God shed His grace on thee
We all know that line, don’t we? From the hymn America the Beautiful, it has become embedded in the American psyche. Written as a poem in the late 1800s and originally titles Pikes Peak, it was set to music by 1910. By the way, the music was swiped from a hymn popular at the time, Oh Mother dear, Jerusalem, which for some reason seems not to have become an enduring classic. But the America version has lasted, hasn’t it? Various artists such as Elvis Presley, Keith Urban(?) and of course Ray Charles, have sung it.
As the Fourth of July approaches, we will hear America the Beautiful sung in countless churches around the country. And we will find the curious co-mingling of Christianity and patriotism preached and taught. Now before I go on, let me say I yield to nobody in my love for my country. Indeed, as one who has lived overseas for many years I can say without hesitation that there are few more patriotic people than American expatriates. When you live in a foreign culture, however much you like it, sometimes even the sudden and unexpected sight of an American flag can bring tears to your eyes.
I am however a bit unsettled by the faith/patriotism mix. At times it almost comes across as saying that America is a country that Jesus is particularly fond of. My core concern is this – in the faith/patriotism mix, which is the master and which the servant? When I hear people say that our Christian duty includes the need to support certain political agendas my warning signals go off.
We are surely told in Scripture to pray for our leaders and to lead quiet and peaceable lives. Christians, above any others, are to be good citizens. But when you look at the life of Jesus, and for that matter the apostles, you can see that they are largely indifferent to politics. They accept that they live in a political world, and one with many faults, but seem almost unconcerned about “issues” other than the advance of the Gospel. Where they comment at all it is largely in response to questions brought to them and the theme is clear, we are to be good citizens as we advance the cause of Christ. There is no evidence whatsoever that they considered a political agenda as fundamental to their cause.
This is no longer true in our America. More and more we see “good Christian” being defined as supportive of certain political ideas and even political parties. More distressing, we see political action being promoted as a way to advance our views, including the implication that as Christians we all ought to get on board.
Christians can and should have views on national defense, the wars going on, the environment, health care, the economy, etc. Good citizenship requires us to be informed and active. But I am leery of any agenda that claims to be the “Christian position” on such issues. These are thorny issues full of grey areas and uncertainty. I have no idea what the “Christian point of view” is on the massive Affordable Care Act for example. I am particularly concerned that, in the political wars, as Christians join one camp they close themselves to Gospel witness to the other.
As we approach the 4th of July, my plea is that we correctly read the words of America the Beautiful once more. The words “God shed His grace on thee” are not a pride-filled boast for what He has done but a plea, indeed a humble plea, that in this land blessed with so much beauty, its people will never forget their ever-present need for the grace of God. Katherine Lee Bates, the author, sees the material and physical blessings of our country as a cause of gratitude to God and a challenge to its citizens to seek in humility the grace to walk worthy of the blessings we have been given. And so should we.