From the nation’s infancy, American political leaders have used the language of Scripture for various purposes.
For example, consider these passages from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1865:
“It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.
“The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ … Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.
“Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Lincoln, who is rightly regarded as one of the nation’s greatest leaders, weaves into these few lines two passages from the Gospel of Matthew and one from Psalm 19.
So, what explains the uproar over Vice President Mike Pence’s recent use of Hebrews 12:1-2 and 2 Corinthians 3:17?
In a speech given at Fort McHenry, Pence said, “So, let’s run the race marked out for us. Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents. Let’s fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire. And let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith and our freedom and never forget that where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. That means freedom always wins.”
Given our current political climate, it’s not surprising that many were pleased to hear these words, while others were greatly angered.
In my opinion, Pence’s remarks were deeply wrong, but not necessarily for the reasons many have given.
First, this is not, as some have thought, an example of Christian nationalism, the view that the United States should be a Christian nation.
Pence’s remarks don’t contain a vision of what the nation should become; they contain a vision of what Christianity should become.
Pence’s remarks are, as has been pointed out, an example of the use of Scripture for the sake of civil religion. That, though, as Lincoln’s address shows us, does not make it wrong.
More controversially, it is not even wrong for simply substituting “Old Glory” for “Jesus” in the language of Hebrews.
The heroism for which Sergeant William Harvey Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor, portrayed in the film, “Glory,” reveals the power of “fixing our eyes on Old Glory” in appropriate circumstances.
The language of Scripture is beautiful, powerful and part of our linguistic fabric as Americans. To borrow that language for good purposes is not necessarily wrong.
The vice president’s use of Scripture, in this case, though was, in fact, deeply wrong.
Pence urges us to keep our eyes fixed, not only on “Old Glory,” but also on “this land” and on “the author and perfecter of our faith.”
One cannot keep one’s eyes fixed on three things, unless those three things are really just the same thing.
So, Pence’s mandate, in essence, equates God with the flag and the nation, and this is idolatry indeed.
This is a clear case of what Augustine calls “disordered love.” Love is disordered when it seeks ultimate happiness and fulfillment in temporal and finite objects, be they possessions, careers or nations.
Augustine viewed reality as a hierarchical structure in which degrees of being were also degrees of value.
Acknowledging reality requires subordinating lesser goods to greater goods, the highest good being God. When one of these finite goods is put in God’s rightful place, the result is idolatry.
Loving the country does not mean we fail to see its many faults. Recognizing the country’s faults does not mean we do not also recognize its greatness.
Loving the country is not wrong if our love is appropriate to the country as what it is, a human institution.
Genuine love is to love as God does, and God’s love is never disordered. So, equating the country with God and God’s Kingdom is not only idolatrous, it’s not even genuine love for the country.