Conservative Christians are in a funk after the Supreme Court's same-sex marriage ruling. Some have wondered if traditional Christians, especially Evangelicals, typically known for their patriotic ardor, will ever think of America the same way again.
Should they celebrate this July 4 less vigorously than they have in the past? Should they consider retreating into a separatist mode in which they are merely resident aliens in a strange, lost land?
No, and Christians should guard against overreaction. Even at its best, America never fully upheld Christian ideals or ethics.
Indeed, there have been worse court rulings before — far worse. A particularly horrific one was the case of Celia, a 19-year-old slave woman who killed her much older Missouri master in 1855 after he had been sexually exploiting her for five years, since buying her at age 14. When he tried to force himself on her, after she protested that she was already pregnant, she whacked him with a stick and burned his body. She was condemned to hang, the local court effectively deciding that a slave had no right to prevent a master from raping her. Missouri's supreme court declined to intervene.
Celia's execution for trying to defend herself from a beast was just two years before the far more infamous Dred Scott case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court, 7–2, effectively ruled against any restrictions on slavery and decreed that black people, even if free, had no rights to citizenship. President James Buchanan, alongside much of America, celebrated that the slavery issue was supposedly put to rest.
There have been other legal affronts to Christian morality, too: In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled 7–1 in favor of state laws requiring racial segregation. In 1927, the Supreme Court upheld eugenic sterilization, in an 8–1 ruling that Nazi defendants would later cite in their own defense. In 1973, of course, the Supreme Court by 7–2 overturned every state law restricting abortion.
At no point in America's past has there been a golden era of Christian faith and practice — not among the people, and not in public policy. Church attendance today is estimated to be significantly higher than it was in the 19th century. And while secular elites seem to be effectively marginalizing Christian witness, there's never been a time when Christianity, certainly not as Evangelicals interpret it, reigned supreme in private and public life.
And yet Christians, especially Evangelical Protestants, have almost always been enthusiasts for America, appreciating its religious liberty and assigning it a special sense of destiny. Typically, they have bewailed America's sins while also celebrating its ideals, which they believe God-inspired.
Critics of Evangelical patriotism in recent years denounce what they see as idolatry, nationalism, and an un-Christian my-country-right-or-wrong mentality that confuses God with nation. Usually these critiques of Evangelical patriotism have come from the left, but after the national same-sex-marriage decree, we may see an increasing number of conservative Christian voices urging Evangelicals to put some distance between themselves and America.
That would be a tragedy, for Evangelicals and America both. Christians of every nation in all times are called to serve and love their country, its rulers and people, to work for reform of national sins, and to boost national virtues. American Christians live in a nation of unparalleled power, whose culture and politics have been profoundly shaped by Christianity and whose global influence is, at worst, largely benevolent.
Christians in America too often forget yesterday's national sins while obsessing over today's failures. Few Christians would exchange the America of today for the supposedly more pious eras of slavery or segregation.
Authentic patriotism, informed by Christian prudence, is not utopian, delusional, or cynical about the past, present, or future. Instead, it celebrates the nation's highest ideals and prayerfully works to shape the nation toward them.
The geniuses and patriots of July 4, nearly all of them professing some form of Christian faith, created a great and blessed nation. There have been terrible atrocities, but there have also been countless episodes of tremendous grace. America has always shown tremendous capacity for self-correction.
Now, many conservative Christians fear that America is beyond self-correction, in a downward moral spiral. If so, they are called to greater sacrificial service, not less, and to greater faith in God's redemptive power.
Over 70 percent of Americans profess Christianity, and about 90 percent profess belief in God. Not all are conservative, of course, and many disagree over the court's marriage ruling. But all should work for an America that lives up to its founding principles.
Conservative Christians especially should robustly celebrate July 4, showing their country and the world their confidence that God is lord of all the nations, including America the sinful, confused, blessed, and beautiful.
This column was originally published in National Review.