“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Psalm 33:12)

What should be the relation between a nation and God? It might seem that religion is so personal a matter that one cannot think of any real relation between a great aggregate of people, like a nation, and God. But aggregates of people have a character, an influence, a responsibility which they exercise. The individuals within them contribute largely to this, but the aggregate is more than and different from the sum of the individuals. The Old Testament is the record of God’s dealing with a nation. In it individuals are flashed upon the screen continually; but they are always individuals within the nation. When Christianity appeared, religion became both more personal and more universal in its implications. But we must never forget the profound debt of descent which Christianity owes to Judaism.

Some would attempt to divorce the religious from the national consciousness, on the grounds that when you add the religious to the national loyalty you have a fruitful source of egoistic nationalism, dragging in God for support. This danger is there, of course. It arises the moment the importance of the nation outstrips the importance of God. But there are some things to be said about this.

The first is that the nation, like the family, seems to be an intended unit of human society. There have always been these groupings according to race, or location, or language, or religion. How would you ever read history without individuals, families, and nations? Each of these seems to have a place in the permanent scheme of things.

True Patriotism

I remember a time when I thought that all patriotism was inevitably jingoistic nationalism. I felt the thing to go for was a love and loyalty for all mankind. There is a great truth here, but I had to live a while and learn that we are meant to reach our loyalties to the great aggregate of the world, through the more circumscribed loyalties of family, community and nation. A general concern for humanity without responsibility for one’s own group and nation may turn out to be a vague, amorphous internationalism that may be more sentimental than responsible. If we cannot deal effectively with those smaller units how can we expect to deal effectively with the whole human race?

The second thing is that there is only one thing bigger than the powerful state, and that is God. When the state usurps all power (as lately in Germany, and presently in Russia and the satellite countries), there seems to be no individual, no group, no interest, strong enough to rise up against it. Another power from without may have to effect its deliverance from its dictators. Organized religion may seem very impotent for a time. The Church must work by moral, not material force. The state can do terrible things to the Church’s leaders and people. But, even within the immediate framework, a power is exerted out of all proportion to its physical strength.

Article continues below
Outside Of History

Hitler broke the newspaper editors, he broke the college professors; he never could quite break the Church. That stood athwart him when all else capitulated to him. But God is more than the relatively small power resident in God’s people. God is the Lord and Judge of history. Once let the very thought of him enter the mind of the tyrant, and he will quaver. If he begins realizing that he stands under the judgment of a righteous God, it is more likely to make him modify, or even abandon, his ways than any other thing. For God, if he is at all, stands above and outside of history, while he works in and through history. The belief in God, even tenuously and provisionally held, yet remains the one factor that can put fear into the tyrant’s heart, as it puts hope into the heart of the tyrannized.

It appears, then, that God creates nations, as he creates men. And it appears that nations, like men, truly thrive and go forward, not when they seek their own will, and willed destiny, but when they seek to keep aware of God, mindful of his favour, conscious of his judgment upon all their partial successes, dependent upon him for their life.

There is a sense in which what I have just been saying is a fiction. There never has been a nation that fulfilled these things, unless on rare occasions. When we say that they happen at all, we mean that at times the will of a minority that thinks and feels in this way prevails and becomes public policy. A famous instance was our dealings with China after the Boxer uprising half a century ago. There were doubtless Americans who seethed when President Theodore Roosevelt, at the instigation of Dr. Arthur H. Smith, a famous old missionary in North China, returned the indemnity money asking that a college and scholarships be made of it; but good will prevailed. The act and its consequences were for half a century a symbol of our relations with China.

Strength Of Tradition

It is possible that the strength of a tradition coming down from the past, or the strength of a lively present minority of right-minded people, can infuse into a nation’s thinking and planning elements of Christian morality and concern.

Article continues below

When it comes to our own nation, the stamp of God’s hand is heavy upon us. Our early colonists and settlers fled religious persecution and came here for freedom in the spiritual and political realms. Our founding fathers were not all of them plaster saints, nor all entirely orthodox Christians; but they were men who believed in God and feared him and who wrote their convictions into their deeds and their documents.

Freedom as we know it did not begin with the founding of America—it really began on Sinai when Moses came down from the mountain with Ten Commandments, the first of which was, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” When it became clear that Jehovah, the God of the Hebrews, was the God of the whole earth, and then it became clear that he had uniquely manifested himself in Jesus of Nazareth, there began the greatest move towards rightness in human life and human relations that had ever taken place in history. Man found his real nature and stature. He is a creature who belongs to the natural creation, capable of rebellion or of obedience towards God, therefore needing redemption; but when he has accepted that redemption, he is meant to behave like a child of God and to help all other men find their significance in becoming his children also.

Dignity And Conscience

Freedom is a natural consequence of this, but will not long be sustained except in an atmosphere where man knows both his affinity and his accountability to God. His affinity gives him dignity; his accountability gives him conscience. He must be both lifted up, and kept down, by his relation to God. Only such men dare to seek freedom, and only such men know how to use it responsibly.

We badly need to understand the nature of our freedom. For some, freedom is nothing but the protected right to behave as they please; such people help to destroy freedom by the way they misuse it. Some, indeed many in our time, are so aware of the way bad people, and the bad part of the so-called good people, misuse freedom, that instead of reforming and changing the bad in the people they want to take part of the freedom out of freedom. Many young people in our colleges, taught the secular philosophy which is their current sacred cow, seeing the plentiful evils in a nation like ours, want to do away with that system of freedom which allows bad men to go on being bad, and selfish men to be selfish in their exploitation of our capitalistic system, and they want to put such curbs on our freedom that it ceases to be freedom.

Article continues below
Our Greatest Need

What needs changing most is the men themselves. It is not the curbing of freedom from without, but the curbing of sin from within that we really need; for when you have destroyed all your freedom, you still will have sinful men who will go on working some other kind of evil, after they have been reduced to slaves. Dr. Donald J. Cowling has reminded us that the founding fathers did not go for a big military establishment, nor for a great many social benefits for our people; the one thing they went for was liberty as the over-all climate in which everything else should be effected. I suspect that liberty is the greatest political, academic, economic, and spiritual blessing that can ever be granted to a people. You can vote it away by ever-encroaching appeals to security; but when it is gone, you cannot vote it back. Large, sweeping legislative reforms have taken the place, in our modern world, of those personal reforms which begin in individuals but do not end in them.

Freedom as a philosophy, as a passion, as a constituent part of religious faith and conviction—how many Americans are there who understand this? How many just think it means having more refrigerators and television sets and screaming newspapers and radio programs than any other nation has? A nation that has lost its soul that way is in danger soon of losing its life. There is a treason which begins in philosophy, where I think Alger Hiss’s treason began, and many more like him who have not been caught. The low-level, secularist, naturalistic thinking such men do is their first step in betraying their nation and the freedom which is both its greatest blessing and its greatest responsibility. Karl Marx said that “Communism begins where atheism begins.”

Four Steps To Take

What, then, should we seek to persuade America to do if we would see “this nation under God”?

First, this nation must repent. It must repent of all its arrogance, its thunderings about being better than other nations, its loss of God and the terrible consequences in crime, from crooked politicians to dopepeddlers. The way families have let children grow up in this God-blessed land without knowing God except as a word to swear with, children who inherit the greatest blessings any children on earth enjoy without knowing enough to say “Thank You” to God, without understanding the deep wells of religious conviction out of which these blessings have come, is as stupid as it is wicked. There are moral standards in this universe as detectable, as obvious when you see them, as any natural or scientific laws. There is at least a grave question whether the dropping of the atomic bomb in Japan was not a military mistake; its morality was still more doubtful.

Article continues below

America is like a good-hearted, emotional, heedless child—and such a child can do great harm. We are incredibly lacking in mature philosophy and belief and therefore of sustained policy in our national plans. We forget that the role which destiny seems to have handed us can break us as well as make us. The only safe place for America is on our knees, saying, “God, be merciful to us sinners.”

Second, let America return to its houses of worship. It is years since some of our pagan citizens have listened either to the claims of the Gospel, or its moral challenge to their lives. Church-going, for the converted, is the opportunity for the greatest exercise of which man is capable, the worship of Almighty God. Church-going, for the unconverted (whether outside or inside the church), is putting oneself where he can hear needed but convicting truth. It is daring to go where you hear from without what your conscience has already been telling you from within. It is risking a spiritual experience and a conversion. I know the human faults of the Church; but I know also the divine power that still courses through her to human souls.

Third, let America think and act responsibly and unselfishly. It is hard in these days to wean any act, national or personal, from elements of calculation and prudence. We need the infusion into this nation of some more simple integrity and common goodness. The good are sometimes gullible and open to being used by the cleverly evil; but the genuinely good have a wisdom of their own, a shrewdness which is directed, not at self-interest, but at the good of everybody.

We need the courage that speaks out about evil. We need the concern that takes the part of the oppressed. We need the kind of faith that believes that goodness is not the contesting intruder in the universe, but the manifestation of the will of God the Creator.

Fourth, let America seek with all its heart the faith of our fathers from which have come our chief blessings. Free nations must admit the right of any to disbelieve, to accept thanklessly the blessings which believing men have bequeathed to us which come ultimately from God. This liberty is the only way to have an uncoerced truth, a faith that is truly free. But no nation can thrive on neutrality. A wise and wary people will realize that its best leaven are the caring, creative folk who believe in God and therefore try to meet human needs as they arise.

Article continues below

A nation which will not recognize the dependence of freedom upon faith is on its way to ruin. As Dr. Jacques Maritain said, “… the world has done with neutrality. Willingly or unwillingly, states will be obliged to make a choice for or against the Gospel. They will be shaped either by the totalitarian spirit or by the Christian spirit.” Let America heed words like that. Let America ponder the truth of the Psalmist’s words, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.”

Samuel M. Shoemaker’s gifts range from pen to pulpit. Currently rector of Pittsburgh’s Calvary Episcopal Church, he is author of many books, among them How to Become a Christian and Revive Thy Church Beginning with Me. His contribution above is a revision of an article originally prepared for the magazine Faith at Work.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.