Vol. 77 - No. 07
July 2006

WORD FROM THE PASTOR:                

Loving America as a Christian

      In David Mamet’s play Glengary Glenross, real estate salesman Sid Levine (memorably brought to the screen by Jack Lemmon) talks about how intensely patriotic he was in his youth. Whenever he saw the flag, his heart would swell. If he was sitting alone in his room watching a baseball game, he would still stand up and place his hand over his heart during "The Star Spangled Banner". I related to Levine’s description of himself–because that’s how I was raised. From early on, my family instilled in me a deep love of country that still courses through my veins.

      We did not worship America–that would be an idolatrous violation of the first commandment. I was always taught that God came first. I vividly remember the priorities my mother would lay out for me: "You love God first, then your country, then your family"–a hierarchy of values that I still embrace. And even though America was in second-place, it was a highly-honored second place.

      Not all groups in the Christian tradition embrace this hierarchy of values. Our Amish friends, for instance, feel that any loyalty to earthly government is a betrayal of our loyalty to God. A very different group, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, teaches basically the same thing. Extremely liberal Christians think that America, because of her imperfections, cannot command their loyalty; extremely conservative Christians sometimes feel the same way (such as the despicable folks who protest at soldier funerals because, in their eyes, America tolerates homosexuality). There are many people whose religious values remove from them any temptation to stand at attention in front of the TV during "The Star Spangled Banner."

      But the Bible makes it clear that we Christians have something of a dual loyalty–we are called to be loyal to God, but we also are called to be loyal to the earthly government under which we live. The classic verse on this theme is, of course, our blessed Lord Jesus’ words: "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s" (Matthew 22:21).  In a way, our true homeland is in heaven–as St. Paul says, "Our citizenship is in heaven," (Philippians 3:20) echoed by the Letter to the Hebrews: "For we have here no permanent city, but we seek that city which is above." (Hebrews 13:14) Jesus, by His death and resurrection, has made us citizens of a heavenly Kingdom that will endure forever, even after all the nations of this world have turned to dust. But that does not mean that we are released from earthly citizenship; for Paul also says, "Be subject to the governing authorities, for the powers that be are ordained of God." (Romans 13:1). And I think my favorite verse on this subject comes from Jeremiah’s letter to the Hebrew exiles in Babylon: "Seek the welfare of the city into which the Lord your God has sent you."(Jeremiah 29:7).  God did not want them to hold their new country in contempt, but rather to see its well-being as their own well-being.

      So God wants Christians to be loyal to their native lands. 

      And in America, we Christians have something that we can especially value–freedom of religion. The First Amendment is something we can cherish. Freedom of speech and church/state separation are great blessings to God’s people. 

      We don’t always appreciate this. But if you follow the news, you may have noted stories, coming from various countries, about government attempts to censor what churches can say, especially about sexual morality. In Canada and Sweden, churches have gotten into trouble for saying the wrong thing. We don’t think of Canada or Sweden as "unfree" countries, but the reality is that very few countries in the world have the kind of free speech guarantees that we have. In America, we can proclaim God’s truth without interference. That’s something to praise God for!

      Even the "separation of church and state"–a phrase that Christians often react to like fingernails on a blackboard–is, in the end, a blessing. In America, all churches are on a equal footing. The government doesn’t play favorites among the churches. The fact that this is good for religion can be seen by comparing church attendance rates between Europe (where there are "official" churches) and America. The country with no official church outperforms the nations with official churches many times over.

      Problems do arise when church/state separation is interpreted in a way that abridges people’s freedom. When a coach is told he can’t pray before a game–when a valedictorian’s speech is cut off because she mentions God one too many times–these are cases where freedom is being taken away from individuals. There is nothing more un-American than telling someone: "You can’t say that!", and I fear that the mania to create a religion-free zone where atheists aren’t offended actually ends up damaging free speech. (Really, if you don’t want ever to be offended, you’re in the wrong country. I get offended ten times a day by things I hear on TV or the radio–but that’s simply a by-product of free speech).

      On the whole, America is a wonderful place to be a Christian. We have freedom to worship God, freedom to proclaim the Gospel! We should never take that for granted.

      So when that flag flaps in the breeze, my heart still swells. When the anthem comes on the TV or radio, I still stand (unless I’m at the wheel of my car!) I don’t love America more than I love God; but I love America as a place that gives me the freedom to love God above all things.

      Happy Fourth of July! God loves you and so do I!

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