Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
– Matthew 11:28
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…
– Inscription on the Statue of Liberty
As Holy Week approaches its pinnacle, it is well worth pondering the question of what, if any, relationship the Christian Gospel has to the establishment of these United States. The answer cannot simply be found in the fact that most of the founding fathers were professing Christians. Many nations – and empires – were ruled by legacy Christians whose yoke, unlike that of Jesus, was not easy nor the burden light.
It cannot be based on the level of religious activity among the founders. Many Christians have viewed steady church-going as little more than an obligation, inoculation or insurance policy. And the answer cannot be discovered in the lofty principles of freedom proclaimed in the founding documents – as many of these same principles have received lip service from tyrants.
No, the judgment can best be made with the fruits born from the unfathomable courage and audacity of the man who Christians proclaim as their Lord and Savior – the one who willingly suffered an unspeakably horrifying crucifixion. Though they are separate and not equal, the fathers of this nation also demonstrated profound courage, risked their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to form an actual government of, by and for the people.
The critical point of harmony between the Gospel and the American Republic can be found in the searing words of Jesus, and of Lady Liberty:
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives….to set at liberty those who are oppressed…
Give me…..the wretched refuse of your teeming shores.
In a contemporary context, Jesus’s constituents were the basket of deplorables of his day – tax collectors, vagrants, sinners. Similarly, the true beneficiaries of the colonial revolt against the British crown were from the lower caste. And the rebels inhabited the first and eighteenth-century equivalents of flyover territory.
There would be no liberty without liberation. Jesus created an entirely new reality and stoked a worldwide movement by providing spiritual liberation to the masses enslaved by both the Roman Empire and the stiff-necked, Pharisaic Jewish religious authorities. The founders similarly compelled a new world order by providing political liberation to oppressed colonists subject to the distant, tyrannical and unaccountable rule of a later empire – the British.
The American Revolution was not just a colonial uprising hostile to the yoke of the British crown — but in opposition to something much larger: the universally accepted principle of rule from the top down – the divine right of kings. This right stood as both a political and religious doctrine of royal legitimacy which asserted that a monarch was not subject to any earthly authority, for his power was derived directly from God.
Jesus’s proclamation that he was the way, the truth and the life similarly challenged the previously unquestioned authority – and the very legitimacy – of both the political rule of the Romans and the religious leadership of the Pharisees.
Indeed, from our place of comfort in 21st century America, where we take religious liberty and political freedom for granted, it is easy to underestimate just how revolutionary both revolutions truly were, and remain to this day.
But the uprisings that led to both Christianity and the American Republic took hold because they offered remedies for their starkly realistic and similar acknowledgment of human nature – of how man is given over to his selfish desires. Both are based on the stipulation that courage, thought and action are required to mitigate the condition of man and achieve political and spiritual liberty tempered by order.
Federalist #51 states, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
It is equally true that if men were angels, the death, and resurrection of Jesus – the Gospel itself – would be unnecessary. But the march of history has taught us that men were not, are not and never will be angels.
The Declaration of Independence speaks of inalienable, or God-given rights: “…to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Similarly, the power of the Gospel is based on the consent – the willing embrace – of those who accept it as truth.
And so this American government was instituted among men. And so the Gospel is being proclaimed in all the world. Both are hallmarks of liberty. This is why constitutionalism and Christianity survived unrelenting opposition from the established order and have stood the test of time – one for two and a half centuries, the other for two millennia – and forever altered the course of history.
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