Democracy and the church, it should be an uneasier relationship than it is...


jesus and flag.jpg

The fact that so many churches exhibit national flags, not only out in front of the church building, but inside the altar or on the dais, leaves no doubt that the Fourth of July holiday is big church business in the United States. It is remarkable to me that so many Christians, on both sides of the political aisle, feel it necessary to honor the United States government and the American political project of democracy as Fidei Defensor.

There are a few questions that must be asked of congregations that defend such exhibitions as a legitimate honoring of liberty. The first is whether the nation state should be accepted as a de-facto protector of a faith community's ability to worship. One thought is that a government allows for the free practice of religion only so much as it accommodates the government's ability to function free from religious interference. My next thought is, as can be illustrated in the political maneuvering of Thomas Jefferson, is that tacit government support of free religious practice amongst the citizenry allows for the use of religious language and imagery to better communicate and legislate policy under the guise of a greater moral power. Jefferson was a person of faith, but he also possessed great political expertise. He kept religious friends and enemies close to him throughout his career. In other words, Government will manipulate the language of faith and religion to its own ends, without any concern for the nature of the outcome, and whether that outcome will reflect the will of God. This can only happen when the church views government as an extension of the right hand of God.

It is perhaps even more dangerous when politicians, and the nation state, do indeed view themselves as an extension of the divine will in a manner that goes beyond maintaining order. For in fact, the nation state has obligations and resources that the church of Christ not only cannot accommodate, but should reject in an outright manner. As such, the church may be an entity that may or may not thrive in democracy, but according to the gospel, the church's ability to thrive is never an indicator of its relationship to government or religious authorities – or even wealth. Persecution and minority status seem to be the preferred state of the biblical church when God does act in history to facilitate witness to the in-breaking realm.

I want to offer one example of how the church and nation state differ, and why democracy and the celebration of national exceptionalism denies God due witness.

The debates over immigration, and the issue concerning status of persons who have legal documentation and those who do not possess such documents, is of great concern to the citizenry. In fact, the government has a vested interest in maintaining borders, work-place ethics, economic stability, representative taxation, and proper enumeration of populations for purpose of delivering services etc. It is not the church's place to challenge the state in its performance of duties unless such performance violates the ethics of Christ. And it is here that the church must go beyond democracy and choosing political sides, for it is only the caring of the alien, the hungry, the naked, and the prisoner that are the commanded obligations of the church. These practices may come into direct conflict with the obligations of the nation state, who at some point must practice a utilitarian ethic as opposed to a peculiar ethic that indicates that no opportunity to reject some over others is faithful.

As such, a church may be called to provide food, water, and shelter to those persons who are claimed to be unwelcome by the government. The Christian must then accept the consequences for refusing to accommodate government mandates – prison or loss of property – because such sacrifice is the witness of Christ. When government is viewed with the idea that it is a benign benefactor of the church and therefore a credible contributor to the interpretation of the gospel, the church loses is own independence, an independence that is forged only through a commitment to a witness to Christ and not to democracy, as enticing as the power apparently afforded us by democracy might seem.

Again, government has an obligation, in a democracy, to represent the will of the people, and what is perceived by a majority, no matter how slim, to be in the best interests of the people. The church cannot fall victim to such a relationship. In fact, the church can only carry out the witness to Christ with an attitude that no other person is obligated to accept that witness, or to perform in any interest other than their own, for our obligations are peculiar to our faith. Government and secular obligations are to other mandates and governing texts. While God may have authority, or claim authority over governments and indeed, all of creation, God seems not to exercise power in any manner that does not include the sacrificing of privilege by those who submit to divine invitations to faithfulness. Such is the narrative of the cross.

My concern about flags, however, extends more fully to Christian participation in war, in which a flag in or outside of a church takes on an entirely greater meaning, that of violence as a Christian response to evil. It is during World War I when primarily immigrant Lutheran churches began flying the flag to show that, even as Lutheran immigrants, the members of the church were firmly Americans. While it is easy to see how Other American citizens may have had concerns about the relationship that German-Americans had to wartime Germany, one thing befuddles me. Why is it that churches and citizens perceived greater trust in the American flag, than in the church's own living witness to the gospel. Non-combatants love both neighbor and enemy. Apparently, our democracy required more than the gospel had to offer. Of course, now flying an American flag at a church is seen as a rather honorable accommodation, one that government deserves, and has somehow earned. I suppose the next question is how God can be used to underwrite the practice of waterboarding in defense of democracy. As Jefferson may or may not have anticipated, much of the Christian citizenry was, on board.

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