This week on July 4th our nation will celebrate her two hundred and thirty seventh birthday. The Fourth of July prompts different reactions from different groups of Christians. For some it is an occasion that is celebrated in the Sunday service with what is often described as a “patriotic service.” In the Lutheran church it is an event that is acknowledged in the Prayer of the Church, but otherwise does not interrupt the liturgy and the normal rhythm of the Scripture readings in the lectionary which determine the sermon and selection of hymns.
In part, this difference reflects a different attitude towards worship in general. However, it also demonstrates a different evaluation of America, democracy and the role of government. Those who view the Fourth of July as event that is to be celebrated in Church have often accepted the myth of America as a “Christian nation” and therefore God’s chosen nation.
In fact, the American revolution was deeply related to the intellectual movement of the Enlightenment which was opposed to Christianity. The Enlightenment considered reason to be the ultimate judge of truth. As such, it had little use for Christianity and its belief in the incarnation of the Son of God, His death and resurrection, and his miracles. This emphasis on reason also led adherents of the Enlightenment to be opposed to dogma (authoritative teaching of the Church such as the Ecumenical Creeds) and tradition (liturgy and the inherited practices of the Church such as the church year and the lectionary).
While there certainly were committed Christians who were involved in the founding of America, many of the prominent ones such as Thomas Jefferson were products of the Enlightenment. Jefferson was a deist. He believed that it was rational to speak of a supreme god. Yet this god was not a personal god who revealed himself. The religion of deism was moralism – a matter of does and don’ts that can be perceived from reason. Unlike the secular view of today, Jefferson and the other founding fathers were not opposed to religion. They believed that it played an important role in a stable society and therefore they included the First Amendment which says that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Unlike the European setting where the government officially supported a form of Christianity, the newly formed United States rejected this model.
There has been a tendency to apply biblical language to America. For example in a 1630 sermon the Puritan John Winthrop applied Jesus’ parable in Matthew 5:14 about “city on a hill” to this land. Language such as this became part of American folklore and gave rise to the idea that America is God’s chosen people. However, the only true chosen people called by God, is His Church which is drawn from all nations, Jew and Gentile. As Peter wrote, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy”(1 Peter 2:9-10). As a nation, America is simply one more example of the nations that stand under God’s providential ordering. Indeed Paul said, “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26).
Finally, there are American Christians who also believe that democracy is the form of government that is favored by God and is most pleasing to Him (and in turn this argument is also applied to the ordering of the Church). However, while we may see many reasons to prefer this form of government, nowhere does Scripture indicate that is better than another or that it is more God pleasing. In fact as we will see, God has used many different kinds of government in order to carry out his needed work in the world.
As Lutherans, we recognize that America was not founded as a Christian nation, though it certainly is a place where Christians have been allowed to practice their faith in great freedom. We recognize that while God has richly blessed our nation in ways that inspire our thanks, it cannot claim any unique status before God – only Christ’s Church holds this position. And we acknowledge that while democracy can be a great blessing, like any other human creation it is just as susceptible to the influence of sin.
We do not adhere to these misunderstandings. Instead, we confess a much broader and foundational truth which influences our practice every week and not just when July 4th comes around. From the beginning, Lutherans have confessed that government is God’s good gift through which He bestows important blessings and that therefore Christians have responsibilities toward the government and can take part in the government.
In the Small Catechism’s “Table of Duties” Martin Luther listed under the heading “Of Civil Government” the apostle Paul’s word from Romans 13:1-4, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.” By this the Lutherans confessed that government has been established by God to restrain evil and maintain peace. They described this as God’s “left hand” rule for they recognized that while this did not bring the salvation of the Gospel (God’s “right hand” rule), it was still the instrument of God’s action which brought the blessing or security and order.
Because this is true, God also gives Christians certain responsibilities in the relation to the government. And so the Table of Duties lists under “Of Citizens” Romans 13:5-7 which says, “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Romans 13:5-7). In their duties as citizens, Christians pay taxes that allow the government – God’s instrument – to operate.
The Table of Duties also lists 1 Timothy 2:1-3, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4). Because of the way God uses the government for our good, Christians pray for those in positions of leadership. This is the thing we do every Sunday in the Prayer of the Church as we offer up prayers for our government and leaders.
And finally, because some in the sixteenth century said that it was wrong for Christians to take part in the “worldly” affairs of the government, the Lutherans confessed in Article XVI of the Augsburg Confession, “Concerning civic affairs they teach that lawful civil ordinances are good works of God and that Christians are permitted to hold civil office, to work in courts, to decide matters by imperial and other existing laws, to impose just punishments, to wage just war, to serve as soldiers, to make legal contracts, to hold property, to take an oath when required by magistrates, to take a wife, to be given in marriage.” Not only do Christians pay taxes and pray for the government, but because it is the instrument used by God they are free to serve in a vocation that involves service in the government or its military.
The Lutheran Church avoids many of the misunderstandings put on display by Fourth of July celebrations. Instead, we give thanks for the blessing of our country and confess the truth about God’s work that occurs through every government, no matter whether they recognize Him or not. We do this every Sunday, while also recognizing that each Sunday the Divine Service remains focused on one thing: the Gospel of Jesus Christ through which we receive the forgiveness of sins and salvation.
 For excellent treatments of the way these themes influenced American Christianity see: Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) and Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).