Earlier this week, I posted something from the Parchment and Pen blog about the idealized vision of America’s moral past. I happen to agree with Michael Patton completely. We do have this myth that America was more moral than it is now. This, I believe, is simply untrue. The form of immorality was different 100 years ago, but I’m not convinced we are that much worse than we have ever been. That essay and a few others I’ve read this week have me thinking again about America in this political season (will it EVER end?!). For my part, I’m tired of the rhetoric, and really want to focus on something more secure and lasting – like – I don’t know – the gospel.
A couple of weeks ago I posted something about author David Barton’s book getting pulled off of the shelves by Thomas Nelson Publishers. In the comment thread I was scolded for being smug. In truth, I’m glad this book was pulled, and that Christian scholars are starting to call the author on his errors. My concern is not so much about his version of American history, though I think he overstates his case, or his use of scripture which he routinely takes out of context. My greater concern is how that point of view is used to foist bad theology on the church. I see in Barton similar presuppositions that I used to see in Falwell, and those presuppositions trouble me. In the comment thread, I wrote this…
You asked why I mentioned Falwell in my post. I am concerned for the health the Church in America. I believe that the message preached first by Falwell et al. is based on a bad theology that God has a special relationship with America because it was founded as a Christian nation. This theology is scripturally unsupportable. God has only ever had one covenant with one nation. That is Old Testament Israel. America is merely a nation of this world, albeit a good nation that has more right than wrong, but a nation of this world nonetheless. As such, it is systemically opposed to the Kingdom of God plan in this world. Barton’s work lends credence to the argument that America is special in the eyes of God and as long as we do things God’s way we’ll be blessed. This rips the Old Testament promises of God to Israel out of their biblical context and applies them directly to America through the Church. The problem: God doesn’t make those same promises to Christians, and he certainly doesn’t make those promise to modern nations. It is bad theology, bolstered by a simplified version of history.
In my opinion, the Culture Wars are a political movement that finds its impetus in this bad theology of America’s relationship with God. We can refer to this relationship as a type of American Exceptionalism, and while it is not wrong to love one’s country, there is a danger inherent in it that we will justify all sorts of sinful and harmful activity simply because we see ourselves as possessing God’s special favor. In my post about the religion of Americanism, I pointed out that what we’re looking at is a generic form of theism in the form of Civil Religion that confuses the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the Gospel of America.
From our founding, many Americans have thought that America has a special place in the plan of God for this world. The Puritans thought they were founding the “the City upon a Hill” to be a Christian light for the rest of the world when they established their Massachusetts Bay Colony. The implication – if not outright belief – was that America was to be the New Israel upon Earth through which God would bless the whole world. This sentiment is repeated by American politicians from across the spectrum including John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. However, history also tells us the Puritan dream failed within two generations and the Puritans had to compensate for the lack of Christian zeal among their children and grandchildren by establishing the Half-Way Covenant. The historical fact is that the City on the Hill never really materialized, and there have always been competing ideas about what America was supposed to be. The theological fact is that no matter what they thought they were doing, the Puritans were wrong. They were not building the New Jerusalem.
America has never been a Christian nation in any real and meaningful sense because we’ve rarely looked like Christ in any substantive way. We’ve done OK in some regards, better than other nations perhaps, but we’ve also done all sorts of horrible, sinful things while preaching that God was on our side calling us toward a special destiny.
We suffer from a type of patriotic tribalism that hinders the Church’s gospel mission in this world. Some who know me and have heard me preach may wonder why I’m always talking about the importance of the Kingdom of God in our theological thinking. It is precisely because the KoG is the counter to patriotic tribalism/American Nationalism that it is so important for us to grasp the fact that Amercia, as good as she is, is fundamentally opposed to that kingdom. She is merely a worldly nation in need of being brought into submission to King Jesus. As Christians, we must start seeing ourselves first through the lens of being citizens of God’s Kingdom, and only then can we grasp what it really means to be a Christian living in the United States.
John H. Armstrong former pastor and founder/president of the ACT 3 ministry wrote this article interacting with Ross Douthat’s book Bad Religion, and he does a good job explaining the problem with the heresy of American Nationalism.
Ross Douthat believes “a version of exceptionalism is entirely compatible with Christian orthodoxy” (250). If God is the sovereign lord of human history then providence has plainly had a role in America’s place in the events of mankind and civilization. I will surely grant this to be a Christian idea. I have serious doubts that most Christians are able to distinguish between divine providence, as it impacts all nations and peoples, and America’s role in having what amounts to a covenantal relationship with God. Douthat says such an “exceptionalism [must] be tempered by a realism about the mysteries of providence and the limits of human perfectibility” (250). Christian orthodoxy makes room for particular loves “but not for myths of national innocence or fantasies about building the kingdom of heaven on earth” (250). It is alright to love one’s country but when this love is equated with God’s favor, blessing or revealed purpose it is quite another matter.
I could suggest a number of ways that this is done routinely. Consider, as just one example, the place of the American flag in most of our churches. If you travel to other countries this symbol of the nation is almost never present in a church. From childhood I have wondered why so few want to discuss this nagging question. (Woe to the church that has the flag displayed and a pastor, or group of leaders, tries to remove it!)
In today’s very polarized climate, the belief that America is exceptional in the eyes of God leads some Christians to become very fearful because they look around them and don’t see a particularly moral nation. We fear that God will take his hand of blessing from us because we no longer deserve that blessing. What we seem to forget is that we never deserved God’s blessing, and it was never promised to us as a nation no matter what our founders thought. Again, I echo Michael Patton, America has always deserved God’s condemnation – both then and now – but we have also been sustained by God’s grace then and now. Our continued life and blessing rise out of God’s grace toward his creation, not about anything we earn or any special deal we have.
Armstrong goes on to discuss the different extreme paths Americans travel when the Nationalism heresy is in full motion …
A healthy union of pietism and patriotism may work but in our present context, especially in our current evangelical context, there is a “dangerous theological temptation” here that it seems we routinely miss. One such temptation, especially on the political left, is messianism. The other great danger, especially on the conservative right, is doom-laden apocalypticism. We are not just an “almost chosen nation” but a truly chosen nation! The first temptation fits progressive tendencies while the second fits the more conservative bent of mind and politics. The second is ascendant right now since it is built on the reactionary inclination of conservatives to frame the present by the dark clouds of gloom and doom that hang over a people led by the present occupant of the White House. (emphasis mine) From Woodrow Wilson’s progressivist use of this paradigm to the modern Christian Right, which argues from the other end of the spectrum than Wilsonianism, this tendency to embrace nationalism has hindered the church from her real mission in America.
It is our real commission that is at stake. Let’s not kid ourselves. We are called to preach the gospel of King Jesus, and call all to repentance to the One through whom all Creation finds Salvation. The great irony for me is that for many of those saying we’ve fallen away from the morals of the good ole days, the proposed way of recovery is through political action and passing the right laws. This is a flawed plan because in seeing this through we will have made a nation of liberty into an oppressive state, and betrayed the true gospel with a version of a legalistic nation with enforced morality. This isn’t Christianity, and we should know better. Our only hope is the gospel.
In this time of conflict and polarity, I encourage you as Christians to love your God, love your neighbor, be a good citizen, vote your conscience, but keep a clear head about what this earthly nation really is. Preach the gospel. Don’t be afraid, trust in God’s grace no matter what happens.
“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”” (Hebrews 12:28–29, NIV84)