I grew up in a church where the Christian church and the USA were happily married. On the stage, we featured both the American flag and the Christian flag side by side. Every year we featured a “God and Country” Day, where we honored our veterans and often had a state senator come to speak in addition to a sermon on loving our country from our pastor. The elementary school I attended (an extension of said church) claimed Scriptural support for everything the United States achieved in its over 200 year history in its history books (not to mention an overwhelming support for conservative politics). My public high school I attended was very similar; though someone less biased, the tones were overwhelmingly conservative and Christian throughout the school. College (as it seems to help lots of people) turned me onto new areas of history in a less biased way, showing me all facets of US history from both sides of the fight, though the wedding of church and state was still strong, however. Alternative viewpoints were allowed and able to be expressed, but rarely, if at all, were. I held an elective chapel supporting nonviolence which (I think) generated some good discussion, but never really got to continue with it. It mostly just stayed to that (not to mention there were something like nine other chapels that day).
Overall, what I’ve seen throughout history is that the American church ties itself very, very closely to the state. If presidential candidates want to get elected, they appeal to the Christian vote by claiming Christianity, particularly Protestant (we’ve only had one Catholic president). If you’re a Christian in America, the need to be Republican is strong, as it seems the lassiez-faire ideals of the Republican Party line up with Scripture, though most Republicans claim to separate their political and religious lives (Democrats and liberals do this as well). Many read into Scripture what they want to see, or use to to justify the actions of the state. Most conservative Christians also respond with hostility to opposing viewpoints, such as an anti-war stance, and will either demean the faith of a Christian posing the view, or just shut them out altogether. I once suggested to a coworker that I would like to bring aid to Iraqi widows who had lost their husbands to war, and his only response was, “What would your mother think of such a thing!?” as if helping Iraqis was openly blasphemous.
Now, before I continue sounding like I’m just being hostile toward the conservative Christian demographics, let me clarify that this isn’t some sort of Christian bashing post, or an America bashing post. I love my Christian brothers and sisters, and there’s many things I love about America. My problem with the Church sometimes is its unabashed allegiance to America, and its support for policies that go against Scripture. We support war and say things like, “Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out,” when Jesus tells us to love our enemies. We’ll pass legislation that doesn’t allow people to give food to the homeless, or that cuts welfare and section 8 housing, when ministry to the poor and homeless was central to Jesus’ ministry. We tote, “God Bless America” stickers and shirts, and say the Pledge of Allegiance in our church services, and we talk about our “friendship” with Jesus that looks more like a casual acquaintance sort of relationship to me. We’ve allowed America to become a replacement for God, and we’ve placed in God’s mouth the words of our Empire.
I think the early church would be saddened by our perspective on what it means to be patriotic. The early church prior to Constantine considered themselves patriotic because they prayed for the Emperor. Jesus certainly didn’t advocate the overthrowing of government or hostile opposition to its forces (It speaks volumes to an oppressed people when you tell them a Centurion has greater faith than all of Israel). Jesus did demonstrate through miracles and teachings a few things regarding church and state, however:
1) You can’t be Christian and NOT be political. It’s impossible. The NT is LOADED with political imagery and language, right down to the words we use for Gospel (euangelion) and church (ekklesia) being taken directly from Roman language to describe things in reference to Caesar.
2) Your involvement with politics is not going to look like the way the rest of the world is involved. Being a Christian meant care for the poor everywhere (not just those in our churches) by the standards God laid down, not by those of the government (The early church believed that if a child starved to death while a Christian had food, that Christian was guilty of murder. Whole lot of murderers in the church today by those standards, myself included). It meant love of one’s enemies, and early church writings prohibited service in the military (look into a man named Hippolytus for this one). It meant neither great emphasis on materialism, nor pious asceticism, but a theology of enough (yes, quoting Shane Claiborne here), where money ultimately means nothing to a God who created the materials and commodities that we buy (even the resources we print our money on!).
3) Christianity does not move from the top down, but from the bottom up. Again, quoting Claiborne, “Jesus didn’t go to the rich and wealthy of society so that the Gospel might trickle down.” No, he went to the homeless, prostitutes, tax collectors, fisherman, and the “bottom” of society, and it moved upward. I’ve said before that Christianity is the original grass-roots movement. The early church worked this way for over 400 years, reaching people right where they were without reservation as to who they were or what they did, and it spread like wildfire.
4) God is ruler enough. This goes back through ancient Hebrew teachings that there was never a need for a king, that the rules of God was enough. The nation of Israel rejected this for a king, however, despite God’s warnings that the king would enslave their sons and oppress them(1 Samuel 18:10-19). I’m not here to say we should overthrow the president and “let God rule us.” What I am saying is that the laws of God as interpreted through Jesus Christ, ALL OF THEM, supersede those of the land. When the government passes laws that prevent us caring for the poor, we do it anyway. When government goes to war against people we know to be God’s children, we stand in the way. Peter said it best when he said, “We must obey God rather than man.”
I think the problem with the correlation of patriotism to Christianity is the fact that the church doesn’t trust God like it once did. It’s risky business to truly rely on God for all of your needs, and the security of nationalism seems comforting. We don’t have to rely on God when America is providing everything. In reality, we’re falling into the trap of complacency. We’ll hide the cross behind the flag so we don’t have to look at what the cross calls us out to: all out surrender to God and love for one’s neighbor. If we only have to love our friends and family, then we as a church, having taught people to do this, have committed a grave heresy. We are called to much greater than this.
Happy 4th, everyone.