The celebration of the Fourth of July marks the founding of the United States and brings with it the year’s most vital displays of American patriotism. Usually, the various elements of the political spectrum put down their proverbial weapons for this particular occasion to join together in commemorating the American founding, even while they may still conscript the day for their own respective interests.
Christians of different political viewpoints are no exception to this. Indeed, a frequent refrain voiced along with such displays of patriotic sentiment is the contention that the U.S. is a Christian nation, founded on Judeo-Christian values. The extent to which the current situation in America embodies a decline relative to those values, of course, depends on one’s ideological persuasion. Even so, paeans to the American founding abound with such rhetoric. Regardless, the nature of America itself is bound up with the religious views of its people, both now and back then.
Such a situation raises the pressing question of how Christian faith relates to political life. Christians are, of course, commanded by the Lord Jesus to “render to Caesar” the things that belong to him (Matt. 22:21; Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25). This is usually taken as a directive to respect governing authority, pay taxes, and otherwise act obediently as far as civil society is concerned. Christians are also commanded to “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (1 Peter 2:13) and thus “Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17). St. Paul teaches rather unequivocally that “there is no authority except from God,” and therefore that the governing authorities themselves “have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1). We are also to offer our prayers for “kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim. 2:2).
Shows of patriotism and national pride are perfectly permissible for the Christian and may be celebrated freely.
So there is ample evidence in Scripture for the divine authority that underwrites and authorizes the various civil agents which govern society and promote the good order of human life in commerce and community. The witness of the Lutheran Reformation also upholds the Bible’s teaching that God Himself institutes earthly, civil authorities. The Augsburg Confession teaches that such civil authorities have been installed by God for the right ordering of human society and that it is within the Christian’s freedom to fully participate in such civic life (AC XVI 1–4).
So while Christians are free to participate in the public realm of commerce, government, and discourse, it must be emphasized––particularly in America and during this time of the year––that this freedom does not entail a confusion between the various authorities that God has established. However indebted to biblical faith the American tradition of liberal democracy is––enshrined in its Constitution and witnessed to in the Declaration of Independence––that debt does not authorize a conflation of civil and spiritual authorities. Shows of patriotism and national pride are perfectly permissible for the Christian and may be celebrated freely. However, we must recognize the strong temptation to confuse the two kingdoms (civil and spiritual, earthly, and heavenly) for what it is.
Only the ministry of the Gospel can forgive sins, even while civil government rightly carries out retribution for lawlessness and disobedience.
At the heart of the question of politics and faith is the distinction between Law and Gospel. God has indeed given the Law, just as He has given the earthly authorities which enforce it in our civil, political, and public life. But this Law is not how God will save and redeem. The Gospel, which knows no political boundaries, is the means by which the Holy Spirit will elicit faith in the hearts of humans from every time and place. The office of the ministry, as well, must be distinct from the other offices of civil government. Set apart by God so that the forgiveness of sins might be preached without measure and without reservation, the Church’s ministry is of a different kind than the earthly authorities God has created. Both such authorities are of divine institution, but only the ministry of the Gospel can forgive sins, even while civil government rightly carries out retribution for lawlessness and disobedience. So that we might obtain saving faith in Christ Jesus, God has benevolently given us the ministry of Word and Sacrament (AC V 1–4). In this way, Christians will be comforted by the forgiveness and mercy that God dispenses apart from the Law itself.
Yet the Gospel message is to be preached to all the nations of the world. The great multitude that will surround the throne of the lamb in heaven will include countless people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9). Through the washing of Holy Baptism, this intercultural gathering will transcend and negate the particular political and ethnic differentiations which obtain for now in this old world. The forgiveness of sins Christ bestows knows none of these boundaries, for faith justifies apart from works––including the highest and most patriotic sentiments people will voice. The Judeo-Christian values on which the United States was founded remain the values of the Law, especially the Ten Commandments shared by both Christians and Jews. But obedience to these commands, even by nations and governments, will not justify and will not curry favor with God. Only the righteousness of His Son, which He bestows without respect to works or identity, will be the favor that God requires.
As Christians, marked with the cross of Christ and stamped by the Holy Trinity in Baptism, our identity is outside of politics itself, since our identity is outside the Law as well.
And so the Reformation’s evangelical teaching on the two kingdoms is comfort as well. It is comforting to know that our heavenly Father provides for our every earthly need, giving daily bread as our bodies and lives require it. We are to give thanks to God for the specific, earthly mechanisms through which He provides for these needs, as Luther writes in his explanation of the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism.
It is also comforting to know that the abuse of earthly authority can never get between us and God’s grace, either. Like the apostles, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) when civil authority is misused to contradict God’s will and suppress faith in Christ. Indeed, as Christ Himself warns, the Gospel will offend its hearers, and so His disciples must be ready to undergo persecution for their faith, especially from those with civil authority (Matt. 10:18; Mark 13:9; Luke 21:12). With the psalmist, we may be comforted that though the nations rage, and kings plot against the LORD Himself, that it is God who “sits in the heavens and laughs” at such sedition (Ps. 2:4). It is a comfort to the believer that all who take refuge in the LORD will be blessed (Ps. 2:12).
So Christians may freely celebrate the Fourth of July. They may give thanks to God for the nation in which they live, the freedoms they enjoy, and the heritage they possess. Christians may do so wherever they might live. Displays of national pride are permissible to those who partake in public life.
But it is also a comfort to know, perhaps especially in a time so marked by rancor and political division like our own, that the symbols and situation of our shared politics are not the places we find our identity. As Christians, marked with the cross of Christ and stamped by the Holy Trinity in Baptism, our identity is outside of politics itself, since our identity is outside the Law as well. This freedom and comfort authorize our full participation in everyday political life, for it reveals that our identity in Christ is bestowed and given apart from and beyond that political economy altogether.