Voting for Obama, Part 2: American Idol(atry)

An evangelical Christian in Greeley, Colorado, home of the conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family was recently reported as saying he was an “American first” and “then a Christian.” He is not alone. Recent polling data has shown that between 36 and 48 percent of American Christians describe themselves as just that – Americans first, and then Christians. Not Christians who happen to be Americans.

My guess is that the vast majority of evangelical leaders would disagree with this misplacement of priorities. However, they are doing little to discourage it. The Republican Party – whose 2008 Convention featured the theme of “Country First” – continues to be widely embraced by notable conservative Christian leaders across America. In fact, in the late phases of the Presidential campaign, Focus on the Family itself has launched a high-profile attack against Obama, which I will return to momentarily.

The core of the marriage between evangelicals and conservative politics is based on a concept that is often described as American exceptionalism. Closely tied to the concept of the “manifest destiny” of America, it is a familiar idea to most of us. It is usually expressed like this:

America is the greatest nation on earth. It was God’s purpose that we expand and become powerful, so that the entire world can be inspired by our systems of government and economics. We enjoy many material blessings because we were established in the name of God, and because we honor God.

Irving Berlin’s”God Bless America,” while bearing a title that is innocent enough (who wouldn’t want God to bless their homeland?), is weighted with the rhetoric of exceptionalism. The lyrics in this song do not speak of the greatness or holiness of God and his ways. Rather, they extol a particular way of life that some Americans enjoy, characterized as our “home sweet home” and the “land that [we] love.” God’s role in the song is one of “blessing” America, and – more particularly – “standing beside” us, thus protecting us from our enemies.

Under exceptionalism, America is of first importance. God is seen as secondary – even subservient – to our way of life.

Likewise, the recitation of “one nation, under God” in the pledge of allegiance is usually interpreted by exceptionalists as expressing exactly the same idea: since we are “under God,” we possess – literally – a divine right to occupy a position of privilege and superiority.

Those who disagree with exceptionalism are quickly branded as “unpatriotic” and – within evangelical circles – even heretical . The outrage against Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s minister, which grew to a fevered pitch several months ago, is a great example of the powerful influence that exceptionalism has on the political process. In his now infamous sermon, Wright suggested that, rather than “blessing” America, God should “damn” America for the way it has oppressed the poor and – more particularly – the African American community. Whether one agrees with everything that Wright was saying, it is undeniable that retribution from the exceptionalists was swift and sure. As more and more details about Wright’s polemics against American injustices became public, Obama began to publicly distance himself from Wright in order to avoid their ire.

The rather self-serving nature of exceptionalism seems fairly obvious to me. Since our way of life is a divine right, we have every reason to believe that we are justified in protecting it. Among other things, I have heard American exceptionalism associated with efforts to exclude immigrants from participation in our economy and the use of tools of violence – including torture – against our enemies. Similarly, the recent Focus on the Family media blitz speaks to issues that are clearly geared toward the preservation of a particular way of life, implying that aggressive military action and the continuation of a system of private health care are necessary to avoid an evangelical “doomsday” scenario.

The problem that I have found with American exceptionalism isn’t that its too extreme; an idea that expresses some truth – and which simply needs to be balanced or infused with a dose of common sense. My problem is that it is idolatrous.

The first two commandments of the Mosaic law are clear: I am God. Nothing comes before me. Do not make idols. Likewise, the Shema – an ancient creed recited daily by countless Jews and Christians makes the same point: I am your one and only God. Love me with your entire being.

During recent years, I have become convinced that American exceptionalism is a violation of the primary tenant of the Judeo/Christian tradition. By equating the American system of government and our way of life with the will of God, it turns those things into idols.

There is nothing new about this. Throughout the ages, the dominant political institutions of the day have invariably attempted to coopt God for their own purposes. In the days of national Israel, such efforts came with the threat of intermarriage with pagan nations – and the consequential commingling of the worship of God with pagan religions. It continued into Constantine’s empire, which conquered in the name of Jesus. Similarly, the brutal crusades of the Middle Ages became possible as a result of rhetoric which justified military dominance in the name of Christ. As I have previously observed, even our current President is not immune to the temptation to equate his own political philosophy with God’s will.

American exceptionalism also strikes me as dangerous because it results in a misplaced investment of Christians’ faith and hope for the future. As Scot McKnight recently observed, our hope can never be that the world will be “fixed” by political institutions. To the contrary, our hope is that God himself is at work in the world, ending war, making poverty obsolete, and renewing creation.  Our job is to join in the movement of God, not to invest time and effort in political schemes and institutions, no matter how noble the objectives of those institutions may be.

Don’t get me wrong. America has accomplished laudable things on the stage of world history, and many of those accomplishments are consistent with Christian values. But it is also a nation with a flawed history of oppression and violence, and one which has the potential to become (if it has not already happened) yet another brutal World Empire of the sort that is repeatedly denounced in scripture.

My job, as a Christian who has been empowered with a role in our system of self governance, is to applaud those things which are good about America, while also speaking out against those things that are not. Likewise, those whom I elect as my representatives in government should recognize that – while many good things can be said of our country – we have no divine claim to privilege.

After all, we are told to pray “thy kingdom come, they will be done on Earth as it is in heaven,” not “America’s kingdom come, so thy will is done on Earth, as it is in heaven.”

For me, this distinction has become critical, and, as I have come to recognize it, the issues and values that influence my vote have dramatically changed.

More to come

[Part 1]

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8 Responses to Voting for Obama, Part 2: American Idol(atry)

  1. Carisse says:

    I wonder if you are familiar with Richard Hughes’ book _Myths America Lives By_? His point it that American exceptionalism — which he discusses as American civil religion — oppresses minorities.

  2. Matt says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Carisse.

    Actually – no – I haven’t read that one. However, I have read Myth of a Christian Nation – another attempt to dispel American exceptionalism – on the grounds that it is inconsistent with Christian theology.

    If you search “Myth of a Christian Nation” in the search box on this blog, you’ll find my review and summary of the book, which spans multiple posts.

  3. cindyinsd says:

    Hi Matt

    I’ve been following your blog for a while now, though I don’t think I’ve made any comments. You have a lot of good things to say, I agree that we followers of Jesus are citizens of the kingdom of God first and above all. I don’t think it necessarily follows that we are not to contribute to our earthly nations, especially if we are blessed to belong to a nation that allows us a certain degree of input. I don’t think you said that we shouldn’t participate, either. After all, you do plan to vote.

    There are many reasons I’ll be “canceling out your vote”, but the most important one is the abortion issue. I realize that most people don’t think a lot about this except from the point of view of the mom in trouble. Maybe it’s just more comfortable not to think about it. Maybe we feel we shouldn’t interfere if sinners want to sin. Why should it be illegal to sin? Lots of other sins are perfectly legal and Christians don’t seem to have a problem with it.

    In Jesus’ day, it was common practice in gentile nations to expose baby girls in a desolate place, and neither Jesus nor the apostles ever said anything about this–at least nothing that was recorded. So how do you feel about exposing baby girls to die in desolate places, Mat? Would that be important enough to change your vote over?

    I don’t mean to be unloving, and please believe me when I say that I do not condemn you or any other Christian who supports Obama, but I do care enough about you to ask you to think a little further about what you’re about to do. If you want to hear more about my arguments on this issue, you can click on my name–I just posted on it. I hadn’t planned to talk about the elections at all, but my heart is breaking for what will happen in the years to come.

    God bless,

    Cindy

  4. cindyinsd says:

    I can see that I failed to finish my thought in paragraph 3 above. I really have problems with these little windows. What I intended to conclude the paragraph with was that there was most likely no need to say anything as this practice was clearly seen to be infanticide. It is covered in the mantle of behaving in a loving manner. Killing little girls is not exactly a loving thing to do. But people in New Testament times didn’t have a whole lot of say in how things were run.

    Sorry about that . . .

  5. […] have always felt that American exceptionalism, which holds that God cares about preserving the American way of life at all costs, does not answer […]

  6. Matt says:

    Cindy-

    Thanks for the comments. I appreciate the generous, grace-filled way that you have raised this issue.

    I realize that abortion is an important issue to a lot of Christians, and I respect that. Right now, my plan is to devote an entire post to a discussion to the issue. Stay tuned, and feel free to join in on the discussion once it is up.

    Grace and Peace to You.

  7. […] don’t think that this ad explicitly plays the American exceptionalist “card,” but it seems designed to appeal to that […]

  8. matt says:

    I am Alife long Catholic ,alter Boy, confirmed catholic,Practicing saying my prayers nightly. BUT, this extreme writing is so wacked out as to most religions. I have visited many religions.I qote(ALL evangelican,christian,catholic pennicostal,babtist,luteran,ect.,When they want you to join their beliefs and or parish, they all say (they accept all fellow men and women Reguardless of background, race,sex and habitsand beliefs in the past). I believe in pro choice ,( the american way) I beleive in god, and I beleive that Barack Obama is the absolute correct choice. Matt

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