“In God We Trust”
1 Samuel 8: 4-11, 16-20
Mark 3: 20-35
“In God We Trust” is the official motto of the United States. It was adopted by Congress in 1956, replacing E pluribus unum, which had been the de facto motto since 1776. “In God We Trust” appears on all our currency.
This motto may seem incongruous in our modern pluralistic nation, but it reminds us that until quite recently, America’s fortunes were understood in explicitly theistic, even Christian, language.
The doctrine of separation of church and state notwithstanding, our nation remains powerfully influenced by a variety of religious impulses. Those impulses can be for either good or ill, for religion is never a good force per se, as Reinhold Niebuhr once said “but merely the final conflict between human self-esteem and divine mercy, and one is as frequently victorious as the other.” Religion has produced as much fanaticism as contrition, and our country is in a fierce debate about the role of religion in our republic.
We have, on one hand, those who believe that an America with room for a diversity of faiths is our best hope for the future, and others who believe that a Christian America is our best hope for the future.
Christian nationalism wants the country to be explicitly Christian, with all other faiths and views subordinate. This view is often accompanied by White Supremacy. We’ve seen a rise in openly expressed White Supremacy in recent years, much of it embraced by white Evangelical Christians. There are currently numerous attempts to limit or suppress voting by American citizens who are not white. This should be very concerning to all Americans and all Christians.
The support by a large number of Christians for anti-democratic policies and authoritarian practices call for some soul-searching by American Christians.
During the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930’s, James Waterman Wise, the son of a rabbi, predicted: “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”
Many people, especially, young people, have decided that it is religion itself that is the problem, and have left it behind. Church membership has declined dramatically in the last several decades.
So, how should we as Christians respond to these troubling trends?
I suggest we accept that religious pluralism is here to stay, but I believe that communities of faith have important things to contribute to a proper understanding of our common life.
Let me suggest that our reading today from First Samuel sheds some light on how God’s people are to view their relationship with government.
Israel was never sure whether having the king was a good thing or a bad thing, and therefore the Old Testament has writings both for and against kingship. We are all acquainted with the highly idealized writings that surround David’s kingship, and the subsequent Davidic themes that figure so prominently in the hope for a Messiah, and the Christian claims about Jesus. But my guess is that most of you are less familiar with the strand of writing in the Old Testament that was very suspicious of Israel having a king, since only God was ruler over Israel.
Remember that the people of Israel had been slaves in Egypt, and therefore has no tradition of political organization. When they arrived in the Promised Land, they soon developed a system of leadership that relied on charismatic tribal chiefs, the judges.
They knew of kingship, of course, from the pharaohs in Egypt and from the Mesopotamian kings to their north and east. And locally they saw the Philistines and other minor peoples with patterns of kingship. Beset from outside by these rival nations Israel looked to model themselves after them and have a king to better organize themselves.
In our reading for today God tell Samuel not to feel rejected by their clamor for a king, for it is really their God that they rejecting. Then God somewhat petulantly consents to their wishes and tells Samuel to warn them of some of the unforeseen consequences of having a king. Kings tend to become oppressive, to arrogate power and riches unto themselves, rather than being faithful shepherds of the people.
When Israel finally did have kings, they never understood them as having divine right, as their neighbors did. It was God who remained the true sovereign, and the earthly ruler was a subject anointed from among the people, accountable to God and to God’s representative, the prophets.
You may recall that Jesus met his death because he was accused of being a king, a claim that challenged Roman authority, for the Romans claimed that there could be a “no king but Caesar.” Jesus refused all attempts to make him king, saying that his kingdom is not of this world, and the kingdom of God which he proclaimed can never be identified with any earthly polity, no matter how good it may be.
We have never been a Christian nation, despite that claim by many people. The founders and framers knew of state-sponsored religion and they feared it. They turned instead to the writings of Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke, Edmund Burke and Charles Hobbes. The “consent of the governed” is in theory, the basis for political power in a modern democracy. The founders put in a place a government not run by Kings or Prelates, but a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” They were suspicious of any claims of absolute power.
But in the modern era we have seen totalitarian regimes of the left and the right make such absolute claims for their power. The German people turned to Adolf Hitler when their economy failed after that their defeat in the First World War. They gave him unfettered power over their fortunes and the fortunes of Europe. The D-Day commemorations of this week remind us of the cost of the world to dislodge such power.
Pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church he was part of in the 1930’s in Germany challenged and resisted Hitler on religious, not political, grounds. They said he claimed for himself authority which belongs to God alone. They said, if “Jesus is Lord” then Hitler could only be Fuhrer in a limited way.
“Jesus is Lord!” was the very first confession of the early church. It was their way of saying that Cesar wasn’t, and many Christians died for saying it.
What’s all this got to do with democratic America? Well, for one thing, the story from Samuel may be a cautionary tale for a democratic republic that has drifted toward an imperial presidency. And we have just had four years of a president who embraced authoritarian and anti-democratic measures. and refused the peaceful transfer of power from a legitimate election.
That refusal is unprecedented in our history, and is the basis for the unfounded claims of voter fraud and a “stolen election.” Many of the people who believe this unfounded conspiracy theory are Evangelical Christians. They are questioning the very basis of our democracy, government by the consent of the governed.
How are we to be a people going forward when we are so divided? In another time when our nation was bitterly divided, Abraham Lincoln quoted from our Gospel lesson for today. In a speech in 1858, at the brink of Civil War, he quoted Jesus: “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” (Mark 3: 24-25.)
The divisions then were over slavery. The divisions today are over democracy itself and the rules by which we are governed. In my lifetime I have had presidents and governments I liked and ones I didn’t, but I always affirmed the rule that we abided by elections and honored the peaceful transfer of power. That isn’t true anymore. There is now a bitter struggle to hold on to power at any cost.
How are we to think about this? Politics is the art of exercising power. It is a necessary thing, for power must be exercised to accomplish any social goal. But in a democracy, there must be checks on power. What are those checks?
A free press is one check on power, exposing corruption, and informing the citizenry of how leaders are exercising their public trust. That is why it’s so disturbing that the former president called the press “the enemy of the people.”
And religious communities like ours are another check on the claims of unbridled power. The Christian is a citizen, but not an uncritical one. The people who remember that God is the rightful sovereign will be hesitant to put too much power in human hands unchecked and unchallenged.
Those of us who confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord” will realize that the leaders of our land, good or bad, are not Lord. And those for whom the phrase “in God we trust” is more than a civil piety will not look to any ruler or government for salvation, for that role belongs to God alone. Amen.
(I preached this sermon virtually for the United Congregational Church of Little Compton, Rhode Island, on June 6, 2021. To see a video of the virtual go here for a YouTube link.)