By Patrick Nullens
I”ll never forget my first trip to America. After landing in Chicago, I thought, It”s like the movies. I took a cab to a huge hotel. As most tired travelers do, I switched on the cheap television set. That was when I experienced my first cultural shock.
A well-dressed woman with giant artificial pink nails was resting her hands on a stack of postcards and praying for sick people. After reading each card, she prayed for each request, one by one. As she prayed eloquently and piously, a number for financial contributions flashed across the bottom of the screen.
I was stunned. Two drastically different worlds were blended in the blink of an eye: commercialism and prayer. This was my course in American Religion 101.
Religion seemed to be a very natural part of American culture. Personal Christianity was like Coca-Cola, the Statue of Liberty, Disneyland, and McDonald”s. We Europeans tend to whisper about religion, but Americans aren”t bothered to shout out their “personal faith.” Religion is like a sweet soda that you can combine with everything as long as it is edible, tasteful or . . . less tasteful.
Americans challenged all of my gastronomical borders. You can blend vanilla ice cream with Coca-Cola and call it a float. So why not blend religion with patriotism? After all, the founding fathers were devoted Christians and the puritan pillars of American society. Why should we be against being a Christian American nationalist?
Merriam-Webster”s Collegiate Dictionary defines nationalism as “a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.” But Christian nationalism is a form of consciousness that stresses Christian roots and promotes a blend of Christian subculture with the interests of the nation. Patriotism is slightly different, referring to devotion to one”s country. But Christian patriotism blends devotion to the country with devotion to God. Is this a good blend? Well, my answer is yes and no.
This is only my personal perspective, and I trust it will contribute to the wider debate. First, let me express my personal hesitation toward any form of patriotism. Second, I will consider nationalism from the perspective of the kingdom and the church. Third, I will suggest Christian religion can indeed be displayed in the public arena. Finally, I will briefly consider the relation between nationalism and missions.
I must confess my aversion for all forms of naÃ¯ve nationalism. Not that I am a diehard pacifist. I served my country in Belgium as an Air Force chaplain for several years. Our first “pep talk” during basic training was about World War II and the importance of defending our country against evil extremes such as Nazism.
Wherever you go in Europe, there is a piece of war history. And in most cases, blind nationalism and naÃ¯ve patriotism were driving forces behind those wars. The simple soldier is not interested in big issues but is simply focused on serving his own country, whether it is Germany, Russia, or the United States.
In Europe, we had to learn our lesson the hard way, and I hope we will not forget it. The European Union was not set up exclusively as an economic platform, but its foremost aim was ending the frequent and bloody wars between neighbors. One of its founders, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman, was convinced a deeper cooperation would diminish nationalism and create constant peace. He opened his famous speech in 1950 with these words: “The contribution which an organized and living Europe can bring to civilization is indispensable to the maintenance of peaceful relations.”
As I teach now in many post-Soviet countries, I see again the sheer temptation of nationalism and ethnocentrism. We seem to struggle living with diversity. The Eastern Orthodox Church tends to play a role as the guardian of a national identity. If we foster American evangelical nationalism, can we also live with Russian Eastern Orthodox nationalism that, in some locations, is aggressively countering our mission work?
A Kingdom View
What does Scripture teach us? Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). The church is a manifestation of his kingdom and it does this by being intrinsically diverse or multicultural. Being a people of all nations is not just an accident; it is part of the essence of the church.
At an emotional level, patriotism somehow spoils this feeling of worldwide belonging. As John Wesley loved to say, “The world is my parish.” In theology, we call this the perception of catholicity (universality) of our faith and of the church itself. Our citizenship is in Heaven (Philippians 3:20), and only secondarily do we belong to a nation. We are wandering pilgrims with brothers and sisters all over the world.
I love many Americans, not because they are American, but because they belong to my family and I experience a family bond in Christ. From a biblical perspective, Christian nationalism may become a contradiction in terms. Our nationality is merely a coat we often must leave behind. This pilgrimage creates dialectical tension. Even the New Testament contains this paradox. Romans 13 declares there “is no authority except that which God has established,” and Revelation 13 states, “He was given power to make war against the saints and to conquer them. And he was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation.” During World War II, German Christians were wrestling with this dramatic tension. We are living in the middle of the affairs of this world whether we are German, Belgian, or American.
The percentage of evangelicals among American troops was significantly higher than the average in the States. In many cases, the reason was some kind of naÃ¯ve syllogism: to be a Christian is to be good citizen; to be a good citizen is to support your nation in war, therefore every Christian should go to all wars that our nation initiates.
I wonder if this logic also counts for the other side of the trench? I am intentionally trying to avoid the extensive ethical discussion on just or unjust wars at this juncture. But I want to stress that being a good citizen in a democratic society also requires critically minded citizens, especially with regard to the use of power and violence. In our relationship to the government we need a continuous practice of the hermeneutics of suspicion, especially when religious speech is involved.
Christianity In the Public Arena
Do we have to remove Christian religion completely from the public scene? Many Europeans believe so. But I disagree.
Europe is disappointed with religion; the church has messed it up. Most countries had one national religion: Catholicism, Lutheranism, Anglicanism, or Calvinism. They all played a dominant role in political life and were often means of oppression. The traditional church leaders provided some kind of metaphysical system to cover up several forms of immorality. In Western Europe the attitude toward religion is frequently cynical, which often makes it difficult for Christians to function well in society.
In the United States there is not one dominant form of Christianity, even though some evangelicals long for such a thing as “evangelical Christendom.” There was more diversity from the beginning in the United States, more space to live out one”s own religious identity, thus preventing religious hegemony.
Someone who extensively studied the difference between European and American democracy and the role of religion was French political thinker and lawyer Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59). His book Democracy in America (1835) was written after he did extensive traveling in America. It is still considered a classic in comparing European and American cultures.
Tocqueville explains how important religion can be for a healthy democracy. It has some kind of tempering effect against the dynamics of materialism and individualism, as a counterweight against vices that flourish in a democratic society. Religion is a protector of morals on the micro level of the domestic life. “Moderated men are less likely to disturb society.” He even challenges European skeptics to visit America before uttering that religion is damaging.
A Devastating Effect
Finally, a word about Christian missions. In short, nationalism is devastating for missions. The old “Christian” Europe has become one of the hardest mission fields in the world. I live in a country with about 1 percent Protestants and a Roman Catholic Church that is virtually dead. Fortunately we have some excellent American missionaries as close friends. Each one of them is very “nonnationalistic.”
In the blending of nationalism and missions there are actually two pitfalls at the extremes.
Sometimes people are more interested in exporting American culture, where evangelical Christianity becomes a side product of McDonald”s. This has a devastating effect. The gospel becomes merely a superficial coating that will someday be exchanged for a more indigenous religion. We have seen the effect of this type of “blitz revival” in some post-communist countries.
Second, the mixture of American culture with the gospel causes downright antipathy. To some it seems that if they choose Christ, they automatically confirm an American lifestyle of consumerism and being “purpose-driven.” In the latter case, missions boils down to a matter of translating a lot of American “stuff” in different languages.
Instead, missions is about “leaving your country,” not about bringing your country with you. I am so thankful for American missionaries with this kind of servant attitude, ability to contextualize, and who invest in partnership and foster “native” leadership.
When that is the case . . . “God bless America!”
Patrick Nullens lives in Leuven, Belgium. He is professor of theology and ethics at TCM International Institute, Vienna, Austria, and rector of the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit, Leuven, Belgium.