The beautiful courtship of religion and patriotism should never consummate in marriage.

We awoke on the Fourth of July to a curious ad in the Dallas Morning News by the Exxon Mobil Corporation entitled: A City Set on a Hill. The laudable paean to America on Independence Day mirrored was cast in Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.”

Citing the Puritan John Winthrop, a preacher who would become the first governor of Massachusetts, the oil company celebrated America as the light of the world and a city on hill that all nations should look up to. Winthrop envisioned a colony ordered by the laws of God and sustained by a virtuous church. He hoped the world would at last see and emulate a community that mirrored the kingdom of God on earth.

Every voyage toward an earthly utopia has crashed on the rocks of human frailty. The kingdom of God is not built by human hands or established by good intentions. America had no more chance to be the city on a hill that Jesus called for than has any nation of any time.

Jesus spoke on that grassy knoll long ago to those who would trust in God and live as shining lights of God’s glory in this world of darkness. He outlined no national agenda or civic project. The Jews who first heard his words were under Roman occupation at the time, but the revolution Jesus ignited was spiritual rather than national. It has had political impact in every age but can never be fully embodied in any human government.

Those who long for more evidence of God in our public life argue the Winthrop tradition: Christian people sailed for America with a vision for a Christian colony on these shores. True enough, but Colonial America gave way to Constitutional America. After a century and a half of established religion in each of the colonies, our forebears divined that religion and government should stand side-by-side in the fight for right, but they should each use weapons suited to their own best ends.

Religious communities do great national good when we keep clear our highest loyalty to God and practice our faith in public life. People of faith can be special agents of our blessed nation by virtue of our virtue, our prayers, and our godly service to its noble causes. Yet we maintain a distinction between God and country so that we can call our nation to live by higher authority than mere majority rule.

Worship God and honor America: These are rightful duties, so long as the apt verbs remain connected to their proper nouns.

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