Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand?”
Professions of Faith
America stands alone in its fondness for confusing professions of faith for patriotic declarations. Belief in a Creator has been with us from the first, acknowledged in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence: “We 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.” From there, recognition of a Divine Power was a personal matter. Presidents sometimes called for united prayer during crises and thanksgiving after they passed. But through its first century, Americans avoided institutionalizing any faith-based credos as a precaution against blurring the boundaries of Church and State. The reason had nothing to do with disdain for belief. Rather, it ensured its freedom. European monarchs ruled by divine right, which provided religious leaders political leverage to persecute subjects who worshiped outside state-sanctioned traditions. Many American settlers were religious refugees and their offspring viewed keeping God out of government as a sacred duty to prevent history repeating itself here.
We don’t see any official American mention of God until 1864, when a newly minted two-cent coin bore the inscription “In God We Trust”. The next year, Congress called for the phrase on all gold and silver coins. Historians attribute this to rising Christian sentiment during the Civil War; indeed, it’s logical a nation torn asunder would want to recognize its reliance on God. Yet there may be more to it than that. The War Between the States resulted from industrialization. As Northern states boomed with factories, manual slave labor pushed the South further behind. Machines gave abolitionists’ outrage teeth; slavery was no longer morally or economically justifiable. But mass production also accounted for the War’s horrific death tolls, as munitions manufacturers produced increasingly effective arms that made this the bloodiest war in US history. While both sides mourned their dead, it’s reasonable they feared America’s love of machines supplanted her reliance on God. Employing coin presses to recognize a Power greater than any man or machine seemed particularly apt.
God on Our Side
America’s love of machines intensified as each new conflict increased her destructive capacity. The fourscore years from the Revolution to Civil War were mirrored in fourscore years between Gettysburg and Hiroshima, a period in which our weaponry escalated from efficient killing machines to global annihilation. When euphoria of “making the world safe again” wore off, America realized atomic weapons made world safety impossible. Paranoia seized the country and, once again, Congress moved to bolster American confidence in a Higher Power. In 1954, it passed a bill inserting “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance; in 1956, it adopted “In God We Trust” as America’s national motto. Both actions overtly intended to soothe anxieties by suggesting we had God on our side against the Soviet atheists. As with Civil War-era coin inscriptions, the gestures were symbolic and not meant as a religious mandate. Yet the more time wedges itself between then and now, the more they’re misconstrued as patriotic principles defining American life. While no historical—certainly no constitutional—reason exists to accept this, perception shapes reality. Americans endorsing this line of thought must first examine themselves to see if they truly place their trust in God. For this, Christians turn to Matthew 16, where Jesus teaches the difference between trusting God and recruiting Him for our side.
The chapter begins with the religious establishment challenging Jesus to prove His authority with “a sign from heaven.” He answers by asserting they know how to watch the sky to predict weather, “but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” (Matthew 16.3) He then leaves them to set sail with the disciples, who push off without any bread. His previous encounter weighs on His mind and He warns the disciples, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (v6) The best they make of this cryptic remark is He’s upset they forgot to bring any bread. “You of little faith,” Jesus scolds, “why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not understand?” He’s fed thousands on next to nothing. They should know to trust Him for their needs. “I’m not talking about bread,” He says. “I’m cautioning you against the yeasty notions of religion.”
A people of faith and a religious nation—Christian or otherwise—are not the same. Those who intrinsically trust God for their needs find profound security in their faith. They’re neither intimidated nor worried by others’ beliefs and doubts. They live their profession of faith rather than declare it. And the passion with which they cherish their faith compels them to safeguard it by defending those who believe differently. Real faith never stirs controversy, because it’s personal and therefore apolitical. When faith becomes puffed up with yeasty notions about who and what’s right or wrong, it inflates into religious politics. (True believers trust God to judge and correct with the same calm confidence they place in Him to provide and protect.) Religious people look for signs. Religious people challenge those who don’t conform to their ideas. Religious people draw lines and take sides. The American irony of professing trust in God and then turning that trust into a political weapon must flabbergast Him. It surely flabbergasts me.
Do we really trust in God--or are we just hoping to recruit Him for our side?
(Tomorrow: Spiritual Healthcare)