“Righteousness, the Greatest Act of Patriotism”
It is the weekend of July 4th, and it should come as no surprise that my attention would be upon the commemoration of Independence Day. Have no fear, it’s not politics that I have in mind. I am thinking rather of a timeless observation, given to us by Scripture, and understood by many statesmen of the past. The single greatest thing that a person can do in service to his or her country is to live righteously.
In the history of nations, countless attempts to evoke the passion of patriotism include calls for bravery, courage, and sacrificial service. After seven years in the military, I became well acquainted with them. However, I wondered then, as I do now, if we are purposely leaving out a crucial, albeit inconvenient part of rendering service to country. Scripture observes that, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” (Proverbs 14:34) Many of the great minds present at this nation’s founding were strongly aware of the necessity of virtue as well as the particular vulnerability to corrupt character that exists in a self-governing society. Samuel Adams wrote in a letter to James Warren:
“While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their virtue then will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader.”
Washington reminded the American people in his farewell address:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.”
These men, while intending that this nation not entwine the power of government with the organization of the church, understood that it was up to the church to maintain the people’s moral compass and cultivate their character.
Scripture often warns of the dangers of an unrighteous king. We are reminded in Proverbs 16:12 “It is an abomination to kings to do evil, for the throne is established by righteousness.” This, of course, was directed toward a monarch, but consider the implication for a nation where the power that was once reserved only for kings is now shared by citizens. The average person now bears a much heavier burden of upright character to govern his or her nation wisely. It is in that spirit, I believe that Paul Harvey often observed. “Self-government doesn’t work without self-discipline.”
I don’t know how beneficial it is to speculate on the precise mechanism for how the character of a people results in their own success or failure. Is it God directly altering the outcome of that nation for good or bad, is it simply the cause and effect of moral behavior, or is it both? Certainly, the founders believed that God intervened on their behalf. Patrick Henry famously spoke of “the holy cause of liberty,” and “a just God who presides over the destinies of nations.” Similarly, Washington often credited his unlikely success to Divine Providence, even going as far in a letter to General Nelson as saying:
“The hand of Providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations.”
Conversely, Thomas Jefferson feared God’s judgement upon the nation for tolerating slavery and presciently wrote:
“And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever…”
Lest you are at this point preparing to grab your Bibles and crucifixes to storm D.C. and spray-paint the Ten Commandments all over the National Mall, we must resist the idea that way to spread righteousness or virtue in a society is through political activism and the imposition of external moral standards upon those with immoral hearts. Certainly, that idea is not given in the New Testament. (Rules were different in the Old Testament with an absolute theocracy). The primary influence of the church upon society was always meant to be from the inside out, changing lives one at a time. That’s a lot harder than using political maneuvering to impose laws that last only as long as the religious right maintains 51% of the popular vote. If the church looks into society and sees sin, corruption, and rebellion to God’s laws, the first place it needs to look next is inward. The basket in Matthew 5:16 under which we’ve hidden our light is not a lack of willingness to be involved in politics, it’s a failure to live righteously in view of others so that their attention will be turned to God.
In this nation, the label Christian has come to mean less and less, as the church continues to acquiesce to the darkness around us, rather than purposing to shine thorough it with righteous lives at whatever personal cost. Whether it is the public immorality of those churches (so-called) that openly embrace the wickedness of secular society, or the quiet immorality secretly tolerated in the pews of conservative churches, because “he is such a good tither,” the best thing for ourselves and for our nation is that we repent and return to living lives for God’s glory and in accordance with His Word.
Many Christians in America feel a growing angst regarding the future of the church’s place in society and the questionable status of the liberty we’ve so long enjoyed. I can’t tell you that if you will do this one thing, God’s going to fix it all. I don’t know what His plan is for the future, or what role He’s designated for us. One thing I do know, no plan, scheme, political platform, party, or candidate can save a nation whose citizens despise virtue and celebrate unrighteousness.
Dear fellow Americans, this July 4th, I pray that you will join me in the single greatest act of patriotism that any person can commit. Let us purpose in our hearts to be changed from the inside out into a righteous people that do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before our God. (Micah 6:8)