+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It being Independence Day, and with my having just taught a citizenship merit badge class at scout camp last week, a couple of interesting facts about our Church’s history, strike me as significant. First, it is interesting that the majority of Anglicans in the eighteenth century were Tories, loyal to the British Crown. My one gripe about the musical Hamilton, which we finally saw after the filmed version came to Disney+ in December, is that it makes fun of poor Samuel Seabury, the first bishop in the American Episcopal Church. Anyway a result of this is that the Episcopal Church became much smaller than it would have been, because so many of our number (and especially priests) fled to Canada during the Revolutionary War. I must admit that we found ourselves on the losing side of that particular issue.
A second, more important fact is that our own Anglican heritage, the history of being started as an established state church, has always made the Episcopal Church a little bit less willing to buy in completely to the American institution of the separation of Church and State. Our own brand of Christianity, had grown used to being not only the dominant religious expression but the official state church, not only in England, but in places like Virginia and South Carolina until well into the nineteenth century, decades after the separation of Church and State was officially established in the First Amendment. This is an historic fact which is much overlooked, and tends to surprise people when they learn of it.
While eventually even the longest holdout, Virginia, completed disestablishment the Episcopal Church removing all legal preferential treatment in (get this!) 1840, our church maintained an unofficial status as the quasi-established church of our own country until well into the 1960s. This is why almost every president of the United States, despite his affiliation prior to taking office, has at least occasionally attended St. John’s, LaFayette Square- the Episcopal parish closest to the White House; this is why there are still a great many state funerals and semi-official national events which take place at the National Cathedral (technically, the Cathedral Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and this is why the Episcopal Church has historically sent more military chaplains around the world with our troops than any other religious body, despite our relatively small size.
All of this is by way of introducing a question, which I am not smart enough to answer, but which should give us food for thought. At risk of sounding like one of those eighteenth century Tories who had to run off to Canada, I would humbly pose the following question: Is there not some place where there ought to be interaction between the Church and the State? Is there a way in which citizenship and Christian commitment can be held together, such that we are not “religious creatures” at church and at home and “political creatures” on Election Day and in front of the daily news broadcast? Cannot the fact that we are Christians impinge upon the fact that we are Americans, and even inform how we behave as members of the body politic?
It seems that the Prophet Ezekiel thought so. God told the prophet “I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me.” A nation, a political body which had been chosen by God, required a voice of religious and moral truth to get it back on the straight and narrow. Though our own nation is not “chosen” in the same way as ancient Israel was, we are nonetheless, and for all our problems, blessed by God with a pretty great degree of freedom, prosperity, and peace. Is it so far beyond the realm of possibility that the Church might from time to time fulfill the prophetic role of speaking the truth in love to power, that the powers and principalities of the world might become more faithful to the will of God?
This is dangerous territory, not only because it makes the separation of Church and State murky, but because there are plenty of good, faithful Christians whose political ideologies are significantly different my own. I suspect that if a poll on hot button political issues were to be taken in our own parish there would be a great deal of diversity and disagreement on most issues. So, I want to avoid suggesting that there is a clear Christian imperative which should make the Church’s stance on every policy and piece of legislation obvious. There are those that believe that such clarity is always possible and obvious, and that’s fine, but I’m not one of them. As it happens, I receive much more pushback due to not commenting on every political issue that arises than on preaching from a political stance with which one might disagree. I take it as a point of pride, though others may not see it this way, because I try to recognize that in the great majority of issues du’jour, I truly believe that Christians of good conscience can, in fact, disagree.
What I do want to suggest, though, is that none of us can possibly entirely divorce himself or herself from Christian principles when he or she exercises civic rights and responsibilities. The founding fathers of our own country established a system where an official national church would be impossible, but most of them (with the exception of the most rank Deists like Jefferson) also believed that the Hand of Divine Providence, the Will of God, had some role to play in our common purpose as a nation. In truth, they probably didn’t see as strong a distinction between the life of the soul and political life as we sometimes think they did. The biblical worldview, epitomized by Ezekiel and the other prophets—who spoke the Word of God to the kings of the nations, including their own nation, Israel—saw no such distinction.
For most of us this means that we don’t need to set aside our Christian principles when we enter the ballot box or the public square. We have a valid perspective to contribute to the commonwealth, to the governance of the land we share with so many people of various creeds.
For others this might mean a task somewhat more in the mode of Ezekiel’s, namely the prophetic task of calling a nation back to God or to His Will on a given issue. Often, and most fruitfully, this is accomplished when there is some degree of consensus among Christians on said issue. Even when this is the case, though, it can lead to rejection. God said as much to Ezekiel, and I think that Jesus was getting at the same phenomenon when he told his apostles that a prophet is without honor in his hometown. This danger was more apparent in the days of the Roman Empire and even today under more severe regimes in certain parts of the world. It can happen here at home as well, though, and Martin Luther King was as good an example as any of a prophet who had to undergo rejection and dishonor and even death.
Ultimately, the prophetic task, if it truly be prophetic, will be toward the end of establishing the principles of the Kingdom of God: the sick are healed, the poor are given Good News, life is affirmed rather than death, and brethren live together in unity. These are neither conservative nor liberal principles, they’re Christian principles.
In any event, I think that what we learn from the prophetic gift of Ezekiel and others is that there is not so strong a distinction between being a fellow-countryman and a coreligionist. We need not be sometimes Christian and sometimes American. Rather, the former and primary identity helps shape the latter. It is, in the final analysis, impossible to distance ourselves from the values which Christ and His Church instill in us in order to be secular patriots or something like that. We need not hesitate to pray for our country, and sometimes, like Ezekiel, we need to recognize when it has gone astray.
It’s probably good that we are free from the complications of having a state church, and it might even be good that the Episcopal Church’s de facto status as the quasi-State Church has eroded over the last half century.
Granted, it does make some things harder; when I was at Walsingham a couple years ago, one of the priests with whom I shared a table in the refectory said “I do not envy you American priests, because you have to raise your own money for the church.” As much as I’d love a £9 Billion Endowment for operations and salaries and tax money for building upkeep, not having that might actually give us more moral authority and the ability to speak the truth when it becomes necessary. Even so, let us remember on this Independence Day that as Christians we have not only the right but the responsibility to let our values and our status as Children of God bear upon every aspect of our lives, including the solemn task of citizenship. We must take on this task without the kind of hubris which claims that any of us knows God’s will any better than our sister or brother, but rather with the humility that accompanies the recognition that each is, in his or her own way, trying to live faithfully in service to the Will of God as he or she understands it.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen