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.