Christian First, American Second

I’ve said before on this blog that I’m not a political junkie, and that I don’t follow politics all that closely. And yet, in recent months, I couldn’t help but write a few posts that dealt with political issues. I think that I owe it to the regular readers of this blog (thanks to all 5 or so of you) to say more about what is behind the statements that I make about politics.

First, some personal history: I grew up in a Christian home in the South, and my parents tended to vote Democrat. At the same time, I went to a Christian high school, where political issues were often presented in a pro-conservative light. In part because of these different messages that I got from different influences, I registered to vote as an Independent when I turned 18. Since then, I’ve voted for a mix of Republican, Democrat and third-party candidates.

Over time, as I’ve grown in my Christian faith, I’ve continued to think about how it should affect how I vote, and how I think Christians should conduct themselves in public life. Instead of believing that my faith aligned me completely with one political ideology, I decided that I should make decisions on political matters on a case-by-case, issue-by-issue basis. Whenever it comes time to vote, I take a good look at each candidate’s stances on various issues that are important to me as a Christian (like the environment, war, and the economy, as well as the classic personal morality issues like abortion and gay marriage). Usually, after nearly despairing, I come to a decision and vote for the person I disagree with least.

Recently, I’ve been having a very negative reaction to associating the Christian faith closely with a particular political point of view, or even with the United States. This goes back at least to the time I was at a service one Fourth of July weekend at a megachurch in southern California in 2001, and they raised a 110-foot American flag to the ceiling at the end of the service, as the big finale. Something seemed wrong about that to me. I think that the fusing together of Christianity with the state has always been dangerous. The reason why I’m troubled by this is that I think, historically, whenever the church and state have been aligned, the church has always suffered. It always fails to preach the gospel the way that it should. The enemies of the state become the enemies of the church, and Jesus’ way of sacrificial love is not followed. In this presidential election cycle, I’ve been bothered by things like Obama’s misinterpreting the Bible in the service of the state, and also by statements like the one made by Sarah Palin that “We see America as the greatest force for good in this world.” (McCain expanded that to say America was the greatest force for good in the history of the world in the final presidential debate.) As a Christian, I think that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the greatest force for good in the world. The impact of America on the world is a mixed one, in my opinion, and I am disappointed that professed Christians like Palin and McCain have made the statements they have. I’m concerned that those who say that their nation is the greatest force for good in the history of the world may not be able to see where their country has made mistakes. Putting America first means putting the kingdom of God second. There is a word for putting the kingdom of God second to something else, and that word is “idolatry.”

In contrast, I’ve had a positive reaction to the stances on politics articulated by such people as Scot McKnight, a New Testament scholar who teaches at North Park University in Chicago, and Greg Boyd, pastor of Woodland Hills Church in Minnesota. McKnight wrote a post on his blog, JesusCreed, a couple of years ago that argues four things: 1. Churches should educate Christians on what the Bible says and how the Church has thought about various political issues. 2. Christians should remain independent enough to provide a prophetic stance. 3. It’s irresponsible to say that we can be completely apolitical. We need to address political issues, but from an independent stance that allows us to speak prophetically. 4. (and related to 1.) Each person is responsible for where he or she stands politically. Churches should educate, not indoctrinate. If churches say that responsible Christians should only vote a certain way, they end up demonizing the opposing view and contributing to the widespread lack of respect and civility in our culture today. McKnight wrote another post more recently, on October 3 of this year, which asks the question, “Where is our hope?”

Where is our hope? To be sure, I hope our country solves its international conflicts and I hope we resolve poverty and dissolve our educational problems and racism. But where does my hope turn when I think of war or poverty or education or racism? Does it focus on November 4? Does it gain its energy from thinking that if we get the right candidate elected our problems will be dissolved? If so, I submit that our eschatology has become empire-shaped, Constantinian, and political. And it doesn’t matter to me if it is a right-wing evangelical wringing her fingers in hope that a Republican wins, or a left-wing evangelical wringing her fingers in hope that a Democrat wins. Each has a misguided eschatology.

Four years ago, Greg Boyd preached a sermon series at his church called “The Cross and the Sword.” Later, this turned into a book called “The Myth of a Christian Nation.” I haven’t read the book, but I have listened to the sermon series, and I resonated with what he was saying. What he was saying was that for Christians, the Kingdom of God that Jesus spoke about is central, and it must not be confused with other kingdoms. Here is a quote from Greg Boyd:

Matthew (a Tax Collector) and Simon (a Zealot) were much farther apart in their views about political issues than (say) a Liberal Democrat and a Conservative Republican would be today. Yet, we never read a word about which view was “better” in the Gospels. And the reason is that their widely different political views are insignificant next to the one thing they are called to do as followers of Jesus: express God’s love for others the sacrificial way God expressed his love for them.

So, if we’re thinking biblically about the kingdom of God, we have to conclude that it just doesn’t matter whether you’re a conservative “Matthew” or a liberal “Simon.” If you’re a follower of Jesus Christ, committed to building the Jesus-looking Kingdom by sacrificing for others, there’s room in the kingdom for you.

The kingdom of God is different from the platforms preached by Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. Of course, Christians should be involved in political issues – because we are commanded to love our neighbor, we should be involved in the lives of our fellow women and men – but the kingdom of God must never be confused with the kingdoms of this world.

This is why I don’t write a lot about politics on this blog. But when I do, I am highly critical of the longstanding tendency in American politics toward civil religion – blending the kingdom of God with other things. In spite of its long tradition, it amounts to idolatry.


6 thoughts on “Christian First, American Second

  1. Well said; yet another great lens to view this election with. There is more for me to say, but I could never write it as clearly as you just did. So, thanks.

  2. Well thought and articulated, Elliot. Being here in the UK, the unfortunate fusion of religion and politics in the US has been all the more obvious to me. So I fully appreciate your level-headed, kingdom-first appropriation of the political debate.

    Regarding your last statement (“In spite of its long tradition, it [America’s pseudo-civil religion] amounts to idolatry”), do you then regard the prepositional phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance (“under God”) as politically passé or theological heretical? I’d love to hear what you—as a Christian first and American second—think about it.

    Hope all is well with you.

  3. Derek:

    Thanks for your thoughts, and for the question. I honestly have not done a lot of thinking about “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. The last time I remember being asked regularly to recite it was when I was in the third grade, so it hasn’t been a real live issue for me.

    I guess with “under God,” I’m not so much concerned with the words themselves, but with what people mean by them. When we say those words, are we invoking God’s name and then going out and doing whatever we want, because we imagine that God will bless us if we just mention him in the Pledge of Allegiance? are we identifying God with our American ideals and institutions? are we merely evoking our religious heritage (the words, after all, come from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address)? I would have to take a close look at someone’s argument for having “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance before I decided whether I thought it was heretical or not.

    Personally, even though I can understand why some religious groups and atheists refuse to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, I wouldn’t have any problem with reciting it. As I interpret the words of the Pledge, they don’t seem to rule out a higher allegiance to something non-national like the kingdom of God. I don’t see it as the modern equivalent of burning incense to the emperor and saying “Caesar is Lord,” but I know that others interpret it differently.

    I hope all is well with you too!

  4. Elliot,

    You do a good job of describing the danger of identifying any political party or nation with Christianity. Regarding the Pledge of Allegiance, people certainly mean different things when they say the phase “under God.” I don’t know if you remember, but there was a controversy in 2002 when a federal judge ruled it was unconstitutional for public schools to make students say the phrase when reciting the pledge. I believe that the Supreme Court overruled that decision, an action that was hailed as a victory for faith.

    The phrase was added to the pledge in 1954 after a campaign by the Knights of Columbus. As I understand, this was about the same time that “In God We Trust” was added to our currency. In both cases, the intent was to affirm that, unlike the Soviet communists, Americans acknowledged their dependence on God. Perhaps there was also then a sense that, sense we acknowledged God, He would take our side in the Cold War. That sort of possibility seems to be a danger with having the phrase included; when people say they are under God, what they may really be thinking is that America is God’s nation and that American policies are in fact God’s policies as well.

  5. Hi, there, E! Apparently, you have a new computer. I was at this point in your blog when it was interrupted and I didn’t have time to organize a response then. My views on politics are actually quite similar to yours. Interesting, since I don’t recall that we ever discussed them. I’ve been registered as an Independent for most if not all of your life. Many years ago I used to vote for Democrats if I did not have a strong preference because that party used to be more pro-social and less “Big Business” than Republicans. Now I think most politicians are so similar in performance that I have tended to vote against incumbents if I don’t have strong opinions, since few seem to survive political office without beginning to use it primarily to feather their own nests and fresh starts seemed like a good idea. This year I’ve realized that that isn’t such a good strategy because at least a continuing incumbent would make one less person with a lifetime expensive retirement package. How the cynicism deepens! It started after one semester as a poly sci major and a year’s membership in the Young Republicans (as a college sophomore, I would have been a Young Democrat, had there been any on campus). The absence of young Democrats at Calvin says something about the Republican party and Christianity in the ’70’s. America as Israel was a popular confusion after World War II at least, if not earlier, even among Christians. People talk about Americans as if they were the Chosen People all the time. I often point out that God has at no time replaced the Jewish people with Americans. In the 6th grade I obviously disappointed the teacher by taking a contrary position when discussing Stephen Decatur’s “Our country, right or wrong,” by pointing out that Christians had a higher allegience to God than to country. I didn’t know then that G.K. Chesterton had said a generation later that ‘”My country right or wrong’ is a thing no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, “My mother, drunk or sober.”‘ Loyalty and righteousness are two separate issues, though one hopes that the object of ones loyalty is often right.

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