Wednesday, May 24, 2017

She's Got Questions; I've Got Answers

3 Questions, 3 Answers




Today I read over at the Aquila Report a reposting of a Blog by Persis Lorenti on "Civil Religion." She includes some quotes by George Marsden in Religion and American Culture in which Marsden describes the unique American intertwining of Christianity and country which produced American civil religion. She also includes a quote from her pastor which seems to reflect the 1950s more than the second half of the second decade of the twenty-first century: "Because I'm an American, I'm a Christian. And because I'm a Christian, I'm American." Ms. Lorenti believes that American civil religion (combining Christianity and patriotism resulting in regarding America as "God's chosen people") is on the rise. 

She goes on to ask three questions: 
So what do I do with dual citizenship in two very different kingdoms with goals that are poles apart? In which kingdom am I placing my hope and which takes priority? Do I approach people and issues as an American or a Christian first?
 Let's take them one by one:

1. So what do I do with dual citizenship in two very different kingdoms with goals that are poles apart?

  • You are a stranger and pilgrim in the world in general and America in particular (1 Peter 1:1, 2:11). You are a citizen of a heavenly colony, which is the church, that is ruled from heaven by our Savior-King Jesus the Christ for whose coming we wait (Philippians 3:20). When he comes he will bring into existence a new heavens and earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:11). 
  • You are also a citizen of the United States. That government, like the Roman government of which Paul and Peter wrote, is providentially instituted by God and serves his purposes of keeping order in society. You as a Christian have certain responsibilities toward the government that exists - such as to submit to it, honor it, pay taxes to it, and pray for it. (Romans 13:1-6, 1 Peter 2:13-17, 1 Timothy 2:1-4)
  • What do we as Christians want from government? Not very much: that the authorities may govern in such a manner as to allow us as Christians to "lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way" (1 Timothy 2:2). What the church wants is from the government to to be left alone to be itself and to carry out its mission in the world. 
  • The goals of the church and civil government are "poles apart," not because they are in necessary conflict with one another, but because they have different purposes.  The church exists to worship God, to carry on the ministry of Word and Sacraments, to evangelize the world and disciple the church's converts and members, who are pilgrims and strangers making their way through this earthly wilderness, where there are many dangers, toils, and snares, to a heavenly country and a city not made with human hands. The civil government exists to carry out the functions of civil government which are distinct from the church. The is no divine blueprint for government. There is no need for the church to instruct the government. There is no need for the church to protest unless the government encroaches upon the church's unique responsibilities or limits the freedom of the church to be itself.
  • In the United States it is rare that the two citizenships come into conflict. When does the civil government interfere with our carrying out our duties as citizens of the kingdom of God (members of the church)? When does carrying out our duties as citizens of the kingdom of God put us in conflict with the civil government? There may be many things, as we are free to do, we do not agree with, do not like, or may heartily disapprove. But that is different from there being a conflict between our dual citizenships. Conflicts would exist if a Roman Catholic doctor were required to carry out an execution by lethal injection or a pro-life Protestant physician were were required to perform an abortion, of if the civil government told the ministers of the church they may not preach the Gospel of Christ, or interfered with the church setting its own standards of membership. If the civil government requires of Christians to do what the Bible clearly forbids or forbids Christians to do what the Bible clearly commands, then there is a conflict between the citizenship of a Christian in the kingdom of God and his citizenship in the United States. 
  • As Christians living in a free country, where citizens may speak freely and vote as they see fit, we have every right to our our opinions as citizens. What we do not have Biblical warrant to do is to claim that we are declaring our faith or stating God's position on matters before the body politic. As a citizen I may be for open borders or for closed borders, for a laissez faire health care system or a single payer government system, for or against increased spending on national defense, for or against Donald Trump as President. What I may not do is claim that I am representing the will of God. I do not find my views about such things in the divine revelation. They are matters of wisdom, intuition, prudence, or even prejudice. But they are not issues of transcendent good and evil where we are faced with the obeying or disobeying the revealed will of God. 
2. In which kingdom am I placing my hope and which takes priority?


  • A Christian's whole hope of eternal salvation, his/her primary loyalty, first priority, and ultimate hope is always and only in the kingdom of God. We are citizens of a heavenly kingdom that is ruled by Jesus as the Savior-Messiah-King. 
  • But that does not mean that we do not have this worldly hopes and priorities in United States. If I have a disease, my ultimate hope and priority is the kingdom of God, but I will also put trust in my physicians and make availing myself of their treatments a very high priority. The same is true of me as a Christian when I am concerned about the defense of my country against its enemies, or the protection of my neighborhood against criminals, or the building and maintenance of roads and bridges, or the delivery of the mail, or the prevention of the spread of communicable diseases, or the assurance of a safe food supply, to name a few government functions. I will put my hope in the government for fulfilling those functions. I will make a priority of supporting the government in the fulfillment of those functions.
  • Again, it is seldom, if ever, that our hopes and priorities with regard to the heavenly and earthly kingdoms are in necessary conflict. That is because of the differences between the natures and responsibilities of the two kingdoms.
3. Do I approach people and issues as an American or a Christian first?
  • It depends. If you are looking at people in terms of their eternal salvation, then you approach them first, really only, as a Christian who knows that there is salvation only in the kingdom of God. But what if you are looking at them as persons who want to enter the country illegally, or as persons who want to commit crimes, or as persons who need health care or an education? Then you look at people first and really only from the perspective of being an American. What do you as an American citizen want for these people? Work for it. But don't turn it into an issue of the kingdom of God.
  • It is similar with issues. Is it an issue having to do with the doctrine, worship, practice, and government of the church? Then approach it as a citizen of the heavenly colony on earth. Is it an issue having to do with society or government? It very likely there is no divine mandate. So you approach the issue as a citizen of your country. Do you want the country to go back in the gold standard? Work for it. Do you want it not to engage in wars abroad? Work for it. Just don't try to tell other Christians they must think and act as you do because it is an issue of the Gospel or the kingdom of God. 















CIVIL RELIGION

There's always been a level of syncretism in this nation where Christianity and patriotism become so intertwined that America begins to don the mantle as God's chosen people. Maybe it's just me, but it seems to be on the rise again. Thus I found this quote from George Marsden very interesting:1
America's religious heritage also contributed to a sort of deification of the national enterprise. In recent years, this tendency, first seen during the American Revolution, has been tagged "civil religion." Civil religion is the attributing of sacred character to the nation itself. Throughout history rulers had claimed divine sanction either by saying they themselves were divine (as Roman emperors did) or that they were chosen by the God or gods of the nation...
But now America had a problem. How could they claim religious sanction for their nation? Thomas Paine, for instance, was a notorious infidel. After the Revolution he authored scathing attacks on Christianity. With leading citizens such as Paine or Jefferson, clearly the nation could not officially claim a Christian sanction.
Americans resolved this problem by three primary means, all aspects of civil religion. First, Deist leaders of the Jefferson sort argued that the natural laws on which American rights were founded demonstrably originated with the Creator... Hence, official references to "God" in American life, as "in God we trust," or "so help me God" could have this vague meaning.
Second, Americans civil and political leaders informally continued to speak of the nation as though it were a Christian nation, or at least a biblical nation. Both politicians and clergy continually referred to America as the new elect, and Americans as the chosen people, a covenanted people...
Finally, the United States was the first modern nation systematically to shift public veneration of the government from veneration of persons to veneration of the nation and its principles.

The following was an aside in one of Pastor Ryan's recent sermons. He was making a point of how Christianity has been watered down to praying a prayer or wearing a cultural marker, which is NOT THE GOSPEL. His statement also captured, in my opinion, the essence of civil religion:
Because I'm an American, I'm a Christian. And because I'm a Christian, I'm American.

So what do I do with dual citizenship in two very different kingdoms with goals that are poles apart? In which kingdom am I placing my hope and which takes priority? Do I approach people and issues as an American or a Christian first?

Again these questions aren't aimed at anyone. I am just using the Socratic method to encourage my own critical thinking.

1. Religion and American Culture, George M. Marsden, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc, 1990, pp. 42-44.

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