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How to think about politics, patriotism, and the 4th of July as Christians

Independence Day is here. What are some reflections you have about the founding of our nation? Do you have a favorite tradition?

Brent Leatherwood: So I’ll own it and state, unequivocally, I’m an absolute sap for this holiday. When I worked in the political world, my favorite press release to create each year was the Independence Day message. Most communications staffers just yawn at it. Not me. Few things get my rhetorical juices flowing like a little “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” on in the background.

But my appreciation for July 4th does have some layers to it. It feels like one of the few remaining occasions where Americans put aside their differences, albeit briefly, to just be with one another. It’s a celebration that harkens back to our communitarian roots and provides a present reminder that, even after 241 years, we still haven’t achieved the lofty heights of human flourishing set forth in our founding documents.

Steven Harris: To be honest, when I think about the nation’s founding, my immediate thoughts orient around the themes of divine providence and hypocrisy. Perhaps odd, but such reflections are generated by the history, this current cultural moment, and my own academic interests. I am particularly reminded of how hypocrisy manifested itself as 18th century colonists engaged in what was, ironically, a fight for the liberty to enslave.

At the same time, I have very vivid memories of my family’s annual trip from Chicago to Alabama, and the stop at a 60,000-square-foot fireworks warehouse in Missouri fittingly called Boomland. Our 4th of July trip “down South” was a familial and communal gathering—a time to reflect on the blessings and the burdens of being black Americans.

Joseph Williams: As a former U.S. history and civics teacher, and now a constitutional attorney, it never surprises anyone how much I love Independence Day. I like what Brent says about it still being one of the only days where we put aside our differences and unite in our common interests. It marks childhood awe—sparklers, fireworks, community picnics, and baseball. When I think of the 4th of July, I think about how we’re free to celebrate as a community and nation because of those who have sacrificed so much for us for centuries. The Founders risked their life and liberty. Americans in the 19th century shed so much blood to make those ideals a reality. Americans in the 20th century fought foreign tyrants and domestic discrimination so that those words written in 1776 would reach to every person in our own country and spread around the world.

It reminds me of an essay I wrote last year for this holiday. I’ve reflected on these two paragraphs often:

The Founders united together to fight to the death for the right to disagree with one another about the most important parts of life. They debated viciously over the enslavement of millions of fellow human beings made in God’s image, arguing over the nature of God, heaven, hell, and human nature in the process. They debated the structure of government, what individual rights should be protected, how much power should be given to each level of government. Virtually every aspect of government and American life was up for debate.

Yet, they did not declare independence and fight for freedom because they agreed on everything. They risked their lives and fought, because they didn’t.

How can Christians approach July 4th in a way that appropriately marks the occasion but doesn’t cross the line into idolizing our country?

BL: As Christ followers, we should have the healthiest level of discernment about where this line is, and yet that is often not the case. Far too many church leaders are willing to mix theology and patriotism in order to further partisan political objectives. These instances confuse Christians about what they should be prioritizing as they worship (Ex. 20:3) and undermine our faith’s witness to the watching world.

Instead, we should be grateful that we are citizens of this nation and appreciative that the democratic ideals of America stand in marked contrast to the vast majority of other societies in human history. That is a powerful notion worthy of celebration in a civil context. At the same time, we have to realize we live in a Genesis 3 world that is fallen—and that reality reaches directly from the garden of Eden, to July 4, 1776, to today’s America. Keeping that truth in mind helps to strike the right balance between our current status and our eternal citizenship.

SH: I think it is important to remember that the temptation for American Christians to idolize the country is nothing new. In fact, it can be argued that the seeds of what would eventually be referred to as “american exceptionalism” were sown in Puritan New England, and began germinating in ways useful for the nation-building cause during the Revolutionary Period. Add to that fundamental democratic ideals reflective of biblical principles, and what results is a recipe for 1) viewing the country in a national Christian light and 2) viewing a certain kind of patriotism as a requisite for legitimate professions of faith.

To be sure, as American Christians we ought to recognize God’s sovereign determination of our present dwelling, and be thankful for the kinds of aspirational ideals that have undergirded our democratic experiment. At the same time, we ought to seek to faithfully be salt and light in a land that prides itself on being free, while at the same time profoundly fallen. I’ve found historian John Wilsey’s work, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea, immensely helpful in thinking about this topic.

As Christians, we know that Jesus is in the business of redeeming all of creation, making all things new, and using us to do that.

JW: May we never forget to keep our lives properly ordered. I love how Dr. Moore puts it, “We are Americans best if we aren’t Americans first.” But that is also compatible with realizing that God providentially placed all of us here in America at this time for a reason. This is our mission field. This is the place where we are called to labor and love our neighbors. That means fighting for the dignity of the downtrodden and seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God. If we love our fellow Americans because God does, and how God does, that’s faithfulness, not idolatry.

In our current cultural moment, we’re reassessing various points throughout American history, and the Revolutionary period is no exception. Has that review caused you to lessen your own enthusiasm for America? How do you think through the problematic—and in some cases explicitly wrong—aspects of our founding?

BL: Perhaps this is a bit counterintuitive, but this moment has given me a greater appreciation for America. First of all, as a student of history, I love the fact more Americans are opening up books, reading through primary sources, and examining our history. It’s never a bad thing to understand where we’ve come from because that informs decisions we make about our future.

Building upon that, it helps one understand that, in a lot of respects, this democratic experiment we’ve embarked upon has had many instances where it likely could’ve ended but didn’t. What if Washington had not crossed the Delaware, or the Axis powers had conquered in World War II, or the Civil Rights Act had failed? Those are captivating moments where our finest American ideals were advanced and prevailed. Our history shows we have a charge to keep this American project moving forward and improving it as we do so. Lastly, I would say this is overdue. We need to understand the wrongs of our past, how those instances reverberate today, and what can be done to create guardrails that ensure we never fall back into those failures.

SH: I think it’s important to explicitly acknowledge that, in many ways, the cause of the reassessment and review that we’re witnessing is really a growing willingness on behalf of some to take seriously the historical perspectives of others. I’m reminded of the 1988 prizewinning work of historian Eric Foner on the Reconstruction period, wherein he argues for the centrality of the black experience in rightly understanding the post-Civil War years. Well, it turns out that historian W.E.B. Du Bois was the forerunner of that approach, having produced a work on the topic over a half a century prior (Foner acknowledges this in his own work). I mention that brief example to simply point out that what many evangelicals might be discovering as new perspectives on history might not be all that new.

I often refer to differences of historical consciousness (how individuals understand and make sense of the past) based off of different social imaginaries (ways people imagine their social existence and make sense of the world). That is to say, people view history differently, oftentimes based on their place in the world. The fact that more people are realizing this reality is a good thing.

With regard to how I personally reckon with this country’s faults, I’m brought back to the tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and am left with a view of history that magnifies the grace, mercy, wisdom, and goodness of God not merely despite the failures of men, but in light of them. As Christians seeking to interpret the past, I do not think our task is to make excuses for sin nor spin false narratives. I think we’re called to reflect honestly on the past, and demonstrate what lives of repentance and faith ought to produce in the present.

JW: It’s dangerous, unfair, and unhelpful to think of our forefathers of the Revolutionary era as cardboard caricatures. They were as impassioned as they were imperfect, just like all of us today. Throughout various stages of our nation’s history, they’ve been both glorified as gods and condemned as monsters. Neither of these simplistic perspectives are helpful. As Christians, we should understand this fundamental truth better than anyone else.

As Americans, we must read the Declaration of Independence and Frederick Douglass’ reflection on the meaning of the Fourth of July for slaves. We have to reckon with every aspect of our past. As President Reagan said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”

Freedom isn’t guaranteed. It wasn’t in 1776, 1865, the 1960s, 2001, or today. We continue to face choices every day about what kind of country we’ll be. May we seek to protect life, liberty, and justice for all.

Are you hopeful that our nation can overcome the original stain of slavery and racism that marked its beginning? Why?

BL: I am. Steven wisely pointed out that in order to do so, we have to reckon with our problematic and hypocritical roots. Granted, as a white commentator here, my analysis is informed by that perspective, but I do believe we can. My sense is, America, throughout her history, has been largely aspirational. At the same time, when shown to be wrong, our nation strives to address those injustices, however inadequately. Our story holds that freedom is the essential ingredient for human flourishing. We’re now grappling with the fact that at the dawn of our nation, this basic element was tragically denied to far too many people. Even with the downfall of slavery, the thread of unequal access rooted in racism has persisted in much of what we’ve built. But I believe Americans have the capacity to prevail over the wrongs of the past.

SH: Last time I checked, pessimism isn’t a Christian virtue—so that’s not an option, though I often find myself fighting against it with regard to this topic. I say that because I think we’ve underestimated the severity of the stain while at the same time overestimating our country’s (and the church’s ) progress with the same. To be sure, there have been great strides made on this front. We can all acknowledge that, in very significant ways, things have changed. And yet, the notion that “things are not as bad as they were” has never served as a truly satisfying sentiment—nor should we take it to be. The institution of slavery has been referred to as the original birth defect of the country. This then suggests that, as Brent referenced, there is a sense in which the very foundations of what has been established and propagated have been affected (I think, too, of the history of indigenous peoples). In light of the fact that we cannot simply undo what has happened, I do think the word “overcome” is appropriate. Christians can and must work redemptively and reparatively in our churches and in our communities.

It starts, however, with an acknowledgment of the history and it’s ongoing residues in the present. It is impossible to correctly treat a misdiagnosed illness. One of the most telling lines in the Frederick Douglass speech that Joseph previously mentioned concerns the question of national memory. Douglass asserted that, “. . . as a people, Americans are remarkably familiar with all facts which make in their own favor.” I actually think the tendency is not merely an American problem but a human problem. Douglass, however, was thinking particularly of the unwillingness of white Americans to reckon honestly with the reality of chattel slavery, and what it said about the true status of the young nation. There is a significant difference between wanting to look like we’ve overcome and actually overcoming. My hope and prayer is that we continue to press toward the latter.

JW: One of the greatest writings in American history is Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. I think it’s worth remembering how he begins the concluding part of his letter:

We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America. Before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson scratched across the pages of history the majestic word of the Declaration of Independence, we were here. For more than two centuries our foreparents labored here without wages; they made cotton king; and they built the homes of their masters in the midst of brutal injustice and shameful humiliation—and yet out of a bottomless vitality our people continue to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.

At the beginning of that paragraph, he begins by saying he hopes that the Christian church as a whole will meet the challenge of that decisive hour. My hope and prayer is that the church today and the church into the future will be more united in making our Founders’ words more of a reality each generation.

In many ways, politics is inherently a reactionary field, and many are critical of the current state of American politics. Russell Moore often states that politics flows downstream from culture. So looking at this issue through that framing, is the present political world just reflecting a troubled culture?

BL: Years of working with candidates has taught me that is certainly true. Office-seekers and office-holders reflect the communities and constituencies they represent. Sometimes, there are benefits to that. But when a culture is unhealthy, it often produces candidates who are problematic. So how do we help that? It begins with the perspective I touched upon before. I think many of us are tying our hopes to politics in a really unhealthy way. When we find our identity in any human process or structure, it will inevitably lead to disappointment. This is true of politics.

But don’t hear me say we shouldn’t be engaged in the political arena. In fact, I’d advocate for the exact opposite. The public square needs more people of good conscience participating in it. As Christians, we need to go forth and inform, advocate, and participate in civic society. John Piper often talks about the “important role we play in this equation is to help elect (leaders) who do what God intended them to do.” I’d affirm that. But, to maintain a healthy perspective, we must always keep in mind our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20).

SH: There is a lot that has contributed to the sociopolitical crises of our current moment—too much to try and unpack. I think it is safe to say that the political postures we see inside the proverbial Beltway are, in many ways, reflective of the attitudes and dispositions of the broader culture. While politics plays an important role in society, we must remember that there are many things that politics will consistently prove impotent to accomplish. When one assesses the status of the discourse in the public square, it becomes painfully obvious that politics as a main identity doesn’t work. The professed Christian should best understand this limitation.

JW: As a candidate for public office this year, I obviously believe Christians engaging in politics and policy is vitally important. And as I’ve knocked on thousands of doors, I’ve been encouraged by my neighbors. When you talk to people face to face, their perspectives are more complex and nuanced. They love their neighbors, and they love our nation. They often talk to me about their best friends who live right next door who have very different political viewpoints. But they still love one another. These friendships and interactions encourage me. We just need to get off of Twitter and turn off cable news long enough to realize that’s what the majority of our country is like.

Why should civility be an important aim for Christians interested in furthering the democratic principles of our founding?

BL: I cringe every time I read an article or view a social media post where someone says civility isn’t compatible with action on a given issue. I wholeheartedly reject the formulation that says civility is tantamount to acquiescence. Hardly. What that seems to reveal instead is a rejection of the democratic tradition of public persuasion and civil discourse.

I would argue that the health of our democratic republic is intrinsically tied to our ability to present our cases to our fellow Americans and debate policies in good faith. As Wake Forest University ethics professor John E. Senior notes, to engage in public dialogue with others is to “acknowledge the inherent dignity of the other as a person who bears the image of God.” That basic truth and the implicit respect it shows our fellow citizens should undergird our actions every time we participate in the public square.   

SH: There was an article published a few days ago suggesting that the notion of civility had become a buzzword and, therefore, lost all meaning. I do fear that what has emerged from recent discussions is a very flat understanding of what it means to engage in civil exchange in the public square. After all, in his methodology of nonviolent protest, MLK was often charged with being uncivil. With that being said, I think Christians ought to be mindful of the biblical prescriptions concerning the bridling of the tongue (James. 1:26), prohibition against corrupting talk (Eph. 4:29), the call for gracious speech (Col. 4:6), etc. Moreover, Christians would do well to attend to the love ethic that is called upon by the Great Commandment. We need to always be cognizant of the image-bearers behind ideas, and seek to not merely win points but people.

With that being said, I do want to caution the reader against concluding someone uncivil for passionate protest or critique. As James Baldwin once said, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” This, too, I would argue, is a part of the democratic tradition.

JW: What makes America so special compared to nearly every other civilization in human history is how our fundamental freedoms push us to defend, sometimes to the death, the rights of our fellow Americans who we fundamentally disagree with. That’s special because it allows us to debate very important things in a free marketplace of ideas where we can persuade others and be persuadable. It requires a humility that can only come from realizing how fallen and sinful we are.

How can Christians, either from a lay perspective or from a church leadership platform, help improve the current environment we’re in?

BL: I would submit it boils down to three pathways. First, let’s be grateful for the time and nation God has placed us in (Acts 17:26), and be informed about all that is taking place around us, but realize our country is part of a broken creation. Second, we can participate in the political space and should do so with the aim of doing good so as to provide a preview of the coming Kingdom. And lastly, in all the ways that we engage, we should realize we’re operating alongside fellow image-bearers. So let’s celebrate our nation’s birth but realize the true freedom we enjoy comes from our relationship with Christ.

SH: I think that one of the best things Christians can work on is something that has already been stated: the untethering of one’s Christian identity from a particular political ideology. I’m not saying that Christians ought cease working their political thoughts through a biblical grid, nor am I arguing against the holding of political preferences or participation in political parties. However, Christians on both sides of the political spectrum must disabuse themselves of the fictive notion that any political platform perfectly maps onto the Christian ethical calling. Church leaders can either be especially helpful or harmful here as the binding of consciences ought only take place concerning those things of biblical warrant. That is to say, while we may have good debates and arguments about what the Scriptures require of us with regard to any given issue (and some are certainly clearer than others), we must yet guard against distorting the gospel of grace and dissolving into a legalism that serves nothing and ultimately saves no one.

JW: Politics creates policy, and policy affects people. If we love our neighbors who have inherent dignity, then we have to care about politics and policy. As Christians, we know that Jesus is in the business of redeeming all of creation, making all things new, and using us to do that. This includes redeeming our toxic political environment in which far too many people are demonizing others, focused on sowing discord in order to divide us against one another. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus never promised us that being peacemakers or being insulted or hungering and thirsting for righteousness would be easy. But that’s what we’re called to do. May the Lord be gracious to give us his power continuously so that we can participate with him in making all things new.

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