Every patriotic holiday the usual religious scoffers berate the primitively patriotic booboisie for their mindless devotion to country, supposedly expressed on July 4 in between gulps of beer and chauvinistic perorations. Middle America, we are solemnly told, believes in America more than God, even while claiming to be Christian. The sneering critic, meanwhile, explains how he or she more thoughtfully honors the Almighty while decidedly shunning American nationalism.
Obviously God comes before country, just as He comes before family and friends and all other cherished relations. But these scoffing critics never issue their jeremiads on Mother’s Day against the many idolaters, almost certainly more numerous than the arch nationalists, who love their mothers more than God. Love of mothers, like love of country, in fact has a vital place in God’s order of creation. Believers in fact express their love of God through their love of and service to their relations, including family and country.
Absurdly, Christianity Today published yesterday Evangelical Left activist David Gushee’s 5 favorite books about patriotism. He includes, along with classic works by Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Shane Claiborne’s 2008 Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals, in which Claiborne calmly compares America to Nazi Germany and the biblical Whore of Babylon. Happy 4th of July indeed.
In his own July 4 blog, a United Methodist minister complained yesterday how “we would cram Jesus into a little U.S.A. flag box and make him our own, when the real Jesus came for everybody, everywhere, and his mission didn’t seem to be the spread of capitalism or the security of America or the heightening of a single country’s prestige, but to lift up the downtrodden, to be a light to the nations (including America!).” This minister must have had a really bad week, because he intoned: “Jesus is more appalled than I am at the mean-spirited, divisive, absurdly angry emails that fly around, those that spew venom and feed on fear and our darkest side.” And he angrily concluded: “I don’t think the New Testament has Jesus declare ‘I came that you might get mad, that American might be great, and so that people who aren’t doing so well might just try harder and get over it or go away.'”
Who are all these terrible Americans this minister says he encounters? Hopefully not at his church! The minister cites as his evidence of cramming Jesus into a “little U.S.A. flag box” a painting by Mormon artist Jon McNaughton called “One Nation Under God.” Fantastically and unashamedly over the top, it portrays a resurrected Jesus Christ extolling the U.S. Constitution, surrounded by a cavalcade of U.S. heroes, including Founding Fathers, Susan Anthony, Ronald Reagan, Harriet Tubman, Dwight Eisenhower, Frederick Douglas, astronaut Christa McAuliffe, Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy, Clara Barton, Dolly Madison, and U.S. service personnel from several wars. The U.S. Capitol is in the background, as is the U.S. Supreme Court.
Whatever the artist’s own theology, the painting’s larger theme illustrates how God has deployed America for some good. Christ, as the eternal Logos, obviously was present at America’s founding and, as Lord of the universe, presides yet over our nation and all nations. Certainly He has used our Constitution to foster liberty and justice. And He has providentially appointed diverse persons other than just well behaved theologically orthodox believers, including a Unitarian like Thomas Jefferson and a chronic adulterer like JFK, to accomplish His purposes. Latin American folk art showing Jesus in solidarity with the descamisados likely would not trouble critics of “One Nation Under God,” which is itself North American folk art. But celebrations of U.S. history and culture, including religion’s decisive role, uniquely trouble the sourpuss grinches who like to pour contempt on America’s patriotic celebrations.
A higher brow example of American civil religion in art is Italian artist Constantino Brumidi’s “Apotheosis of Washington” inside the U.S. Capitol dome, showing George Washington’s rapturous reception into Heaven. Today’s unimaginative critics might deride it as pagan deification. But 19th century Americans understood its metaphorical celebration of a great and providentially blessed man who helped found a providentially blessed nation.
St. Paul admonishes to “rejoice always.” There is much over which to rejoice this July 4. Americans should rejoice, and thank God for sustaining our country. Let the critics stay inside to grumble, and enjoy the fireworks!