H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
July 4, 2004
Texts: Acts 5:27-29; Matthew 22:15-22
A Reading from The Declaration of Independence
this July 4th we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of
states the principles upon which our nation was founded and toward which our
nation has set its course:
hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that
they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among
these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
course we were not ready to live into the full implications of these words.
Thomas Jefferson, who wrote its words, owned during his lifetime 150-200
African-American slaves. Women would not get to vote for over a century, and
today we are still trying to hammer out civil rights equality for gay and
persons and every period of history have their blind spots. What God intends
for us and for the world does not lie behind us in some golden age, but ahead
of us in a future being shaped even now by the Spirit of God.
was in the founding of our nation and was prominently featured in our founding
documents. It is consistent with our founding to have in our Pledge of
Allegiance the words “one nation under God.”
the “God” involved in these early documents was a God shaped by the spirit
of the times; and the spirit of the times, especially among the educated
classes, fancied the theology of “Deism.”
Calvinism had its five points – arranged in the acronym TULIP: Total Human
Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and
Perseverance of the Saints – so Deism had its five points, outlined by
Edward Herbert, Lord of Cherbury:
is a God;
ought to be worshiped;
is the principal element in the worship;
should repent for their sin;
is a life after death, where evil will be punished, and the good rewarded.
Paine was the most famous – and infamous – propagator of Deism in America.
Teddy Roosevelt later called him a “filthy little atheist.” But as a credo
in his most famous book, The Age of Reason, he wrote:
believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I
believe in the equality of man and I believe that religious duties consist in
doing justice, loving mercy and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures
was not atheistic. But its God was remote: The Creator, the Architect, the
Overarching Providence. It distrusted religion, disbelieved in the
supernatural and was subtly anti-Semitic.
Franklin, raised in New England Puritanism, found a happy home in Deism. He
is my Creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe: That he governs
the World by his Providence. That he ought to be worshiped. That the most
acceptable Service we can render to him is doing good to his other Children.
That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another
life, respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental
Principles of all sound Religion. 3
Washington was a deistic Episcopalian who was a regular worshiper but was
never confirmed and avoided Holy Communion. 4
Evangelical writers as early as 1800
tried to paint a picture of Washington as extremely pious using anecdotes as
reliable as the cherry tree story.
Adams was a Christian Deist, a Congregationalist by denomination. His wife
Abigail was the daughter of a Congregationalist minister. He called himself
“a church-going animal” and attended church twice on Sundays.
wrote to Jefferson that the abuses of religion had tempted him twenty times in
his reading of late to say that the world would be better off without religion
but that in the end he had concluded:
. . without Religion this World would be something not fit to be mentioned in
polite company, I mean Hell. 5
to Thomas Jefferson. While he was a true son of the Enlightenment, religion
was of great interest to him. One historian wrote that religion:
. . mesmerized him, enraged him, tantalized him, alarmed him, and sometimes
inspired him. 6
Baptized into the church of England, he
avidly read Deist thought. He attended church regularly and even invented a
fold-up stool to use when he went to church services – an invention we use
today as spectators at golf tournaments.
valued greatly the ethics of Jesus and compiled his own gospel of Jesus, which
emphasized Jesus’ moral teachings and excluded miracles. He could have
started his own Jesus Seminar.
is a terribly short summary, I hope not misleading. We should always assume
when studying an earlier historical period that there is far more we cannot
understand than we can. As L. P. Hartley wrote in his novel, The Go-Between:
past is a foreign country.
They do things differently there.
summary serves to remind us that there were important spiritual/theological
underpinnings to the founding principles of our nation. These were broad
principles not to be confused with specific church doctrine. What Jefferson
called “religious opinions” had no place in public life.
first amendment to the U. S. Constitution made sure that the State would not
“establish” any particular religion and that religion would be “free”
from government intrusion.
there was a “wall of separation” between church and state, it was meant to
be a porous wall like those
fabrics which are designed to let some things through but not other things.
The free exchange of moral and ethical principles should pass back and forth,
between religion and government, but religious doctrine and sectarian
interpretation of scripture should not pass from the realm of religion to the
realm of the State.
moral and ethical issues which should be part of public discourse and the
making of laws should be “self-evident” to the citizens, and not the
special knowledge religions claim to have been “revealed” to them by God.
Moral virtues should be hammered out in the public square, no religion or
philosophy having a trump card, and may the best morals win!
such reasons I am in favor of phrases like “one nation under God,” in our
Pledge of Allegiance.
with an important proviso: That the “God” we are “under” is
acknowledged as the God of all persons, all life, all religions, and that we
vigorously maintain freedom of religion and the freedom of citizens not to be
religious. Otherwise the phrase “one
nation under God” is an oxymoron.
also like the phrase because it promotes, or should, the personal
virtue of humility and the political virtue of reverence.
is, it serves to remind us that we
are not God and that none of us has the corner on truth or morality.
from being a trump card religious people can play to assert their moral
superiority, the phrase “under God” should serve to make us a nation which
bows beneath the mystery of God and recognizes the human limits to our wisdom
Lincoln led us heroically through the Civil War with a remarkable combination
of conviction and humility. In
contrast our world today is like W. B. Yeats’ words:
best lack all conviction, while the worst
are full of passionate intensity.
Lincoln fought for the abolition of slavery
but he did not pretend to know the mind of God. “The Almighty has His own
purposes,” he wrote in his Second Inaugural Address. And these words:
malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness
in the right, as God gives us to see the right,
let us strive on to finish the work we are in.
nation is still being formed, still
being led on by God to fulfil our brightest dreams and to embody our
dreams and ideals are best realized when we practice what we preached in the
Declaration of Independence: That the authority of government rests in “the
consent of the governed.” The genius of democracy is that it takes into
account both the human capacity for good and the human capacity for evil. As
Reinhold Niebuhr put it:
capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but
inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary. 7
So Thomas Jefferson urged general education
as a tool for citizens to keep vigilant watch over their government, “for
nothing can keep it right but their own vigilant and distrustful
have historically stood for religious freedom and political dissent, though
today most Southern Baptists believe “God n’ Country” is one word. We
have upheld the sanctity of conscience and supported the freedom of those who
by conscience have opposed certain laws and policies of their nation.
Religious freedom and political freedom grow inextricably together in the same
soil. Pull up one by its roots and you pull up the other.
text from Acts displays the early courage of the apostles to defy government
and religious authorities and to practice non-violent resistance. “We must
obey God and not human authorities,” they said, “God, not man.”
God and Country compel us to the same acts of duty and allegiance. We should
never forget nor fail to give thanks for those who have given their lives for
the sake of our freedom and for the freedom of other peoples.
times God and Country create in us a crisis of conscience and we must choose
to follow God and resist or oppose the policies and laws of our nation. That
was how our nation began as we broke our political bands with England.
civil rights movement was a non-violent revolution in America that succeeded
in overturning laws and practices that discriminated against African
Americans. It was led by the African-American church and by its Moses and our
Moses, Martin Luther King, Jr.
sermon is a call to a “deeper patriotism.” Such a patriotism works to help
America live up to its most cherished ideals.
love our nation, right and wrong, but we love it too much to let it wander too
long or too far from the right path.
deeper patriotism announces our first allegiance to God believing that in
serving God we will be serving the truest ideals of our nation, for our nation
was founded on truths of God imbedded in the fabric of creation and the human
NBC, ABC and FOX came to Jesus. They tried to trap Jesus by asking him to
comment on a highly explosive political and religious issue: Should Jews pay
taxes to Caesar? Jesus turned the question back to them and to us:
unto Caesar the things that belong to Caesar
unto God the things that are God’s.
Chew on that one, he said. We still do.
who love our nation and love God are called to deeper patriotism. It keeps us
a restless, reverent, hopeful, humble, idealistic, questioning, valiant and
loyal people who sing:
mend thine every flaw,
thy soul in self-control,
liberty in law.
1.Cited in David L. Holmes, The Religion
of the Founding Fathers (The Clements Library: University of Michigan,
2003), p. 65.
3. Ibid., p. 77.
4. Ibid., pp. 81-82.
5. Ibid., p. 94.
6. Ibid., p. 96.
7. The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (N.Y.: Charles
Scribner's Sons, 1944), p. XIII.