Today’s topic is God and Country. This week, marking the 231st anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, I thought would be a good time to address the issue of patriotism. I hope that our listeners in other parts of the world will bear with me this week as I talk specifically about Orthodoxy in the United States. Still, I believe that some of my comments will resonate with folks living outside of the U.S. I want to suggest that there are three fundamental attitudes that an Orthodox Christian should have toward his or her country – gratitude, honest self-awareness, and vigilance.
Let’s begin with gratitude. When we think about the horrible persecution of Christians that took place in the Soviet Union and which still take place in other parts of the world; when we consider that most of the world’s population lives under repressive regimes, any American Christian worth the name could not fail to give thanks to God for the opportunity to live here in the United States.
Indeed, how many of our Orthodox brethren in this country came here because of persecution in other parts of the world? Here we have the freedom to build our temples, proclaim our faith openly, baptize converts, establish schools, undertake charitable work, and in short live out our lives in quiet piety and faithfulness to the Gospel. Surely, we must be grateful to God for these blessings.
At the same time however, having an attitude of gratitude does not mean that we should romanticize our country or its history. Last night, at a cookout, a lady told me that our country was founded on Christianity. Well, it is true that many of our Founding Fathers were devout Christians. Although from our point of view, they were all heretics. But many were non-Christians. Jefferson, for example, was a Deist.
Certainly the Founding Fathers were influenced by the Bible and Protestant Christianity. But they were also influenced by the English Common Law tradition and Enlightenment Rationalism. My point is this: we can be grateful for and proud of our country without pretending that it is something that it is not, namely a Christian nation.
For that reason, the second attitude that we, as Orthodox Christians of the United States, must adopt is one of honest, critical self-awareness, keeping in mind the Biblical admonition that here we have no abiding city. We must remember that all human governments, however good, fall short of the Kingdom of God. This is why we must, at all times, maintain the ability to see our country and ourselves as we really are.
My country, right or wrong, is not an Orthodox attitude. I’m old enough to remember when All in the Family originally aired on network TV. Watching the show was a family ritual in our house, in part I think because my father a successful, small business man from the South, so different from Archie Bunker and son in so many ways, actually identified with Archie. Now that I think about it, that’s a little creepy.
Well anyway, you’ll remember that Archie was always calling Meathead a commie and a pinko. However, Meathead would reply that it is because he loves this country and wants it to be better that he protests against things that are wrong. And you know, Meathead was right. True patriotism is not blind allegiance. It is the courage to stand up and say, “These things do not become a great nation.”
As Orthodox Christians, we are taught to be critical of ourselves, to never think too highly of ourselves, to recognize and to confess our faults, so that we may be conformed to the image of Christ. Should we not have that same attitude toward our collective life as citizens? True patriotism, that is a genuine love for our country, means honest and critical self-evaluation.
Certainly, abortion is our national shame, just as slavery was in the 19th Century. But what about the doctrine or preemptive war or state sanctioned torture or the designated hitter rule? As Orthodox Christians, we have a duty to speak out when the government, in our name, acts immorally.
This leads me to the third attitude, which is vigilance. The political liberties that we enjoy in this country came at a great price. My family in this country, on both sides, goes back to the 1700s. My ancestors risked life and limb, hearth and home to create this nation. For many of you listening, your ancestors risked all manners of peril just to get to these shores. Freedom is not and never has been free.
The sad truth is however that most people really don’t want to be free, because with freedom comes great responsibility. History is littered with republics that morphed into dictatorships, all because the people were willing to give up their liberty for the sake of security and bread. As countries go, our nation is still a youngster. And if you believe that such a thing could never happen here, then you are naïve.
The time is coming, and it may be sooner rather than later, when hate crime laws will morph into hate speech laws, and ministers will be yanked out of their pulpits for preaching that homosexual activity is a sin. And lest we be too quick to blame Democrats for such things, consider that the current Republican administration has enacted laws that could easily be used to oppress and silence Orthodox Christians in this country. This is why we must remain ever vigilant to protect those liberties for which our ancestors gave so much.
I’m not much into end of the world speculation. I think that growing up as a Baptist in the ‘70s, at the height of all the Hal Lindsey Late, Great Planet Earth hype, it inoculated me against all of that. So I’ll admit that I don’t pay too much attention to such things when I encounter them in Orthodox literature. However, there is one thing that the Scriptures make very clear. The closer we get to the Second Coming, the worse things are going to get for Christians. Once again, vigilance is the watch word.
As we reflect on the last two centuries of American history, and as the 2008 election cycle heats up, I want to encourage you to do two things. First of all, read the Constitution. It is available online, and it isn’t very long. You need to clearly understand what the Founding Fathers intended when they established this country as a Constitutional Republic. I think you may be surprised at the very limited powers the constitution gives to the Federal Government.
Second, take the time to find out where the candidates stand on the issues. Going by party affiliation is not good enough. Both parties have so many different wings that the terms Democrat and Republican are almost meaningless these days.
We tend to think of voting as a right, but I think that is the wrong attitude for us Orthodox Christians to take. Voting is a privilege, and like all privileges, it entails great responsibility. Only by being informed about the issues and the candidates can we vote in accordance with our conscience and live up to that great responsibility. And in so doing, we will prove ourselves worthy of the privilege and thus give rightful thanks to God.
And now may our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, whose Kingdom shall have no end, through the intercessions of St. Innocent of Alaska and of the Blessed Elder Sophronius Sakharov, have mercy upon us all and grant us a rich entrance into His eternal kingdom.