December 22, 2008 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

The Star of Bethlehem and the Star-Spangled Banner

In recent weeks, Washington has gobbled up troubled institutions like they were Christmas cookies. Whether through bailing out businesses or nationalizing industries, Uncle Sam's shadow over our economy seems to grow by the day. And the deeper the government's tendrils, the more people turn to it for help -- enabling government to reach even deeper.
How might we check this tendency to place unhealthy hopes and expectations on government? A good place to start for me, believe it or not, was in celebrating Christmas -- particularly by singing classic carols. In fact, I plan to keep these carols going all the way to Jan. 20, Inauguration Day.

At first glance, Christmas might seem to have little relevance to the inauguration, let alone to our expectations of government. After all, one concerns a pregnant first-century Jewish girl of little renown giving birth amid smelly animals in a humble stable. The other is about a modern political celebrity assuming the highest office in America amid powerful officials, cheering crowds, and a fawning media. Many might suggest that these events differ in another important way: one is religious, the other political. Their relevance to each other is therefore easily dismissed ... unless one listens carefully to the songs commonly sung at Christmas.

As it so happens, political titles like "king" are common in many classic carols. For instance, "O Little Town of Bethlehem" contains the line "And praises sing to God the King ..." And in "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" we hear: "Glory to the newborn King." References to "Lord," "Prince," "reign," "hail," "bow," "crown" or "throne" also fill traditional carols. Once you listen for it, language of authority resonates throughout the celebration of Christmas.

Perhaps a comparison with the presidential inauguration has merit after all. Of course their roles of authority are not exactly the same. In the United States, we don't have an official national church or religion. America's founding fathers wisely prohibited that in the Constitution. When presidents take the oath of office (usually on their family Bible), they swear to uphold and defend the Constitution of the nation, not the catechism or creed of a particular Church.

And Jesus himself said that his kingdom was not of this world. He rejected the option of using force to overthrow the rulers of his day and establish himself as a new Caesar.

Jesus was not the same kind of political head honored at modern-day inaugurations. Nevertheless, Christians do understand him as making a pre-eminent claim on their allegiance. They hail him as "King" with a capital "K," which implies an ultimate authority commanding trust, hope, loyalty, service and obedience.

Carols remind us of that ultimate authority, whose higher claims should help shape our expectations of good, limited government on earth. They check our tendencies to place an unhealthy degree of hope in government.

America's Founding Fathers understood this well. Most of them acknowledged God's authority as ultimate and the federal government's as derived and supportive. For example, James Madison said that one's civic duties should be pursued "with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign." But such a belief did not prompt the founders to place a crown on the head of the priest, nor to wrap a sacred mantle around the bearer of the sword. Instead, they chose to limit strictly the authority of civic government to prevent interference in other spheres of authority.

The founders knew that, if limited, the state would be less likely to absorb expectations and loyalties that should be directed to other institutions. Allegiance to the King born at Christmas can inform the respect and expectations rightly directed to those sworn in at inaugurations. Keeping the reach of government limited is important for keeping ultimate loyalties ultimate, and vice versa. Singing about the Star of Bethlehem helps put the Star-Spangled Banner in its proper place.

Ryan Messmore is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ryan Messmore, D.Phil. Research Fellow
DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society

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