I wrote this last year for the United States’ Independence Day. Still seems right… Though, for a slightly different take — one more amenable to a celebration of American independence by Christians — see the new Christianity Today interview with Os Guinness and Catholic philosopher Gary Gutting’s most recent post at The Stone. Both contend that patriotism can be moral, even virtuous.
I don’t know quite what to feel on the 4th of July.
On the one hand, I’m a sucker for Americana. We’re spending the holiday with my wife’s family, in a small farming town in Iowa. We’ll dress our kids in red, white, and blue, grab a seat on the curb of Main Street to watch the county parade (complete with fire engines, tractors, and—making me wish Norman Rockwell was still alive—students from the local Taekwando academy), eat brats and potato salad at the barbecue afterwards, and generally have a great time.
And I’m happy to celebrate an experiment in “liberty and justice for all” that could sustain virtues like courage and self-sacrifice among Americans like my grandfather, who served in the Navy during WWII, or my cousin, who was wounded in Iraq while serving as a Marine corpsman. An experiment that could inspire a man as wise as Abraham Lincoln to ever-greater heights of eloquence. So, in 2011 as in 1861, let us hope that our “mystic chords of memory” are once again touched by “the better angels of our nature.”
On the other hand, I’m enough of an American historian to know how often and how badly that experiment has gone awry.
And I’m not enough of a Pietist to dismiss all Christian creeds as tokens of “dead orthodoxy.” Which matters this day, when Americans re-pledge allegiance to a flag, republic, and nation, since the historic creeds of the faith remind Christians that they have a higher allegiance.
In The Creed, Catholic theologian Luke Timothy Johnson traces the origins of Christian creeds back to the Book of Deuteronomy, and the Jewish prayer known as the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (6:4-5). Johnson finds three features of the Shema particularly interesting:
First, it is a call for communal, and not simply individual, commitment. Second, in the context of surrounding polytheistic cultures, it is exclusive: The Lord… is both the “one” God and the only God toward whom Israel owes allegiance. Finally, it is a personal commitment: Israelites are to “love” the Lord God with their whole heart and whole soul and whole might. In other words, the Shema both defines the one to whom loyalty is given and defines Israel among all the nations by its unique loyalty to this deity. (p. 11)
He continues that “The Christian creed takes its origin in just this need to express a people’s experience and story, and to distinguish their specific allegiance in the context of competing claims. It is, like the Shema, a call for communal, personal, and exclusive commitment.” (11-12)
Not just allegiance (which might, per the word’s medieval origins, sound merely contractual, as between a lord and vassal), but commitment, which suggests something deeper to Diana Eck, the comparative religions scholar who directs The Pluralism Project at Harvard:
The Latin credo [from which we get the word “creed”] means literally “I give my heart.” The word believe is a problematic one today, in part because it has gradually changed its meaning from being the language of certainty so deep that I could give my heart to it, to the language of uncertainty so shallow that only the “credulous” would rely on it. Faith… is not about propositions, but about commitment. It does not mean that I intellectually subscribe to the following list of statements, but that I give my heart to this reality. Believe, indeed, comes to us from the Old English belove, making clear that this too is meant to be heart language. To say, “I believe in Jesus Christ” is not to subscribe to an uncertain proposition. It is a confession of commitment, of love.
“…not about propositions, but about commitment.” Here my Pietist self wants to scream out that reciting the creed can be about as affective as reciting a multiplication table. But I think Eck is right: the creed is a statement of deepest affection to the Triune person to whom I’ve given my heart. For all the times I make that pledge mechanically, wearily, or even resentfully, it is nonetheless heart-felt—a commitment that does not rise or fall with my mind’s (in)ability to fully comprehend what my mouth says. A commitment that one cannot possibly make to a flag, republic, or nation without risking idolatry.
All this (like so much else) makes me think of Augustine, who divided all humanity into two groups, or “cities,” citizenship in which was “formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.” (City of God, 14.28) Augustine would surely acknowledge right now that having a heart-felt commitment to the God of the Shema and the Creed leaves room for a lesser allegiance to earthly rulers (since one of his main goals in writing The City of God was to defend Christians against the neo-pagan charge that their religion prevented them from being loyal Roman citizens).
But it is a lesser allegiance. Augustine would no doubt reject the exceptionalism commonly expressed by American nationalists, since (a) the City of God is “of all nations,” and (b) it seeks earthly peace as a limited good that can be provided imperfectly by many different secular systems:
This heavenly city, then, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in the manners, laws, and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained, but recognizing that, however various these are, they all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace. (19.17)
And philosopher James K. A. Smith is hesitant even to pledge that lesser allegiance, since the act of pledging is itself liturgical, and thus shapes our desires and vision:
Consider the simple phenomenon of opening exercises in elementary school. Millions of young students begin each day with a ritual: the Pledge of Allegiance or the national anthem or perhaps both. Standing, in unison, as when a congregation together confesses the Apostles’ Creed, these students are united in a pledge of allegiance. For those familiar with the Creed, there is lilt and rhythm to the Pledge of Allegiance that has an analogous sacred feel about it…
While God is invoked, it is actually the flag and the republic to which one is pledging allegiance (that is, pledging devotion and loyalty)….
What are students doing when they recite this each day? Many will just be “going through the motions.” However, given that we are liturgical animals who are deeply shaped by practices, I’m suggesting that a lot can happen when one just goes through the motions. The routine begins to inscribe habits of the imagination within us; the repeated saying of allegiance works itself into an orienting allegiance…. I think there are good reasons to worry that the ideals of the republic are antithetical to some of the defining ideals of the people of God, called to imitate a suffering Savior, who was executed at the hands of military power. What’s implicit in the Creed, if we tease it out, is in significant tension with what’s implicit in the Pledge.
(Desiring the Kingdom, pp. 107-109)
Perhaps then, on the Sunday closest to 4th of July if not Independence Day itself, we non-creedal Christians ought to make a special point to make this pledge:
I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and was buried; he descended into Hades; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body;
and the life everlasting. Amen.