Men ought not to content themselves with a general repentance, but it is every man’s duty to endeavour to repent of his particular sins, particularly. (WCF* XV:5 Of Repentance unto Life)
Little children, keep yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:21, ESV)
As the nomination of a Republican candidate has millimetered nearer over recent months, the volume of commentary–in both senses–on every aspect of process and participants has risen as impossibly high as the lethal wave which crested the Vaiont Dam before swallowing sleeping villages. History may provide some perspective for judging the persuasive efficacy of the deluge as a whole; my concern is a particular current in that torrent–a set of views which, against all wisdom, are expressed by some evangelical Christians attempting conservative political discourse.
The errant views swirl around a tempting, yet idolatrous, notion: that the United States of America as a body politic is covenantally bound to the living God of the Lord Jesus Christ in a way that other nations of the world are not. As heretical as it may sound to evangelical ears in such stark terms, there is simply no Scriptural warrant for, and every Scriptural and historical warrant against, heirs of the Reformation hewing to an idea which has been proven wrong every time it has come to birth.
At the root of the Scriptural error is a confusion of the administration of covenants in our own chapter of redemptive history. In simplest terms, God’s relationship with humanity is always bounded by covenantal terms of his own. At creation he bound all mankind to a covenant of works, the terms of which hold to the present:
1. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him, as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescencion on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.
2. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience. (WCF VII, Of God’s Covenant with Man)
1. God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience; promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it; and endued him with power and ability to keep it.
2. This law, after his Fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon mount Sinai in ten commandments, and written in two tables; the first four commandments containing our duty toward God, and the other six our duty to man.(WCF XIX, Of the Law of God)
While a new covenant of grace has indeed been revealed,
wherein he freely offered unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe[,] (WCF VII:3)
its promises are guaranteed only to those found under its terms of divine election, regeneration, godly repentance and faith in Christ. Until one is brought under those terms, he remains under the sentence of death threatened in the first:
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:18, ESV)
The Mayflower Compact, Declaration of Independence and Contract with America notwithstanding, no divine covenant has ever been extended to any body politic other than Israel, and the civil code of even that covenant has now been completely fulfilled in Christ and made obsolete–per Hebrews 8, 9–binding God to no other temporal nation under its unique terms. One may ask, “You don’t believe the national promises, then? What about Psalm 33:12, 2 Chronicles 7:14?” Yes, with all my heart, but the context applies all of those to Israel alone among temporal nations, and that to foreshadow the eternal kingdom of Christ. Do you really want Deuteronomy 28’s curses for disobedience to fall on America as they did upon Israel at the end of her long unfaithfulness? Have we as a nation a better claim to divine favor than she? Not in light of Romans 3 (for starters).
Neither does history cast an unalloyed beam on those who have confused the temporal and eternal kingdoms. Protestants have long noted flaws in the Pharisees’ attitude toward the Roman occupation, the Constantinian experiment, Charlemagne’s bright idea, and certain high-medieval, long-term kinetic actions. But our past is pocked with failed attempts at the union as well–the stern impassioned stress of my own New England Congregationalist forbears beat not only a wilderness thoroughfare but the occasional Baptist as well; some of the latter, though staunchly holding the fort against theological liberalism, found it difficult to renounce cultural norms which divided them–inexcusably–from certain of their redeemed siblings. Sadly, not all such cases ended with a return to righteousness, but in those which did, the return was accompanied by the realization that a former mindset was Scripturally unsound and in need of renunciation.
Manifestations of idolizing America’s “most (graciously) favored nation status” range from the silly to the harmful. Frequently, a scripture will be brandished out of all historical-redemptive, Christocentric context and piped through a s/(Israel|My people)/USA/g filter. The perennial example–I’ve seen it twice here already this season, but then I don’t read every thread–is the appeal to 1 Samuel 8 to prove that Jehovah is necessarily anti-monarchy and perhaps anti-tax. The New Testament becomes fair game as well, when precious promises made by Christ might be ripped from his Bride and thrown around pieces of temporal policy as fine linen around a rotting fish. A constant reference to political foes–including intra-party!–as mere objects of wrath rather than divine image-bearers and potential recipients of grace is not only highly unlikely to produce a positive movement of thought, it denigrates the gospel of Christ by implying that the divine curses and blessings are tied to ideological, party, or national status rather than God’s free and sovereign will: “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” (Romans 9:13, ESV)
“But the stinking liberals do it too!”, I hear. Indeed. And how did they end up there? They are largely the spiritual heirs of mostly-orthodox Christians who, especially during our first 100 years as a nation, decided that the old ways of sound teaching, catechesis, Word and sacrament, discipline, costly discipleship, missionary fervor and God-glorifying, neighbor-serving vocation–all under the banner of the reality of the doctrines of sovereign grace–paled in light of the much more immediate and practical (not to mention self-gratifying) goals of personal and societal transformation–and much of today’s evangelical church is once again far down that same vacuous, deadly, moralistic path.
A repentance is in order: we must return, continually, to the truth that our nation, as dear and special as she is–and in so many remarkable ways, she is!–is not, has never been, and will never be, even a faint imitation of the kingdom of God on Earth: she cannot be, and must never attempt to be, God’s minister of dispensing the forgiveness of sins and the life everlasting. But since we who have tasted of that eternal life through a living faith in Christ are blessed to see the temporal breakthroughs of that kingdom at times in her midst, let us continue with all that is in own power to see Christ proclaimed more and more, to Republican and Democrat, to 1% and 99%, to conservative and liberal, to every nation and tribe and language and people, until the end.
I leave you in the sane security of quiet–and deep–waters with Michael Horton’s most recent post at Out of the Horse’s Mouth (The White Horse Inn Blog):
On Electing a Shepherd of the National Soul (excerpted)
Every national election cycle in the US affords fresh opportunities for speeches calculated to assure us that our president will not only be a capable executive and commander-in-chief but will be our philosopher-in-residence and faithful high priest of the civil religion. The President has become the shepherd of the national soul.
In the UK, the head of church and state (the monarch) is a different person from the head of government (the prime minister). However, in the US we combine these offices in one. Maybe that’s one reason, historically, why we place so much weight on our presidents to embody our own spiritual aspirations and convictions. Yet since the Constitution distinguishes clearly between civil and ecclesiastical jurisdictions (shaped by Madison’s training under Princeton Presbyterian’s John Witherspoon as well as American Baptists), that sacred trust cannot favor any particular confession. Hence the tightrope one must walk: required to steward a broad civil religion (basically, a morality grounded in a Supreme Being who has a special place for America in his plan), displaying some personal commitment to a particular Judeo-Christian community, while not giving preference to his own denomination in making policy.
Quite a number of past presidents would not have made it across that tightrope today. In terms of personal beliefs and commitments, George Washington seems to have been a more faithful Mason than a Christian. One thinks of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who quite publicly revealed their profound disagreement with orthodox Christian beliefs such as the Trinity and the deity of Christ. By the best accounts, Abraham Lincoln was a very nominal Baptist—probably Unitarian in his views—who nevertheless shared the public sense of belonging to a chosen nation, favored by Providence yet for that very reason subject to the judgment of Providence for failing to fulfill its sacred mandate.
The real issue is whether the confusion of kingdoms (which can only lead to a bland civil religion) is creating an atmosphere that brings harm to the cause of Christ and the common good of our society.
Yet believers also must stop expecting politicians to double as high priests of a false religion, an idolatrous religion, that substitutes real confessional communities for a generic moralism. Even where a candidate’s confession differs from our own, we have to ask what we’re looking for in our political leaders. Are we seeking an icon who will reassure us that even in a wildly pluralistic and relativistic society we are the ones in the right, safely ensconced in the walls of absolute truth? Or do we have the more modest goal of electing presidents who will eschew any messianic mantle and pursue policies that we believe are more likely to do more good than harm to the republic’s common good and the Constitution that they swear to uphold?
* References to the Westminster Confession of Faith (1648) are intended to indicate consent among the orthodox, evangelical branches of the Reformation. Although Presbyterian in polity, its doctrine is faithfully echoed in the Congregational Savoy Declaration of Faith and Practice (1658) and the Baptist London Baptist Confession of Faith (1677); the wonderfully organized Tabular Comparison of the 3 seminal confessions is worth many a perusal. Lutheran and Continental Reformed foundational documents, although structured and worded differently, are in substantial agreement with the principles illustrated above.