Strange Bedfellows

It may come as a surprise to some, but there is no book of the Bible called “The Declaration of Independence.” Jefferson’s spicy political manifesto (a personal favorite, despite its non-canonical status) lays down some bold axioms: all men are created equal, political authority derives from the consent of the governed, it is the duty of free men to depose tyrants. Great stuff – almost worth catechizing your children in it. Well, except for two wee problems: a) it actually isn’t the Word of God, and b) it isn’t even in obvious harmony with the Word of God.  Drumroll, please… here comes Romans 13:1-2 again, with all that business about rightful authority being divinely established from on high– not by social contract – and with all that talk of “ye must be subject etc etc” rather than armed and ready to give ol’ King George the bird. 

It’s simply not intellectually honest to pretend that our long, complicated Christian heritage and our shorter, complicated American heritage fit together hand-in-glove. The dynamic tension between them has indeed driven remarkable characters in our past to acts of noble sacrifice, and has bequeathed to us a unique legacy of civil liberty. But faith in God’s sovereign glory and allegiance to Old Glory are not ipso facto the same. In fact, they make rather strange bedfellows, both historically and ideologically.  As we prepare to celebrate our nation’s birthday this weekend, we would do well to remember these three uncomfortable truths:

  1. 18th century Enlightenment Deism is not equivalent to confessional Christianity. Our American Founding Fathers spoke of a creator, of divine providence, of God-given rights; however, even a luminary like Thomas Jefferson put a rationalist spin on such language. The famous editor’s edition “Jefferson Bible” enthusiastically promulgated the Gospel – minus all the squishy bits about miracles, resurrection, and the divinity of Christ.  In other words, the theoretical roots of liberal democracy go deep, but they do not quite reach the waters of Life, as the Church understands such realities. Caveat lector. 
  2. John Locke’s inversion of political principles turned the world on its head; bottom-up sovereignty – derived from the will of the people rather than divine mandate – was scandalous to many Christians of the day.  (You know: the ones that took Romans 13 seriously.) Rev. Myles Cooper’s delightfully polemic revolutionary-era poem “Patriots of North America” explicitly equated such topsy-turvy thinking with the rebellion of Satan and the fallen angels. Loyalists on American soil perceived the paradigm shift clearly, and worried about it on Scriptural grounds. If we modern Christians are not so concerned, we had better have more articulate reasons than mere reflexive sentiment. 
  3. The exact same radical ideology fueled the French Revolution, with its aggressive establishment of La Seculaire – the intentional banishing of God from the public sphere. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity were also the battle cries of atheist humanism; this alone suggests their neutrality or indifference to the great Gospel truths. Lafayette, consciously looking to the American founding documents as a model, invoked the “General Will” as the source of absolute political authority in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. Fast forwarding past the Reign of Terror, the history of the twentieth century tells us all we need to know about the danger of elevating Mankind – embodied in the state or at least its elite ruling party – to the status of godhead, source of all legitimate authority. The totalitarian outcome of regimes founded on the implacable Will of Man is testament enough. By their fruits you shall know them; our ambiguous Enlightenment parentage has undeniably provided us with some ugly half-siblings. 

This is not to advocate apathy or contempt for our embattled American polity. Denizens of the City of God are also citizens of their worldly nation, advocates for their neighbors’ life and liberty. If we, in this life, choose to stand behind the political ideals of America’s founders, then let us be sure to do so in the spirit of Patrick Henry, that great orator and lover of liberty who once roared, “Where is the King of America? He reigns on high!”  For Henry, abolishing the ‘divine right’ of any earthly authority and replacing it with ‘consent of the governed’ simply made more room for God’s direct rulership in the human heart, sans any interfering earthly mediators. It did not elevate Mankind to the status of god; it brought God’s throne down into every man. So, as we prepare to fly the stars and stripes and prime our stockpile of illegal fireworks, let us render honor where it is due and without unnecessary confusion. By all means: God bless America! But also and far more importantly: long live our true King, unto ages of ages, Amen!