Is America the “city set on a hill”?

1You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. – Matthew 5:14-16

Yesterday evening, after the U.S. Capitol Building was secured following the violent assault by protesters, the legislators reconvened to complete the Electoral College certification process in connection with the recent presidential election.

I watched the proceedings for a short time and heard several legislators plead for national unity following the unprecedented turmoil. A few mentioned that the world was watching and that the United States must go forward as the “city set on a hill,” a beacon of democracy to the rest of the world.

Ever since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620, politically-minded colonists and Americans have misappropriated Bible passages for their temporal ends. Faith and politics have been conflated for so long that many/most can’t distinguish between the two.

In Matthew 5:14-16, Jesus Christ DID NOT have in mind the United States as the “city set on a hill.” It’s quite clear from the context that He was referring to His followers. Believers are the city set on a hill. The church, the body of believers scattered throughout the unbelieving world, is the city set on a hill. Our message is NOT political, it is rather the GOOD NEWS! of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. This Good News! of salvation in Christ Jesus knows no national boundaries or political affiliations.

“Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.’” – John 18:36

Addendum: Ronald Reagan famously referred to America as “The Shining City Upon a Hill” in his same-titled speech delivered in 1974 (see here) and in several speeches thereafter. But the notion didn’t originate with him. Preacher John Winthrop had claimed that designation for the Massachusetts Bay Colony 344 years earlier in 1630 (see here). The notion that America was in an anointed, covenant relationship with God has been preached from American pulpits ever since.

A strange sight

In the photo above, U.S. Capitol Police Officers aim their firearms at protesters attempting to break into the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.

I’m trying to cultivate a Biblical mindset of being a pilgrim and a sojourner in this temporal world rather than a deeply-rooted nationalist. That said, it was disturbing to see the assault on the U.S. Capitol Building by protesters today. I’ve been around for 64 years and have seen a lot of things, but nothing quite like what I saw today.

From a spiritual perspective, the vast majority of the protesters don’t know Jesus Christ as Savior and neither do their political rivals. This world system with ALL of its institutions is a foundation of sand. The world system offers no lasting security or stability.

24 Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” – Matthew 7:24-27

11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” – 1 Peter 2:11-12

“For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” – Hebrews 13:14

Politics and social morality trump the Gospel

I didn’t purposely schedule it this way, but on this post-election Wednesday, we’re going to review an excellent book that examines some of the regrettable aspects of evangelicalism’s dalliance with politics.

We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics
By Neil J. Young
Oxford University Press, 2015, 432 pages

Sixty-years ago, evangelicals generally had enough discernment to know that the Roman Catholic church propagated a false gospel of sacramental grace and merit. Today, a large number, or perhaps even the majority of evangelicals embrace the RCC as a Christian entity even though it has not changed any of its basic doctrines. What happened? What changed? In this extremely informative book, historian, Neil J. Young, examines how American evangelicals gradually became focused on cultural/political battles against rising secularism, with Roman Catholics as co-belligerents. The Gospel and doctrinal distinctives were gradually overshadowed by shared “Judeo-Christian values” and political expediency.

During the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the RCC radically changed its approach to Protestants, from militant confrontation to semi-rapprochement. Because of the language of some of the V2 documents, many evangelicals unwittingly assumed the RCC was shifting towards a more Biblically-centered approach, which was not the case.

The Roe vs. Wade SCOTUS decision (1973) galvanized conservative Catholics into political activism. Evangelicals would take longer. The possible passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in the late-1970s presented another crisis. Theologian, Francis Schaeffer, challenged evangelicals and fundamentalists to become politically involved, prompting independent fundamental Baptist pastor, Jerry Falwell, to found the ecumenical Moral Majority organization in 1979. Moral Majority and evangelicals played a significant role in electing Ronald Reagan in 1980, but the anticipated pro-morality legislation wasn’t forthcoming. Moral Majority fizzled out and was replaced by Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, founded in 1989, which didn’t produce much in the way of tangible, legislative results either.

Politically-minded evangelicals and Catholics, though co-belligerents in the culture battles, largely kept their distance from each other throughout the 70s and 80s because of doctrinal distinctives, but Chuck Colson’s “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” ecumenical initiative (1994), sought to turn co-belligerency into co-recognition and co-acceptance. Many evangelicals objected to ECT, but the spirit of ecumenism has continued to erode spiritual discernment and ecclesiastical separation over the past twenty-six years.

Everyone who desires to learn the history of evangelicals’ ecumenical accommodation to and compromise with Catholicism via political involvement would benefit from this book. Author Neil J. Young is not favorable towards evangelicals, but he tells the story with an acceptable measure of objectivity. One of the most maddening examples of evangelical politicos spinning their wheels was the misguided crusade to return compulsory prayer back to public schools during the Reagan administration. Argh! Young includes the LDS church as the third player in the religious-right, conservative-political triumvirate, but the Mormons generally operated on the periphery, with the exception of Mormon Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. Mormon Glenn Beck’s recent appearances at evangelical venues is further evidence of eroding discernment and of politics and nationalism taking precedence over the Gospel.

Excellent book. Very informative. Highly recommended. This short review does not do justice to the amount of historical detail that’s presented. Unbeliever Young has more discernment regarding the serious pitfalls of interfaith politics than many evangelicals do.

Government: A False Messiah

Why Government Can’t Save You: An Alternative to Political Activism
By John MacArthur
Word Publishing, 2000, 192 pages

5 Stars

Readers of this blog know one of my pet peeves is “Christian nationalism.” The Puritans came to this continent beginning in 1620 determined to set up a theocracy in which faith and government were inseparably intertwined. It’s hard to fault them because church-state symbiosis had been the model since Christianity was made the state religion of the Roman Empire in 380 AD. The Puritans set the stage for the very popular notion, preached from pulpits for 400 years, that Colonial America, followed by the American nation, were in a unique, covenant relationship with God akin to God’s covenant relationship with Israel recorded in the Old Testament. Bible passages meant strictly for ancient Israel were regularly misapplied to the United States. What resulted were abuses and attitudes that were contrary to the Gospel and Gospel outreach. It was taken for granted by most that America was a “Christian nation” regardless of the spiritual condition of individual souls.

Alarmed by the increasing secularization of the nation in the 1960s and 70s, evangelicals took up the battle cry to stem the tide. Baptist pastor, Jerry Falwell, vowed to “lead the nation back to the moral stance that made America great.” In the push to fight the culture battles and defend morality and “Judeo-Christian principles” via the political process, the church’s focus on the Gospel was relegated to the back burner. Falwell and others eagerly embraced conservative religious unbelievers as allies in the fight against advancing secularism, thus promoting religious ecumenism. The politically-liberal lost were increasingly perceived as “the enemy” rather than as a mission field. The idea of government becoming some kind of cultural savior took hold in the minds of many. Believers were tempted to support America’s “civil religion” in which the bond of national citizenry and shared belief in a nebulous “supreme being” took precedence over the exclusively genuine Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I recently heard about this book via some negative comments from a discernment ministry apologist who still strongly believes in the notion of America as a “Christian nation.” In “Why Government Can’t Save You,” Pastor John MacArthur responds to churches and individual evangelicals caught up in culture/morality battles. MacArthur reminds believers, with examples from the Old and New Testaments, that, yes, we should be model citizens, although our primary citizenship is in Heaven and that our focus should be on the Gospel and evangelization rather than on promoting nationalism and legislating morality.

Chapters include:

  • Introduction
  • Political Involvement: a Christian Perspective
  • Our Responsibility to Authority
  • The Biblical Purpose of Government
  • Our Tax Obligation
  • Jesus’ Lesson on Tax Exemptions
  • Supporting Our Leaders: How and Why
  • Daniel’s Uncompromising Civil Service
  • Paul’s Example Before Worldly Authorities
  • How to Live in a Pagan Culture
  • Appendix: Citizenship in Heaven: a Sermon by Charles Spurgeon (this excellent sermon can be found online here)
  • Study Guide

The book’s message of limited political engagement for believers runs counter to the historical and still very popular notion of America being a “Christian nation,” however, nineteen years after this book was published, with America becoming that much more secularized, there are more believers who are willing to concede that the Falwellian crusade to “reclaim America for Jesus” was wrong-headed and that the focus should now be on the Gospel and Gospel outreach.

Highly recommended. Order from Amazon here.

Book about civil religion absolutely fooled me!

American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present
By Philip Gorski
Princeton University Press, 2017, 320 pages

As readers of this blog are aware, I’m not a big fan of “Christian nationalism” or “civil religion.” By Christian nationalism, I’m referring to the popular belief among many evangelicals that America was founded as a Christian nation and is understood to be in a covenant relationship with God in ways that parallel God’s covenant relationship with ancient Israel, and that it is up to Christian Americans to protect and preserve America’s status as a Christian nation via politics. Jerry Falwell, Sr. may have been the most famous apostle of Christian nationalism and current purveyors include his son, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Robert Jeffress, and Franklin Graham.

As for civil religion, one source defines it as “the folk religion of a nation, often involving ritual expressions of patriotism. It is frequently given merit by leaders within a society, for example with the invocation of God in political speeches or religious references relating to patriotic holidays” (see here). In American civil religion, citizens are united under a nebulous, generic Supreme Being, with good citizenship and service to country being the highest ideals.

I recently stumbled across this book on our local library’s on-line catalog and thought it would be a nice, big, juicy critique of civil religion. Argh, was I ever wrong! Gorski cites the increasing polarization in this country between Christian nationalists and radical secularists and concludes the only desirable path forward is civil religion.

This book is chock full of acadamese and is dry as a bone. I’m thinking I deserve a gold medal from the library for sticking it out to the end. The only “saving grace” was that the notes, bibliography, and index consumed 90 of the 320 pages. In those rare moments when my eyes weren’t glazing over, I did pick up on the following:

  • Early American Protestant ministers preached a type of American covenantalism that was even more radical than I had previously understood. I did appreciate the portion of the book that analyzed how early Americans collectively saw themselves as God’s chosen people.
  • American covenantalism led to the notion of American exceptionalism and entitlement, which then led to all kinds of abuses.
  • The author erroneously paints all evangelical Christians as unreasonable religious nationalists in the mold of Falwell, Jeffress, etc.
  • For civil religion to succeed, the author argues that people mustn’t take their personal, private religion too seriously (i.e., sectarianism).
  • Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. are touted as exemplary civil religionists. The greatest goals of civil religion are a united and responsible citizenry and the pursuit of social justice.

I’m of a mind that both Christian nationalism and civil religion are incompatible with Biblical Christianity. Yes, God’s Word exhorts believers to be good citizens, but the reason for that is so that the Gospel may be unhindered, NOT that we may become neck-deep in nationalism. I understand that Christians have been debating precisely what good citizenship entails for two-thousand years, but it’s demonstrably easy to see that we’ve gotten it wrong over most of that span. I’m of the opinion that conservative evangelicalism took a wrong turn back in the 70s and 80s when it put the Gospel on the back burner and immersed itself in politics and culture wars. But I’m also very confident that the path forward for Christians is not Gorski’s impersonal civil religion.

Some good points and some bad points

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump
By John Fea
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018, 238 pages

As I’ve related several times in the past, I’m a bit of a square peg when it comes to evangelical churchianity. Two issues that I feel very strongly about are ecumenism and Christian nationalism. I’m strongly opposed to the ecumenical compromise and betrayal of the Gospel going on in the more liberal-leaning, “progressive” evangelical churches, but I agree with them on their criticism of Christian nationalism. On the other hand, I appreciate the strong stand by fundamentalist and (many) conservative evangelical churches against ecumenism, but their flag waving and focus on preserving America as a “Christian nation” are turn-offs.

The misguided notion of America being a “Christian nation” in some kind of covenantal relationship with God has been preached from pulpits since the Puritans and has led to all kinds of errors and misguided thinking. With the rise of secularism in the 1960s and 70s, Jerry Falwell and others rallied the church to enter into politics and “reclaim America for Jesus,” leading to a deemphasis of the Gospel and yoking with conservative religious unbelievers to fight the culture wars.

I rarely venture into politics in this blog, but a person would have to be living on an island not to notice how American evangelicals have strongly supported candidate and President Trump. I get why evangelicals voted for “the lesser of two evils” in 2016, but the often-unqualified support for the improbable Trump goes far beyond that (see Robert Jeffress, Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr.).

In this book, historian and progressive evangelical, John Fea, critically examines the history of the popular-but-false notion of America as a “Christian Nation,” the rise of Falwellism, and evangelicals’ unusual support for a man who is often at odds with their Biblical codes of godly morality and decorum. I agree with much of the information that’s presented in respect to the above issues. Christians needn’t (and shouldn’t) be driven by fear or by the nostalgia for a mythical past from which a “Let’s Make America Great Again” campaign draws its strength.

However, this book is not without its problems and they relate to my opening paragraph. Fea is an ecumenist who is eager to embrace as a believer everyone who names the name of Jesus, including Martin Luther King*, Hillary Clinton, and Roman Catholics. The consequence of such belief is a watered down, worthless gospel. It’s quite ironic that the thinking of both theologically liberal and politically-engaged conservative evangelicals results in a tendency toward ecumenism, but for different reasons.

I’m not trying to start a squabble. I understand that many conservative evangelicals still embrace the notion of America as a “Christian nation” and that it’s difficult for them to relinquish that viewpoint. After all, faith and nationalism have been combined by American pastors since 1776. From an even broader perspective, Christians have struggled since the first century to find the right balance between the spiritual and the temporal. Unfortunately much of the legacy we’ve inherited has been skewed far too far to the temporal. We believers are citizens of Heaven and ambassadors of our Lord as we sojourn on this Earth. Let’s “keep our bags packed” and forego putting down deep roots in a world that is passing away.

*Some may be taken aback by my comments about Martin Luther King not being a Christian. Wasn’t he a Baptist minister? MLK certainly deserves our respect for his efforts to advance the cause of civil rights, but he was a theological modernist and a propagator of the social gospel who did not believe the Bible and did not preach the Good News! of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. See my post about MLK here.