The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 7/2/06
Text: Acts 4:1-20
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

In 1816, just a few years before he would die fighting a duel, the dashing American naval hero, Stephen Decatur, offered a toast at a banquet in Norfolk Virginia. He ended it with words that have become more famous than Stephen Decatur. "...our country," he said, "our country, right or wrong."(1)

I confess I have a problem with that sentiment. And I am not the only one. G. K. Chesterton wrote, "'My country, right or wrong' is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying 'My mother, drunk or sober.'"(2) I hear that. So saying, I love my country, but to say "right or wrong" smacks pretty close to idolatry, and, as you Bible scholars know, idolatry, as far as scripture is concerned, is a very large no-no.

More than 80 years later, in 1899, another American recognized the problem. Carl Schurz, a Civil War General, US Senator from Missouri, and finally, Secretary of the Interior, in a speech in Chicago, amended Decatur's famous toast: "Our country right or wrong," Schurz said, adding, "When right, to be kept right, and when wrong, to be put right."(3) OK. That I can live with much more comfortably.

Carl Schurz's editing does more than steady Stephen Decatur's swagger. The added words imply a certain principal, namely this: if your country is to be "kept right" or "put right," there must be some moral compass higher that mere national interest; there must be some loftier moral standard, even a God, dare we suggest, whose ethical compass steers a course truer than national interest alone. That is a good reminder on this weekend that we celebrate our independence and in an election year in which we will hear gracious plenty about the values we hold dear.

But of course, as soon as we dive into the values fray, we face a big question: how do we know what is right and what is wrong? Easy, right? Not really, not these days. We live in a unique period of American history. Never before has this nation launched a "preventative" war. For the first time we have heard serious discussions at the highest levels about the acceptability of torture. We have seen the suspension of constitutional due-process rights as suspects are held indefinitely without charges. We have experienced warrant-less searches of our telephone and banking records. This is an environment that Americans have, up to now, only known in the practices of foreign dictatorships. In such an atmosphere with everything excused as an effort to thwart terrorists, "How do you know what is right and what is wrong?" Are right and wrong the same things as the national interest? Or are right and wrong measured by some authority higher and wider than nation alone?

You know me well enough to know how I will answer that question, of course. Think about it for more than a minute, and you know how anybody who believes in a God worth the name has to answer that question. In the language of the card table, "God trumps nation, even my nation, every time."

But religion and politics don't mix, they say. At one level, that is good counsel. It would be wrong for me to try to tell you how to vote come November (not that it would work anyway). It is wrong when bishops or ministers, rabbis or imams pronounce that there is one and only one Christian or Jewish or Muslim position on complex political issues, when in fact, these are issues that good Christians and good Jews and good Muslims disagree about. So if that is what they mean by not mixing religion and politics, of course, they do not mix.

But if they mean that I am supposed to check my faith and my religious values at the door of the political arena, I cannot do that. What I believe about God, my trust in Jesus Christ, the values that grow out of that faith, this is who I am. My faith cannot HELP but shape my values, including my political values.

Our lesson from the book of Acts has Peter and John butting heads with the authorities in Jerusalem. They have been hauled before the council and told to stop preaching and cease and desist with the miracles, please. Peter and John respond with a veritable call to civil disobedience. "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God." And then this zinger: "For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard." In other words, they had no intention of shutting up. The message is, when push comes to shove and you have to choose, God is the higher authority.

On this Independence Day weekend, we need the reminder that faith, if it means anything to you at all, has to inform your politics. I cannot leave what I believe outside the legislative hall or the voting booth. In this sense, religion and politics simply have to mix. Admittedly, that is not as simple as it sounds.

The Brookings Institution published a book two years ago entitled, One Electorate Under God?(4) It is a collection of over 50 essays on religion and politics in America. The writers are Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others, liberals and conservatives. They all bring their faith to their politics and, surprise, surprise, they come out all over the political map! The question we deal with in our day is how do we have legitimate political discourse that includes issues of deeply held faith in a pluralistic society?

This past week a gathering of religious leaders in Washington was seeking to call Congress' attention to the plight of the poor in America. One of the featured speakers, Illinois Senator Barak Obama, addressed the issue, and he recalled an e-mail that he received from a doctor at the University of Chicago Medical School shortly after he had won the Democratic nomination in his US Senate race.(5) It read: "Congratulations on your overwhelming and inspiring primary win. I was happy to vote for you, and I will tell you that I am seriously considering voting for you in the general election. I write to express my concerns that may, in the end, prevent me from supporting you." The doctor described himself as a Christian who understood his commitments to be "totalizing." His faith led him to a strong opposition to abortion and gay marriage, although he said that his faith also led him to question the idolatry of the free market and quick resort to militarism that seemed to characterize much of President Bush's foreign policy.

Obama continued, "The reason the doctor was considering not voting for me was not simply my position on abortion. Rather, he had read an entry that my campaign had posted on my website, which suggested that I would fight 'right wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose.' He went on to write, "I sense that you have a strong sense of justice...and I also sense that you are a fair minded person with a high regard for reason...Whatever your convictions, if you truly believe that those who oppose abortion are all ideologues driven by perverse desires to inflict suffering on women, then you, in my judgment, are not fair-minded...I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words."

Obama said, "I checked my web-site and found the offending words. My staff had written them to summarize my pro-choice position during the Democratic primary, at a time when some of my opponents were questioning my commitment to protect Roe v. Wade. Re-reading the doctor's letter, though, I felt a pang of shame. It is people like him who are looking for a deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country. They may not change their positions, but they are willing to listen and learn from those who are willing to speak in reasonable terms - those who know of the central and awesome place that God holds in the lives of so many, and who refuse to treat faith as simply another political issue with which to score points. I wrote back to the doctor and thanked him for his advice.

"The next day, I circulated the email to my staff and changed the language on my website to state in clear but simple terms my pro-choice position. And that night, before I went to bed, I said a prayer of my own - a prayer that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me. It is a prayer I still say for America today - a hope that we can live with one another in a way that reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all. It's a prayer worth praying, and a conversation worth having in this country in the months and years to come."

Happy Fourth of July. Amen and Amen!

1. The Decatur illustration and some of the support material here is from a sermon preached by Michael Lindvall at the Brick Presbyterian Church, New York City, 8/24/04, entitled "Can Religion and Politics Mix?"

2. Gilbert Keith Chesterton, The Defendant, "Defence of Patriotism," (1901)

3. Carl Schurz, "The Policy of Imperialism," Speeches, Correspondence and Political Papers of Carl Schurz, vol. 6, pp. 119-20 (1913)

4. E. J. Dionne, Jr., Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Kayla M. Drogosz, editors, .One electorate under God? : a dialogue on religion and American politics, (Washington, D.C. : Brookings Institution Press, 2004)

5. "Obama: On Faith and Politics," Chicago Sun-Times, 6/28/06

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