I’ve shared before about my ambivalence toward the commingling of Christianity and nationalism that takes place every Fourth of July. I have deep reservations with how we invoke God’s name to glorify our revolutionary past.
I can think of several reasons for ambivalence. For example, Kurt Willems has pointed out that the Revolutionary War did not meet the criteria for a “just war” as defined by Christian thinkers from Augustine to Aquinas. Carson T. Clark has observed that the war we commemorate each Fourth of July pitted Christians against other Christians. Instead of gathering around a common table to receive Christ’s sacrifice, Christians sacrificed one another—in clear violation of Jesus’ teaching. (You can’t very well love someone while you’re trying to kill them.)
I could write at length about the idolatry of nationalism. I could deconstruct the blind spots of churches that hold patriotic (and often overtly partisan) worship services. But the truth is, I have blind spots of my own. So this year for the Fourth of July, I thought I’d do something different. I want to share a few things about America for which I’m truly thankful. These don’t lessen my reluctance to celebrate our presumed national supremacy. But sometimes the best thing is to pause for a bit and appreciate what is good.
So here are three things I’m thankful for this Fourth of July…
1. That our government was built on a commitment to freely relinquish power.
I think this may be one of the greatest legacies of the Founding Fathers. After his triumph over Lord Cornwallis, George Washington did something, well, unusual. He resigned his commission as commander-in-chief. Legend has it that he was offered the chance to become America’s king—a legend which may or may not be true. Either way, Washington walked away at the precise moment when he could have consolidated and exploited his own power.
Years later, Washington chose not to run for a third term as president. His reasons may have been more personal than political—he was tired and yearning for retirement. But once more he set the remarkable precedent of voluntarily walking away from power, rather than clutching it until the blood ran cold in his fingers.
It’s not quite as dramatic as Bilbo dropping the ring of power in The Fellowship of the Ring, but it’s pretty much the same idea. Power corrupts. The longer we hold on to it, the more it corrupts us. Washington showed another way to exercise power—with restraint.
2. That our ancestors envisioned a society where we can disagree without killing each other—most of the time.
The White House has changed hands between rival political parties 24 times since Washington left office. Only once did that change lead to revolt. The idea that someone can transfer power to their political rival without bloodshed was remarkable 230 years ago. And while it’s thankfully not as unusual today, it’s still something we shouldn’t take for granted.
The effect of polarization today is to draw us into increasingly hostile forms of conflict with each other. When you start viewing those you disagree with politically as threats to society, you are, in effect, giving up on the American political experiment.
3. That God loves America as much as he loves every other nation.
God loves America. But we should never lose sight of the trajectory of the biblical drama. It moves from “one nation” to “all nations.” Even when it was still “one nation,” their job was to bless the other nations (Genesis 12).
There is no such thing as “American exceptionalism” in God’s eyes. America is not a new Israel. There is nothing in scripture to even remotely suggest that we are “special” in the way that Israel was in the biblical drama. To say that we are is to move in the opposite direction that God is going.
God’s kingdom transcends and encompasses every nation. America doesn’t matter to God any more than Eritrea. But it also means that we don’t matter to him any less. God cares deeply for the people of this nation—and that’s something to be grateful for this Fourth of July.