Books to shed light on conventional notions of God and country
By Jim Tune
“Is the United States an exceptional nation? Of course it is. . . . Though not everyone may like the way the United States has used its exceptional status over the course of the last two centuries, it is hard to deny that it has been . . . extraordinary.”
So says John Fea in his foreword to John D. Wilsey’s American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion. Personally, I’m inclined to agree. In my research, the authors of the books I surveyed are, for the most part, in agreement that America has been a great nation historically. They go deeper by asking if the United States is exceptional from a theological perspective.
Is the United States really a Christian nation?
Are we confusing, or worse, equating the kingdom of God with the nation of America?
Does nationalism and ardent patriotism obscure our Christian mission?
Is God always on the side of American democracy or the free market?
Do we package nationalism, war, foreign policy, or a particular political persuasion in a Christian wrapper?
The authors remind us Jesus is not the Statue of Liberty. Our Lord does not carry a torch or a flag for any one nation, no matter how exceptional.
I don’t agree with all the conclusions contained in the books I surveyed. But I do believe I need to listen to the concerns raised by these writers. Their books were thoroughly researched and the conclusions well documented.
My convictions as a Christian require mindfulness when it comes to the flag (Canadian or American) and my faith. I can appreciate democracy without deifying it. I can love my country, but my faith demands I love God and others more.
American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion
John D. Wilsey
Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2015
John Wilsey is an American patriot. He refers to himself as a person who loves America and is thankful for those who sacrificed so that he might enjoy the blessings of America.
Wilsey finds “a high view of American exceptionalism is, at significant points, at odds with the Christian gospel.” Wilsey understands exceptionalism as an ideology founded on the belief that America is special among the nations. The religious connection to exceptionalism runs deep in American history, tracing back to John Withrop’s famous “A Model of Christian Charity” sermon in 1630 in which he casts a vision for colonists to establish a “city upon a hill”—an idea referenced in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:14).
It’s a noble sounding vision, but it can cut both ways. It’s great when it is used to inspire a nation to embrace the way of Jesus announced by Christ in his sermon. But it can also serve much less noble interests, becoming a civil religion that crosses into nationalistic idolatry.
Wilsey makes a distinction between “closed exceptionalism” and “open exceptionalism.” Closed exceptionalism can foster a sense of superiority that has led to periods of American history where national interests have been justified to the detriment of others. Closed exceptionalism has contributed to national ills, such as racism, slavery, Manifest Destiny, and greed. Wilsey says closed exceptionalism breeds injustice, and warns that it leads Christians to assume that God ordained America to be his chosen people to do his work in the world, therefore any work (including war) is always cast as godly and just.
He warns against assigning Christian spirituality to American patriotism, stating: “For many Christian people, patriotism equals spirituality because their assumption is that America is God’s country. Anyone who stands with America is, therefore, holy, good, and just. Anyone who stands against America is scandalous, immoral—perhaps even demonic.”
Closed exceptionalism assumes a divine destiny for the United States, enabling a sense of “chosenness,” thus adding a spiritual dimension to the mission to spread American values to the world. When political goals are baptized with a sense of religious conviction, any action can be justified in the name of national interests.
Open exceptionalism, according to Wilsey, is a better model. Open exceptionalism is informed by the ideas of individual freedom, human dignity, and equality. It allows for criticism of the “American Way” when it is incongruent with the Jesus way. Open exceptionalism promotes the best of American values while honestly pushing back against problems in the nation’s history, culture, and agenda. It is pro-American without ascribing a salvific role to the nation. Wilsey proposes open exceptionalism because, in his view, it bears no conflict with Christian orthodoxy as it does not confuse devotion with spirituality.
Critics would say that any form of nationalistic exceptionalism—open or closed—has no place in religion. Every empire in history has claimed exceptionalism. And all were exceptional in one way or another. Unfortunately, that exceptionalism led to belief in the divine right to export and impose their agenda on the nations around them for God and country.
One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America
Kevin M. Kruse
New York: Basic Books, 2016
Author Kevin M. Kruse, a professor of history at Princeton University, argues that the idea of “Christian America” is a recent invention. Kruse admits, “There once was a time during which virtually all Americans agreed that their country was a Christian nation.” He says that consensus was short-lived and occurred well after the era of America’s founding fathers.
Kruse focuses on the political climate in the United States from the late 1930s through the early 1960s. The wave of religious nationalism that took hold in the 1950s is shown to have its roots in the activity of corporate giants who opposed Roosevelt’s New Deal during the late stages of the Great Depression.
Kruse documents collaboration between influential religious leaders, the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and business leaders to oppose the New Deal. With outcries of alarm, they attacked the collectivism of the New Deal, claiming it challenged the foundation of faith-based freedom on which America was built. Together they waged a public relations battle urging Americans to return to “freedom under God.”
Kruse documents a program led by Dwight D. Eisenhower in his 1952 presidential campaign to coalesce those same groups around his bid for the presidency. Eisenhower campaigned against communism, Korea, and corruption, finding a receptive audience among great numbers of churches.
During the Eisenhower years the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” became the country’s first official motto. Inaugural prayers were introduced, and the National Prayer Breakfast was established. Church attendance soared to an all-time high of 69 percent of Americans.
Kruse contends actions taken by clergy, government, and corporate interests helped convince Americans that the United States was, and always had been, a Christian nation.
In the epilogue, Kruse concludes, “This history reminds us that our public religion is, in large measure, an invention of the modern era. The ceremonies and symbols that breathe life into the belief that we are ‘one nation under God’ were not, as many Americans believe, created alongside the nation itself.”
While Kruse’s research is thorough, I found his conclusions to be overstated. Something unique clearly did occur during the era Kruse writes about, but he gives too little attention to the Constitution and the faith of the founding fathers.
To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World
James Davison Hunter
New York: Oxford University Press, 2010
James Davison Hunter believes the church has embraced an approach to transforming culture that is unhelpful and self-defeating. He is concerned about the Evangelical fixation on politics and power, which Hunter believes is driven by nostalgia for Christian dominance.
He argues “the public witness of the church today has become a political witness.” Hunter finds the hope Christian conservatives place in politics to be “quite astonishing.” He documents an Evangelical movement characterized by a “desire and ambition for dominance or controlling influence in American politics and culture.”
Not only is this approach inconsistent with the ways of Jesus and the mission of the church, the church’s bellicose approach to the culture wars has only diminished its transformative influence. Hunter calls for a Christian posture that is neither “defensive against,” nor “relevant to,” nor seeking “purity from” the culture.
Instead he proposes an alternative: “Faithful Presence Within.” This presence is based on the model of Jesus’ incarnation and his posture of sacrificial love in the midst of a hostile culture. Faithful presence is not about winning a culture war through ballot boxes, placards, or protest. It means working faithfully in our spheres of influence to create conditions conducive to flourishing for all. Faithful presence is not about changing culture, let alone the world, but instead emphasizes a love-driven cooperation between individuals and institutions to serve the common good.
Hunter writes: “If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world, . . . it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.”
The Myth of a Christian Nation
Gregory A. Boyd
Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007
This book has been ruffling feathers since its release in 2005. It is based on a sermon series Boyd preached to his 5,000-member megachurch preceding the 2004 presidential elections. He believed it was the right time “to preach a series of sermons that would provide a biblical explanation for why our church should not join the rising chorus of right-wing political activity.”
Boyd stated, “A significant segment of American evangelicalism is guilty of nationalistic and political idolatry.” More than 1,000 people left his church during that sermon series. “For some evangelicals,” Boyd writes, “the kingdom of God is largely about, if not centered on, ‘taking America back for God,’ voting for the Christian candidate, outlawing abortion, outlawing gay marriage, winning the culture war, defending political freedom at home and abroad, keeping the phrase ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance, fighting for prayer in the public schools and at public events, and fighting to display the Ten Commandments in government buildings.” Boyd doesn’t say Christians should have no involvement in politics, but insists that “finding the right political path” doesn’t have “anything to do with advancing the kingdom of God.”
Boyd compares worldly kingdoms (the kingdom of the sword) to God’s kingdom (the kingdom of the cross). He argues that America’s history suggests the United States is a kingdom of the sword and not a nation aligned with the values of the kingdom of God.
As citizens of the kingdom of God, he says, we must “take care never to align to any particular version of the kingdom of the world with the kingdom of God. We may firmly believe one version to be better than another, but we must not conclude that this better version is therefore closer to the kingdom of God than the worse version.”
In Boyd’s view, to say a nation is Christian is to pervert the meaning of the word and to desecrate God’s kingdom. He points out that a Christian can represent Jesus in any political system.
Boyd also finds that the church has a terrible history whenever it has been in charge. After Constantine, the church gained political power; the results were horrific. Whole generations of Christians lost the concept of witness and replaced it with the concept of conquering and dominating the political realm. The church put down the cross and picked up the sword to persecute and kill detractors, heretics, and people of other faiths.
He writes: “The militant, Constantinian mindset carried into the Protestant Reformation. So long as they remained a persecuted minority, Reformers generally decried the use of violence. . . . But once given the power of the sword, most used it as relentlessly as it had previously been used against them.” He argued that so-called Christian empires are just a baptized version of “kingdom of the world” systems that have engaged in racism, witch hunts, slavery, war, corruption, and other things incompatible with Christ’s kingdom.
Boyd is critical of the urgent cry of many American Christians for “taking America back for God.” He believes Evangelicals are enamored with the idea that “if only we can get Christian people and Christian ideas to dominate the political landscape, we will have won the culture war and God will be glorified. . . . For we, being the true people of God, know God’s will better than others and, thus, know better than pagans what is good for a nation.”
This has led many conservative Christians to see enemies of America as enemies of God. Those who don’t rally around the cause of “taking America back” are suspect in their faith and unpatriotic, leaving little doubt that they are not aligned with God’s ideals. Boyd here asks a question that deserves a thoughtful response: “Since we are called to mimic Jesus in all we do as citizens of the kingdom of God, we have to ask: When did Jesus ever act or talk like this?”
Finally Boyd concedes that America is a religious nation but is not a Christian nation. And no country in the world can legitimately make such a claim because God’s kingdom is altogether different.
Jim Tune serves as president of Impact Ministry Group in Toronto, Canada.