This post was written for the July 1, Matters of Faith column in the Cape Cod Times:
I am the pastor at Christ Lutheran Church in Falmouth and was invited to write a column on the meaning of the Fourth of July from a faith-based perspective. As the deadline approached I found myself experiencing some trepidation, looking for reasons to step away from writing. I have encountered clergy for whom writing this article would be a fairly simple task, who would write about America as President Reagan’s “City on a hill,” the New Jerusalem founded on Christian values. If only we could get back to the vision of the nation’s Founders then all would be well.
But I write as a Lutheran pastor who, due to the history of my tradition, is wary of the unquestioning overlap of faith and patriotism. In the 1500s, Martin Luther wrote some very important theological works that have shaped Protestant traditions to this day. He also wrote some terrible, offensive and tragic works of anti-Judaism which have plagued the Lutheran church to this day, works that were used by the Nazi government and supported by some of the German churches to legitimize what started as legal discrimination of Jews and ended in the Holocaust. In 1994, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America publicly rejected Luther’s anti-Semitic writings and the attitudes that are found in them. Yet their use continues to be an example of how national pride and religious belief can be a dangerous mix.
Faith and patriotism need not be mutually exclusive but do need to be held in some tension. As a citizen and person of faith, I can genuinely say, “God bless America.” But sometimes my Christian faith, which includes an instruction from Jesus saying, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44) and values the care of the widow, the orphan, the alien and the poor (Zechariah 7:10), may lead me to question the actions and attitudes of the government. Sometimes people of faith need to be the prophetic voice challenging the government, as they were in the civil rights era. Sometimes people of faith need to work alongside the government, as happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Sometimes people of faith work as leaders within the government, allowing their beliefs to shape their decisions but, hopefully, governing in ways that do not exclude or deny the beliefs of others.
As a person of faith and a religious leader, I am thankful to live in the United States, a country that allows for a variety of beliefs. I am thankful to those who risked their lives and gave their lives not so that we would be a Christian nation, but that we might be a nation where Christians can be authentically Christian and Jews can be authentically Jewish and Muslims can be authentically Muslim and atheists can be authentically atheist. I am thankful to the Founders of the nation who could not imagine the diversity of race, thought and creed (and, let’s face it, probably wouldn’t want to imagine that diversity) which their experiment in governing would generate.
Unfortunately, it seems that we are working very hard to shield ourselves from encountering difference. Both left and right are following newsfeeds and cable news channels that tell us what we already want to hear. We are sitting in the safety of unchallenged opinions. Even within the government, both sides of aisle have gone from disagreement with respect to avoiding eye contact.
So I would like to suggest that one of the most patriotic things that you can do around this upcoming Fourth of July celebration is to talk to someone who is different from you. Talk to someone from a different country and find out how her American life has been. Talk to someone of a different color, or sexual orientation, or of a different generation than you and learn his story. Talk to someone with a different faith (or no faith at all), not with the goal of converting her but with the hope of growing in understanding. Talk to someone from a different political party without trying to prove them wrong but trying to see his perspective. I find that I grow in self-awareness not by encountering people just like me but in experiencing and being challenged by difference.
And again I suggest that this is a patriotic action, because we live in an America where beliefs and traditions can coexist; where our historic failures have been the result of seeking to control, dismiss or remove those who are different from the “acceptable” norm; where our greatest moments have been shaped by embracing the gifts and challenges of diversity. America is great when American hearts and minds are open. May your Independence Day celebrations be joyful and may God bless America.