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FIRST-PERSON: Joining the American Legion deepens grasp of patriotism

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–July 4th, I joined the American Legion. I’d been a counselor at one of their Boys States back in the 1960s; I’d read of their stand with the Boy Scouts against the homosexual agenda; and now I was in their local hall with a Medal of Honor recipient our church had brought to town.

We had invited Robert Maxwell, who is featured in the North American Mission Board video “Valor,” to ride on our float in the local parade. The Legion had given us free space for a reception, where Maxwell gave his testimony. He’d fallen on a grenade in World War II, saving some buddies. A blanket absorbed some of the blast, and he is eager to talk of the mercies of God, past, present and future.

While we waited for folks to filter in, the local post commander, who’d heard I was eligible, asked if I’d like to join. “Sure,” I said, and signed on in the glow of the moment.

I’m glad I did. I respected these guys and, as a church planter, I was glad for this new link with the community.

At my first meeting, we stood to recite the preamble to the American Legion constitution, and seeing it for the first time, I found it quite sweeping. I would change some of the wording if I were writing it, but it’s grown on me.

In this time of war, there is much talk of patriotism, and it is good to ask what this might be. What are its features and manifestations? Is it a Christian virtue or is it even compatible with Christianity? The Legion preamble gives us good opportunity to reflect on patriotism. It begins, “For God and Country we associate ourselves together for the following purposes,” and then it lists these 10 commitments:

1. “To uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.” This picks up on the oath of enlistment, the part that continues, “against all enemies foreign and domestic.” What a privilege it is to defend a document like the Constitution (and not a king) distinguished by such rights and privileges, and the means to redress grievances.

2. “To maintain law and order.” See Romans 13:1-7. No vigilantes or scofflaws invited.

3. “To foster and perpetuate a one hundred percent Americanism.” Thereby fostering and perpetuating zero percent treasonism. Dissent and reform, yes; betrayal, never.

4. “To preserve the memories and incidents of our associations in the great wars.” A wonderful antidote to ingratitude, selfishness and lassitude.

5. “To inculcate a sense of individual obligation to the community, state and nation.” See Article 15 of the SBC’s Baptist Faith and Message, “The Christian and the Social Order.”

6. “To combat the autocracy of both the classes and the masses.” Our theology teaches that in a fallen world none can be trusted with unchecked power.

7. “To make right the master of might.” Might doesn’t make right; might begs to be put right.

8. “To promote peace and goodwill on earth.” That’s essentially in the Baptist Faith and Message. See Article 16, “Peace and War.”

9. “To safeguard and transmit to posterity the principles of justice, freedom and democracy.” There are those abroad who unjustly kill innocents, crush dissenters within their own lands, and enthrone potentates, whether sheik, mullah or king. There’s a lot of safeguarding and transmitting to do in these days.

10. “To consecrate and sanctify our comradeship by our devotion to mutual helpfulness.” Neither these purposes nor the mutual commitment to them is cheap. Our highest allegiance is to God, but under God, there are other noble commitments.

Today, our enemies have targeted all Americans. We’re building coalitions as best we can, but few of these allies seem lasting or particularly helpful. It’s a little lonely right now. But as we Americans join arms with one another in defense of freedom, we might well take some inspiration from famous words familiar to many schoolboys, the St. Crispin’s Day speech in Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” (This passage is the source of the expression, “band of brothers,” recently elevated by author Stephen Ambrose.)

It is the evening before Oct. 25, 1415. An English force, having landed at Normandy, will tomorrow face a French force, which outnumbers them four to one. This battle at Agincourt will prove to be a great English victory, but who can predict such a thing? As Henry anticipates the annihilation of his forces and himself on the day set aside each year to honor two saints, brothers Crispin and Crispian, he imagines that that holiday will always be marked by the remembrance of his warriors:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother;

Henry then observes that heretofore questionable characters will be enobled by their sacrifice. But what of those slackers who cling to safety and comfort to the neglect of their nation’s cause?

And gentlemen in England now a-bed

Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispian’s day.
Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church. Other reflections by Coppenger can be viewed at www.comeletusreason.com and www.listten.com.

    About the Author

  • Mark Coppenger