Nothing is more American than fireworks, I thought as I should have been oohing and ahhing over the latest ka-boom. Loud, obnoxious explosions of shiny glitter that fade into nothing.
As weeping willows of crackling gold shimmered down from the sky, I flashed back to sophomore English class, remembering Jay Gatsby’s parties and the references to yellow and gold that subtly gild the pages. No wonder The Great Gatsby is the novel that best captures the American Dream. It shows it for what it is: empty, exhausting, and full of regrets.
Then the finale song, “God Bless America” came on. And I knew most of the people around me, perfumed with sunscreen and bugspray, didn’t believe in God. They believed in our right to congregate in a park, eat too much junk food, and watch things explode for free.
Needless to say, I do not always do patriotism well. This morning, I asked myself why, which led me to wonder: What should Christians think about patriotism and our faith?
It’s a little complicated, and I haven’t figured it out, but I have a few thoughts.
In a breakdown of passages often marched out on patriotic holidays, I do not believe these can be fairly applied to America:
“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage!”—Psalm 33:12
“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”—2 Chronicles 7:14
But I do think this one does:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”—Jeremiah 29:4-7
What’s the difference? In the first two, God is speaking to Israel, a people who affirmed that they would obey each and every law Moses put in front of them (or risk a long list of curses for disobedience). Until they got a severe case of conformity, God was their only king. Most of all, God’s plan for announcing salvation to the world was through this particular set-apart people.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the closest parallel to this is…the church. Not America.
Guys, America is not a Christian nation. We’ve had a number of Christian leaders, and Christian values contributed greatly to the underlying fabric of our laws and cultural assumptions, and I don’t want to downplay the significance of that.
But we have to be careful not to pin our hopes on God preserving our vision of a great nation. We have to be careful not to equate the Christian faith with democracy or capitalism. We have to be careful not to believe our leaders, Founding Fathers or current office runners, can take the fallenness out of a fallen world and restore everything to its original perfection.
God doesn’t need America to tell the world about Jesus. He needs the church. And even then, the world won’t be fully made right until Jesus comes again.
That said, the reason I bring up that last set of verses in Jeremiah is because it is actually a really great parallel with America. Obviously, the original city in mind wasn’t New York or Washington D.C., but the capital of Babylon.
So, God was telling his faithful people to pray for the peace and prosperity of a corrupt, pagan city. To pray for leaders who were okay with folding God into their prayers along with a roll call of idols. To pray as exiles in a place that felt more and more like it was not their home.
Does that sound familiar?
Thinking about that passage was actually pretty convicting for me. I realized I need to be careful too, though not in the same way as some of my ultra-patriotic fellow Christians.
I need to be careful not to assume our leaders are beyond the ability to be changed by God. I need to be careful to avoid cynicism toward America just because cynicism happens to be cool in my generation. I need to be careful to pray boldly for this nation of mine, broken and beautiful just like the rest of creation.
To answer the question in the title, then, yes, we should pray for God to bless America. Turns out God commands it. We also need to have a solid understanding of what it looks like to do so as exiles, not as contented burger-flipping citizens of some red-white-and-blue utopia that doesn’t exist and never did.
Our citizenship is ultimately in heaven, and that’s where our allegiance lies. That’s where we put our hope. And yet…we’re not home, but we’re here, and that matters. Let’s not forget to pray for our land in exile.