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”?
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.