The 350-year marriage of Protestant Christian theology and American popular culture is over. Christianity, it may be sadly said, is no longer the preeminent social influence in American life. We Christians who dared to presume that America was ever all and only ours are, apart from some God-ordained awakening, unlikely to “get our country back.” We will live and work henceforth, as do most other Christians around the world, amidst a public square hostile to our beliefs.
Christian citizens of the United States of America nevertheless still have great reasons this day to lift thanksgiving to God for the blessings of liberty and to celebrate heartily the 239th anniversary of the nation’s declaration of its God-given rights and independence from tyranny.
In Gold We Trust Too
The mobilization of so-called “values voters” in U.S. elections since 1980 spawned a whole genre of “City on a Hill” histories portraying the American founding as the creation of a Christian nation, by Christians, for Christians. The influence of Christian theology, and more specifically Protestant Reformed theology, on the founding generation is inarguable, and the favor that God has shown this society thusly influenced seems historically evident. Yet, such favor hasn’t flowed to America as a Christian nation; rather, because it has been and remains a nation occupied by so many Christians.
The American Revolution was less about the formation of a Christian society, and more about a God-ordained convergence of Enlightenment thinking and Great Awakening passions, a history well-supported in Marvin Olasky’s Fighting for Liberty and Virtue: Political and Cultural Wars in Eighteenth Century America. This American garment was woven from the two different threads that Joseph Galloway referred to as “Presbyterians and Smugglers,” some in search of God, others in search of gold.
America has never been a single thread, but rather a cord of both worldliness and holiness. These strands were woven so tightly for so long that it became difficult, certainly for Christians, to see them as twain, but twain they have always been, and twain they are now parted.
The Twain Cities
Is the life of the American Christian now to be one of little more than nostalgic waxing, pharisaic finger-pointing, lamentation, and separatism? Never let it be so! Such would neither be American nor Christian. What is America without the engagement of its free citizens? How can a Christian be salt and light in a social ghetto or separatist’s undercroft?
No, we are, as Augustine wrote, citizens of two cities: the city of God and the city of man. For most of American history, at least culturally, we have resided in a duplex with a common street address. Now, we’ll be obligated to keep two quarters in different neighborhoods. But keep them we must.
“The Liberty Bell, though cracked, still rings.”
At our American residence, we’ll remain “citizens,” a revolutionary moniker that declares our liberation from the yoke of human tyranny. This honorable name, “citizen,” distinguishes us from those who are “subjects” of earthly despots. The price of such liberty is, as Jefferson wrote, eternal vigilance.
At our Christian residence, our eternal address, we will be slaves, glad bondservants to the sublimely beneficent king of all kings. Until this king summons us to his throne, we Christians serve as both his subjects and, by his grace, as free citizens of the United States of America.
Six Legacies of the Reformation
Writing in The Genevan Reformation and the American Founding, David W. Hall identifies six legacies from the Protestant Reformation — interlocking themes that are deeply embedded in the idea of American citizenship. While these six legacies of Calvinism may no longer be quite so widely embraced by the popular culture, they remain on this 239th Independence Day, thank God, still championed and treasured by tens of millions of American citizens, not all of whom are Christians or even know that the liberties they treasure have roots in the Protestant Reformation, arguably the greatest human rights movement in all of human history. These ideas are now known throughout the world as American ideas:
A limited charter for the state (and conversely, opposition to totalitarianism)
Checks and balances (and divided powers) addressed to the reality of human depravity
A belief that all governments are judged by transcendent moral norms
A persistent opposition to secular authority as the primary basis for political structure
An abiding emphasis on the family as the essential building block of successful government
A view of the law as necessary and not subjective
The Liberty Bell, enshrined outside of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, though cracked, still rings. The descendants of Mayflower pilgrims and aspiring citizens alike share a heartfelt desire to honor its Old Testament exhortation to “proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants” (Leviticus 25:10).
No, we Christians do not bid thee, “Farewell, Liberty Bell.” We bid thee, “Fare well.” Fare well as you have through bloody wars. Fare well as you have through many economic cataclysms. Fare well as you have through periods of civil unrest, racial disharmony, and changing social mores.
We thank God, the author of our American liberty and source of the unalienable rights that our founding document declares and which our unique-in-all-the-world system of human government still mostly seeks to preserve.
Let freedom ring! Fare well, Liberty Bell. By God’s grace, fare well.