Editor’s note: this essay is based on a homily for Independence Day preached by the author at All Saints Anglican Church in San Antonio TX, a parish that uses the American 1928 Book of Common Prayer
The role of individual Christians and of the Church in civil and political life is often a matter of debate. On the one hand, the “free church” tradition, typified in the United States by the Baptist churches, has historically rejected all co-mingling of church and state as antithetical to Scripture. After all, when he was on trial before Pilate, didn’t Jesus affirm that his kingdom was not of this world? On the other hand, the era between Constantine’s conversion in the 4th Century and the final Fall of the Roman Empire in the East has often been called the era of the “Imperial Church” due to the church’s official status and the emperor’s heavy involvement in running the Church. Similarly, for many generations in the West, the Bishop of Rome commanded kings and nations; to this day the Vatican is its own independent micro-country with the Pope as the absolute monarch.
Even after the Reformation, most of the Protestant nations maintained some form of an official Established Church, where the government and Church worked closely together. In our own Anglican context, the English Monarch remains the “supreme governor” of the Church of England, and high-ranking bishops sit on the House of Lords. Even though the King’s personal power has been quite limited since the late 17th century, Parliament functioned as something of a lay synod to govern the Church until quite recently. This is part of the reason why the official Prayer Book of the Church of England has remained the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer for almost four centuries; Parliament has been rather opposed to attempted revisions since then.
When the American colonies won their independence from England by 1783, a big question before the new Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America was how what we now call the Anglican Tradition can work without the British Monarch. The mother Church in England was also asking this question. After all, Church of England bishops were required to swear allegiance to the king. This was an especially important question because at that time, there were no American bishops. Not only were there no Church of England bishops on this side of the Atlantic, but neither Rome, nor the East, nor any other tradition that maintained the Episcopacy had bishops in the new country of the United States. Eventually, we received our first bishop through the Episcopal Church of Scotland. By the time our second and third bishops were elected, the Church of England had passed canonical legislation that permitted the Church to consecrate bishops for foreign churches who were on the same theological page as the Church of England.
The new American Church was, of course, not an Established church. As the reader knows, the First Amendment of the US Constitution prohibits any sort of national Establishment. In its intention, this was more to protect the various churches of the new nation from State interference, than to keep religion out of the public square. Both the Continental and United States Congresses had chaplains, among whom was William White, the first American Presiding Bishop. Most of the churches in early days of the United States had no problem incorporating some sort of civil and political life into their religious activities and beliefs.
Yet for those early Episcopalians, there remained a hesitancy to officially celebrate Independence Day for the first 150 years of the post-Revolutionary Church. In fact, many of the Anglican Clergy were Loyalists in the War for Independence. Only a minority were Patriots. After the war, many of the Loyalist clergy moved to Canada. Others, such as Samuel Seabury, the first American Bishop, integrated themselves into life in the United States. Yet because of that loyalist tendency, there was a fear that celebration of Independence Day would force an unacceptable political test on the clergy, despite the wishes of much of the laity. It would not be until the 1928 revision that civil holidays, in the form of propers for Independence Day and Thanksgiving Day, would make it into the American Prayer Book.
To this day, some of that early tension remains. I have been to Anglican churches where the Independence Day celebration takes top priority to the point of squeezing out the Gospel in lieu of a homily about the virtues of the Founding Fathers. On the other hand, I have known numerous Anglican clergy who think that any civil celebration is out of place in the regular worship of the Church. This can, of course, be exacerbated by the culture wars going on in our country. There are some in the Church advocating a form of “Christian Nationalism” whose detractors see it as being at odds with both the universal message of the Gospel and American ideals of religious freedom. But there are others advocating for a complete withdrawal of religion from the public square, a withdrawal that is either voluntary or state-enforced. Most American Christians, however, are likely somewhere in the middle. We love our country, but we recognize that the Gospel is not about America.
I would argue that the civil prayers and celebrations in the Prayer Book are a good antidote to these extremes. They recognize the reality that we cannot compartmentalize our lives into a civil sphere and a religious sphere. They remind us of our vocation as citizens who are also subjects of the King of Kings. They remind our leaders that they are merely deputies of Almighty God who must answer to him. Indeed, passages such as Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 teach us the same thing, written at a time when the Apostles were facing active persecution by the civil authorities!
So, how does our Prayer Book give us this balance? In Matins, we have two prayers for the President and others in Civil Authority. The first was adapted in 1789 and is based on the Prayer for the King in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. I honestly find it a bit overly optimistic about the character of most of our recent presidents, at least since I’ve been old enough to vote! But it does echo the words of passages such as Psalm 113:4‒5 to remind us that even the best of rulers is under God’s ultimate sovereignty: “The LORD is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens. Who is like unto the LORD our God, that hath his dwelling so high, and yet humbleth himself to behold the things in heaven and earth!”
The second civil prayer, new for the 1928 revisions, is more cautious, and thus the one that I prefer. In it we pray that the Lord would “Fill [the president and others in authority] with the love of [God’s] truth and righteousness; and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in [God’s] fear.” In the corresponding prayer at Evensong, also adapted from an English prayer for the king, we pray God’s mercy on those civil leaders, “that they, knowing whose ministers they are, may above all things seek [God’s] honor and glory, and that we and all the People, considering whose authority they bear, may faithfully and obediently honor them.” In other words, whether we have a good government or not, every day we are reminded both to pray for our Leaders (as Scripture commands), and that God is the ultimate sovereign. Our nation, whether in good times or bad, is in God’s hands, as are its leaders. As such, our duty is to be good citizens, not rebels. We honor our civil leaders, even when we fundamentally disagree with them and therefore must challenge them.
As we move forward in our Prayer Book, we come to the section with occasional prayers. It is significant that this section begins with “A Prayer for Congress,” a prayer “For a State Legislature,” and a prayer “For Courts of Justice,” followed by a general prayer “For Our Country.” As a nation with three governmental Branches, we pray for each. Most importantly, we pray that they would be guided by God and listen to his Word, so that we would have peace and happiness at home, in a society established by truth and justice, religion and piety, for us and our children. Again, we recognize the source of this is not some superior form of government that we call Representative Democracy; rather, the source of those blessings is God himself, when a people and its leaders listen to him.
Significantly, the general prayer “For Our Country” was composed during a time of civil uncertainty and strife. World War 1, the “Great War,” had just ended and the international scene was precarious. Increased immigration meant that there were new societal challenges as folks encountered people with different cultures and backgrounds. America’s role was changing in the world. So we pray:
Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogancy, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace and home, and that, through obedience to thy law, we may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of our prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord.
I daresay, this is a prayer that is just as applicable today as it was a century or so ago. We face many of the same dangers: violence, discord, confusion, pride, arrogance, and “every evil way.” We have the same challenges of an increasingly multicultural and multilingual society. We still need wise leaders who listen to God if we will see true justice and peace. And we have the same call to show God’s praise among the nations among whom we are often in the spotlight. So we are called to thankfulness and trust, regardless of whether we are in “the day of trouble” or the “time of prosperity.”
Indeed, the Collect prayed for Independence Day says many of the same things when we prayed for “grace to maintain these liberties in righteousness and peace.” This is why we have the particular readings for Independence Day. In both readings we are reminded of our duty before our neighbor. As our Lord tells us in the Summary of the Law, our duty toward our neighbor is also our duty before God himself.
In our “For the Epistle” lesson from Deuteronomy 10:17 and following, we are reminded of God’s justice, especially toward the most vulnerable in society:
The LORD your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, a mighty, and a terrible, which regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward: he doth execute the judgement of the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment. Love ye therefore the stranger, for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.
The United States is a nation primarily of immigrants and their descendants. We are a nation most of whose citizens were all “strangers” at one time or another. Just as God reminded Israel of their status as immigrants to the Promised Land, so we are reminded of the same for our country. And thus we should love the stranger, orphan, and the widow.
Similarly, in our Gospel lesson from Matthew 5:43 and following, we are told to act differently from the rest of the world. We are told to act against the natural impulses of our fallen humanity. It is natural to love your neighbor but hate your enemy. Our Lord, however, has a higher calling for his followers:
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and unjust.
This counter-intuitive approach to our enemies is held up by our Prayer Book to be an American ideal because it is a Christian ideal. Indeed, much more important than the American ideal of “liberty and justice for all” is the liberty from sin that Christ has won for us, and the justification he has wrought in our souls when we are united to him by faith and baptism. And when we are justified before God and set free from slavery to sin, the way we treat others must reflect that glorious state.
It was pointed out in a recent article that the civil holidays in the classical prayer books of Great Britain, Canada, and the United States, all fall within the long Trinitytide season. While this was by no means intentional on the part of our Prayer Books’ respective framers, it is a happy coincidence (if such things as “coincidence” can be said to exist before a sovereign God). On the one hand, Independence Day and Thanksgiving give us a welcome break from the “ordinary time” that is Trinitytide. On the other hand, coming as they do towards the beginning and end of the Season, they serve as good bookends to the Season that is devoted to our growth as Christians. That is, learning to be good citizens of our country is an important part of Christian discipleship. Whether praying for our leaders, looking after the vulnerable around us, or being a prophetic witness to God’s sovereignty over all earthly powers, we are to live as Christ’s ambassadors in our homelands. And thus, we can (and should) give thanks for, and indeed celebrate, our nation, before God, as we remember our nation’s founding.
Note: a previous version of this essay stated that there were no bishops in the United States or Canada. This was incorrect; the Roman Catholic Diocese of Quebec was well-established at the time of the American Revolution.
 E.g., the arguments put forth in “Why Baptists Can’t Be Theonomists” by Joe Carter https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/baptists-cant-be-theonomists/
 Shepherd, Massey Hamilton. The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary. New York: Oxford University Press, 1963, 35. Note: the page numbering in this book is atypical, as aligns with the page number of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. As such, there are some unnumbered pages.
 Ibid. 263.
 Ibid., 17.
 Ibid., 32.
 Ibid., 36.