July 2020

July 2020

Can American Christians Be Patriotic? Yes!

It’s tricky to be patriotic these days. We’ve been seeing a lot lately about racism as “America’s original sin.” Our national symbols, such as the American flag and the National Anthem, are being associated with racism. Key figures in our national history have been subjected to intense scrutiny regarding their views on race, and now even our Founding Fathers are coming under fire. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, for instance, both owned slaves, and American slavery has always been closely bound up with race. George Washington didn’t free his slaves until his death, and Thomas Jefferson never freed his slaves at all. How can we continue to look up to men who were so hypocritical as to express the principle that “all men are created equal,” while at the same time literally owning human beings who were born into bondage?

The more I learn, though, about America’s founding and the history of black slavery in our country, the more convinced I become that we still have much to be patriotic about, particularly as Christians.

American slavery, as horrendous as it was, did not begin as a racist institution. People of all races were being enslaved all over the world at the time that our country was being colonized. Newly available land in the seventeenth century opened up a large labor market, and that market was filled with a combination of white indentured servants from Europe and black slaves from Africa. These black slaves had been kidnapped by neighboring tribes—their fellow Africans—and sold to Europeans. As time went on, indentured servitude faded out of existence, and the labor requirements of the American colonies, particularly those in the south, were filled almost exclusively by black slaves. All of this took place before the formative ideas of the American Revolution came into being.

By the late eighteenth century, the American elites had adopted a new philosophy based on natural rights. They believed that every human being possesses the same innate right to life, liberty, and personal property, or what Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence euphemistically called “the pursuit of happiness.” They also believed that the sole purpose of government is to protect these rights. The U.S. Constitution was intended to create just such a government, as we see reflected in the Bill of Rights. God gives us our rights; government protects those rights.

Unfortunately for the Founding Fathers, when they came to embrace this philosophy, they found themselves in a society in which black slavery was an entrenched reality. They knew that the institution of slavery as they had inherited it contradicted their conviction that every human being innately possesses the God-given right to liberty. At the same time, they feared that if all slaves were freed at once, a devastating race war would ensue—and that fear was not unjustified. Thomas Jefferson famously expressed their quandary with this striking illustration: “We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” Furthermore, the Founding Fathers knew that if they condemned slavery as it predominated in the southern states, they would not be able to unite against Great Britain. Their solution was to tolerate slavery for the time being, in hopes that it would die out naturally over time.

As it happens, slavery did die out in the north. In the south, however, it only grew stronger, and in some ways much worse. In an effort to justify black slavery while also holding to the principle that “all men are created equal,” southern theorists developed the ideology of racism: they considered black slaves something less than human. Unfortunately, this sinful ideology outlived slavery itself. We still live with many of its harmful consequences today.

Does this mean that America is inherently racist? Hardly. Our Founding Fathers did the best they could under the circumstances, and the republic they founded ultimately provided the best possible environment for black Americans to attain recognition of the inherent God-given dignity that they share with their white neighbors. Far from enshrining slavery, our founding documents and institutions laid the groundwork for its eventual extirpation on our shores. Racism is not inherent in our founding, but alien to it.

We Christians therefore have every reason to be patriotic and continue to celebrate our nation’s founding. We thrive under a form of government that protects our right to serve God according to our conscience, which for us is bound to the Word of God. We can fully embrace our country’s founding philosophy, recognizing that because we are all created in the image of God, we are all “created equal,” whatever our ancestry, whatever our culture, and whatever our physical appearance. This Fourth of July, I plan to salute the American Flag in good conscience, not because I approve of everything in our nation’s history, but because I wholeheartedly embrace the founding principles that gave us the best possible chance to make that history better. I thank God for the United States of America.

God's Blessings,

Pastor Neuendorf