November 22, 2017

American Idolatry: With God On Our Side

crossflag.jpgMichael begins a new series on American Evangelical Idolatries. A similar IM essay is eric rigney’s “Christianity and Patriotism.”

We were driving home from a visit to Richmond, Kentucky when I stopped at a Dairy Queen in Mckee for a few moments. As I was leaving, I noticed this sign painted on the side of a van next to my parked car.

Faith in God and Commitment to Christ is (sic) Our Nation’s Greatest Source of Victory.

Here in eastern Kentucky, patriotism runs high. Though Democrats and the Left like to act as if the poor in Appalachia are their sympathizers, the truth is that I have never seen an anti-war sign anywhere in eastern Kentucky, and I travel extensively. “Support Our Troops” is everywhere, because those troops are the sons, daughters, grandchildren and neighbors of thousands of mountain families.

This support for the troops may co-exist with various degrees of appreciation or disagreement with the war in Iraq. Frankly, the average person in these environs hasn’t moved past an emotional reaction to 9-11. Economics and social realities make the military a good choice for many people, and the pride in the military is real and sincere.

I genuinely appreciate this. I’ve written at Internet Monk my own thoughts that it is quite possible to be a defender of freedom in the war on terror and a follower of Jesus Christ. I have no plans to ridicule anyone’s blue collar, bumper-sticker patriotism. If we sing the patriotic selections in the hymnal, I’ve seldom had any problems taking part.

Our school has lost a graduate, Steve Maxwell, in Iraq. One of our alumni was in the Pentagon on 9-11. Many of my students have served honorably, and when they return to campus, I have our students stand and applaud them for their courage and sacrifice.

I say all of that to say that I was sadly distressed at the sign on the van, for it exemplifies a kind of idolatry that is common in the Bible Belt, and especially common in Southern Baptist and Pentecostal churches. One does not have to wonder what kind of services many fundamentalist Baptist churches will be having in our area on the 4th of July weekend. Here’s an excerpt from a Lexington Herald-Leader story about an annual event at the state’s largest baseball stadium. I post it because it’s typical, not unusual, and it expresses what thousands of Christians in my part of the country believe.

Two days before his “I Love America” rally, the Rev. xxxx xxxxx predicted his message would alienate people.

“If you’re a rock worshiper and a tree-hugger and an animal-rights activist and an anti-war draft dodger … You might want to stay home and tune in to NPR on the radio because you ain’t going to have a good time at the stadium if you ain’t a flag-waving, Bible-waving American,” he told worshipers at xxxxxxxxxxx Baptist church.

And xxxxxx’s “I Love America” sermon lived up to his billing, igniting a debate that still smolders on talk radio and editorial pages. He told non-Christian immigrants to “leave your religions, your Bibles, all the other things back where you came from.”

At the July 2 event — which cost his church more than $50,000 to stage — xxxxx criticized liberals, homosexuals, cross-dressers, HBO, Hollywood stars, rock musicians and the U.S. Supreme Court, as thousands applauded. Like I tell those who want me to be less engaging of those with differing views and accept everyone no matter how anti-American, anti-God, or politically correct they are…

How did it become possible to say that to be a follower of Jesus is to be a flag-waving American? Or a flag-waving anything for that matter? The Bible doesn’t have a single sentence that takes us in this direction. It’s simplistic idolatry and pure invention. The Kingdom of God isn’t represented by the government of the United States, no matter how superior our constitution might be to that of other nations (and I believe that, in God’s common grace, it is.) Our values and way of life may be influenced by a heritage that includes Christianity, but in what delusion does America, today, inspire this “cross and flag” version of our culture? It’s bizarrely idolatrous.

“God and Country” worship is common in Kentucky and the Bible Belt. The message is clear: Jesus is pro-America, and the agenda of America, American culture, American policy and American religion, are all superior to others because, as Bob Dylan said, God is on our side. One cannot be a Bible-believing Christian and not be a flag-waving American.

My own Southern Baptist convention is neck-deep in this mindset. Baptist Press is an echo chamber for the Bush Administration and Right leaning Republicans on most issues. Recently, Lifeway published Judge Roy Moore’s book and heavily promoted it. It isn’t a question of whether Judge Moore’s views are palatable or possible. The question is why would Lifeway publish a book like this at all and promote it in its stores? Why would SBC leaders- with all their talk of “Kingdom” priorities, get involved in patriotic worship every year?

I am constantly bombarded with requests to show our students the videos of David Barton and his ministry of opposing the separation of church and state by teaching his own version of the history of America, (which is his perfect right to do.) I have friends who have stepped away from friendship with me because I would not join them in the idolatry of a Christian American mythology.

Because I work with students from all over the world, this issue is particularly clear to me. I am currently teaching a student from communist China. How do I explain to him a “God and Country” program? How would I tell him that Jesus is on the side of America and that to be a Christian is to be a patriotic American? Why doesn’t his apply to my Korean, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Chinese, Spanish, Kenyan and Japanese students?

The “strong conservatives” in the SBC need to face up to the idolatries they have bought into, and there is no place where that idolatry is more evident than in the “God and Country” idolatries of Bible Belt evangelicals.

Comments

  1. UGADAWG47 says:

    What are you man some kind of Commie? We know you are a fan of the “REDS” after all.

    Seriously, great post. I once said that most evangelicals are more American than they are Christian, and more Republican than American.

  2. Brian Pendell says:

    “Because I work with students from all over the world, this issue is particularly clear to me. I am currently teaching a student from communist China. How do I explain to him a “God and Country” program?”

    I’m not in your shoes … but I would point him to Romans 13 and say that God requires us to be good citizens of our countries. So, while I am a Christian and a patriotic American, so too should he be a Christian and a patriotic Chinese. That means serve in the army when he’s conscripted and obey any legitimate orders he receives .. even if that means killing Americans.

    The Biblical example I would point out is Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5) — he was an Aramean whose mission in life was whippin’ on the Isrealis.

    You would think that God wouldn’t have anything to do with a general of an army who was one of Isreal’s most mortal enemies. It didn’t work out that way. Naaman had faith, and obedience. Rather than curse him, God cured him of his leprosy. Afterwards, he worshipped no God but the God of Isreal.

    But he still went back to Aram, he still helped his master in the temple of Baal (rather like the Politburo today), and he was still the commander of Aram’s armies, through whom “the LORD had given victory to Aram” (2 Kings 5:1) … including over Isreal. Betcha anything he was part of the army besieging Jerusalem in 2 Kings 7.

    So if it’s all right for Naaman to serve in the Aramean army, because that is what God calls him to, it is all right for a Chinese Christian to serve China. That’s all the more true because the United States is not Isreal. So it isn’t an Aram vs. Isreal situation … more like an Aram vs. Egypt, or Aram vs. Edom situation.

    So he should serve China just as the Christians in Caeser’s household served Caeser (Phillipians 4:22) — well, but with first loyalty and allegiance given to God. Like Sir Thomas More, who died “the king’s good servant, but God’s first”.

    Respectfully,

    Brian P.

  3. When I worked as an intern at a Central American Christian radio station, we had a few programs on from The States. It was always odd to hear at least one of the programs go into vivid detial on how blessed America was, and how we need to “Stand up” as Christians against those who try and change her. The country I was in was certainly open to freedom of religion, but I always wondered how our facade of flag-waving looked to those in more closed countries.

    Sure, I think the US is great, and I’m all for thanking God for America this July 4th (or Memorial Day, or Flag Day, or Veteran’s Day, since the senario Michael gave seems to play out on every national holiday). I think we’ve got a good system, and we should be thankful for the people who helped form our country — and those in other countries can do the same. But what bugs me is the idea that America has most favored nation status with God. We’ve somehow got it in our heads that our success, security, and wealth are all things God has blessed us with because we did something right along the way. We’re told that the next time the Supreme Court loosens abortion laws or extendeds benefits to gays, we could lose that blessing. After all, if the wrong guy gets into office, God could cut us off — we saw what happened in Exodus.

    Thank God for America. But at the same tome, I don’t think that we’re supposed to be assuming God sees the US in a more positive light than other countries (if God sees countries like we do — something I think we miss the point as well).

  4. I just got back from a missions conference in the Dominican Republic, and this post actually relates to some conversation I had with some fellow travellers. In a discussion time near the end of the week, someone mention that they were a little surprised by how many Christians (this being an SBC/Independent Baptist—yes, both together!—conference, Catholics weren’t considered Christians) they met in the D.R. So the discussion turned to how we so often seem to assume that the USA is some sort of center of Christianity. In addition, people tend to automatically associate missionaries with Americans (which is fuuny, because I think South Korea sends out more missionaries than the US does).

    This all reminded me of one of the few Christian bumper stickers I’ve seen that I’ve liked: “God is not an American.”

  5. I’m conservative and a christian but it disturbs me when I see too many christians confusing political conservatism with being a christian conservative. Yes, they are some overlaps. The same can be applied to liberals as well as both these groups who hold these views can be quite blinded to the truth by accepting things based on terms like liberal, conservative, etc.

    A lot of this starts when we are young. I remember being in Vacation Bible School and saying the pledge to the American Flag, Christain Flag – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_flag

    and the Bible. All that exercise made me do was feel uncomfortable pledging to the American Flag in church and being disturbed that the so-called Christian Flag and Bible were put on the same level. In the 80’s I attended a christian high school. This was the time of the “Reagan Revolution”. I often felt like I was going to a political rally as opposed to a church. It was good that the country experieced some sort of a revivial but was it at the cost of confusing the conservative ways of man with the truth of God’s word? i’m disturbed to see Christian Coalition flyers in conservative churches and people Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson “preaching” in more liberal congregations. The church should be reserved for worship, we should pray for those in government and make fellow chirstian aware of certain issues but to use the church as a place for political rallies is something I am convicted is wrong.

  6. DunkerEric says:

    I’ve spent some years overseas worshipping in international Christian communities, and the mindset you describe becomes offensive. At one Bible study, a self-proclaimed missionary from the U.S. was rattling on about how blessed by God America is and a fundamentalist preacher from New Zealand leaned over and whispered to me about all of the “hot air” at the other end of the room. Well of course.

    I also noted that evangelical Christians from Finland and Curacao were always happy to go out for a beer, and were bemused that some of the Americans were so shocked by that.

    It’s appropriate, I think, to have a loyalty for one’s own homeland, and to feel responsibility to be a good citizen but I have a problem when it gets into an inability to understand that people from other lands (including China) do the same–or an inability to see one’s own flaws.

    This is a deal-breaker, to me. I really can’t remain long in a church that I feel places love of country above love of God.

  7. This is absolutely right, iMonk. There is definitely a place to pray for our leaders–my morning prayer rite includes prayers for the president, local officials, armies, and police. But America is not uniquely chosen by God, was not founded as a Christian nation in the way that evangelicals want us to think, and our wars are not God’s wars.

    The rector at my parish is Canadian, which saves us from most of this silliness.

  8. It’s interesting to see folks’ reactions when you explain that the United States of America did not begin as a Christian nation, but as twelve Christian nations and one humanist republic (Rhode Island). Nine of the original 13 colonies even had established churches. Most required the holders of civic offices to take “test oaths” pledging allegiance to the Bible, and the God of the Bible, the Blessed Trinity.

    The secularizing document was the US constitution, enacted by a cabal of freemasons (an organization designed to allow freethinkers and nonchristians access to political power) in the name of a new deity — “We the people.” The secularizing article was the prohibition on test oaths. Many great Christians and patriots (Patrick Henry, e.g.) were antifederalists. And many still are.

    One of the few tattered remnants of the great common law tradition that provided the underpinning of the American Christian social order is the jury — twelve “good men and true” (why twelve? hint — think of other Biblical entities that birthed and sustained social orders) who take an oath to the God of the Bible, with a hand on the Bible, to execute the justice defined in the Bible.

    When I pray “for Kings and those in authority,” I begin with the most important civic officers, the jurors in my city, and work my way up through progressively less important office holders. Ending with the least important of all, the one with the least liberty, the least ability to act without permission from invisible handlers, the president.

  9. Tom Hinkle says:

    Response to Brian Pendell’s comments’

    So, Brian, let’s take your argument even further. If the Taliban takes over a country, say Afghanistan, then we should encourage all Afghans to adhere to the oppressive policies of the Taliban, including the humiliation of women, forcing them to wear burkas and even cover their faces, not to mention approving of the violence that the Taliban has perpetrated. If Al-Quaeda is in power, we should encourage all under their rule to learn how to fly airplanes into buildings, use chemical weapons (like they planned to do in the New York subway system before that plan was scrapped because it wasn’t “spectacular enough”) and engage in various other terrorist activities that kill thousands of people, all in the name of Allah who will reward them with 70-some odd virgins in heaven.

    I believe Paul’s interest in Romans 13 was to encourage the believers to, as far as was possible, peacefully co-exist with the ruling Roman empire at the time. I have no doubt that Paul would stop way short of asking followers of Christ to worship the emporer as was sometimes required, depending on which Caesar was in power. I have a hard time believing that when Christians got martyred for not bowing to Caesar that Paul was looking down from heaven shaking his head saying “See, you didn’t listen to me, and look what happened.”

    We should respect the laws of this country and be good citizens. I don’t think anyone is disputing that. But when people elevate their patriotism to the place that only God should occupy, when church services are co-opted for patriotic mumbo-jumbo (and, unlike Michael, I have a big problem singing the “patriotic sections of the hymnal” because that’s not what church if for), and people have the inability to realize that Christianity and conservative politics are not the same thing, then we have a problem

  10. Nothing more than a simple Amen and Amen. Thank you!

  11. I have come a long way from my former position as a “Christian = patriotic Republican” to hold very similar positions to you on this issue, Michael. In fact, it was this very issue that first led me to your blog. I was re-examining my attitude towards my US citizenship (vis. my allegiance to the Kingdom of God), and did a Google search on the issue. I can’t remember the post that I found, but it was my first introduction to IM, and I’ve been reading ever since (much to Michael’s frustration at times!!)

    I know that this position is not real popular, but thank you for articulating it, Michael.

    steve 🙂

  12. Great post.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your post, but this is a bit hard for me as a Korean American to express, because the knee-jerk reaction I get is the “you are not a true American, so there” kind. I guess there is more validity if the sentiment comes from a red-blooded white American.

    You may have heard a lot about Korea’s skyrocketing church growth for the past three decades. Much of the force behind it is Korean patriotism, and yes, a lot of Korean Christians believe God has singled out their nation for special blessings and replaced America as his most favored nation. It is true.

    What is it about Christians and patriotism in almost every country? Wasn’t it unheard of among the first century Christians who called themselves aliens and strangers?

    Brian P. You are absolutely correct about being good citizens, but the topic at hand is over the top patriotism. Should the Chinese person convince himself to believe that God is on China’s side? It is wrong to think that just as it is wrong to think God is on America’s side.

    I will soon post an essay along the same topic soon on my blog as well. Thanks and keep up the good work.

  13. tmscot01 says:

    While you quoted the Dylan song, this whole topic makes me think of John Prine’s “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You In To Heaven Anymore”.

  14. Brian Pendell says:

    Response to Brian Pendell’s comments’

    “So, Brian, let’s take your argument even further. If the Taliban takes over a country, say Afghanistan, then we should encourage all Afghans to adhere to the oppressive policies of the Taliban, including the humiliation of women, forcing them to wear burkas and even cover their faces, not to mention approving of the violence that the Taliban has perpetrated.”

    Approve of the violence they commit? No.

    But if the law of the land is to wear a burqa, I’m pretty well going to wear a burqa and cover my face. I would pray, protest, and work within the legal system to change things, as a good citizen of Afghanistan.

    Our orders are to subject ourselves to the governing authorities unless they are violating God’s laws. And when they DO violate God’s laws, we are to resist passively as Jesus and the Apostles did. Armed resistance to the civil government is sometimes required … but never in the name of God.

    Likewise in an AQ-run country: While we shouldn’t go along with the violence, there are all kinds of other laws that any country has and AQ would enforce — e.g., laws against adultery, laws about smoking, or traffic lights. We obey those laws that are consistent with God’s word and disobey those that are not. Paying taxes is consistent with God’s word. Standing idly by while our government murders the innocent is not.

    Remember that Romans 13 was written to a time when Roman emperors meant people like Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero — tolerant of Christians at best and openly hostile at worst. Think human torches to light garden parties.

    And y’know what? Paul told us to obey those people too, not just the ones who have policies we agree with. Romans 13:1 tells us there is *no* authority that God has not established. So if God establishes AQ as the authority in your country, you certainly are going to obey them, on pain of His displeasure. With the caveat always that if there is ever a contradiction between what God and our country demand of us, we obey God and not man.

    So … if I were living in an AQ-dominated country, I’d obey their traffic laws and their dress code but I would not murder innocents. And my resistance would be much more after the style of Martin Luther King than that of Mao Tse Tung.

    If you want a clear example, I would suggest looking up Palestinian Christians in Palestine, or Iranian Christians in Iran. Many of them are intensely patriotic about their countries — did you know, I once read a book about the few Egyptian fighter aces during the wars with Isreal, and not a few of them were Christians ? — but in their cases, there is a clearly defined limit to what they will do for their government, and beyond that they will not go.

    ” If Al-Quaeda is in power, we should encourage all under their rule to learn how to fly airplanes into buildings, use chemical weapons (like they planned to do in the New York subway system before that plan was scrapped because it wasn’t “spectacular enough”) and engage in various other terrorist activities that kill thousands of people, all in the name of Allah who will reward them with 70-some odd virgins in heaven.”

    No, we should not. Because doing so violates God’s law. As I said, we must obey God rather than man if a contradiction between the two ever occurs.

    “I believe Paul’s interest in Romans 13 was to encourage the believers to, as far as was possible, peacefully co-exist with the ruling Roman empire at the time.”

    It’s more than peaceful co-existence — it is *active obedience*. It is “rendering unto Caeser the things that are Caeser’s” … and the Bible tells us some of the thing due to those authority are taxes, obedience, respect, and honor.

    We give to Caeser — or to the PRC if that’s our government — or to the USA — or to the Palestinian Authority — the things it has a right to demand. We do not allow them to become an idol usurping God’s place. We give Caeser Caeser’s due. We do not give him God’s due.

    ” I have no doubt that Paul would stop way short of asking followers of Christ to worship the emporer as was sometimes required, depending on which Caesar was in power.”

    Correct. We rendered unto Caeser those things that were Caeser’s but we refused to give to Caeser that which is rightfully due to God.

    “We should respect the laws of this country and be good citizens. I don’t think anyone is disputing that. But when people elevate their patriotism to the place that only God should occupy, when church services are co-opted for patriotic mumbo-jumbo”

    Agree.

    Respectfully,

    Brian P.

  15. Brian Pendell says:

    “Brian P. You are absolutely correct about being good citizens, but the topic at hand is over the top patriotism. Should the Chinese person convince himself to believe that God is on China’s side? It is wrong to think that just as it is wrong to think God is on America’s side.”

    Did I at some point suggest that God was on China’s side and not ours? That is not what I meant.

    If our Chinese friend is smart, he will realize that God is neither on China’s nor America’s side. He is on His own side. And as Abe Lincoln said, it matters much less whether God is on our side as whether we are on his.

    So he would realize that he owes patriotism and fidelity to his country … but not unlimited fidelity. As Tolkien put it, “there is but one loyalty from which no man can be absolved for any cause” (Akallabeth).

    Respectfully,

    Brian P.

  16. Hello Michael,

    You got me inspired to finish this essay that I started and buried about a year ago. Here it is. Your feedback will be much appreciated.

  17. The only problem I would have with the quote on the van (other than the grammatical mistake) would be the assumption that America, as a nation, HAS faith in God and commitment to Christ. Other than that, I would agree that the greatest (only) source of victory is Jesus Christ.

    Is it possible that the van owner was encouraging us as a nation to have faith in God and commitment to Jesus Christ rather than proclaiming it already exists as part of our national character? If it’s an encouragement, I can get behind that. If it’s a proclamation, I have some issues with it.

    I love America (I’m not suggesting your don’t). I appreciate it’s heritage and it’s place in the world. I think America has been and continues to be a tool for good in this world. I celebrate Independence Day with great enthusiasm (It’s my 2nd favorite holiday behind Thanksgiving).

    But I have no delusion that America is somehow associated with God or chosen by God or that being American means being a Christian.

    Rather, my single greatest source of loyalty to American is that, in America I’m free to seek God and worship Him in whatever manner I choose. My appreciation for this freedom runs very deep.

    I agree that many patriotic sermons are nothing more than nationalistic populism (scratcing the itching ears). But I don’t see a genuine love of country coupled with faith in God as being, by definition, idolitrous.

  18. Frustrated Christian says:

    I loved your post, and after having to see through a very idolatrous church service today (A United Methodist), I was very angry. I felt like I was being forced to worship the US and not God. I do not go to church to sing “America”, but to sing to my Almighty Father.

    Also, I am no liberal, but I know my REAL American history, and when my preacher states we earned our “freedom” by “God’s hand”, I am sickened. So it was by God’s hand that the settlers LIED and KILLED MILLIONS of Native Americans. Those settlers, who, by the very laws we supposedly love, would have put to death because of almost near genocide they took part of. What about the MILLIONS of African slaves whose horrible treatment became the basis of our economy in the 1800’s?? God’s hand, huh? I don’t think so.

    The U.S. is as flawed of a nation as any other land, while I am proud to be an American, I am ashamed of the actions of my forefathers, both to the Native American, and to the African American (I am a white woman).