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I was raised in a patriotic home. My immigrant parents, especially my Dad, were very grateful for the opportunity to come to America to achieve a better life for themselves and especially a better future for their children. They became naturalized American citizens as soon as legally possible. They voted in every election, even minor local ones, because their civic duty required it. My Dad put out the flag on every possible occasion to do so.

The Fourth of July was a big deal in my home. We looked forward to the parades in the day and to the fireworks at night. When it came time for me to go to college, information came to our mailbox about ROTC. My Dad reckoned that since I would be drafted sometime, why not volunteer and go as an officer? He later told me that he was not sure on which day he was proudest of me – the day I graduated from college in cap and gown or the next day, when in my uniform, I was commissioned an officer in the US Army.

I was raised in a Christian home. I was baptized a few months after my birth at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brookline, Massachusetts, and as the liturgy says, I was marked as Christ’s own forever. In later years, when there would be baptisms in our church, my Dad occasionally would playfully comment on the way home that my brother and I were “marked men.” In fact, I have never known a day in which I was not aware of being part of God’s kingdom, or, as the Heidelberg Catechism says, that I “belong to God.” Of course, I’ve had doubts in college and beyond, but those doubts were worked out within the household of faith.

In my working life I tried hard, in the contingent circumstances of academic life, to be a faithful person. So it was natural that one of my books would be titled History Through the Eyes of Faith. Praying the petition in the Lord’s Prayer – thy Kingdom come – was a sincere hope and expectation of what it might be like when the shalom of God came among us, both now and in the future, that is, after Gabriel’s trumpet blows.

Yes, American and Christian went together.

Yet, what my upbringing did not prepare me for was the ways in which being a patriotic American and a serious Christian might come into conflict. What my parents believed in, as did patriots before and after them, are the ideals for which America stands; what our iconic lady shows forth at the front door of our country — Liberty.

In 1831, at the Park Street Church on the Boston Common, a young seminarian named Samuel Smith combined with the church’s famed organist, Lowell Mason, to give words and a re-worked melody to a song that many still believe should be the national anthem, and largely functioned as such before the current less-singable song was adopted a century after “America” was first sung.
My country, ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims’ pride,
From ev’ry mountainside
Let freedom ring.

That song was later featured in one of the greatest speeches in American history, the 1963 speech by Dr. Martin Luther King – “I Have a Dream” – in which he celebrated that ideal but found it wanting as applied to African Americans. It was with a sense of urgency that he called for freedom to ring from every mountainside, including mountains he named in whose shadows the reality of racist discrimination and exclusion were still being practiced.

For me, just graduating from college in that year of 1963, there was a growing recognition that my Christian values were precisely those, like Dr. King’s, that should be employed to give critique to the ways in which the American values were not being lived up to.

In college, as I read authors like Reinhold Niebuhr, William Stringfellow, and Howard Thurman, I came to see that I had to choose where my first loyalty lay – in the nation or in the kingdom. The Kingdom of God is, on earth, an international body, where my first loyalty and friendship is to those who name the Name, in whatever nation, tribe or tongue they may be found. Solidarity must be with them, in the first place, not the members of my birth nation, the USA. Further, the resources to critique my nation comes from the Bible and the traditions of Christian thinking developed by this international fraternity over two thousand years. It was hard to say it – when I first did – that I am a Christian first and an American second. That was not what I was raised to think in my patriotic home.

But that is not the end of the story. I later came to see that there was no need – as a trans-national Christian – to give up entirely on loving my birth nation. It is a contingent love but a real love. I still agree with my Dad that “this is a greatest country on earth,” in which a nation of immigrants has made the greatest economic and political success story in world history. I am very proud of my military service in my country’s name. But, one admits that America is flawed in many ways, and has not lived up to the ideals of liberty we all hold dear. It is precisely as a Christian and as an American that I can ask the nation to live up to what Christianity calls all of us to be, especially as it bears on treating all people with the dignity, respect and justice that God intends for all.

In an insightful book, published a few years ago, Jim Wallis refers to America’s Original Sin. He sees racism at the beginning and in the fabric of American life. As he points out, Americans nearly exterminated the aboriginal race and then enslaved another. That is very serious, and cruelly ironic, for a nation that believes itself to be – and proclaims to the world – the “sweet land of liberty.”

I still love July Fourth, both for the nostalgia of my growing up years and especially for the ideals we sing about in church and public places: “America” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” never fail to stir deep emotions of gratitude for what America has allowed for people like me and my family. But the day also gives me pause because, as a Christian, I am bound to recall that there are many for whom the promise of America life was, and is, not fulfilled. When one looks at our realities from a Kingdom perspective – how God meant it to be before sin made everything go so terribly wrong – one sees what needs to be done both for America to live up to its own proclaimed ideals and for Christians to follow in the way of the cross.

Ronald Wells

Ronald Wells is Professor of History, Emeritus, at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Among his many published works is The Best of the Reformed Journal, which he co-edited with James Bratt. He is a layman in the Episcopal Church.

11 Comments

  • John vanStaalduinen says:

    Great words. I agree that in on past, the American Dream WAS not able to be fulfilled, we DID have slavery as an example. But you mentioned that it IS still impossible. Where do you see specific examples of the roadblocks? And of course, we fail daily in our Christian living, or at least I do!

  • Sue Poll says:

    Thank you for expressing so concisely what I have been feeling for a long time. Great 4th of July blog!!

  • Harvey Kiekover says:

    Thank you for this blog—a beautiful balance of grateful appreciation and loving critique.

  • Dale Cooper says:

    An important piece, Ron. My heart joins with yours in both gratitude and lament.

  • Jon Pott says:

    Wonderful, Ron. A model of how to create space for generous conversation. Thanks.

    Jon Pott

  • Johannes Witte says:

    I am an immigrant who was blessed with what America offered to Dutch Christians. I continue to learn more and more about what was given to me has been denied to so many.
    Thanks Ron bringing this to focus this July 4th holiday.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Except for the immigrant part—my family heritage is mostly early Yankee—I had a similar upbringing and American Experience as Dr. Wells. Was it in his history class, or later in my own teaching preps that I encountered the fine point of grammar in my favorite patriotic song, “America the Beautiful”: “God shed his grace on thee” is not a past tense, done deal, but a looking forward to what has to be accomplished. The stanza has the understood (“May”) in front of the verb clause: (May) God shed his grace . . . and crown thy good with brotherhood / mend thy every flaw. . .” etc. That noble civic work is ever before us.

  • Jeanne Engelhard says:

    Perfect essay for the 4th. So right on! Thank you Ron!

  • Ron Zoutendam says:

    Excellent perspective! Only God can forgive us for the sins of the past (and the future). We could have done NO WORSE than our treatment of the NATIVE PEOPLE upon “white man’s” arrival on this continent. We could have done NO WORSE than the purchase and enslavement of BLACK AFRICANS! But those among us wanting us to remain a Christian nation must recognize, our failures. If we want American and Christian to “go together” . we, as members of the body and/or bride of Christ must do our best to correct our failures where possible and work to enable all peoples’ ability to sing “sweet land of liberty” and enable all to hear “let freedom ring”. If the Church doesn’t try do that, no one will

  • Fred D Mueller says:

    Well done. I wish I could have cited this as a footnote to my Fourth of July sermon last Sunday.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Ron, I did not read this right away but kept it because I knew it would say important things and it did. My now deceased husband was changed from being a patriotic Christian into being first a Christian and second a citizen when he joined the ROTC. His father advised him to do this to be an officer but when the guns went from small to large became a pacifist because he knew what those guns would do. He was not called to be in the army but if he had he would have gone as a pacifist. He stayed in ROTC for a year then he switched schools so was naturally disconnected. His thoughts about not fighting are based on the Bible and he did much thinking about the topic and stayed true to it his whole life. His younger brother was called to Viet Nam but was released from serving when they saw how strong and true his beliefs were.

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