Honest Patriotism

At the 223rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 2018, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy will present a resolution for consideration entitled “Honest Patriotism.”  The draft of this resolution can be found here.  Building on Donald Shriver’s work in his 2005 book Honest Patriots, the resolution lifts up this time and place as crying out for authentic Christian witness.  It seeks to reclaim a Reformed vision of faithful participation in the body politic as a vital part of our shared calling.  It calls on the church to be a prophetic voice against “public dishonesty and chauvinistic nationalism” while at the same time modeling a different way of being in our own interactions with each other.

Lifting up honesty as a paramount Christian virtue may seem a bit obvious.  It sits fairly unambiguously in the middle of the Ten Commandments.  But in this time and place, it is incumbent upon us to reaffirm this value.  Honesty is not simply best policy.  It is vital to the way we organize ourselves into communities.

Public dishonesty corrodes the trust which is integral to the proper functioning of a society.  When we lie to each other in private, the dangers and hurts are powerful enough.  We display a lack of respect for our conversation partners and we damage our own credibility.  But when dishonesty becomes a default position in our public speech, the stakes are even higher. We open up the possibility of descending into a world where facts don’t matter, where “winning” a rhetorical joust becomes more important than the truth.  Public dishonesty is fatal to a republic built upon the sharing of ideas and the quest for a common good.

And then there is the question of patriotism.  This may be of more controversy in Christian circles.  All of us have heard arguments about keeping our church lives separate from our political lives.  However, if we take our Reformed heritage seriously, we must affirm the value of good government as ordained by God.  We must further accept our responsibilities to nurture and participate in God’s commonwealth.  Part of our calling as Christians, at least according to our Reformed forbears, is to be a prophetic voice, supporting our leaders as they strive towards a more perfect justice, and holding them accountable when they violate the trust of the people.

As much as we might want to stay away from the fray (and given the current level of debate, that option becomes more and more tempting) we must know that versions of our faith are already part of the political conversation, and they are loud.  What is our response, as people of faith, when we hear a legislator use the incarnation of Jesus as an excuse for child abuse? What is our response when a prominent Christian evangelist calls Islam “wicked and evil”?  What is our response when a pastor calls Hurricane Harvey God’s punishment for Houston’s support of LGBTQ rights?

The question going forward is what version of the Gospel will our country hear?  If we cede the field to those who attach the name of Jesus to hatred, division, and violence we have made a political decision.  We have chosen to accept, by our silence, these pernicious teachings.  When we exempt ourselves from being Christians in our public lives, we are acting out a theology.  But is it a faithful one?

Robert Trawick is an Associate Professor of philosophy and religious studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College.  He is a Ruling Elder at Germonds Presbyterian Church in New City, NY and a former moderator of the Hudson River Presbytery.

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