Apology: Nationalism Cloaked in Bad Theology

Here’s a little gems someone shared on Facebook:

The image is a little bit blurry, but it’s a picture of a billboard that inserts the word “America” into 2 Chronicles 7:14.  It’s absolutely hilarious, until you realize that there are an awful lot of people out there who don’t know that America never appears in the Bible.  They don’t know that the Bible is not about America, because so many people are never adequately taught what the Bible actually says, and most won’t read it for themselves (or if they do, they aren’t trained in basic hermeneutics enough to pick out poor interpretations that are presented to them in billboards and sermons like this).

This billboard, as ridiculous as it is, is really only a sampling of the nationalism that masquerades as religion, particularly in the US.  Whenever I see American churches on the news, about half of them feature American flags, sometimes lining the walls, sometimes even next to the pulpit.  It makes the church look like a campaign headquarters, and for some of them they might as well be for all of the political pressure perpetuated from the preacher’s pulpit.  But this post isn’t even about that, it’s about the idea that God is on America’s side.

“God Bless America” is so cliche these days, but people can’t seem to get enough of it.  And why not?  That sentiment in itself, that a person wants God’s blessing on their land and people, is all very well and good.  What’s awful is that eventually that saying gets drilled into people so much that they seem to take for granted that God has blessed, is blessing, and will bless America forevermore.  I’d love to see a billboard or bumper sticker that said “God Bless Iraq”, or “God Bless North Korea”, or even “God, please bless America.”  Because the old plea for blessing has become synonymous with assuming that God has blessed America for a reason – like America is the promised land, or that America is a holy nation.  God blesses America because it’s a “Christian Nation”; I guess it’s about as “Christian” as a nation gets these days, with higher proportional numbers of confessing Christians than just about anywhere.  But really, all this is saying is that “America is so awesome that even God is on our side!”

How do we know that God blesses America?  Well, America is the strongest nation in the world, with the strongest military and the strongest economy.  They have the world’s best healthcare, schools, food production, technology, Democracy…heck, probably even some of the best weather!  Usually, it comes down to the big two though: military and economy.  The US is the world superpower because of a combination of their large military and their large economy.  Being the preeminent world superpower is obviously a sign of God’s blessing, right?  Except that the economy is built upon the world’s largest debt, the government is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and the global recession – which for all intents and purposes really started in the US – is about to enter round two, likely driving unemployment rates in the US even higher.

Military is a big sign of God’s blessing, a sign taken straight from scripture.  When God brought Israel into the land, they had to take it by force – but God would grant them victory unless they disobeyed him.  When they obeyed God, they had dramatic victories; when they disobeyed, they had dramatic defeats.  I’ve heard many Americans comment on their fantastic military record, and the link between it and God’s blessing is a pretty common thing; like we mentioned last week, the protestors at the funerals of American soldiers say that those soldiers died because of sin, meaning that they’ve lost God’s favour and blessing.  But let’s be honest, the American military record isn’t so good as it might seem.  Yes, they did well in the World Wars, and desert storm worked out okay, and I honestly know very little about Korea; but Vietnam was a disaster, and they’re currently fighting two wars simultaneously in which they’ve made little – if any – progress.  And don’t even get me started on the War on Drugs or the War on Terror, which have done nothing except detain, inconvenience, and even persecute their own people.

I say all of this not to bash America – I have no problem with them as individuals, and even as a nation.  Canada and the US are like brothers, most of the time.  What I have a serious problem with is the notion that somehow God is on their side.  As we’ve seen, the major indicators say otherwise.  In the Bible, God’s blessing means prosperity (economy) and peace (with military victory); America projects an image of being tip top in both of those areas, but it’s simply not true.  They’re just people, just like anyone else – and that’s the point.  There are very few nations that God has expressly helped in scripture, and that was always for God’s own purposes.  He helped Israel take the land, and he helped the Assyrians and Babylonians take it away.  America is not Israel (for that matter, Israel today is not the same thing as biblical Israel).  God will help (or use) whichever nations he chooses for his own purposes, and he doesn’t owe America a damn thing.

There’s a great quote out there by a famous politician, but I can’t think of it right now.  It’s something along the lines of being more concerned with being on God’s side than claiming God is on my side, and it hits the nail on the head.  Post it if you know it.  If God is on my side, then that means that I’m leading God – and even if that were possible, it’d be a really dumb idea.  I can tell you this though: God is on the side of people.  Not American people, or white people, or even particularly people who call themselves Christians (because Christians are just people who say that they are on his side).  God is on the side of people, without qualification.  We can either appreciate that fact or ignore it, but it doesn’t change the fact.

So I’m sorry, America, but you’re no more special than the rest of us.  Thankfully God thinks we’re all special (including your enemies).  And I’m sorry to anyone who has the idea that Christianity is about being American, or that all Americans are Christians, or that somehow Christianity and America mean the same thing.

7 thoughts on “Apology: Nationalism Cloaked in Bad Theology

  1. It wasn’t the greatest movie, but “Head of State” with Chris Rock had some interesting thoughts on what it would look like for an unprivledged minority to run for president. With Obama today, this may not seem so shocking, though his roots aren’t exactly from urban, black America.

    Anyway, the typical conservative white candiate closes each speech with “God bless America, and no one else”. Of course no politian says this, but Rock rightly perceives into what many Amercians intentions are when saying “God bless America”. What is also interesting about that movie is that it shows that the typical all-American candidate and their vision is not necessarily indicative of the true state for America and for many of its citizens.

    I heard a story about one of the founders of Frontiers who was asked to share in the early 80’s at a “missions” minded church. When he arrived he was asked to shorten his talk, and as he spoke about outreach to Muslims who could tell few were paying attention. Right then he asked how many in the congregation were praying for the safety of the captured American diplomates in Iran, to which virtually the whole congregation raised their hands. He then asked how many were praying for the billion plus Muslims in bondage to Islam and found only a couple hands raised.

    All that being said, I don’t think it’s wrong to believe that God will bless nations and will often do so on merit (along with grace). It may be poor hermenutic to read any part of the Bible as if it were written exactly for your own context, but it would also be poor hermenutic to not use any application. Furthermore, there is natural law in that just societies will prosper better than unjust ones. God’s love is equal for all, but it many not entail that all socieites are equally practicing justice and in turn receive the same blessings – whether Divine or natural.

    The problem seems more that the “blessed to be a blessing” major theme of the Bible often seems lost on many and “blessed because I’m good, so I’ll enjoy it” replaces it. I think American and Western culture has struggled between these two, but the latter mentality is starting to dominate. I hope spiritual leaders are challenging this mentality as it inevitably falls into injustice which I believe would bring about a curse.

    • We’re back to divine retribution then, which is fine – but as I said, I don’t think that America (or anyone else) can claim to be especially blessed by that standard: they’ve had just as many defeats and heartaches as the rest of us. Even so, you’re totally right that a just society will naturally receive more “blessing” – whether you chalk it up to natural law or divine blessing, it’s essentially the same thing.

      I think that America’s foreign policy reflects some notion of “blessed to be a blessing” with all of its foreign military and economic intervention. The problem I see there (aside from the obvious corruption that inevitably works its way into such things) is that many appear to take their status of “blessed” to mean “we can’t fail, because we are God’s instrument” or worse yet “God has shown that HE backs US, HE’S on OUR side,” – particularly when their enemies (or those they are “trying to bring democracy to”) are Muslims.

  2. The quote you are thinking about is from Lincoln:

    Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.

  3. This all comes from one very simple interpretational tool used improperly. And it has to do with reading the Old Testament

    Correct: Israel = Church/God’s people (and still Israel)
    Incorrect: Israel = any other nation/group of people.

    If you want to do prophetic biblical readings of today’s society, I suggest the Kingdom of Tyre in Ezekiel

    • Ouch.

      I’d like to expand on your (good) note about the interpretational tool. There are some, sometimes called Dispensationalists, sometimes called Supersessionists, (and these are very often associated with the American Conservative Evangelical Fundamentalists) who believe that the Church has entirely replaced Israel as the people of God. Generally, this group’s only concern for Israel is converting Jews to Christianity (or at least that’s how the Jewish community often perceives it, and I don’t blame them).

      At the same time, there’s another group (let’s call them Judaizers) who (correctly) believe that we Gentile Christians have merely been “grafted in” to Israel – that we have joined the existing group of God’s people – but that we must show the origins of the group by being more Jewish. This group is also generally associated with American Conservative Evangelicals (probably not as much with the Fundamentalist notions though).

      Both of these groups are wrong. God’s people are any people who submit to and serve only him. They can be from any nation, race, or background. Jesus is (still to this day) a Jew, but I don’t have to be in order to follow and serve him – and a Christian from Iraq is just as much a Christian as one from the US.

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