Daryl Cornett: Being Christian and American

One reason many American evangelicals get in such a twist in regard to politics is because we fail to put into proper relationship our being Christian and being American.

We possess both identities simultaneously; however, we need to keep in view some key differences that will help at least keep our hearts calmer, our mouths milder and our hope affixed to the right source.

The proper relationship between Christian and American rests in which identity I allow to encompass the other. Christians have lived for the past two millennia in different places within different kinds of political realities. They have lived in environments that have been hostile to their faith, some more friendly, and some shaped to some degree by it.

Regardless, Christians are always first and foremost followers of Jesus and citizens of heaven. Secondly, they are citizens of the places in which they physically reside.

For me, this means that I always view my citizenship as an American through the lens of my faith, and the lens of my faith is only in focus as far as it is true to the precepts and principles of the Bible. Here are few truths that flow from this perspective.

1. I am a Christian forever, and I am an American temporarily.

My identity in Christ stretches back to the foundations of the earth and will extend beyond this life into eternity. Before I was formed God knew me and the life I live now in Christ is imperishable. I became an American on Jan. 12, 1967. When I die I will no longer be an American. That reality will forever be in the past. My identity in Christ is now and forever.

2. I am a Christian with an infallible guide, and I am an American with a flawed political system.

My identity in Christ comes with a completely trustworthy guide in the Bible. It is the God-breathed revelation that will endure forever to which I can go to know God, myself and how to live in proper relationship with Him and others. As Americans, we have guiding documents that men have produced. No matter what quality of sound reason, intelligence or enlightenment that went into them, they have been and always will be imperfect. Our laws and policies always have been inequitable to some degree. All the systems that come from man are limited, imperfect and susceptible to corruption. We work for justice, but understand that justice will falter and fail when leaders do not walk with God.

3. I am a Christian whose conscience belongs to God, and I am an American who has a duty to country.

My eternal life in Christ necessitates that my conscience has a sole owner. This ownership is absolute and final. Therefore, my decisions, both small and great, are submitted to Christ's lordship. My fear is reserved for Him alone. He must exercise complete dominion over my every thought and action. As an American I have a God-given responsibility to my country and its leaders. I am to submit to the authority God has granted them and to pay my taxes. I am to pray that they will govern righteously. It is the responsibility of leaders to reflect His righteousness in the manner in which they govern. However, no matter what I think of the job they are doing, I am called by my only master to submit and honor my government, seeking to be a model, law-abiding citizen.

4. I am a Christian with inalienable rights, and I am an American whose rights and freedoms can change.

This may be our most glaring blind spot. Political freedoms for American Christians are typically perceived as a God-given right. It's one thing to know that the founders of the country may have thought this, but it is another thing to point to the Word of God and make the case. I find this idea in the Declaration of Independence but not in the Bible. In actuality, my freedoms, privileges and even my life can be taken away from me by governing authorities. This has been true for many Christians. If you could ask the black Christians living in our country throughout most of our history, they might indeed testify to this reality. The earliest Christians living under Roman emperors could confirm the same as well as many others from history and in places in the world today.

However, your freedom in Christ and your inheritance as a child of God is inalienable. An earthly government might take away your physical freedom or even your life but not what you possess in Christ. This is all that is truly inalienable. It is nice to live in a context with freedom and justice, but it's not the ultimate treasure for the Christian.

We must be careful to be grateful for our American heritage and the freedoms that we enjoy. It is certainly appropriate to work to defend those freedoms and protect them in a respectful manner honoring to God. However, we must never turn the American ideal, American individualism or personal freedom into an idol. We must only worship God with our whole lives while we live as honorable citizens of our country.

Daryl C. Cornett is pastor of First Baptist Church in Hazard, Ky., a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and former associate professor of church history at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Cordova, Tenn.

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