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