In certain sectors of the Christian world, such patriotic excess is in marked decline. For several years a gifted set of Roman Catholic thinkers, sometimes known as integralists—Edmund Waldstein and Adrian Vermeule among them—have taken a dim view of the American founding and its subsequent political traditions. For them, the cultural pathologies deforming American life stem directly from the Lockean liberalism the Founders embraced when creating a new government.
On the Protestant side, self-described Christian nationalists such as Stephen Wolfe and Doug Wilson are also, by a similar logic, implicitly critical of July Fourth festivities. This group echoes Catholic criticisms of America’s liberal, secular polity. These Protestants propose a return to pre-1776 patterns of government, such as John Calvin’s Geneva or John Winthrop’s Boston. In Protestant versions of Christendom, the civil magistrate supported churches and cajoled citizens to practice faith.
For Christian critics of the American experiment, patriotism is misguided if not corrupt because the nation no longer honors God through its ceremonies and institutions. These critics also abhor the tendency to define the U.S., with all its might and wealth, as a redeemer nation. That kind of faith in America, in their view, ignores how far the nation has fallen from true religion.
The obvious challenge for Christian critics of secular America is to figure out where non-Christians—or the wrong kinds of Christians—fit in their preferred God-fearing state. That was the question the American Founders contemplated, and it’s worth contemplating the genius of their answer.
The settlement hammered out in the 1780s somehow made room for all religious groups—including, eventually, skeptics and atheists. The full measure of religious freedom took a while to include Catholics, Mormons and Jews. But in time religious disestablishment freed all religious groups from governmental restrictions. The downside, for churches that had been established, was the loss of the government’s financial support. But the benefits more than compensated for the loss. Religious groups were free, and remain so, to practice their convictions without seeking the state’s approval.
In the Founders’ version of American greatness, if Christians wanted to complain about the nation’s religious decline, they had only themselves to blame. The American founding assigned government a limited role and turned over many social functions—including religion—to institutions outside the state. The U.S. was conceived as a nation that relied on civic associations, private organizations and virtuous citizens who learned morality at church, in the home and in school.
Christian believers have good reason to celebrate the Fourth—not because the country is carrying out a divine mission but rather because it makes room for people like them to practice their faith as they like. Instead of American “greatness” stemming from conformity to Christian norms, America is “great” because churches can thrive in it. American patriotism distinguishes the functions of government from the substance of faith, which is why it can unite believers of all kinds in celebrations of the founding.
D. G. Hart | “Christians Err if They Give Up on America” | Wall Street Journal | June 29, 2023
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