“In God We Trust” – Who is “We”?

Posted: October 4, 2012 in Uncategorized
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I have public conversations on Facebook now and then with a young man who attended our church as a teenager, but has since grown up, moved into the workforce and adult life (with a grace and ease that leaves me a little rueful, thinking back on my time in his place)…and declared himself an atheist. He is very intelligent, and has taken the time to think out his positions, so our “debates” are a challenge for both of us, since we seem to agree on quite a few issues. From what he says, it appears that we only differ on the existence and necessity of the God of the Christian Bible- I affirm both, he denies both. He especially abhors what he calls the “arrogance of Christianity” : the exclusive nature of the Gospel, that Jesus is “The Way, The Truth, The Life.” This resentment (that is what is feels like, coming from him) most often shines out in the realm of politics and personal freedoms…most recently expressed by the statement, “The last thing we need is someone who imposes Christian values on a nation that’s non-Christian.” He later asserts that seeing “In God We Trust” on money is hateful to him, disrespecting his right to NOT trust in God; as well as a government endorsement of a particular religion, and therefore un-Constitutional.

Here is one of those situations where I find myself in agreement with an idea on its face, but not for the same reasons. Other comments in the thread attempted to “defend”  God’s name, both on the currency and as a valid political justification to legislate morality, because the United States  is a Christian nation. Perversely, I find myself arguing against them! So how does it follow that a Christian apologist is agreeing with an affirmed atheist? Let’s look at the beginning of the argument, and examine our premises…where are we starting from, and who is “we”?

The phrase “In God We Trust” seems to originate in the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner”, written by Francis Scott Key and inspired by the War of 1812, where it appears in the fourth stanza. Key intends his readers to understand that “we” in this case are the people inside Fort McHenry – waiting, and surely praying, as British warships rained artillery upon them. This motto would be their song of praise to God who saved and preserved them, and appropriated His grace as validation of their cause. The motto was added to US currency during the Civil War, again as a claim of God’s endorsement; this time “we” were the Northern Union, battling the “godless heathens” of the South. So we see that no real reverence or piety is involved – merely political expediency and “spin”. The identity of “we” changes according to who is in power at the moment, and any claims to the contrary overlook a vital truth: Governments are agencies of the world, and while they serve God (often unwillingly; but see Pharaoh in the Old Testament) by no means do they worship Him – they exist to worship themselves, and cause others to do so as well. The REAL problem with thinking that America is a “Christian nation” is that there is no such thing.The bible tells us to honor and obey those who rule over us – nowhere does it tell believers to BE the rulers. Any attempt to blend the two will inevitably lead to compromise…and compromise is something conspicuously absent in how God deals with His creation. So, I agree with my friend that this is not a Christian nation.

So what about the other half of his statement, which rails against the imposition of Christian values upon said secular nation? Who is the “we” now? In common usage, I believe it applies to those who identify themselves first as “Americans”, citizens of the United States.  My response? Here, I have to give my least-favorite answer: yes, and no. Since the primary role of government is to impose some kind of morality (my friend leans Libertarian and would probably not agree with that assessment) the quibble seems to be semantics regarding the source of the values to be imposed.  As a Christian, I believe that morality is a reflection of the essential goodness of God; that His expression of that goodness is what we call “Love”; and that participation in loving behavior is by definition voluntary, not coerced or imposed. (I have no idea where atheists think morality comes from, if not from God; or what would make any moral code worth adhering to, but that is a different post.)

I do not despise or dislike this nation. I am well aware of the specially blessed way of life we enjoy, relatively free from hardship and persecution. I wish no evil to befall this or any other administration – what hurts them, also hurts me. But my true citizenship is not here. It is in the Kingdom of Heaven, and I am here as a foreign national on a resident visa, and someday I will be going home. I am glad of that and await the day – this world is fallen, and the best thing to do while we are waiting is love everyone, help all we can, and stay out of the rest; be in the world, not of the world (see here and here). And that is what I intend to do, with all my heart, all my mind, all my soul, and all my strength. I will not try to tell you what to do, but if you let me, I will be happy to explain why I do what I do. Care to hear it?

Following hard after Him,

Nick

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