Christians in the United States are witnessing a subtle but mounting transformation in our relationship with the American empire. Some would say the changes are not so subtle.
Believers have enjoyed an enviable status throughout the history of this country, largely due to our own efforts in helping to secure certain liberties during it’s founding decades. These “unalienable Rights” were seen, not as rights created by Government, but as gifts given to mankind by the Creator. The Bill of Rights, for example, was composed in order to impel the government to secure rights which already existed.
This climate of liberty has been both a help and a hurt to the Church. As we’ve seen in countries with an intolerant or oppressive bearing toward Christianity, repression and persecution counter-intuitively tends to have the effect of producing more serious, focused, and fervent believers. Freedom, on the other hand, has created the opportunity for complacency, self-indulgence, and pride to rise within the church. That being said, human freedom and religious liberty have been more of a blessing than a curse.
American churches, organizations, and individuals have taken advantage of this freedom to plant churches, send missionaries, create hospitals, translate the Bible into thousands of languages, establish universities, raise God-fearing families, supply innovations in science and medicine, and proclaim the Gospel throughout the world. All the while, Christians largely enjoyed a comfortable position within American life. We may merely be in the world rather than of the world but being in this world hasn’t been so bad.
There have always been differing opinions over the nature of the Church’s relationship with the world. H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (1951) has long been a touchstone for such debates. Niebuhr’s “five types” provided a framework for much thinking on the subject: Christ against culture, Christ above culture, Christ transforming culture, Christ of culture, and Christ and culture in paradox. No matter which of these types American Christians embraced, we have had the freedom to live our lives accordingly.
Christians have had the opportunity to take advantage of both the freedom to live out our faith and the religious liberty which protects our ability to enjoy this freedom. In fact, Christians have held such a dominant position within society that it has been necessary at times to warn believers against conflating “Christian” and “American.” A very different kind of challenge, however, is now taking shape and the comfortable position American Christians have had for so long could be changing forever.
The religious liberty which has been a shield to us as we’ve lived according to our faith is being gravely threatened. Not only is the protection of religious liberty in jeopardy, the State is now actively compelling Christians to compromise their faith. For example, the New Mexico Supreme Court recently ruled against Christian photographers who refused to offer their services for a same-sex wedding in Elane Photography v. Willock. The decision read in part,
There is a lesson here. In a constitutional form of government, personal, religious, and moral beliefs, when acted upon to the detriment of someone else’ rights, have constitutional limits. One is free to believe, think and speak as one’s conscience, or God, dictates. But when actions, even religiously inspired, conflict with other constitutionally protected rights … then there must be some accommodation.
The case is now headed to the Supreme Court. If the lower court’s decision is upheld, Christians will be compelled by law to violate their conscience in such matters or face severe consequences. Freedom of religion will be shrunken down to the freedom to think religious thoughts without the freedom to live according to those convictions. This rending of action from thought was even celebrated in the court’s decision as “the price of citizenship.” If this is the price of citizenship, then the Christian’s relationship with the American empire has radically changed.
Something changed in the Roman empire in the time between Romans 13 and Revelation 13. The apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Romans around A.D. 57 while John recorded his revelation roughly thirty-plus years later at the end of the century. Romans 13 is where we find Paul’s famous exhortation, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Paul continues to explain that the one in authority is “God’s servant for your good.” Fast forward to Revelation 13 and we read that “the authorities” are a beast uttering blasphemies against God and given freedom to “make war on the saints and to conquer them.” The “servant for your good” was now making war upon the saints.
Rome was still largely indifferent toward Christianity when Paul was writing his letter. Nero had come to power a few years earlier in A.D. 54 but he had not yet begun to brutalize Christians in the early years of his reign. By the time we get to John’s revelation, Nero was torturing and executing Christians and was more than likely responsible for the execution of both Paul and Peter.
When the Roman empire turned against God’s people, their response was to remember their ultimate citizenship as subjects of the kingdom of God. “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (Revelation 1:5-6).
As the price of citizenship in the American empire continues to change, we, too, must remember that we are subjects of the kingdom of God. Christians will be forced to reevaluate our witness as the state places burdens upon us that we cannot accommodate. No matter what happens next, we will sing the song of victory in Revelation 5, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” Until that time, we must persevere and begin to reflect upon what that will look like with an earthly citizenship increasingly at odds with our heavenly one.