“Look upon our shield, O God;
look with favor on your anointed one.”
The first association of the biblical phrase “a city on a hill” with these United States occurs in the words of John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He used the phrase in “A Model of Christian Charity,” a sermon he preached before he even arrived on these shores.
The association Winthrop created with that sermon (and Ronald Reagan quoted in his second inaugural) is that the United States of America is especially favored by God almighty. It is a “city on a hill.” That mythical truth is so ingrained within us that every year I taught American lit I asked foreign students in class to explain it. It’s the water in which American kids swim, the air they breathe. We are, we’re sure, a chosen nation, blessed by God, a Christian nation—or so the story goes.
Throughout history, the marriage of patriotism and religion has been wonderfully appealing to human beings because both call upon very real emotions set so deeply within us that they may, from a distance, seem almost one. Look at the way we fold flags or repeat, hand-over-heart, the Pledge of Allegiance.
On what we used to call “Decoration Day” (now “Memorial Day”), I’ll never forget the way my grandma wouldn’t miss the annual “doings” (her word) in the local cemetery—color guard, marching band, and a sermon by some local pastor, calling the United States back to God. She insisted on going. It was a matter of faith to her, I’m sure. My parents were never so "faithful," even though my father spent years in the South Pacific during the war. Grandma lost her only brother in WWI—I’m sure that had something to do with her devotion. But it was devotion. It was faith that compelled her.
I honestly don’t know if my grandmother was ever particularly political, but we are, certainly, today. Whether or not this country is in a profound moral crisis is worth a good discussion, but many of my fellow believers are confident the whole nation needs to be returned to its Christian roots--and fast. (See above)
John Winthrop was a Christian; but 150 years after he was gone, at the time of the American Revolution, many of the movers and shakers were deists, who could rather easily shrug off Christ’s divinity. America has never been Islamic or Hindu or Buddhist, but the idea that we are or ever have been “chosen” by God, like Israel was, or even “a Christian nation” is mostly myth. But then, myths have some substantial power.
Mixing patriotism and religion is probably inescapable, but it is a complex exercise, or so it seems to me, creating a brew that is almost always toxic to both, but harder on faith than on patriotism. I rather like Tony Campolo’s take: “Mixing politics and religion is like mixing manure and ice cream—doesn’t hurt the manure much but really messes up the ice cream.”
The more time I spend with the psalms, the more impossible it seems to me to be a real fundamentalist and assume that a verse like this one has absolutely clear application to our time and our lives. It does, but it doesn't crown candidates.
Psalm 84 is an incredibly beautiful psalm—Spurgeon calls it “one of the choicest of the collection.” But if you simply fill in the blank with your favorite politician, the verse becomes a roadside bomb. “Look on our flag, Lord,” one might paraphrase, “and look with favor on your anointed [insert your favorite politician].”
Winthrop, fine man that he was, was actually kin to advocates of radical Islam today. Both believed in theocracy, in a rule by God.
I don’t think Grandma would have understood that. “Look at this verse,” she might have said. “Shouldn’t we be praying that way too?”
Tomorrow is Memorial Day. I’ll think of her and her brother and the story of his death 98 years ago. And I’ll pray for America too.
But I won’t be mistaken into thinking that this political season my vote will “keep our God." Neither will yours.