Whose Cause?

"The cause of America is the cause of Christ." Who said that--Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson, Beverly LaHaye? Surprise: The words were uttered during the Revolutionary War by a Presbyterian minister named Robert Smith. And the comment reveals that from the very birth of our nation, many Christians have had a tendency to link faith with patriotism. Two-hundred-plus years ago, the "cause of America" was the American Revolution. Christians played a major role in securing political freedom from Great Britain--from John Witherspoon, who signed the Declaration of Independence, to the Revolutionary statesman Patrick Henry. The reason Christians were attracted to the Revolutionary cause was their deep sympathy for the political philosophy that drove it: republicanism with a small r. Republicanism was based on a realistic view of the human tendency toward sin and corruption. This philosophy called for a separation of powers, with checks and balances to ensure that no one group gained too much power. Republicanism held that citizens possess rights grounded in nature and given by God, not the state. Above all, republicanism taught that good government wasn't possible without a virtuous citizenry. Christians enthusiastically agreed with this approach to government. They threw their hearts and very lives into the battle with Great Britain to protect republican values. Yet, as Mark Noll points out in One Nation Under God?, many Christian patriots carried this philosophy too far. As tensions rose between the colonies and the mother country, Christians began to equate republican virtues with the gospel itself. The Christian teaching on freedom from sin was merged with the republican theme of freedom from political tyranny. For example, one New England pastor, Samuel Sherwood, insisted that "God almighty, with all the powers of heaven, is on our side." Sherwood identified the seven-headed beast of Revelation 13 with what he called "the corrupt system of tyranny and oppression" that reigned in England. Other revolutionaries referred to themselves as the "darlings of Providence" and "the Lord's anointed." This overidentification of faith with politics could only damage the faith. In tying the gospel so closely to a civil cause, Christian patriots compromised the independent role of the church in society. After all, George Washington was not Moses leading God's people out of bondage, as the rhetoric of the time pictured him. The patriots lost sight of that separate domain of the Spirit that transcends the domain of the state. Contemporary Christians have much to learn from our own history. Today it's not unusual to see Christians on both the left and the right identifying their pet political causes with Christ. Now, of course, we ought to be fighting moral causes in the political arena. And we need to approach all issues informed by what Scripture teaches. But we have to guard against triumphalistic, political rhetoric or wrapping the cross in the flag. We must recognize always the supremacy of Christ and His kingdom, to whom we pledge our first and foremost loyalty. Politics is a legitimate endeavor, but you and I must never forget that the spiritual battles of Christ's kingdom cannot be waged with the political weapons of this world. The cause of America is crucially important. But it is not necessarily the cause of Christ.  


Chuck Colson


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