Thoughts on Independence Day

In 2021, Independence Day is probably a more controversial holiday than in past decades. There are those today who push ideologies that question the founding principles of America, while others double down on the idea of America as a Christian bastion of freedom to the rest of the world. As I sit enjoying my steak in an area known for its battlefields and the homes of many of the founders, I would like to offer my humble perspective on the celebration.

America is a country founded largely upon a set of ideals. It is perhaps one of the only countries that began with an ideological foundation. (Although with Soviet Russia as another prominent example of a nation based upon ideology, this in itself is not a mark in America's favor.) These American ideals, born out of Enlightenment rationalism, allowed a greater measure of freedom than had been seen before in the world.

But as is the case with all nations composed of fallen, corrupted Man, America has consistently fallen short of its self-proclaimed ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Whether we look at the evils of slavery and Jim Crow, the Trail of Tears, the consistent betrayal of Native Americans, the horrors of the Civil War, the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War, the funding and support of numerous dictatorships throughout the world, or its use or support of attrition tactics and war crimes against civilian populations (Korean War, Vietnam), there is no denying that at many points the United States has played the oppressor to many innocent people.

Because of these facts, I have taken a considerable amount of time to consider what place the United States holds in my heart. Certainly I am thankful to live in the most prosperous nation on earth that largely respects my right to live and worship in peace. I am fully aware that there are few places in the world (and throughout history) that offer the same respect and opportunity. But from my perspective, a great many Christians have attributed these blessings more to the nation and its ideals than to God.

I have had a number of people take issue with me when I've questioned practices such as displaying the flag in church, singing patriotic hymns, or reciting the pledge of allegiance. In my view, these are acts of worship and adoration, especially because they are presented in the same formats we use to worship the Lord. As a Christian, I am a slave to God and His righteousness, and my undivided loyalty must lie with Him (Matthew 6:24; Romans 6:16; James 4:4 ESV). I fear that we begin to idolize our nation when we exalt it in these manners, and I am extremely hesitant to engage in these activities.

Additionally, I want to be careful to preserve my testimony as far as I possibly can. While patriotism is very popular in my slice of conservative Christian culture, it is becoming increasingly unpopular in America as a whole. Whether or not I agree with this cultural shift, my patriotism is secondary to my primary calling to spread the gospel. I am not going to engage in divisive activities that have the potential to limit my witness to lost people.

So how are we then to regard our country? I would submit that the position of the early church is an excellent example of obeying the teaching of the New Testament to be in the world, but not of the world. As an example, read this description of the early church in the Epistle to Diognetus from around 180 AD—

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe… The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines… They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers… They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.—Epistle to Diognetus, Chapter V

In the age of the early church, Christians found themselves living in an empire that, much like America, did much to advance human civilization and political thought. Citizens of Rome were given rights that Paul exercised on several occasions (Acts 16:37-39; 25:1-12 ESV). And also like America, it was guilty of great wrongs and iniquities. Regardless, the early church is described as holding to every virtue and respecting human government, but regarding themselves as foreigners and citizens of heaven. This is consistent with Christ's teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven (John 18:36 ESV) and Paul's instructions in Romans 12-13. Furthermore, they did not hold to any merely human doctrine, but instead to the teaching of God. With all of its ceremonies, mythologized origins, and holidays, can the celebration of America and its story be called anything but a doctrine?

I think this example should be informative to us as we seek to honor God and preserve our witness amongst men. I am very thankful for all of God's provision through the United States and for all of the freedom granted me from His gracious hand, but its on His blessings that I want the focus to lie. My adoration of America as the source or provider of these blessings would be a misunderstanding of God's provision.