Of course, watching fireworks to celebrate our nation's independence from the lawn of our church leads a theological type like myself to ponder the ever difficult and challenging relationship of church and state. The relationship is often discussed ad naseum by the cable news networks in the middle of an election year like we find ourselves in currently. However, these discussions are almost exclusively given from the perspective of the state side of the equation. In other words, Americans ask again and again how much religion should be allowed in the public square. How much should faith be allowed to guide policy in a democracy where the majority of citizens are Christian (at least in title, although even this title means very different things to different people who give themselves this title) but there are other significant minorities whose rights must be defended under the Constitution?
In contrast to this, it seems that more Christians should be considering the other side of this question. How much of the state should be allowed in the Church? This is a difficult question for us since the United States has been influenced by Christianity more than any other religion throughout it existence. As a result, the United States has generally served Christianity well, carving out the political space for a freedom of worship without threat of political interference. Certainly, that is something worth celebrating and for which we should be thankful. American democracy is truly a thing to be valued and admired.
However, as I will talk about to some extent in my sermon this Sunday, often some of God's greatest gifts carry the most potential for idolatry. This is the case precisely because they are such good things and therefore, we are tempted to regard them as greater than they really are, greater even than the God who gave them to us. Rarely, if ever, are people drawn to things that are just entirely bad or purely destructive. We are drawn to things because of their good qualities and they then become destructive because we give them an inordinate amount of space and importance in our lives.
The same is true of our patriotism. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with valuing the great political progress represented by our government. However, we must not make the mistake of imagining that our government is perfect or that anything and everything the United States does is "Christian" just because the majority of its citizens go by that name. The United States is not and will never be the kingdom of God. We, as Christians, must seriously reconsider the amount of allegiance we are willing to pledge to our nation and we must be certain that this level of allegiance is always subservient to our allegiance to Christ and his kingdom. The United States of America engages in and encourages all kinds of practices that are by no means Christian and it is part of our duty as the Church to continually bear witness to the ways our world fails to conform to God's kingdom. We must be certain that we are Christian long before we are American.