Os Guinness views America through what he calls the “Golden Triangle of Freedom”:
Freedom requires virtue. Virtue requires faith. Faith requires freedom.
The founders understood that if this American experiment were to work, we would have to be built on virtue. We were the only nation founded on a creed, not on blood or on a despot (or group of anarchists) overthrowing another despot. To become truly great, the founders knew we needed to be self-governing. yet, to be self-governing, we needed to be virtuous. The first of three legs on the stool is FREEDOM REQUIRES VIRTUE.
Ben Franklin said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom,” and he was no Christian. But he understood the blessings of virtue on a people.
John Adams said, “The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure virtue.”
James Madison said, “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind that requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature that justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures that have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be, that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”
Someone’s summary of Alexis de Tocqueville’s work put it well: “Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”
Virtue flows not from pragmatism but from faith in a higher calling. Our actions come from within, and what we believe determines what we do. Hence, the second leg of the stool is VIRTUE REQUIRES FAITH.
George Washington, who was perhaps a Christian but not devotedly so, said, “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles.”
Daniel Webster said, “I have always said, and always will say, that the studious perusal of the [Bible] will make better citizens, better fathers, and better husbands.”
Even Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the least religious of our founding fathers, said, “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people, that those liberties are the gift of God? That they are violated but with his wrath? I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and that His justice cannot sleep for ever.”
So, how did the Bible get such a firm root into the hearts of nearly all Americans? How did we have such a unified front? How did we come to believe in God and trust Him for the outcome of our fledgling nation? By the third leg of our stool: FAITH REQUIRES FREEDOM.
Tocqueville said of America, course, “The sects that exist in the United States are innumerable. They all differ in respect to the worship which is due to the Creator; but they all agree in respect to the duties which are due from man to man. Each sect adores the Deity in its own peculiar manner, but all sects preach the same moral law in the name of God. . . . Moreover, all the sects of the United States are comprised within the great unity of Christianity, and Christian morality is everywhere the same.”
The beauty of America was its diversity—that all men would fight for the freedom to be able to disagree! Not that we force our faith on others, but that we enforce the freedom to disagree!
Historian Paul Johnson said, “American religious groups were judged not by their theology but by the behavior of their adherents. Thus the very diversity of the sects constituted the national religious strength, since all operated within a broad common code of morals, and their competition for souls mirrored the competition of firms for business in the market economy. In both cases the role of the state was to hold the ring and make that competition fair.”
The Scriptures teach us that the role of government is to reward good and punish evil, essentially to “hold the ring” but not “tip the scale” in favor of any one religion over another. However, even the non-religious Ben Franklin understood that a government without God was practically impossible.
After Congress argued for weeks about how to word the Constitution, Ben Franklin requested that they seek God’s help:
“The small progress we have made after four or five weeks close attendance & continual reasonings with each other, our different sentiments on almost every question, several of the last producing as many noes and ayes, is methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history for models of Government, and examined the different forms of those Republics which having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution now no longer exist. And we have viewed Modern States all round Europe, but find none of their Constitutions suitable to our circumstances.
“In this situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend?
“I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the House they labour in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and by-word down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human Wisdom and leave it to chance, war and conquest.
“I therefore beg leave to move, that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of the City be requested to officiate in that service.”
It was said afterwards that deliberations moved along almost supernaturally after prayer to God was added into the proceedings.
George Washington said, “It appears to me, then, little short of a miracle, that the Delegates from so many different States (which States you know are also different from each other in their manners, circumstances, and prejudices) would unite in forming a system of national Government, so little liable to well founded objections.
James Madison, too, felt it was of God, “The real wonder is that so many difficulties should have been surmounted, and surmounted with a unanimity almost as unprecedented as it must have been unexpected. It is impossible for any man of candor to reflect on this circumstance without partaking of the astonishment. It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.”
The exceptionalism of the United States of America is based almost exclusively on its history of good in the world—that we exist as though we are a city set on on a hill, meant to bring good to all nations. Abraham Lincoln viewed our place in the world as a sacred duty to bless others, and author Eric Metaxas says, “America was indeed great, but precisely because she did not merely exist for herself. She was exceptional because she pointed outward, beyond herself. Her place in history was always to reach beyond herself—and once she forgot this, she would cease to be America. In reminding the men of the New Jersey legislature of their common history, this is the point Lincoln was making.”
Some view ONLY the bad of America, choosing to paint our entire history by our blights and blunders and outright sins. I believe this is not only an inaccurate depiction of history, but harmful to the next generation of Americans.
But we don’t need to hide our sins either. A reactionary patriotism that pretends we’ve always been rosy is ALSO inaccurate. It’s certainly not as harmful as the negativity, but it isn’t altogether truthful, either.
Metaxas also said, “To love someone is to see the best in them and to act toward them as though they were that best. To call them higher. To treat them with respect and love is to call them to be worthy of that respect and that love. And we can say that to love someone is not to avoid seeing their flaws, but to avoid so focusing on them that the person gets a feeling of hopelessness about changing them… On the other hand, those who in response to this negative attitude toward America swerve across the road into the ditch on the other side are equally wrong. To pretend that America can do no wrong is just like the parent who refuses to deal with the issues that are clearly problems in their child’s life.”
Clearly nobody has this figured out except you and me, right? We’ve found the perfect balance, obviously!
I say that sarcastically as a joke because NO ONE has this thing all figured out. No one has the perfect balance between promoting a healthy level of patriotism and realism. No one fully knows how far to take their freedom. Some churches would view an American flag as an idol. I don’t! But then, some churches will view America as God’s chosen nation. I don’t.
I’m with Abraham Lincoln in calling us the “almost chosen nation,” in that I believe we’ve been supernaturally used by God to spread the Gospel around the world, but I don’t believe we have any other kind of supernatural superpower.
As Christians, what is our duty? It’s the same in every nation. We are to obey the Great Commission. If we were in Mexico, China, Venezuela, or Saudi Arabia, we would be called to be a light to the world. We would be called to see people saved, and baptized, and taught to observe all things that God had commanded (see Matthew 28:18–20.)
As Christians, our duty to America remains at the grassroots level: take up your cross daily, and follow Jesus Christ. Discipline yourself to live with virtue as defined by your faith—by THE Faith.
We Christians can learn from the French political philosopher Montesquieu who said, “Bad examples can be worse than crimes.” And, “More states have perished because of a violation of their mores than because of a violation of their Laws.”
Be a virtuous Christian and affect your country within the areas you control right now.