is a very important part of the mix. Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome all had very good runs apart from even a Judeo-Christian ideal.

    It has certainly been part of the mythology of the US that we are the inheritors of Israel’s ‘destiny.’ The speaker I listened to yesterday referenced Jesus’ ‘city on a hill’ (although he didn’t cite Jesus!). While it takes a lot of careful explaining, I think we do better to go the hard route of saying that Israel was *sui generis* in the history of salvation and every other empire/nation falls into the role–not of Israel–but of the great empires mentioned above: raised up by the Creator God, used by the Creator God for His purposes, but certainly *not* co-terminus with the kingdom inaugurated by His Son.

    • Jim Voelz May 29, 2012

      Yes, certainly Israel was sui generis and I hope no one takes my comments to assert anything else. In OT Israel the reign and rule of God’s “right hand” was made manifest. That no longer happens in a political way, since now ALL has been fulfilled in Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 1:20). Now all nations are part of God’s “left hand” operation, and it is precisely the confusion between God acting decisively for salvation in Israel under the Old Covenant and him acting for the general welfare of humanity through nations now, in the time of the New Covenant, that gives rise to the kind of blending of Christianity and patriotism I am talking about. Re. Rome, I think that your analysis of its decline related to the rise of Christianity is overly simplistic. With the rise of Julius Caesar, the old Republic was brought to its knees (though it survived de jure for quite some time). Concomitantly, the emperor cult–seeing the emperor as divine–arose and began to flourish. Herein lay the seeds for the empire’s demise: the false acclamation of divinity to a human being, which would inevitably be challenged by those who declared with their very lives that only Jesus is Lord. I think we should not confuse a nation generally suffused with Christian ideals (e.g., Britain in the 19th century) with one that is not fundamentally Christian but then challenged by the rise of Christianity (e.g., Rome). More important, it should be noted that my point in the latter section of my posting has to do with “natural law” and the advantages of adherence thereto. Classical Christians do adhere to natural law and so can be seen to reap the advantages of such adherence. But one does not need to be Christian to adhere to natural law, so others who are not followers of Christ also can reap the advantages of such adherence. Hence the relative peace and prosperity of the Roman empire under Marcus Aurelius. The difficulty is that many make the simple–but incorrect–slide from peace/prosperity in this life to new and eternal life in Jesus Christ, our Lord. Hence the “Gott mit uns” rhetoric of patriotic holidays.

    • Jeff Kloha May 29, 2012

      Fun, I get to argue with Voelz (in public, that is. We argue all the time privately).

      I think he is right on about natural law, but does not go far enough in castigating Gott mit uns-ism. The Kingdom of God is, in this world, is always hated, threatened, and persecuted. When it prospers, it gives its wealth away. And when it doesn’t prosper, it still gives its wealth away. When it is struck on the cheek, it turns the other for another blow. So if you wanted to be a “Christian Nation,” from a biblical perspective, you would be constantly harassed, overrun, and subjugated. But, as Jim points out, we also live under God’s left-hand care. And so through government (but only if they are good Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius?) God protects people, Christian and non-Christian alike, and allows us to enjoy his good creation.

      Maybe that is the solution to our banking crisis, government grid-lock, and corporate greed: teach them all Stoicism.

    • Doug Stowe May 29, 2012

      Dr. Voelz,
      Please don’t think I was advocating Gibbon’s position! Rome had scads of problems, not least the problem of administering a territory that vast! My point was just that another observer taking another example could say Christianization was a net loss for an empire, not a net gain.

      I do think we’ll have to disagree on the general usefulness of the idea of ‘Christian nation.’ I think that when the church tries to stake a claim on the left-hand kingdom it runs afoul of its mission, an analysis I think explains an awful lot of the church’s misadventures in politics throughout its long history. One the other hand, I also attended Memorial Day activities yesterday, because, while as a Christian I don’t want to run the world according to its present fallen orders, I do want to serve as a faithful presence within that world.

      As you noted in your initial post–fine lines and fine distinctions are necessary to avoid unbalancing the left- and right-hand kingdoms.

  2. Jim Voelz May 29, 2012

    Just a brief comment. By “Christian nation” I would not mean a Christian government or official Christian policy in accordance with the Bible but a nation made up of a majority of Christians who then act according to natural law. These folks act in a way that is generally useful to society at large and enact laws that promote the general welfare. Indeed, any right hand kingdom “staking of claim” in the left hand kingdom is going to be a disaster, but appeal to natural law is not such a move, for, according to our understanding, such natural law is valid for all people everywhere.

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