During a recent road trip a billboard caught my attention. The sign featured a billowing American flag as background with the words “God Save America” blazing across the red, white and blue.
For some reason the sign bothered me, though at first I did not understand why. I am not un-American—I love my country. I am certainly not anti-God. I’ve committed my life to serving God as a minister. So why did the sentiment “God Save America” trouble me so?
Then it hit me. My faith has been nurtured by John 3:16. “For God so loved the world…” That’s what I was expecting. The sign ought to have said “God save the world.”
Now obviously America is part of the world and so the sentiment is not inaccurate. However, if taken a certain way, the message “God Save America” may reveal a theologically inappropriate assumption. By isolating America as a special concern of God’s saving power we create the impression that America has a special place in God’s plan. The message on the sign seems to suggest that America occupies a singular role and is therefore more deserving or more urgently in need of saving than the other nations of the world.
There are, in fact, folks who believe that America is God’s “last and only hope for the world.” There are those who assert that without America there will be no Christian witness, no hope of success for the divine plan. And folks are free to believe that if they want to, but the witness of history and the message of Scripture seem to argue against it.
For one thing, history demonstrates that people of faith can be faithful in any form of government. Real faith is not dependent on a particular brand of politics in order to survive. Faith has thrived in America, of that there is no doubt. But faith has thrived in other contexts as well.
History also reminds us that great kingdoms come and go. Jesus told us that. Nations rise and fall. There is no doubt that our country is magnificent. The genius of our constitutional system has created what is perhaps the greatest vehicle in history for fulfilling human potential. But however great we are, we must acknowledge that ours is not a perfect system. Our form of governance and economics does not even come close to the vision of community expressed in the teaching of Jesus.
That is why God’s message of salvation cannot be delivered by a government entity. Political ideology is inadequate to carry the authentic hope embodied in faith. God’s saving work is announced and accomplished by communities of faith that are called and solely committed to that task.
This is not to say that the institutional church is perfect. The spotty history of ecclesiastical misdeeds through the centuries makes that plain enough. But the community of faith remains the best instrument for embodying the hope—as long as it is faithful to the message that is.
That, of course, is the crux of my concern. The church is formed by the message, not the other way around. If we can get the message right, the faith of the community of faith will be authentic.
That’s why the sign ought to say, “God save the world.” It all goes back to John 3:16 and the words that follow are not bad either: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.