Independence Day. The Fourth of July. The date every year when the United States celebrates its independence from England. And according to some, also liberals, Socialists, Mexicans, China, tea parties, taxes, Indians, tree-huggers, Muslims, the Pope, the Irish, Bolsheviks, and whoever or whatever else has been the subject of American nationalistic vilification at some point over the past two centuries. It must’ve been a really productive day.
July 4, 1776, despite the grand annual picture we paint, was itself fairly anticlimactic: on that day, the text of the Declaration of Independence was merely finalized, adopted by the Continental Congress, and sent to the printers; that only matters historically because the rebel Colonists managed to outlast the Brits in the ensuing war. Nevertheless, over time it became the day when Americans celebrated the birth of their nation with barbecue pulled-pork sandwiches, copious potato salad, trite country music, miniature bombs, and gaudy parades. At the same time, it has also been a day on which nationalists tried to find ways of lumping their ideological opponents into the category of “oppressors,” “enemies,” or generally just people from whom we “need independence.” It’s really quite efficient: capture the poetic spirit of resistance and rebellion and then re-appropriate it to current ideological squabbles. Predictably, the downside is that it really doesn’t work that way.
Far from the narrative of meek and benign Royal subjects rising up in one voice to cast off the yoke of an evil King (who was also probably the Antichrist), one way of looking at the American Revolution is as the result of a bunch of rich, white landowners deciding they didn’t want to pay their taxes. (That’s a line from a movie by the way, though I forget which one.) The point is that history is written by the side that wins and, if people aren’t careful, the true story–which is neither of the aforementioned–can become lost amid a nationalistic frenzy to paint a positive and pride-inducing picture of one’s native land.
It’s also old news that the holiday is often appropriated by various political factions (I think it’s safe to say usually by those on the political right) as a rallying cry for people to “save” the United States once again from whoever happens to be its latest existential threat. Lately, that’s been Muslims, Socialists, Mexican (or dark-skinned) immigrants, Barack Obama (by virtue of the “fact” he’s a Muslim, a Socialist, and an immigrant), and the people who support them: namely progressive liberals like myself. Naturally, the logic–or non-logic–that’s present in these worldviews is humorous, but it presents a more notable problem in the form of making it more difficult to find common ground between increasingly polarized political ideologies. Finding common ground is actually a fairly important part of living in a democracy, as is consensus and compromise. Good luck telling the tea party that.
Now, add religious conviction to this mixture of nationalism and fear-of-the-other and the result is an extremely combustible concoction–pyrotechnically so. Pastoral exhortations for the faithful to stand firm against the rising tide of “secular liberalism” accompanying this time of year are well known to progressive converts like myself. Consequently, the Fourth of July has become an increasingly uncomfortable time for me to be in church. My guess is that it would probably be hard to find any American Christians with any kind of regular church attendance record who haven’t found themselves sitting in such a service. You know, the ones that begin with some idealized account of the Revolution and how it was both God’s Will and the intervention of His divine Providence that drove out the evil British overlords and paved the way for the foundation of a “Christian nation”? Yeah, those. They then tend to progress in epic fashion through a narrative wherein America is the lone superhero in a world awash with the forces of evil. Moreover, because America was founded and is sustained by Jesus Christ himself, its actions are the result of the direction of his hand as he seeks to bring salvation to the world. That includes thinly-veiled wars over oil, drone strikes, and Gitmo. Yikes.
What these people on the religious right seem to forget is that, fundamentally, Christians are stateless people. We live in and are citizens of the world’s various nations, but our first and primary allegiance is–or should be–to the Kingdom of Heaven and its King. Paul did exhort early Christians to pay their taxes, respect the authorities, and be good citizens; there is a clear line, however, between good citizenship and earthly nationality superseding (or even clouding) our heavenly one. Furthermore, the American Church does not exist to Christianize the American government, as so many Evangelicals seem to think. The role of the people of God on Earth is to be witnesses for Christ; how terrible it is to think, then, that the American Church might be a more effective witness for America than for anything else.
Celebrating the Fourth of July is okay for American Christians as long as they don’t get stupid with it. America is a good country and I’m thankful I live here, but I will not take up arms in its name nor make it out to be fundamentally better than any other country on Earth (because it isn’t). American exceptionalism is an idea that’s been around for a very long time and there might even be a little bit–a little bit, mind you–of truth to it, but it has no place in Christianity. From an eschatalogical standpoint, it seems rather foolish to get too excited about any nation when to God they all “are like a drop in a bucket” and “regarded as dust on the scales” (Isaiah 40:15). The kings and kingdoms of the Earth will all pass away; I’d hate to think so many of us spent so much time talking about how great and God-anointed one is when its actions can so often be described as anything other than “Christian.”