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by ProfDave, ©2020

Image: sspiehs3, Pixabay, License

(Sep. 18, 2020) — “If God doesn’t punish America, He’ll have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorra” (traditional).  Are we “one nation under God?”  Which God?  Our money still says “In God we trust,” but which God is that?  Jehovah or money?  Just asking.

Will the judgment of God come upon America?  Yes.  Reality discipline is already upon us.  The chain of consequences has hit the streets.  God is just.  The USA will get its fair share of destruction before the end.  A nation that forgets God will most certainly come to a bad end, sooner or later.  Will the judgment of God fall upon the Church?  Yes.  Judgment begins at the house of God, so Christians can expect to get it first.  The purpose of God’s discipline of His people is repentance – the refining fire.  Those who only play church will scatter or repent.  The humble and the broken will inherit the earth.

Pastor preached last Sunday on the prayer of Daniel.

O Lord, great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant and mercy with those who love Him, and with those who keep His commandments, we have sinned and committed iniquity, we have done wickedly and rebelled, even by departing from Your precepts and Your judgments.  Neither have we heeded Your servants the prophets, who spoke in Your name to our kings and our princes, to our fathers and all the people of the land (Daniel 9:4-6).

Israel had deserted the Almighty over and over again for pagan gods of horror, of prosperity and of lust.  At last the Almighty had abandoned them to destruction and captivity by the great Babylonian Empire.  Daniel had been a young teen, now he is an old man.  He knew that the prophet Jeremiah had predicted Jewish restoration after 70 years, so he prayed for one more chance for his people to serve God in faithfulness.  At the end of a long righteous life, Daniel had no part in his people’s sin and does not expect to see Jerusalem himself, but he prays a prayer of corporate repentance for his people.  So should we.

From the first there were two versions of the American dream – Plymouth and Jamestown, the ideal and the commercial, the ‘city on the hill’ and ‘the haunts of wretchedness and greed.’  Of course, there were ‘Plymouth’ people in Virginia and ‘Jamestown’ people in Massachusetts. And so today.  Were we an example to all the world of a righteous commonwealth of ‘liberty and justice for all?’ Or were we unregulated conquerors and exploiters of a land not our own, bringing our old-world vices with us?  Yes, both.

Is Daniel’s prayer an example for us?  Should we repent on behalf of America or of the American church?  Yes, both.  Our founders believed that America, like Israel, had a special relationship with God.  The Pilgrims saw themselves as recapitulating Israel in the wilderness – the Atlantic was their desert – and saw evidence of the divine hand on every side.  The Declaration of Independence and so many other founding documents were an appeal to Providence.  ‘Manifest Destiny’ and ‘American exceptionalism’ are extrapolations from providential blessings.  But do the vows of our founders constitute a covenant with God?  We must confess that we have been uniquely blessed as a nation, in our history, our resources, our security, and our Constitution.  We should at least be grateful.  Are Americans the people of God?  Or is America more or less the Babylon where the Christians are exiled?

In a sense, the United States has been a “nation under God.”  The intellectual life of the colonies was dominated by Puritan clergy in the north and Anglican clergy in the South.  The system of public education was based on the Bible and almost every university before the Civil War was established to prepare ministers of the gospel.  The Great Awakening set the stage for the Revolution and the Second Awakening the spiritual tone of the new republic.  From 1830 to 1914 evangelical Protestantism dominated American life and culture.  Only in the 20th century did pluralism and secularism challenge that domination.  What did the church do with all that power?

“Of Plymouth Plantation” by William Bradford, public domain

I am no authority on American history, but I did read Governor Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation.”  The leaders of the Mayflower pilgrims regarded their colony as a ‘plantation’ of God.  They were the real thing, a sincere congregation of Separatists fleeing religious persecution in England along with a variety of other individuals under their influence.  Providentially they found a land emptied by disease, but they conscientiously treated their aboriginal neighbors with respect as bearers of God’s image.  The same could not be said of contemporary Jamestown, VA, where entrepreneurs imitated Spanish plantation agriculture, dealt treacherously with their neighbors and importing slave labor.  Southern colonies became dependent on labor-intensive export agriculture.  The other colonies fed themselves but depended on trade and industry for wealth.  Northern churches preached against slavery to people who had little use for slaves.  Southern churches preached to people who depended on un-free labor for their wealth – as a fact of life.  Hmmh.  Which God did they trust?  Jehovah or money?

Our history, like all other nations, is a saga of good and evil, heroes and villains, high ideals and sordid failure.  What has been the responsibility of the church?  From colonial times through the ‘Evangelical century,’ churches have been part of the establishment and the clergy community leaders.  They had a major role in the Revolution.  God was the king who replaced George III.  The constitution made the church equal to, not subordinate to the state.   Nineteenth century evangelicals led the anti-slavery crusade and just about every other movement of social reform.  But the churches also trimmed their message to the sins of their parishioners, compromising with the gods of wealth and power.  The Christian church provided American ideals almost exclusively 1620-1920, but was unable to stamp out racism, alcoholism, corporate greed, xenophobia or the double standard between men and women in society.

Has the Christian church failed America?  You could say that the church provided moral leadership to the nation up until the 1960’s, though it encountered increasing noise in the 20th century.  On the other hand, by any objective standard, it did not succeed in ushering in any sort of millennium of righteousness.  In the 50’s everyone paid lip-service to the Bible, the Ten Commandments, marriage and Christian morality – even while living in violation of all of the above.  Each school day began with prayer, the Ten Commandments was on the wall and a big King James bible sat on the teacher’s desk, but spirituality was tepid.  Perhaps Baby Boomers were justified in accusing their parents of hypocrisy.  Christians, especially Evangelicals, were in the forefront of just about every social reform, but not all of them.  Christian voices spoke truth to power, but not all of them.  Southern churches split their denominations to provide rationalization and defense of slavery and then segregation.  Perhaps a majority were content to let the world go to h*** in a handbasket while pursuing their own salvation and comfort.  The world has yet to see what the church could do if it were united and committed to changing the world.  But perhaps the world doesn’t want to be changed.

It isn’t that simple.  Christians believe that we all are broken and living in a broken world – in Bible language, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Clearly, America is broken – always has been, always will be until Christ comes in judgment and cleans it all up.  The Christian church is broken, too, and so are you and I.  At the same time, every son of Adam and daughter of Eve bears the image of God.  We do good by the grace of God and we do evil on our own – and need to repent.  Even at our best, our consciences are warped, relative to God’s holiness, by our times and by our culture.  Thus, some of the greatest of America’s founders held – and perhaps mistreated – slaves while others conducted their businesses in ways that would make Jesus cringe.  Our pioneers, from Columbus onwards, ranged Indian lands.  Many of them tried to live at peace and to share Christianity, and improve native lives, but some did not.  When we stand before the Judge of all the earth, what exploitation and crookedness will we have to answer for?  Christ died for all those sins, theirs and ours. So, from the beginning there was both good and evil in America – plenty of things to regret and plenty of things to admire.

Did the church fail?  Yes and no.  Religious people and religious leaders gave moral leadership to the nation, but they were not united.  Some compromised with the evils of their time.  Others remained silent and disengaged.  In the wider society some accepted the conscience taught by Christianity and Judaism, while others ignored and violated it in pursuit of self, gain and pleasure.

Schoolchildren reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, 1899, Library of Congress

In the 20th century, the dilution of Christian conscience in society accelerated while the church became muted.  The influence of Christianity on the American conscience has declined precipitously in my lifetime.  Not only have biblical and spiritual arguments disappeared from public policy formation, but such appeals have been effectively forbidden.  Faith, once an informal requirement for public trust, is becoming a political liability, as we have heard in confirmation hearings.  Separation of church and state, once our first freedom, has now become a restriction of God to church buildings and private prayers.  One party has removed “One nation under God” from the pledge of allegiance.  Truly, we are no longer “one nation” and at least half that nation is no longer “under God.”

The process of secularization has been with us for a long time.  Perhaps it began as our great universities ceased to see themselves as moral agents, builders of Christian character, in the late nineteenth century.  The withdrawal of Fundamentalism from “the world” didn’t help, nor the failure of Prohibition.  Darwin, Marx and Freud provided intellectual respectability for alternative worldviews.  Affluence provided distraction.  Then in 1958 prayer was banned in the schools and the religious and patriotic exercises that anchored our schooldays crumbled away.  Perhaps the nation simply got tired of acknowledging ideals that contradicted their mediocre lives.  Then came the accusations of hypocrisy by the baby boomers. The USA had been, in their view, a nation of hypocrites, now it became, for them a nation of apostates.

Have Christian pulpits consistently presented the gospel?  Pretty much.  Have the churches spoken truth to power in matters of right and wrong?  The record is mixed, with notable blind spots, but major victories.  In the last sixty years you might say that power has rejected and stifled those voices.  In 1954 the Johnson Amendment went into effect, stifling the voice of the pulpit in anything political through the tax code.  The pulpit has largely acquiesced and many clergy stopped leading.

But the church is not just its pulpit.  The body of Christ is people – all of them.  How are we doing with spreading the Good News, speaking truth to power, and representing the kingdom and righteousness of God?  Hmmh.  Most Americans claim to be Christians and half of us claim church membership.  Do we – that half – lead the culture according to the Bible or are we led by the culture away from the Bible?  Do we live right or just like everybody else?  Do we stand up for what is right or do we remain seated?  Can we escape responsibility for the mess America is in?  Hmmh!

Is my pastor right in calling on his congregation to pray the Prophet Daniel’s prayer of repentance over America?  Repentance is always a good thing at all levels.  It is the path to spiritual growth.  Guilt is a good thing if it leads us to repentance.  Guilt stifled leads to condemnation and a very unpleasant eternity.  It isn’t enough for us to sit in the bleachers and criticize our world for its hatred, greed, objectification and racism.  We need to confess and turn from our own wickedness.  Do we hate our enemies?  Do we lust after bodies that don’t belong to us?  Do we covet and envy what others have?  Do we resent those who have hurt us?  Do we fear or disrespect those who are different?  Turn around and face the other way.  Ask for help in taking one step at a time in the right direction.  Take the beam out of your own eye and you can help others with specks in theirs.

jeffjacobs1990, Pixabay, License

The church needs to be the church, not just a right little, tight little, polite little island in a heathen sea.  It needs to return to God, the objective unedited God of the Bible – not the subjective little god as we would have him, not the changing little god of our culture, not the small ‘g’ pantheon of money, sex and power.  If the church returns to the Almighty, then it can speak with one voice and have something to say to the world at large.  “If My people, who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (II Chronicles 7:14).

The USA has done more than its share of good in the world, delivering Europe and Asia from oppression twice and sending out missionaries and foreign aid – perhaps more than the rest of the world put together.  But there has always been Jamestown as well as Plymouth.  That America has sinned in its past is undeniable.  “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” is Christian doctrine.  America is still sinning today in its racial, class and partisan hatreds, its objectification of women, and its holocaust of the unborn.  Indeed, America is in open rebellion against God.  America needs to repent, to turn from its wicked ways and return to the Almighty.  As Americans we need to fall on our faces and beg for mercy.

The Christian church in America has also sinned.  It has enabled the pride of oppressors and cast a cape of respectability over rich and powerful members.  It has compromised with the spirits -the gods – of the times and the unholy trinity of money, sex and power.  It has been reluctant to separate itself from the world and the culture around it.  It has been devoted to religious institutions instead of the Bridegroom.  It has compromised its message.  Now it is silent about sin, righteousness and judgment. The church needs to repent, turn from its wicked ways and return to the Almighty. As Christians we need to fall on our faces and beg for mercy.

So are Americans the backslidden people of God or is it the American church?  Yes, both.  Does the USA need to repent of its sins and return to God or is it the church?  Yes, both.  Is America simply pagan and we should expect nothing better than pagan behavior?  Perhaps not.  Does God have a covenant relationship with the USA, bound by the vows of its founders?  Perhaps not.  Or does God only make covenants with individuals these days?  There are layers of truth in all these questions.  What do you think?

Are you part of Plymouth Plantation?  Or are you on the Jamestown plantation?  A planting of God or of gain and exploitation?  It is true: there is good and evil in each one of us, in our past and in our present.  We are evil when we bind others as objects of our pleasure and gain, disrespecting the image of God in them.  We are evil when we deliberately ignore and rebel against God, His person and His law.  Good and evil are embedded in the best of us, in the Christians who do not live consistently and who hide the truth and in the general population who ignore the existence of God.  Let’s be part of the solution.  Repent and believe the gospel.

David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College.  He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota.  He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020).  He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.”

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