I am a natural born U.S. citizen; I am practically a natural born Christian, too.
I was, after all, born on U.S. soil to American parents who took me to church for the first time when I was 10 days old.
My growing-up years were marked by a seemingly natural and comfortable alliance between love for God and love for country.
At Vacation Bible School, we pledged allegiance to the United States and Christian flags with absolutely no sense of irony.
It was made clear to me that good Christians supported their country, even if its actions ran counter to the teachings of Jesus.
I was born in that little window that kept me from even having to register for the draft.
However, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that if I ever had to kill people because of my devotion to country, I would be honored. I also knew if I refused to kill people because of my devotion to Christ, I would be vilified.
That’s just one (and an extreme one, at that) example of the tensions that can arise for someone trying to be both a faithful Christian and a faithful U.S. citizen.
Over the years, I began to try to think seriously and critically about those tensions; specifically, I began to think about how I and others could appropriately live in the United States as Christian citizens.
The position that I developed could be summarized as follows: “A Christian’s allegiance to Jesus Christ should always come before any other allegiance, including the allegiance to country.”
To put it negatively, “A Christian should never put being American ahead of being Christian.”
Things get complicated pretty quickly, though.
Take, for example, the matter of a Christian’s stance toward U.S. economic policies and practices.
It seems to me that many Christians in the United States are much more “American” when it comes to economics than they are “Christian.”
I am neither an economist nor the son of an economist, but we all know that the heart and soul of the U.S. economic system is capitalism.
According to Wikipedia, “Capitalism is an economic system that is based on private ownership of the means of production and the creation of goods or services for profit. Competitive markets, wage labor, capital accumulation, voluntary exchange and personal finance are also considered capitalistic.”
Ideally, everyone has the chance to profit in and from such a system. If I operate a successful business, everyone associated with my business (shareholders, employees, vendors and so on) might reap the benefits.
And, if I am a Christian operating a business, then ideally grace, love and generosity will be churned out along with profits.
Still, it is difficult to make a case that capitalism is a Christian system or is even particularly compatible with Christian practice, given that it is based on competitiveness that all too often degenerates into making a profit at any cost – even if that cost is a human one – and into an atmosphere of greed and selfishness.
It was Jesus who said, “You cannot serve God and money,” and successful capitalism practically necessitates, when push comes to shove, having God be the one eliminated from the equation if the choice has to be made.
It seems to me, too, that many professed followers of Christ who put capitalism ahead of their Christianity do not take seriously enough the very clear bias of God – as God is revealed in the Bible – toward the poor and the helpless.
Now, I do think that many folks sincerely believe that, left to itself and to the hard work of business owners and operators and of their employees, the free market will eventually create a situation in which the rising waters of profit will float all boats.
I also know that many people try very hard to participate in the capitalist system in a way that honors Christ; I know that many such folks do everything they can to be honest, fair and charitable in ways that they make and invest their profits.
Some of us find ourselves wanting a U.S. society that cares for the poor and the helpless as much as, and maybe even more than, it does for the preservation of wealth (although, in the interest of full disclosure, let me make it clear that I am doing what I can to preserve enough wealth to be able to eat after I retire, if I ever do).
I’m not convinced that we couldn’t have it both ways – that is, that we couldn’t foster a robust business climate that still finds a way, through the combined efforts of government, churches and nonprofits, to protect and care for the poor and helpless among us.
I furthermore believe that Christians could and should be in the forefront of such an effort.
My thoughts on this subject are complicated by my belief, as expressed elsewhere, that a nation is not capable of being Christian, and thus to talk about a “Christian America” is to employ a misnomer.
I am aware of the tension between that conviction and my desire to have my nation display in its policies and practices the emphases that characterize basic Christianity, namely, “to care for orphans and widows” (James 1:27) and robust prophetic religion (note the consistent emphasis of the Hebrew prophets on the responsibilities of the “haves” toward the “have nots,” of the 1 percent to the 99 percent, if you will).
Having said that, though, I think it’s fair to observe that what I want my nation to practice is basic kindness, fairness and compassion, emphases that bleed across religious lines and indeed are a part of just being decent human beings. So yes, “secular humanists” could and can participate, too.
This much I know: if we follow Christ, our priority is our faithfulness to him and to his ways, ways that are best described by the words “service” and “sacrifice,” words that are difficult to apply and concepts that can be difficult to live out if we buy wholeheartedly into any other way, even if it is the American way.
Michael Ruffin is pastor of First Baptist Church in Fitzgerald, Ga. He blogs at On the Jericho Road.
Curriculum editor with Smyth & Helwys Publishing in Macon, Georgia.