One of the great gifts of the Baptist voice to the wider world of Christianity is the idea of the separation of church and state. In the United States, this voice gave direction, via the Constitution, that citizens of our nation should be free to worship (or not) according to the dictates of personal conscience, free from the interference of the state. This founding principle was a boon for those, such as many European Baptists, who had suffered discrimination or outright persecution at the hands of their national governments, with the state-sponsored church sometimes complicit.
I am grateful for contemporary Baptist watchdogs who continue to advocate for this principle of church and state, because I believe that we are seeing a trending diminishment of this “wall of separation.” While some fear state encroachment onto the free practice of religion, I am more concerned about “friendly fire” — the voluntary blurring within the church of what it means to be a good disciple of Jesus with what it means to be a good citizen of America. Sometimes, the two are happily in step. But not always. And when not, are Christians in the United States clear and ready to distinguish and choose?
Jim Baucom, my friend and pastor of Columbia Baptist Church inside the Washington Beltway, preached powerfully about this distinction on the Sunday following last year’s Supreme Court decision regarding same-sex marriage. He said, “I love my country. I pray for my country every day. But I know the difference between being an American and being a Christian. Do you?”
It’s a great question. Are we still clear about the distinction between our national citizenship and our citizenship in what Hebrews 11 calls “the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God,” that “better country, a heavenly one”?
Reinhold Niebuhr taught us long ago that “great nations are too strong to be destroyed by their foes, but they can easily be overcome by their pride,” and “the voice of the dissenter is often the conscience of the nation.” Patriotism is not the same as nationalism, because love of country is not the same as worship of country. It is not unpatriotic to criticize your nation when your nation fails to live up to its own highest values. But, in my humble opinion, it is not Christian to say, “My country, right or wrong.” Because my country, in spite of all that is right with it, and in spite of it being the “land that I love,” is sometimes wrong. It is not the Kingdom of God.
I cringe in our national political discourse any time partisans fuse national pride with religious identity. (Which is precisely what religious terrorists do.) And it becoming commonplace, as American politicians and voters alike bombast with uncritical arrogance and certainty about their exclusive monopoly on the truth. Where are the Baptists who, like Martin Luther King Jr., take on the patriotic duty of calling America to be true to what it says on paper, and the prophetic duty to understand that our final allegiance is to God, even when that means choosing God over country?
The vital conversations don’t contrast the political right and political left. They wrestle with what it means to be disciples who are “in but not of this world.”