God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
–America the Beautiful (Katharine Lee Bates)
It had been a long glorious morning full of adrenaline, symbolism, and splendid pomp and circumstance. Then we sang the second stanza of the hymn “America the Beautiful.” Confirming my soul in self-control and confirming my liberty in law: those words struck me deeply, more deeply than I expected.
I sat mere feet from the most powerful and controversial person in the world. President Trump, though, looked so real and normal without a media filter between us. No hype, no image, no presentation. Just a man. Attending his own National Prayer Service, President Trump sat with Vice President Pence and their wives, looking oh-so-ever human.
Here was a person who had fought and engineered his way to the pinnacle of human power. Along that journey he at times demonstrated little self-control, leaving many in and outside the National Cathedral wondering, “What about liberty? What about law?” Trust is shaped by self-control and a liberty bounded by law. With the objects of Bates’ poem in question, both begin to unravel. What is a Christ follower to do?
Abraham Kuyper wrote in 1879, “We are therefore at heart a militant party, unhappy with the status quo and ready to critique it, fight it, and change it” (Ons Program). He was trying to rouse the church away from sitting on the sidelines while political leadership advanced an agenda not always in keeping with Biblical conviction. Kuyper’s energy and activism set the pace and tone for an increasing number of religious leaders today, me included. Yet, for pastors today, especially with diverse flocks, participation in the public square has its liabilities along with its possibilities.
I had been struggling over my communities’ invitation to participate in this traditional inaugural prayer service. The division in my faith community has been deep and palatable. I value those relationships, and yet the bitter campaign of the last year has left me and a number of friends at odds.
All morning I had been thinking about Gershom Mendes Seixas. He was one of fourteen clergy invited to Washington’s first inauguration, but the only Jewish rabbi (technically a hazzan, but recognized in New York City as the Jewish congregation’s leader).
Seixas surely had similar struggles, if not more, due to anti-Semitism, suspicion and hate possible from the very persons in power who invited him. Yet, Seixas and his family were incredible early American voices for a religious liberty codified in US law, and a religious life focused in self-control, virtues, and values. (His brother is the one who received Washington’s now infamous Letter to the Touro Synagogue in which Washington wrote, “the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”)
In my emotional, patriotic moment, surrounded by the beauty of the setting, the flowers, and the humility of the other faith leaders, it all came down to self-control and liberty. I was there because my Christian faith undergirds the very system of government that provides the law to boundary our liberty, and my faith shapes the social fabric whose soul is losing self-control.
John Calvin knew these ingredients were necessary for civic life long before America was America. In 1558 Calvin writes in his Sermon on Galatians 3:19-20, “The Many Functions of God’s Law” the following:
If we were like angels, blameless and freely able to exercise perfect self-control, we would not need rules or regulations. Why, then, do we have so many laws and statutes? Because of man’s wickedness, for he is constantly overflowing with evil; this is why a remedy is required.
The theological remedy for all is Christ. Yet America has made the political remedy an expansive liberty within the bounds of the law, coupled with a rich, value-based and virtuous self-control. Added to these three essential elements is a fourth, yet unstated: sinfulness. America’s success has been due to Judeo-Christian values that point to order as a temporal remedy for the sinfulness within ourselves, our institutions, our structures, and our society. The founding fathers, and those involved in every peaceful transition of power since, has recognized that liberty, Jefferson’s declared human right, only comes about in a society of laws.
Without these essential four elements, America does not work. Will America continue to work?
The hymn brought to the surface what I hadn’t quite found the words for until this moment. The social fabric of America grows ever weaker due to divorce, income inequality, children without married parents, non-religious affiliation, rampant materialism, indebtedness, sexual license, corruption in government and business, and more. Meanwhile, as Thomas Friedman reminds us, technology, the market, and climate change rapidly advance stretching the social fabric. Add artificial intelligence, privacy concerns, international and domestic terrorism, and the recognition that we’ve only seen the beginning of the internet’s power, and I have never been more convicted that self-control is more needed than ever.
Yet, President Trump is not the only one to blame where self-control is concerned. The lack of self-control demonstrated by campaigns, pundits, fake news sources, foreign security breaches, and many of my fellow citizens during the recent presidential campaign lead me to worry that an unbridled liberty will result in coercive law.
More law in the absence of self-control only leads to less liberty. More law is only going to create tension between the right and the left. Self-control is essential to democracy, but one that takes time, resources, intentionality and focus. Self-control is long, hard work.
Christ followers are descendants of the Jewish faith and its traditions, for whom the law is celebrated as a gift of love from God. God’s love of us resulted in the gift of the law as an antidote to the chaos brought about by the fall. Our God loves us enough to give us law that results in order, stability, peace and harmony.
Disciples of Christ may be free from the law, according to the Apostle Paul in Romans 8, but only because followers of Jesus have the antidote for self-control within by virtue of the Holy Spirit. Short of converting everyone in order to be filled with the Holy Spirit, we advocate and work towards flourishing democracy in which self-control does that which law can not, and can not ever do.
Our work towards such order and the formation of self-control comes through education, spiritual formation, worship, study of God’s Word, curing society’s ills where possible, engaging in the public square, being salt and light, performing our work unto the Lord with simple elegance, demonstrating prudence, building stable families, and more.
The very real human president across from me will hopefully learn to lead as president; hopefully it’s not too late at 70. The question is for me in the coming season will be, “Which will win? Self-control or law?”
And so I pray. I pray for myself, and I pray for our leaders. I pray for the self-control that needs to be present in me. I pray for how we as a society will grow in self-control whether it is modeled for us, or in spite of what is modeled for us. And I pray for great liberty due to a social fabric boundaried by a law that enables such freedom, rather than restricts. Let us pray.
Dr. Case Thorp is the Senior Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, leader of The Collaborative for Cultural and Economic Renewal, and participated in The National Prayer Service for the 58th Presidential Inaugural.
I appreciate you wrestling with the issue of whether to participate in the prayer service. I’ve already raised these points in an email, but am leaving them here too in case you want to respond in this forum, or others want to enter the conversation.
1) I think it quite likely that Seixas experienced far more harassment than any American evangelical ever has, and that there may be a little bit of false equivalence going on.
2) I would be far less likely than you to rest America’s success on virtuous self-control, or to subscribe to any form of American exceptionalism (for two reasons: first, my field of doctoral study was American church history, which will cure you of American exceptionalism quickly, and second, I am married to a foreigner and have spent a fair bit of time in the United Kingdom, where a number of things Americans think are impossible seem to happen just fine).
3) I don’t agree that all the things you say are causes of America’s decline are causes so much as they are symptoms. Or at least I think that some of them derive from far more complex social situations that you mention. (For example, the epidemic of single-parent African-American households has its roots in the breakup of the family by masters during slavery. Yes, I realize you didn’t single out African-American single parents in your list; I’m just citing it as one example.)
4) I think your hope about the President learning self-control is very unlikely to happen. 🙂
Thank you for the feedback.
1) No doubt Seixas’ experience was far different than mine. Hence the reason I note that above. My reason for including him was because he was on my mind while present at the ceremony. He was so because I imagine he, too, had parishioners who approved or disapproved of his presence at Washington’s ceremony. I did and still do. As well, I imagine we both wanted to find a way to be civic participants without suggesting divine endorsement. His example encouraged me that to participate in the service was for the purposes of unity and civic engagement, not political endorsement. I, too, wanted my participation to be in a similar vein.
2) I don’t think I suggest American exceptionalism, nor do I explicitly state such. Yet, I will rest my argument upon the unique human flourishing and common good found here. This is attributable to the self-control and liberty within the bound of law that has been more the norm for the whole of our history in America. I hope not to lose it. I fully recognize periods of oppression, slaughter, enslavement and many other poor choices while America sought, and continues to seek, to align its reality with its ideals. Yet, I appreciate King’s encouragement, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
3) Good point. ‘Symptoms’ is a better word. As a pastor, I’m trained more on symptoms than causes. I need to lean on my sociological friends for causes!
4) I couldn’t agree more. Perhaps I should have made a clearer connection: our president’s choices to demonstrate self-control or not shape the social fabric for the good or the worse. If for the worse, my worry is that the masses will retreat to a constricting law that limits liberty. To keep our liberty, and to secure and widen liberty for others, we must exert self-control as individuals. To exert good self-control, the Church needs to step up discipleship, evangelism, and more. I have hope that the faith and work movement is part of the call to take discipleship more seriously, and to apply kingdom truths more exactingly in all areas of society.
Case I think you have a good point (several actually). Self-control is on the list of the fruits of the Spirit and it was a cardinal virtue for Plato, elaborated still further by Aristotle (and later by Thomas Aquinas). Without self-control we either allow our “appetites” to direct us — or we yield control to some external power, political, religious or otherwise. As you point out, freedom is endangered by out-of-control chaos — and more law and order is a poor and usually ineffective tradeoff.
Germane to the topic of work and business is the slogan I heard at a Compliance Conference fifteen years ago, “Regulate yourself . . . or be regulated.” Most regulations (financial, environmental, etc.) are put into place not because of overly zealous bureaucrats out to increase red tape and state controls, but because of misbehavior and a lack of sound ethics by companies and business leaders (Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank wouldn’t exist without prior misbehavior in the marketplace. I sometimes describe ethics to my MBA students as voluntary self-regulation. Aggravate enough people by misbehavior, activate regulatory responses.
So wouldn’t it be great to have leaders who exemplified wisdom, courage, and self-control? Personally, I think both George Bush and Barack Obama were exemplary the past 16 years in showing self-control in the face of ceaseless provocation and temptation. Too bad that is no longer the case (though some still hope it might emerge).
Most important, in my opinion, is not the example in the White House but what happens at the “church house.” The best thing for a troubled, morally-declining American culture and economy is for the church to be the church of Jesus Christ — and not the Amen Corner for the USA or its leaders, right or left. Our self-control needs to be Christ-control. We need to worry much less about taking over American society and more about inviting Jesus Christ to re-invigorate his control over our values, loyalties, attitudes, and behaviors as his church sent into this world as ambassadors (not conquerers).
I’m sure none of this is news to you. Thanks for your thoughts.
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Case, thanks so much for responding. I want to zero in on one statement in particular: “I will rest my argument upon the unique human flourishing and common good found here.” On what do you base the idea that there is a kind of human flourishing that happens in the U.S. better than it does in other places? Self-control and liberty within the bound of law also occur in other countries just as well and just as often. I have first-hand experience of their occurrence in the United Kingdom (I have spent extensive time there, in very non-tourist settings, and am married to a British green-card holder.–yes, the last few days have made us all a little nervous.)
And I also think of the several weeks I spent in Mexico some years ago. That society was far better at promoting the common good in a communal way than I have ever experienced in the U.S.
My family has also been helping some folks from Eastern Europe get resettled in the past year. While they appreciate the material prosperity they are experiencing here in the U.S., they find it considerably deficient in regard to their home country in terms of, again, attention to communal flourishing.
I could go on (I will if you ask me to 🙂 ), but from my perspective the question is: Do folks flourish in the U.S.? Sure. Do markedly more of them do so and in markedly better ways than in other countries, even other Western democracies? I just don’t see it.
No doubt other countries flourish in unique ways, and even exceed the United States in one way or another. As a mission pastor I can personally attest that we need to emulate our Malagasy brothers and sisters’ humility and our Dominican friends’ ability to live in community.
Yet, key social, economic and environmental indicators again and again rank the US as a country unique in human history for her cultural and human flourishing. From “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” by Max Weber to the scholarship and writings of our fellow blogger, Greg Forester, much has been written far better than I could attempt linking together the Christian theology that shaped the society we enjoy today.
Is it perfect? No. Is it repeatable in other cultures? Not always, nor easily. Do we have much to learn from others? Yes. And are there disappointing parts that have unleashed a nihilistic materialism since the Enlightenment? Absolutely.
Yet, I hold America’s city on a hill clarion call is for the benefit of the world and God’s sovereign purposes, not our own. Hence the reason why President Trumps’ shifts on immigration policy make global news unlike any other nation’s leader.
I’d sincerely like to know specifically what those social, cultural, and economic indicators are, if you have the time to share.
Personally, I think the “city set on a hill” approach was misguided from the start. No country should ever become the instrument of God’s purposes: the only one that ever did, for a time, was Israel, and if anyone can claim to be unique in human history it is the Jews. The rest of us are all Gentiles together. That is different from saying that God can use the acts of any person, world leader or not, to advance his purposes. But I think saying that America has a special mission puts us in a morally dangerous position. Only the church has a special mission. I am with David on this one as he says in his comment above:
“The best thing for a troubled, morally-declining American culture and economy is for the church to be the church of Jesus Christ — and not the Amen Corner for the USA or its leaders, right or left.”