Four problems with nationalism for the Christian
By David A. Fiensy
I suppose when a small country church invites you to fill their pulpit on a Sunday near the Fourth of July, you should expect some flag-waving. But what I experienced was way over the top, in my opinion.
The song leader led us in patriotic songs exclusively. At various times during the service, he seemed to choke up when referring to the American flag. When it came time for the Lord’s Supper, he apologized for “breaking the mood.” After the Communion service, he sang as a solo, “I’m Proud to Be an American,” before I was supposed to preach.
I seriously doubt my sermon fit with the mood, either. But I left that church that day wondering if we had all committed sacrilege. Such emotion directed toward the United States of America and such coolness with respect to Jesus Christ who died for us! What is wrong with the American church when we choke up over Old Glory but shed no tears over the “Old Rugged Cross”?
Culture is something we grow up accepting unconsciously. It is like imbibing mother’s milk. Without any thought in the matter, we combine our culture with our faith and believe the combination is the true faith. We just assume, almost always without much reflection, that our deep values are right.
But are these the correct values? Should Christians examine their cultural values and make them pass the test of spiritual discernment?
That is the topic of the thought-provoking book Hidden Worldviews by Steve Wilkens and Mark L. Sanford.1 The authors warn the church against eight cultural values that threaten Christian theology. In this election year, I think it is most appropriate to focus on one of them: nationalism.
Wilkens and Sanford offer their readers a test. You might be a nationalist, they write, if you:
• believe that God’s plan for history would be hampered if the United States did not exist 100 years from now.
• think it unacceptable that a citizen would not recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag or sing the national anthem because of religious convictions.2
• are convinced that our Declaration of Independence embodies eternal principles.3
Did you find yourself in any of those diagnostic questions? Chances are, most of us identify with at least one of them. That means, according to the authors, that we are nationalists.
OK, what’s so wrong with that? First, let us remind ourselves of the history of nationalism. Remember that some of the most terrifying movements in the 20th century were “nationalistic” movements: those in Germany (the National Socialist German Workers’ Party) and Italy. We refer to these as fascist movements today, but back when they were happening they were ultranationalist movements.
We are witnessing the same sort of nationalism today in both the United States and Europe. Christians are being swept up in this fervor.4 Now, I’m not saying that all American Christians are fascists, but I am saying we should reflect on our values. Are our cultural values Christian?
What is so dangerous or wrong with nationalism? Let me propose four problems.
1. Nationalism tends to imbue the citizen with a sense of privilege, even arrogance.
We can see it in the German “Reich’s church resolution” of 1933: “God has created me a German. Germanism is a gift of God. God wants me to fight for my Germany.”5 Try substituting the word American for German and see if this has the same feeling for you. When you read it as American, it doesn’t seem too bad, does it? But the truth is, it is bad no matter which word is used.
Here is the fact: God does not love the United States more than he loves Nigeria, Bangladesh, or Ecuador. God does not favor the nation with the biggest bombs or largest economy. We Americans are not God’s special nation. We are just one nation among hundreds, all of which God loves equally. If those words trouble you, you are a nationalist and may need to reevaluate your priorities.
2. Nationalism can become our idol.
Is it possible that sometimes what we call patriotism is actually idolatry? Wilkens and Sanford ask, “If Jesus were alive today (in bodily form), would he be patriotic?”6
As an American, my first thought was, Yes, and he would be an American patriot! But we all know that such a response is historically false. Jesus lived in a small country (a third world country, really) dominated by a wealthy and powerful empire. I doubt if he waved any Roman flags or said any pledges of allegiance.
But for many Americans, even for some Christians, I fear that “Americanism” has become their religion. They regard the flag with almost divine reverence; they say the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag in church as if it were part of their Christian faith; they regard patriotism (not just loyalty to their country, not just obeying laws, and not just serving in the armed forces in times of trouble, but enthusiastic reverence) as a near religious experience.
3. Nationalism may overlook Christianity’s worldwide scope and influence.
When we focus on our country with near religious fervor, we forget about the transnational nature of Christianity. There are now 2.2 billion Christians on this planet. My loyalty is first to Jesus Christ, the Savior of my fellow Christians, and then down the list somewhere I place loyalty to my country. I have more in common with the Christian living in China (probably worshipping in secret) or in Africa (possibly worshipping out in the bush) than I do with a secular American.
I may feel more culturally comfortable with the American because we can talk baseball, politics, or American history. But I really share more with the Christian from Zimbabwe because we are brothers/sisters.
When we are ultranationalistic, we regard foreigners—even Christian foreigners—as “the other.” They speak ridiculous languages, eat yucky food, and perhaps even smell bad. What could I possibly have in common with such strange people?
If they are Christians, we share the most profound commonalities possible. We share the same Savior; we are inhabited by the same Spirit; we worship the same God.
4. Nationalism tends to vest all its hopes in the current political candidates.
Every four years our country goes through a kind of madness. It is called the presidential election. We believe our presidential candidate will “save America” and that the other man/woman will destroy it. The other candidate is evil, perhaps even demonic, but ours is saintly, a true hero. We paint a very pessimistic and bleak picture of what our country will look like if the other candidate wins the presidential election. It will be like one of those dystopias so common in the movies today.
But as Andy Stanley says in his video—now gone viral—“You are scaring the children!”7 You are teaching our children that the future is entirely determined by narcissistic politicians.
Why do Christians assume our fate is in the hands of politicians? Do you really think your candidate is so perfect? All of the candidates are probably flawed persons. As a matter of fact, if we get a good one every fourth or fifth cycle, we are doing pretty well. Still, we have never elected a perfect president.
Yet, just as probable is that any of them can do a reasonable job, though perhaps not as well as we would like. Our future does not depend on which idiot we elect for the highest office of the nation. Our future rests with God. Nations will rise and fall. Someday America too will cease to exist, but God’s kingdom is eternal. We Christians, of all people, should know that.
It is very difficult to reflect on one’s deep cultural values. If you grew up in the United States of America, you imbibed the value of nationalism. You, like me, assumed it was right. You assumed that being a patriotic American (reverencing our country and flag) was part of being a good Christian.
Here is where the benefit of experiencing other cultures is obvious. It is easier to reconsider this value when you see it in another country. When you see Christians in other nations revering their country as if it were part of their faith, you can begin to look at your own behavior and values.
It is still a good thing for a Christian to be loyal to his or her native country, to obey its laws, and to help defend it if called upon to do so. It is not a good thing, however, to worship one’s native country, either intentionally or unreflectively.
1Steve Wilkens and Mark L. Sanford, Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories that Shape Our Lives (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009).
2Every once in a while, I need a good dose of Mennonite theology. See Steven Friesen’s Artists, Citizens, Philosophers (Waterloo: Herald Press, 2000). Friesen observes that for Mennonites, pledging allegiance to the American flag is the equivalent to the ancient church’s offering incense to the image of the emperor.
3Wilkens and Sanford, Hidden Worldviews, 65-68.
4See “Rise of Donald Trump Tracks Growing Debate Over Global Fascism,” The New York Times, May 28, 2016; accessed June 3 at www.nytimes.com/2016/05/29/world/europe/rise-of-donald-trump-tracks-growing-debate-over-global-fascism.html?_r=0.
5Wilkens and Sanford, Hidden Worldviews, 65.
7Andy Stanley, “You Are Scaring the Children,” accessed June 30, 2016, at www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVgaLdCf6gs&app=desktop.
David Fiensy serves as professor of New Testament and dean of the graduate school at Kentucky Christian University.