On the occasion of the Fourth of July, when Americans everywhere celebrate the foundation of our nation, it's important for we as Christians to reflect on what a nation is, what a nation can be, what roles a nation can play in the plans of Almighty God. As Peter Leithart writes, “Empires may be towers and cities raised in rebellion against God, rods that crush, or sanctuaries and saviors for the faithful.” I'd like to suggest that, between the Bible and Christian history, we're given six general models – not even counting Israel – for what a nation or empire can be like. Now, throughout the writings of the biblical prophets, the great Gentile empires are always compared to wild animals, sometimes monsters. For instance, Daniel prophetically sees Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome as “four great beasts” who rose up “out of the sea,” the Gentile world (Daniel 7:3). But in his vision, all of them are finally trumped by “one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven” to receive an everlasting rule from the hands of God the Father so that “all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Daniel 7:13-14). This human figure represents Jesus as the Messiah, standing for all of faithful Israel, the real humanity following Adam's vocation to exercise righteous dominion over the beasts of the earth – including the nations. And kings and nations are judged by how they treat the true humanity, the offspring of faithful Abraham: “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).
So the first model, at one extreme, is that of a vicious beast. That's the sort of portrayal we get in Revelation: a beast “allowed to make war against the saints and conquer them” (Revelation 13:7). A nation who's a vicious beast is an active persecutor of God's people, using violence and bloodshed against them. In at least that respect, and probably more, a Beast-Nation does not respect human rights or liberties. If God's people live within the borders of a Beast-Nation, we will personally know martyrs who died for the faith we share. Look at Christian villagers in the regions ISIS has captured. And it was Babylon being beastly that “burned the house of God, broke down the wall of Jerusalem, burned all its palaces with fire, and destroyed all its precious vessels” (2 Chronicles 36:19), killing even in the sanctuary with “no compassion” (2 Chronicles 36:17). But never lose hope: the Last Adam is a beast-tamer extraordinaire.
I think a second model can be found in Genesis 10-11, the story of Nimrod's city-building leading up to the Tower of Babel. In that story, all the people of the land were united in one common project, a city and a tower, having one common confession of faith or unfaith – and it was not faith in God's promises. A Babel-Nation may not use violence against God's people, but even if it doesn't, it suppresses any dissent from the core ideas by which it operates. Many Muslim-majority nations would be Babel-Nations – God's people are on the social fringes, and if there isn't outright physical violence against us, still we're marginalized from having much of a public Christian presence because it doesn't fit with the totalizing consensus of society that brooks no rivals.
A third model is shown in Babylon under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar, or Persia under the rule of Xerxes. These nations are very conflicted as to how they want to treat God's people. Sometimes, truly vocal believers – people who are genuine disciples, committed to being disciples in every area of their lives, including public life – can rise to high positions and wield some influence. Think of Daniel as one of Nebuchadnezzar's lead advisors (Daniel 2:48-49). Think of Esther as the unwitting queen of Xerxes “for just such a time as this” (Esther 4:14), and Mordecai later raised to second-in-command (Esther 10:3). But serious believers are still the exception among the elite power-brokers and culture-makers, and even the lives of a Daniel or an Esther are fraught with danger. Because that kind of rule can take an abrupt turn toward Babel or even beastly traits. Nebuchadnezzar went from honoring Daniel and his three friends to ordering Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to be thrown into a furnace for not worshipping his idol (Daniel 3:8-23). Xerxes was all too ready to listen to Haman's Hitler-esque schemes (Esther 3:6-11).
A fourth model, I think, is suggested by Persia under the rule of Xerxes' grandfather Cyrus the Great. Now this is finally a different sort of kingdom! As Cyrus was committed to practicing it, the Persian style of rule was based on a healthy kind of pluralism. When he conquered Babylon, even the Babylonians celebrated him as a liberator. Cyrus intentionally showed respect to every kind of people who lived under his rule, restoring temples and sanctuaries all through his domain; and even though Isaiah made clear in advance that Cyrus was a pagan rather than a believer, still he's presented as a “messiah,” chosen by God to be a protector of his people (Isaiah 45:1-5), allowing them to return to their land and supporting them in their good endeavors (Ezra 1:3-5). A Daniel can survive a Nebuchadnezzar, but Daniel “prospered during … the reign of Cyrus” (Daniel 6:28). The American pastor John Murray, in a sermon given in November 1779, observed:
Sometimes the great Deliverer chooses a pebble from their own brook to prostrate their most gigantic oppressors, and sometimes he moves the heart of an alien to restore them the liberty which their own kings overthrew. Thus Cyrus a pagan prince, unconnected by nation, and by religion an enemy, monarch of the empire that had persecuted their fathers, that had razed their cities, abolished their ordinances and levelled their temple to the ground. – Cyrus, stirred up by the Lord alone, unsolicited by men, and incapable of detriment from any plot of his prisoners, proclaims the remains of oppressed Israel, free and independent in their greatest privileges, those of the religion of the God of their fathers, he rouses every dormant principle of patriotism among them to exert itself on the occasion for the re-establishment of their invaluable liberties, and freely furnishes the undertakers of the work with treasures and all things necessary for the full accomplishment of the purpose.
For the last two models, we have to jump out of the Bible and into the first centuries of the church. After living through some rather beastly emperors, the church was thrilled and relieved when Constantine came to power and became the first Roman ruler to bow the knee to Jesus. Constantine was far, far from perfect, but he made it legal to be a Christian, and because he was personally also a believer, he showered the church with newfound privileges, and some Christian values did impact the laws he made. He didn't initially ban or outright persecute those who weren't part of the church, though he valued religious unity, so he meddled at times in the church's affairs to make sure of it. And by the end of his rule, he was giving orders to tear down pagan temples. Think of him as veering toward a role-reversed Babel style, where it's professing Christians who seek to exclude and marginalize others from acting according to their convictions.
And finally, several decades after Constantine ruled, the emperor Theodosius came to power. Where Constantine just made the church tolerated and then privileged, Theodosius made orthodox Christianity the only legal religion. Visiting the surviving pagan temples became a criminal offense, so did pagan sacrifices, pagan holidays became mandatory workdays, and he refused to give legal protection to pagans or their shrines from mob attacks. If Constantine was working toward a role-reversed Babel, Theodosius waded toward the waters of a role-reversed Beast.
So what was America founded to be? The colonists often took the imagery of Israel and applied it to themselves. They were the new Hebrews, fleeing a new Pharaoh. They were a nation of Davids, pitted against the Goliath of the British Empire. And there are some legitimate parallels there, but also problems. America is not a new Israel, founded by God on God's law and chosen among all peoples of the earth to be the light of the nations. The reason is, there's already a New Israel in town. You've probably heard of it: It's called the church. And from Puritan New England to today, sometimes we've let America get away with pretending to be what only the church is, putting a star-spangled banner where only Christ crucified belongs.
Was America founded to be a “Christian nation,” in the style of Constantine or Theodosius? No, not in that way. The founding fathers of the United States were dead-set against that idea. Their ancestors had run away from exactly that background. For hundreds and hundreds of years, European civilization had been rooted in variations of the Theodosian idea. And when the apparent unity of a Christian Europe was shattered in the Reformation, it was this Theodosian approach that led to massive religious wars – as James Madison called them, “vain attempts of the secular arm to extinguish religious discord by proscribing all difference in religious opinion.” Fleeing from Theodosian nations, plenty of religious refugees made their way to the New World, setting up colonies that kept the Theodosianism to a smaller scale.
By the time of the Revolution, it was clear that no national Theodosianism would work, and many people were just sick and tired of it. So the First Amendment was passed, prohibiting any federal law either creating or removing any establishment of an official church; and in time, our distaste for the Theodosian experiment did away with what few state churches there still were. Many of the Founding Fathers weren't orthodox Christians themselves, though plenty others certainly were. And they had plenty of differences about the proper role of religion in governing America. But these deists, Unitarians, mainliners, and evangelicals all did finally agree on a form of pluralism that would shelter liberty, allow people to practice their religion in public and private as they saw fit, and recognize that this new social project was built on the bedrock of recognizing God as a Creator who gives “unalienable rights” that no government has a right to alter or abolish, knowing that “the Most High rules in the kingdom of men” (Daniel 4:25).
If by “Christian nation,” we mean a Theodosian or even a really Constantinian nation, then we neither are one nor were meant to be one – nor were we meant to be a secularist Babel, either. The nation's first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, while he wrote that “it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest, of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers” – and by 'Christian nation', he just meant the desirable social fact that most Americans claimed to be Christians – he also stressed in the same letter that “real Christians will abstain from violating the rights of others.” And James Madison famously denounced the idea that “the civil magistrate is a competent judge of religious truth, or that he may employ religion as an engine of civil policy.” Madison declared that “the religion, then, of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate,” since our responsibilities before God are older and more important than our duties to any civil society. “As servants of God, live as free people, yet don't use your freedom as a pretext for evil” (1 Peter 2:16), including forcing the gospel on those who can yet be won with winsome and gentle witness to Jesus Christ.
So what is the United States supposed to be? What are our ideals? Over thirty years ago, Richard John Neuhaus, wrote his book The Naked Public Square, challenging both Christians who wanted a Theodosius-like dominance over the state and secularists who wanted a Babel-style removal of religious voices from public life. He offered these as “characteristics of the project we would call America”:
...a devotion to liberal democracy, a near obsession with civil liberties, a relatively open market economy, the aspiration toward equality of opportunity, a commitment to an institutionalized balancing of powers and countervailing forces, and a readiness to defend this kind of social experiment, if necessary, by military force.
To me, that doesn't sound like Theodosius or even Constantine, and it doesn't sound like a Beast or even a Babel. But it might make Cyrus nod in approval. It's no surprise: many of the Founding Fathers, especially Jefferson, considered Cyrus to be a personal hero. And from my reading of what the Bible says about governments, that's a good thing. The sweet spot is somewhere between Constantine and Cyrus, and probably closer to the latter – especially a Cyrus who's heard and believed the gospel of God's kingdom. But I think the Christian voter would better to mark a ballot next to even a pagan Cyrus than next to either a theocratic Theodosius or a secularist Nimrod – and heaven knows we've elected our fair share of them in recent decades, haven't we?
Knowing that the Old Testament carefully balanced the governing institutions of Israel – making sure that the monarchy, the judges, the priesthood, and the prophets could in principle keep one another in balance under the rule of law – so the Founding Fathers recognized the need to keep federal, state, local governments, executive, legislative, and judicial branches, all in balance. Imbalanced power of any of them was one of their greatest concerns. And above all, they recognized from the start that natural rights are “endowed” by God and only “secured” by government, which has no rightful authority either to grant them or abridge them – so said the Continental Congress 239 years ago.
As we all have seen, the United States of today is not really a Cyrus-Nation, neither the sort it was founded to be nor an improved version. No surprise – good leadership needs constant upkeep, and even Cyrus's own son Cambyses was somewhat of a tyrant. No, America is probably now more of a Nebuchadnezzar-Nation, and the past several years have seen more and more of a tilt toward Babel. On some select issues, America has improved over the last half-century, but in its relationship to religious liberty and to a healthy moral culture, not so much. In the face of a very post-Christian state of affairs, it's easy for us to complain. It's easy to condemn. But on the twenty-third anniversary of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence, a pastor named Cyprian Strong preached:
As long as the people of the United States are well-informed and virtuous, so long they will be free, and their government uncorrupted. It is in their power, to remedy the evils, arising from having wicked and designing men at the head of government – they can lift up and pull down at pleasure. If government be not wisely administered, the fault must be in the people; for the frequent election of every branch of the national legislature, if wisely executed, is a sufficient remedy to all the mischiefs arising from a corrupt administration. … Our rulers, or those who stand at the head of our national government, will be just such men as we are pleased to elect. … Our danger arises from sloth and inattention on one hand, and from prejudices and lusts on the other. It is in the power of the people, to have just such men and just such an administration as they please. If electors are without information, and will give in their suffrages at random – if they will suffer themselves to be wheedled by designing men and artful demagogues, they may forge their own chains and rivet them.
It's almost hard to believe that Rev. Strong said that in 1799 and not 2014, isn't it? But who do we have to blame, if not a divided visible church that can't even agree on the authority of Scripture? Who do we have to blame, if not a church that's bought into the idea that religion is private, or a church that oversteps its bounds by endorsing countless policy recommendations on issues where Christians can fairly differ? Who do we have to blame, if not a church that cares more for the party affiliation of a politician and less for Christian virtues of love, kindness, and Christ-like truth-telling to dominate the style of political discourse itself? And yet still we, even as Christians, so often choose to reflect the same partisan hostilities of a perpetually outraged world.
America was a Cyrus-Nation – at least in theory, not always in practice. But one function of the Fourth of July is to call us back, not to America-the-Nation, but America-the-Notion – to judge the law and culture in light of the idea (for they've always fallen short), and the idea in light of the gospel (for America-the-Notion, too, falls short of God's kingdom). America is now a Nebuchadnezzar-Nation at best. What is the church's job in a Nebuchadnezzar-Nation? Exactly what God told the exiles through Jeremiah: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they 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 peace of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its peace you will find your peace” (Jeremiah 29:5-7).
We live out our lives as witnesses to another way of living, a way Babylon has forgotten. We stay strong, we remain committed, we do not assimilate, we do not consign ourselves to shrinking away to oblivion. We “obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29), but still we “honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17). We work for peace and for the benefit of everyone, and we pray without ceasing. Don't you think Daniel prayed for Nebuchadnezzar? Don't you think Zerubbabel prayed for Cyrus? Don't you think Paul prayed for Nero? When the opportunity comes to have a hand in how the nation is governed, we work to make it more beneficial for all – not defending our own individual rights (though Paul wasn't shy about asserting his, if he thought it would be useful to his ministry [Acts 16:35-39; 22:25-30]), but standing up for our brothers and sisters and neighbors for the sake of all, knowing that a nation is blessed in blessing Abraham's children (Genesis 12:3) – and Abraham is the father of those whose faith is anchored in Jesus Christ, who died and rose again and has an eternal kingship (Romans 4:16-17; Daniel 7:14).
So with allegiance to Christ and love for America under God, we act by votes, prayer, and Christian witness to put Cyrus in the White House, Cyrus in the governor's mansion, Cyrus in the legislature, Cyrus in the courts – not just for our sake, but to “seek the peace of the city” on behalf of all races, all generations, all creeds, and to support a framework where the gospel can fairly meet and fairly woo in the public square. But our labors in America can never be allowed to obscure our loyalty to God's kingdom above all else. And if time should come that we have little clout in American law and culture, then may our faith remain in the God who raised up Cyrus at just the right time, the God seen with hands and feet nailed to government-issue wood to appease the bloodlust of a mob, the God who promises to make his power abundantly clear precisely in our weakness. In our strength or in our weakness, from the mainstream or from the margins, may God use us to bless America – and all the world – by preaching in word, in deed, and in attitude the gospel of a crucified and risen Savior. For, in the words of Revolutionary-era minister Levi Hart:
What is English liberty, what is American freedom, when compared with the glorious liberty of the sons of God? And what is slavery under the galling yoke of oppression, to the hard bondage of sin and Satan? Let the hitherto willing slaves of sin and Satan then rouse up – there is now an opportunity to escape from bondage; there is one come to preach deliverance to the captives, and the opening the prison to them who are bound. Jesus Christ, the mighty King and Savior, the scourge of tyrants, and destroyer of sin and Satan, the assertor, the giver and supporter of original, perfect freedom: he sets open your prison doors, knocks off your chains, and calls you to come forth.
Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for “the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free. … You have been called to liberty,” writes Paul, “Only, don't use your liberty as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but by love serve one another, for the whole law is summed up in a single commandment: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:1, 13-14).