Sunday, July 04, 2010

We hold these truths...

J. Barry Vaughn. St. Alban's Episcopal Church, Birmingham, Alabama. July 4, 2010.

“We hold these truths to be self evident…” They are not the first words of the Declaration of Independence, but they are perhaps the best known. The truths that Jefferson thought to be self evident, of course, were that “all men are created equal” and are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” namely, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Between the 18th century and the present there has been a great reversal. In 1776 it was “self evident” to virtually everyone that there was a Creator, but the idea that political and civil rights were innate to human nature was a novel idea, far from universal, and even considered dangerous by many. Today most countries at least pay lip service to the idea of human rights, but the idea that there is a Creator is far less “self evident” than it was in Jefferson’s day.

Although “we hold these truths” may be the best known words of the Declaration, it is the words of the final sentence that always move me close to the point of tears: “… for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

“…our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” They were solemn words then, and they are solemn words now. But in 1776 they were more than just words. Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Adams, and the rest of the signers committed high treason when they voted to adopt the Declaration of Independence on this day in 1776 and signed it in the days following. Their votes and their signatures made them rebels against the greatest military power of the 18th century, and there was every reason to expect that they would fail and that Britain would prevail in the war that was certain to come.

But they succeeded and in succeeding they transformed themselves. On July 4, 1776, they were rebels against their rightful sovereign, George III, but when Adams and Franklin signed the Treaty of Paris in 1784 they became patriots, no longer subjects of a crown but citizens of a new republic – the United States of America.

The words “patriot” and “patriotism” are troublesome. They are troublesome for Christians because we have divided loyalties. On the one hand, in his letter to the Romans Paul tells us to be subject to the “governing authorities” because they have been “instituted by God.” On the other hand, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that we are citizens of a “better country”, a “heavenly” one, a city “whose architect and builder is God.”

One of the reasons that “patriot” and “patriotism” are troublesome is that some confuse the United States and this “heavenly city” of which the Letter to the Hebrews speaks. From the beginning of our history some have believed that America has a divine mission. John Winthrop implied as much in his sermon to the Massachusetts Bay pilgrims in 1630 when he said, “Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when hee shall make us a prayse and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, "the Lord make it like that of New England." For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us.” In the 19th century the idea that the U.S. had a special, divine mission became the idea of “manifest destiny” and was used to justify some terrible injustices, such as the mass resettlement of Native Americans or sometimes even their massacre. But that is not what Winthrop intended. For him, God’s blessing upon America was conditional. We shall be that “city upon a hill,” he said, if we “delight in each other; make each other's conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labour and suffer together…” But if we do not do those things, Winthrop said, then we will be “a story and a by word” throughout the world.

I think no one understood this better than President Abraham Lincoln. On the eve of his inauguration in 1861 Lincoln referred to the United States as God’s “almost chosen people.” I think the “almost” refers back to Winthrop’s idea that God’s blessing upon America is conditional, and in 1861 no one knew better than Lincoln that one of the conditions was the elimination of slavery.

“Patriot” and “patriotism” may be troublesome, but I believe they are good words, and I consider myself to be a patriot. Patriotism is out of favor with many on the left and with many within the Episcopal Church, in particular, because it can be easily abused. To many, patriotism implies an uncritical support of their country. It implies a kind of idolatry that puts country in place of God. But it need not be so.

I believe that the New Testament advocates a sober and clear-eyed patriotism. In other words, we have an obligation to support our country and its elected officials, even though we know that it is provisional and finite, and that our ultimate loyalty is to the Kingdom of God.

The American experiment is unique, not perfect. One of the things that makes the American experiment unique is our capacity for change, development, and self-criticism. When Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal,” he not only meant men, not women, he also meant white men who owned a certain amount of property. But Jefferson’s words took on a life of their own. “Men” became “men and women;” “white” became “black and white;” and “property” became “rich and poor.” And our understanding of those words is still evolving.

At its best, the United States aspires to be a “city upon a hill”, but we are an earthly realm, beautiful but flawed and imperfect. Or in the words that Wellesley College professor Katherine Lee Bates wrote:

America! America!

God mend thine ev'ry flaw,

Confirm thy soul in self-control,

Thy liberty in law!

But my patriotism is even better expressed by Abraham Lincoln’s friend, Carl Schurz, a Union general during the Civil War and later a U.S. Senator. Schurz said, “I trust that the American people will prove themselves … too wise not to detect the false pride or the dangerous ambitions or the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: ‘Our country, right or wrong!’ They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: ‘Our country—when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.’”