On the Eve of an Election
We’re on the edge of an election. I’m guessing you’ve noticed. As tempted as I am to make a case for my favorite candidates or issues, I won’t. But I do want to think about the nation for a moment. I begin with the quote from Jon Winthrop in 1630, at the beginning of the Puritan adventure in the Americas. It’s from his “city on a hill” sermon:
…Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. …
We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “may the Lord make it like that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. …
I think it’s there, the tension that runs through the consciences of American Protestants — at least those who identify with the story of America that starts with the Puritans and Pilgrims. It’s the tension at the heart of what some call “civil religion.”
I think the tension puts three ideas into conversation. First is the idea that God has chosen America like God chose Israel, to embody God’s desires for human flourishing and so to teach the world what God wants for everyone. Second is the idea that the mission we have has two addresses — in the nation itself and in the church, as God’s conscience for the nation. And third, that America fulfills its mission in two ways, one being the promotion of the common good and shared welfare and the other the protection of individual conscience (or liberty).
That’s a lot to think about, don’t you think?
And the ideas go back to 1630. This is a different place and we’re a different people than that small group of united believers stepping foot onto a new land to create a slice of heaven together.
So some questions:
Is the United States God’s “new Israel,” or is it one nation among other nations (even if powerful and wealthy)?
In light of ways the nation has both included and excluded people over the centuries, who is this “we” we speak of? And for people of faith, where lies our primary connection — to God’s borderless church or to our bordered country?
How do we tell our story well, both the triumphs and glories and the more challenging and painful episodes?
What hope do we give the nations? What commonwealth do we enjoy? What unity of purpose do we share? What freedoms are we called to preserve and what rights shall we give up for the sake of greater good?
What role should Christian faith play in politics when not all share the same faith — or faith at all?
Has America fulfilled a mission, or betrayed it?
I think of these questions not only because of the election, but after hearing word this past week of the death of one time Senator and Presidential candidate George McGovern. Whether agreeing with his politics or not, everyone who knew him seemed to agree that this was an honest, faithful, earnest man of conviction — committed to making things better, as best he knew how. After he lost the Senate in 1980 I had the delightful opportunity to study with him at his alma mater.
McGovern held graduate degrees in both theology and history. He taught on the history of American foreign policy and how it reflected American identity. It’s an insight from those lectures that I want to leave here.
With impressive scope and examples, the Senator described a simple and constant reality: America has never been just one thing. It’s always been a negotiation of competing desires and conflicting visions. It’s possessed a streak of unbridled greed and desire for power that no honest view of history can deny, and its history is spotted with less than admirable moments and less than admirable people. And yet is it also the possessor and protector of beautifully faithful visions of compassion, peace, freedom, and shared destiny — and its nurtured people who’ve embodied those values and who have created wonderful things from them.
It’s never just one impulse or the other. It is, we are, always a bit of both.
Perhaps we’ll think more clearly as Americans and as people of faith when we can see both sides, seek mercy as much as victory, desire prudence over passion, and make a way together.