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.