It has been a rough road for the reputation of Christianity.
This weekend that reputation was on display. Churches all over the country, in defiance of common sense and the clear and important restrictions given to us by health officials and government entities, met openly in crowded indoor spaces, singing and otherwise ignoring universal guidelines for the safety of the attendees of these meetings. Using the canard of religious freedom, the separation of church and state, and persecution, churches sent a clear message to all watching. Unfortunately, with remarkable self-delusion, the message they sent was not the one they thought they were sending.
Here is a summary message that I heard as I listened to several of these church services (online) from the past July 4th weekend:
The United States is a Christian nation founded on Christian principles that has gone off the rails because the United States has left their conviction as a Christian nation. This started in 1962 when the Supreme court pushed God out of schools and since then we have succumbed to evil, ie. abortion and sexual depravity. Had we not done those things we would be a righteous nation because we would have returned to the Lord and he would have blessed us.Nationalist Churches on July 5, 2020
The messages I heard were preceded by nationalistic flag waving, celebrations of the military, singing patriotic songs and pledging allegiance to the flag – to the exclusion of any worship.
Here is the problem with this message this weekend.
It is culturally tone deaf. The message is classic deflection. As our nation struggles to understand racial tension, the place of the church in the midst of a pandemic, and the political dissension that is dividing the nation and Christians, the message was tailored to make people feel good. Instead of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, they flipped the message: comfort people who should be afflicted; afflict those who need comfort. Christianity is not under attack in the United States. Black people have made it perfectly clear to us that they are offended. Evangelicals, instead of listening, have hunkered down and pulled out hackneyed arguments that communicate ignorance, selfishness and worst of all encourage the justification of turning a blind eye to people who are asking to be heard. Your weekend message to black people is: we don’t care about your pain, it isn’t real, don’t bother me I have some flag waving to do. This is the response we have had to their cries for centuries. You didn’t keep slaves, but your silence and deflection makes you complicit in violence done to blacks today.
It is historically selective. Most of the pastors I heard cherry-picked feel good quotes from founding fathers and other early puritans and patriots to support their arguments while ignoring the obvious non-Christian actions and beliefs of many of these same men. Being selective about our “sins” is not the posture of the prophets of the gospel. Anachronistic references with claims to making them universal pronouncements ignores 2-3 centuries of development and change. Doctrinal conformity of Federal Representatives may have been the written desire of some individuals and even states but is not desirable in today’s pluralistic United States. What many of these pastors advocate is a Christian theonomy, the equivalent of what they abhor in Islamic states that are governed by Sharia law. Contrary to the claim, these are not the principles that contributed to the makeup of our nation today.
It is Biblically unsound. The passages in these patriotic sermons used to promote Christian nationalism are not a part of the Evangelical heritage that most of these churches belong to. It is not a part of any theological work in their libraries. Using passages contextually tied to Israel and unilaterally applying them to the US is the worst handling of the text in front of the people of God. Galatians 5:1 isn’t talking about Independence Day. 2 Chronicles 7:14 is not a verse written to the United States as a covenant partner with God. This wild conflation of the freedom we have in Christ with the freedom we have as citizens of a nation is mind-boggling. This hijacking of the text to support a political and national message in a Christian church goes against all principle and any methodology of sound Biblical hermeneutics. Here is a thought to ponder: take your America the Beautiful service to any other nation and put it into their church context, how would it be received? Would you sit through a service like that in say, Italy, or Kenya, or Mexico?
It is theologically bankrupt. Christian nationalism is a manipulation of theology promoted by the worst of our history and para-history. One of the theological ideas corrupted into our national history is the idea of Manifest Destiny. This politico-theological belief embodied in a phrase coined in 1845, is the idea that the United States is destined by God to expand across the entire North American continent. Using this idea as justification, we took as ours land and resources that didn’t belong to us. Using this “doctrine,” we blamed the Indians by characterizing them as unreasonable savages. Manifest Destiny was used to color over injustices done to Indigenous Americans, and today we continue to ignore the continuing state of injustice.
It is a false narrative. Christianity as the prominent religion didn’t protect us from the following evils, perpetrated in some instances solely by the church with the government’s approval/blind eye and in some instances by the government with the approval and blind eye of the church. Being a “Christian Nation” didn’t protect the women accused of being witches and it certainly didn’t protect the millions of Africans from loss of dignity, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What is even more egregious in this false narrative is the convenient picking out of Christian voices that at the time of their speaking were derided for disagreeing with the majority Christian view. The most recent example of this hijacking of minority Christian voices is with Martin Luther King Jr. His clarion voice at the time was ignored and he was hated and killed. Many Christians were in that crowd of haters. Today, his words are also cherry picked when they fit a narrative. Today, he is portrayed by white Christians as their hero and an example of how protesters today should behave even though at the time his acceptable protest was unacceptable.
It completely ignores Jesus and the gospel. These pastor’s mentioned Jesus this weekend, and spoke about the gospel even including an altar call, but they used both for their own distorted ends. Jesus’ mission didn’t include creating nations or nationalism. The gospel doesn’t speak for the powerful and those who are rich. A Christian political philosophy reflects the values of Christ who proclaims “THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED (Luke 4:18 NASB).
It is full of ad-hominem characterizations. “Leftists, liberals, Marxists, socialists, looters, mobs, criminals, democrats, etc.” were all names I heard in messages this weekend. Many of the people in these “categories” are themselves Christians. Instead of focusing the message on the universality of the audience of the gospel, these pastors and Christians are minimalizing those who by their own definition are the objects of their message! Yet they proclaim not the gospel for them from their pulpits, but rail judgment and condemnation at those, if they are right, fall into the categories to whom Jesus himself proclaims salvation.
Nationalism has no place in the church. America First is not an appropriate sermon title or series. The Fourth of July is not a Christian holiday and has no place in a worship liturgy. The pledge of allegiance is not a feature of worship nor is the Star Spangled Banner an appropriate hymn to be sung in a church. Take your flags off the stage – they are not a part of the gospel.
Some will wrongly conclude that I don’t love the country. I won’t even begin to make an argument for this silly response to this letter. Have fourth of July celebrations all you want, just don’t bring it into the church. That is the most patriotic statement an A christian US citizen could make.