At the heart of the observance of the Fourth of July as Independence Day lie certain concepts that have long been thought integral elements of the American tradition. One is patriotism; another is the notion that the United States was and is a Christian nation; another is democracy as the ideal form of government; still another is the cult of individualism.
Every Christian must ask how patriotism relates to the Christian faith and whether patriotism can become idolatrous. Just three years short of the bicentenary of American independence, these questions need to be seen in view of contemporary happenings, of which the Watergate incident is foremost in our attention. This tragic incident has raised doubts about the American system, increased worldwide cynicism, and devalued the reputation of American political morality.
Trying to penetrate the miasma that surrounds 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue these days is difficult. To talk intelligently and to come to fair conclusions is difficult because all the facts are not in. But we must not allow ourselves to become mentally and spiritually paralyzed. The shame every patriotic American feels over Watergate ought rather to sharpen our critical patriotic faculties. The attitude, “My country, right or wrong,” i.e., a patriotism that glosses over national defects or that idolizes the nation, is always misplaced and misguided. It only becomes more obviously wrong at a time like the present. Real patriotism, however, will not lose faith in the ideals of the nation even as it will not whitewash its shortcomings. While proclaiming certain ideals and adopting a tone of moral superiority, America has fallen prey to the same intrigues it deplores in “banana republics” and police states. It can no longer point the finger at other nations that transgress against moral principles until it first acknowledges its own transgressions.
What is particularly galling for United States Christians is that America has professed adherence to Judeo-Christian ethics but is now revealing that this profession was only lip service. This makes a mockery of its pretensions and is an insult to the God whose principles it has espoused.
The Christian citizen will not cease to love his country even when he must pronounce judgment upon it. But he must demand that the guilty be brought to justice, that the cancer be cut out of the body politic, and that the government of the nation be controlled by people of integrity whose actions do not belie their words.
What also galls us is that some of the people involved in the Watergate affair have been educated in our best academic institutions and are members of churches and sects that hold high ethical principles. It teaches the lesson all too clearly that an educated miscreant is likely to be more dangerous than an uneducated one, and that education that neglects spiritual and moral priorities is bad education. The current state of affairs in American life confirms the conviction that the situational ethics of men like Joseph Fletcher offer no bars to wrongdoing. Under this kind of ethics, everything done at Watergate, for instance, can be defended in terms of its motivation. There must be moral and ethical absolutes that bind men and nations.
Moreover, Watergate supports the opinion that before men will act ethically they must have their basically sinful natures changed by regeneration through faith in Jesus Christ. Without faith in Christ, the civic and moral virtues, although praised by philosophers, are very hard to practice. With Christ lives are transformed and ethical practices changed. When such transformation is lacking, then professions of faith are not to be taken seriously, and worship services at the White House will be of no avail. James says that faith without works is a dead faith, and the absence of good works means the absence of true faith.
At this Fourth of July season, the finest patriot should be the Christian who takes his faith seriously, who acknowledges his leaders’ shortcomings, who judges the country fairly for what it is, and who works to make it what it ought to be under God.
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