Most Great to Them that Know

The City of God
The City of God

Christians, we are told by the greatest of their teachers going back to Augustine, are citizens of two cities: An earthly city to which they owe the duties commanded by the laws, and a heavenly city to which they owe their primary loyalty as subjects of the Kingship of God. Faithful Christians engage in politics, even or especially in democratic politics, halfheartedly—always questioning and subordinating the imperatives of politics in the light of what their “Christian consciences” demand.

In my view these Christian doubts about politics, about the value of political activity, were what really stood behind the opposition of many contemporary Christian teachers to the candidacy of Donald Trump.

These teachers condemned Mr. Trump, and rightly, for a long history of distasteful comments about women. Many of them saw his stated political objectives as in conflict with those that, in their view, the Gospel demands. The Church is the commonwealth of all Christians; churches are “sanctuaries” for Christians persecuted or prosecuted by earthly authorities, and as such, Christian organizations have played a big role in producing the cultural climate that makes enforcing the immigration laws passed by Congress and signed by the president seem like a crime worthy of Herod.

But behind all that is a refusal to grant primacy to one’s earthly country or to one’s American citizenship. A Christian should dedicate his or her life to the glorification of the greatness of God, not to “winning.” “My soul doth magnify the Lord”: Can one really sing that with one’s whole heart and soul while wearing a hat that reads “Make America Great Again”?

Cecil Spring-Rice

No modern work exemplifies these difficulties more clearly than the English hymn, “I Vow to Thee My Country” with words by the British diplomat Sir Cecil Spring-Rice (ambassador to the United States for most of World War I, until his heart was broken by his recall) and music adapted by Gustav Holst from the “Jupiter” movement of his suite, “The Planets.” This hymn was sung at the wedding and then at the funeral of Princess Diana, and at the funerals of England’s two greatest modern Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. The hymn is sung throughout the Commonwealth on Remembrance Day, the solemn alternative to what in America we hardly notice anymore as Veterans’ Day.

Spring-Rice’s hymn, as sung, consists of two stanzas. The first stanza speaks of love of country, which claims, and often receives, the sacrifice of any and all of a citizens’ worldly goods, health, life, even the lives of one’s children.

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,

Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;

The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,

That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;

The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,

The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

Stephen Lowe, then the Anglican Bishop of Hulme, complained in 2004 that Rice’s words were “heretical, because a Christian’s ultimate responsibility is to God as revealed by Jesus and the Holy Spirit.” Love for country, Bishop Lowe claimed, cannot for a Christian be “the love that asks no question.”

Two replies could be made to His Grace: “the final sacrifice” does not mean the “greatest sacrifice,” but the sacrifice after which there can be no other, the sacrifice of life itself. Only the most rigorous of Christian pacifists have denied that one’s country can demand that.

The second reply, made by many then and now, is that the hymn’s first stanza must be understood in the light of the second, which speaks of “another country”:

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,

And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

Pride in one’s heavenly country is not pride in winning but “pride in suffering.” One’s earthly country may be great or small, but it is God’s country that is “most great to them that know.” One’s earthly country must have defined borders and guards who enforce them. The other country can increase its bounds “soul by soul” without compromising its nature or identity.

To me as an American born in Canada who expatriated to Israel, with two citizenships by birth and one by naturalization, the notion of a conflict of loyalties is familiar, at least in theory. In practice, nobody has been torn between the United States and the Queen since the Treaty of Ghent, and dual loyalties between America and Israel have claimed only one victim in almost 70 years, the wretched convict Jonathan Pollard.

As a Jew, I have to say that I find the particular conflict of loyalties expressed in Spring-Rice’s two stanzas utterly foreign to me religiously. Judaism is a political religion. The army of God is the visible Host of Israel from its commanders down to its latrine-diggers, though it is not to be counted or enumerated except as ordered by His express command (2 Samuel 24).

Jews work to realize the kingdom of God by fulfilling his commandments here on earth: “Rabbi Samuel the son of Nahman said, ‘At the hour at which the Holy One Blessed Be He created the world, He desired that there be for him a dwelling place among the lower things as there is among the supernal things’” (Midrash Tanhuma, Naso 16). We are commanded to build this dwelling place out of earthly materials, wood and stone and gold and silver and copper and skins and jewels: “And they shall build me a Temple and I will dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). Under present political circumstances, however, we cannot contract with Donald Jr. or Eric to bring it in “on time and under budget.”

As I gaze from afar at my fellow Americans, most of them professed Christians, I can see why so many of them have qualms about following a builder who speaks as if he has only one country and never two. I don’t know if Mr. Trump, like a great patriot of the past, loves his country more than his own soul. But I would like to leave my Christian friends with the words of another Jewish teacher, Maimonides, a great physician of bodies and of souls: “If a person has gone far to one extreme he should move himself to the other extreme and conduct himself according to it until he has returned to the best path, which is the middle quality regarding every single trait” (Laws Regarding Opinions 2:2, my translation).

In its 75-year run, globalization and other solvents of the love of country have gone too far. Four or (God-willing) eight years of wholehearted patriotic devotion may be bitter medicine for many Christians, but no less seems to be required for the healing of the United States and the world.

About Michael S. Kochin

Michael S. Kochin is Professor Extraordinarius in the School of Political Science, Government, and International Relations at Tel Aviv University. He received his A.B. in mathematics from Harvard and his M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago. He has held visiting appointments at Yale, Princeton, Toronto, Claremont McKenna College, and the Catholic University of America. He has written widely on the comparative analysis of institutions, political thought, politics and literature, and political rhetoric. With the historian Michael Taylor he has written An Independent Empire: Diplomacy & War in the Making of the United States, 1776-1826, which is forthcoming from University of Michigan Press.

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7 responses to “Most Great to Them that Know

  • I couldn’t even read this whole piece. Why is it that Christians are called to be cannon fodder? I will do everything in my power to follow Trump and keep faith with his vision. He hasn’t even taken office yet! And thanks so much for transforming “builder” into a pejorative. Lotsa erudite and educated references in this article, but no truth. Don’t quit your day job, Mr, Kochin.

  • God is infinitely tender, infinitely generous, infinitely kind; but He is also committed to the principle of Tough Love. That is why He has created a universe in which all ethical issues come to the point, the pinch indeed, and why there is suffering in it.

    As a devout Christian, I find (a) pacifism and (b) appeals – such as Pope Francis’s – for the democracies to take in multitudes of refugees basically contemptible.

    It is up to each people on earth to make a success – by which I mean a moral success – of the lands in which they find themselves. This does not mean those nations are to become wealthy in a worldly sense or technically highly developed, no; simply they are to become countries it is pleasant to live in.

    The fundamental dishonesty and injustice entailed in letting millions of migrants (mostly economic migrants) flood from the poor countries to the developed ones is an attempt to pretend to oneself that life should be on easy terms; and that where a culture has been a failure because it is ethically/spiritually hollow, its denizens should be allowed to escape from the consequences of their generations-long dodging and to piggy-back, freeload, on the very real hard work, efforts, sacrifices of the forbears in countries such as ours.

    Supporting Donald Trump was a way of pushing back at the Destroyers – the ‘liberal, progressive’ forces (actually totalitarian nihilist) who have too long had the debate and public policy on their ruinous terms of Deep Commitment to the Principle Always and Everywhere of Human Self-Indulgence.

  • Dr. Kochin, this is an interesting piece, with much to think over, but in my opinion, your concern that American Christians believe that what is best for their country is antithetical to the Gospel/Biblical teachings actually shouldn’t concern you because this is simply not the case for the majority of Christians.
    I would submit this link with the Pew data on how the ‘faithful’ voted:

    Along with that, I’d point to the large number of Christian leaders that supported DJT during the campaign; as well, to the group of ‘Evangelical’ and ‘Faith’ leaders who met with Trump during that time, and came out of that meeting with hope (and nary a disparaging statement).

    I will grant you that, without doubt, many of the Main Line Protestant Church ‘leaders’ espouse and preach a Social Gospel message (and Mission statement) to their members – as does the Pope, addressing Roman Catholics – but the fact that these ‘Heads’ of these denominations have swung far to the Left in America doesn’t mean their congregants have.

    I wish to be brief here in my comments (though there really is much to say on this topic!) so I’ll throw out a few thoughts about whether Christianity and Politics/Country/Earthy Kingdom is “either/or”; whether one can be Loyal (either/or?), whether one can participate comfortably in Country/the Political realm/the Earthly realm while confessing they participate in “The Kingdom of God” (either/or?):

    In the Gospels, Jesus said “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s”. This is not a denunciation of the Political, rather a separation without a denunciation of the secular. Paying your taxes is not a Spiritual matter.

    Jesus: “my kingdom is not of this world” and “the kingdom of God is within you”. Not a denunciation of the Earthly – a pointing towards a Spiritual kingdom, indeed, but not an ‘either/or’ statement.

    The Apostle Paul utilized his Roman citizenship in a very ‘material’ way (Acts 21 & 22): he demanded he be tried as a Roman citizen (indeed, he surrendered himself to the centurions for this appeal) rather than judged by the ‘religious’ of Jerusalem. If this isn’t ‘Political’ I don’t know what is.

    In the Book of Revelations (Rev 21), the ‘New Jerusalem’ is walled; with gates; and not everyone is granted admittance. (Matter of fact, there’s even a ‘registry’ – a book…).

    I want to assure you that Christians here in America are able to be -and are – both patriotic and ‘faithful’.

    Shabbat Shalom.

  • “As I gaze from afar at my fellow Americans, most of them professed Christians, I can see why so many of them have qualms about following a builder who speaks as if he has only one country and never two.”

    Well, I assume you have never listened to any of Mr. Trump’s speeches. He talks about God, and more forcefully, than any President since Reagan. Even in little things: he insists we all start taking up saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.

    It sounds like you are getting your ideas about him from the mainstream media, which consist solely of his detractors. Do you know what the percentage of Republicans in the news business is? Less than seven percent. Do you know what the percentage of Republicans in the White House Press Pool is? Zero percent. None.

  • ““My soul doth magnify the Lord”: Can one really sing that with one’s whole heart and soul while wearing a hat that reads “Make America Great Again”?”

    By the same token, suppose a man in a bad marriage who wants to rekindle his love and make his marriage great again. Can he say his soul magnifies the Lord? Or is his love of his wife somehow excluded by love of God?

    By the same token, suppose a man doing poorly at work who wants to reorganize his work habits and regain his once-fine craftsmanship and make his work great again. Can he say his soul magnifies the Lord? Or is his love of his vocation somehow excluded by love of God?

    By the same token, suppose a man with a bad diet and poor health who wants to enact an athletic regiment and make his physique great again. Can he say his soul magnifies the Lord? Or is his devotion to physical fitness somehow excluded by love of God?

    If the answer in all these cases is that love of God improves and cures any disorders in romantic love, in pride of workmanship, and the proper view of the body, then why is love of country, and if the answer is none of these things are excluded by the love of God but are instead helped and put in proper form, why, then is love of country excluded by the love of God?

    The monstrous absurdity of claiming that patriotism is excluded by love of God is all the more absurd when it is remembered that this nation is the one particular a country founded by Pilgrims to be a shining city on the hill for all who love religious freedom.

    Part of making American great again is a turn away from secular folly and godless evil which have infected our political system. Mr Trump in public speeches has said that the way to restore America to greatness is to restore our devoted to God. Are you simply unaware of this and other statements to this effect?

    Here is a quote from one of his stump speeches that he repeated many times, most recently at a speech at the Faith and Freedom Coalition June 2017:

    “We all bleed the same red blood. We all salute the same great American flag. And we are all made by the same almighty God…As long as we have pride in our beliefs, courage in our convictions, and faith in our God, then we will not fail. As long as our country remains true to its’ values, loyal to its’ citizens, and devoted to its’ Creator, then our best days are yet to come because we WILL Make America Great Again!”

    How are you interpreting sentences like this to somehow mean Mr Trump is ignoring or excluding devotion to God as the source of American success?

    • I don’t think Mr. Trump ignores or excludes devotion to God as the source of American success. I simply think that the notions of God and success that Mr. Trump proclaims in his speeches stand in tension with an important strain in Christian thinking, a strain that goes back to Augustine.

      • Dr Kochin, you are spot on about that tension. But as Christians, we accept ‘tension’. We confess God incarnate!
        As did Augustine ;)

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