In his ongoing series on American Idols, this week Skye Jethani is taking on the idol of patriotism in his “With God Daily” devotional. This clarion call and challenge has been a key concern of mine. Keeping the church’s identity and witness distinct from national agendas and partisan politics is essential for the mission of the gospel of the Kingdom. Here’s Skye’s challenge:
John Winthrop, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, preached a sermon in 1630 while sailing abroad the Arbella from England to the New World. He inspired his community of Puritan settlers by applying Old Testament promises given to Israel to their colony. If they kept God’s laws, Winthrop said, they would be blessed, and if they disobeyed they would see his wrath. “The eyes of all people are upon us,” he declared. Their settlement in the New World would be a “city upon a hill.”
These ideas and even his words have been recycled by American religious and political leaders for centuries to great effect. As a result, many still believe America has a special covenant with God and assume if the country adheres to biblical morality, it will be blessed. If it deviates, it will be cursed. This was on display following the attacks on 9/11 when Jerry Falwell blamed the “pagans, the abortionists, the feminists, the gays and the lesbians” for the tragedy. They had pushed America toward secularism and therefore broken the country’s special covenant with God. Although he later retracted his comments, the theology behind Falwell’s remarks is still widely held today.
What’s the harm, you may ask, if Christians believe their country has a special relationship with God? If we apply the Old Testament promises of Israel to America, won’t that inspire us to create a more just and holy society? There are two reasons this error is so dangerous.
First, it conflates God’s relationship with the Church and his relationship with America. Jesus told his followers that they were to be “the light of the world” and a “city on a hill” (Matthew 5:14). The only way to apply these ideas to a political body is if everyone within it is also Christian—as was the case in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Modern America, however, is an incredibly diverse, pluralistic society with people of every religious, philosophical, and moral persuasion.
If Christians continue to apply John Winthrop’s vision to the whole country, it means the existence of any non-Christians in America—or anyone who does not follow Christian moral standards—is a threat to the whole nation. This creates a mindset in which Christians—motivated by fidelity to America’s covenant with God—feel compelled to fight for control of the public square, and deny equal rights and dignity to those who do not hold to our doctrines or values. This, in turn, sours the wider culture to the Gospel as they come to view Christians as belligerent and intolerant of diversity. By trying to save Christian America, they are actually driving Americans away from Christ.
The second error is no less destructive. Believing America has a special covenant with God mobilizes Christians through fear rather than love. If our safety and prosperity depend upon America being a Christian nation that obediently follows Christian values, then anyone advocating ideas contrary to Christian doctrine must be viewed as a great threat. At the very least, such people in our midst will be seen as illegitimate Americans unworthy of the same rights and dignities afforded to the God-fearing Christians that are keeping the country from destruction.
The danger posed by non-Christians has been leveraged by both political and ecclesiastical leaders throughout American history. It’s often underreported, but anti-Catholic rhetoric was a significant device employed during the American Revolution as Catholic influence in England was viewed by Protestants in the Colonies as a threat to true Christianity. We see this fearmongering today as rhetoric and hate crimes against Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Jews are rising dramatically, and sometimes the prejudice is spewed from pulpits in the name of honoring Christ and protecting America.
Those who seek to inflate Christians’ fears about their non-Christian neighbors are not inspiring us to be more Christian but less. They are not leading us toward faith in Christ but away from him because where the fires of fear are fed the inviting glow of Christ-centered love cannot long endure. As Henri Nouwen said, “Fear only engenders fear. It never gives birth to love.” Such fear-laden rhetoric is not leading us to love our non-Christian neighbors as ourselves but instead causing us to believe that our wellbeing necessitates their misfortune. In order for Christians to be safe, they must be kept out. In order for the Church to thrive, they must not be allowed to practice their faith.
This “us or them” view is antithetical to everything Jesus taught and modeled. In other words, believing an unbiblical doctrine—America’s covenant with God—causes Christians to act contrary to a biblical one—the call to love our neighbors as ourselves.