It’s been said that all people understand and interpret the world and the life they lead through the lens of a story.
Our stories give meaning to who we are and where we come from. They include things like our interests and personality, our career choice, where we live and work and make our community, our education and skill set, our relationship status and close friends, the social and cultural norms we’re accustomed to, and last but not least our national, religious, and ancestral heritage.
While some cultures tend to vocalize their stories more than others because they talk about them and read about them as a matter of practice, all of us have stories and all of us inhabit our stories to one degree or another.
Which brings me to a story that has shaped my life in profound ways, the American Story. Actually, there are many different tellings or versions of America’s Story. It could be said that America has many stories. And the truth is that not all American stories are created equal. Let me explain.
As a Christian who was born and raised in the US and loves my country of origin, I was taught a particular version of America’s story early on in my life, and this version was supported and nurtured in my home, my church, and my extended family. I inhabited that version of America’s story as if it was the only correct version. I knew of other versions, but I assumed they were lies or half-truth tellings of the American Story.
As I got older and began to care about America’s Story more, I began paying attention more to the different tellings or versions of America’s Story that I had once assumed were false. In the process, I eventually discovered and came to believe that the story I had once been taught and once inhabited was the very one that should raise the most concern for me.
As a Christian and as a human being.
Equally concerning, disappointing and greatly disturbing, is that this particular telling of the American Story was not simply being told by a fringe group of people, but by countless Christians (perhaps millions is my guess based on the research) within various American Christian churches all around the United States. If Christians do the patient work of sifting through the unethical implications of this story, there’s a chance it will disturb them too as it has with me.
But warning to those who are still reading: this will require an open heart and mind.
I’m calling this version of the American Story American Christian Nationalism. It combines certain elements of American Nationalism and the Christian faith (or Christian religion) that are remarkably and profoundly incompatible with the life and teaching of Jesus. In other words, I am claiming that American Christian Nationalism is incompatible at a foundational level with the essence of the Christian faith (if we take the life and teaching of Jesus seriously).
What is the story American Christian Nationalism is telling? Generally speaking, it goes something like this: God (meaning the Christian God) has blessed and chosen America to be a light and example among the nations of the world. God himself is the great architect of America and God established and built America by leading a number of Bible believing Christians to leave their mother country (England and other European countries) to come to America to start a new nation that would be a “beacon on hill.” God willed that this nation was to have the Bible as its foundational document. This new nation would face opposition from enemies far and wide, but because God had chosen them and anointed them to shine a light to the entire world and lead by example in a new Democratic Republic, nothing they do will ultimately fail because God is with them.
How does American Christian Nationalism typically work in practice for Christians today? (1) Allegiance to the US is mutually inclusive of allegiance to Jesus so much so that they are not always hard to distinguish. (2) America’s way of life, it’s thriving economy built upon the free-market system and the promise of the American Dream, makes America exceptional (referred to as American Exceptionalism). (3) American interests around the world are a priority of Jesus. (4) American military actions around the world are usually justified because the causes and aims of the United States ultimately honors God and the Christian faith. (5) America should unequivocally keep Christianity as the national religion. Other religions can practice their religion, but they are looked at with grave suspicion. Language of “taking America back for God,” for instance, comfortably sits within the lens of American Christian Nationalism.
Before getting into my critique, let me clarify, there have been plenty of Christians since the early days of America’s founding and throughout United States history that saw through the self-serving nature of this telling of America’s Story believing it to be an absolute contradiction to the way of life that Jesus lived and taught his followers. For them, any way of framing the Christian faith that resembled what I’m calling American Christian Nationalism would be a contradiction in terms. The Quakers and other anabaptists were among them. At the same time, history strongly indicates that this version of America’s Story was deeply engrained into the social, political, economic and religious psyche of many Americans and many American Christians since our early days, including a great number of the founding fathers, and continues to hold water even in our day.
What is wrong with this telling of the American story and the way it’s practiced? Plenty. But here are six critiques.
First critique: If we read the life of Jesus in the pages of the New Testament, Jesus never set out to start a nation. Jesus, instead, was all about launching a new way of life, what he called “the kingdom of God.” This of course does not mean Christians shouldn’t be in politics nor does it mean that the early Christian colonials shouldn’t have moved to the Americas to start a new life. But let’s be honest and clear, nations and national governments often times have their own interests. To follow Jesus will mean (and should mean) living with a different set of interests when those interests conflict with the government.
Second critique: The free-market system historically favors white people. This doesn’t mean there haven’t been successful people of color. It simply means our system has been rigged from the beginning. Our national economy was built on the backs of African American and Native American slaves. So while a booming economy via the free market system sounds nice, the relevant question should be, “Who has it worked for the most?”
Third critique: While being a “light” or “beacon on a hill” and “example” are noble efforts in many respects, national governments have choices to make on a routine basis that will test where their allegiance lies most. When push comes to shove, Christian government officials will ultimately sacrifice their allegiance to Jesus on the alter of their allegiance to the American government if they inhabit American Christian Nationalism as their filter. Historically speaking, nations that talk about being “chosen” by God (or the gods) to lead others toward “peace and property and freedom” nearly always turn their chosenness into an excuse to be self-serving and cross many ethical barriers to maintain their political and economic stability, as well as their peace and security against internal and external forces. The Greek Empire, the Roman Empire, the British Empire, and yes, even the American Empire are just a few examples of this reality.
Here’s what Jesus taught his followers about being chosen by God. (1) They were chosen by God to treat people the way they want to be treated (i.e. “the Golden rule”). This directive has the immediate affect of humanizing people, including society’s outcasts and rejects, “sinners,” and yes, even enemies. (2) They were chosen to love their neighbor as they love themselves; again another way to humanize people. (3) They were chosen to bless people who cursed them instead of treating them in kind. (4) They were chosen to confront injustice non-violently, and be quick to show mercy to those who were contrite. (5) They were chosen to love and pray for their enemies instead demonizing them or retaliating against them with violence.
Fourth critique: American Exceptionalism, which is intrinsic to American Christian Nationalism, is entirely arrogant and proud. American Exceptionalism acts on an international level what systemic racism does on a national level. It sees your nation and your national identity as a better quality of human by right of national heritage or race, or both. To claim that America is the best in the world simply comes off as disrespectful of other nations, implying their creative ingenuity is lacking or absent simply because they are from another nation. In the end, American Christian Nationalism, like most forms of nationalism, has the automatic effect of making other nations not want to be like America because, to them, we are not being a great example, light or beacon on a hill.
Fifth critique: One of the ethical dilemma’s Christians will face if their lens of the American Story is American Christian Nationalism is how to treat neighbors and enemies (internally and externally). It’s very normal in our world to demonize and dehumanize perceived enemies and neighbors who pose a threat. The problem is this is not the way of Jesus. Jesus commanded his followers to love and pray for their enemies, not to retaliate against them or treat them in kind. In fact, the intentional action of Jesus dying on a Roman cross is all about this. Jesus would rather die for his enemies even at the hands of his enemies by the chosen method of his enemies than to retaliate against them. At the cross, mercy truly does triumph over judgment. This has a lot of implications for how Christians affirm or engage with military force and ascribe worthiness to violence as a justifyable means of executing justice.
Sixth critique: Who does it benefit to make the United States a Christian nation? For sure, Bible believing Christians. But who else? Which raises another question: what are the best ways to share our faith with others? Coercion, manipulation, force? No one wants to be forced to become a Christian. Did you? I know some people do “come to faith” through very manipulative presentations of the gospel, but is that right? Is that the way of Jesus? I submit a big “NO.” So while, yes, I want people to know the Jesus I have come to know and learn about his way of life and begin to follow that way, I see no benefit of calling our nation a “Christian Nation” or affirming a concerted effort to make it so. Tolerance and kind respect of others’ beliefs and spiritual practices is what actually makes people interested in Jesus or faith in him. The old phrase, “People don’t care what you know until they know how much you care” couldn’t be more true. I submit that this is the way of Jesus.
In summary: The telling of the American Story through the lens of American Christian Nationalism has a strong tendency to put America first in nearly everything, whereas Jesus’ life and mission was all about learning and practicing a way of greatness that wasn’t about becoming first and best to the exclusion of others, but about practicing a way of life that was by nature self-sacrificial in the service of others and for the inclusion of others. It’s worth repeating that Jesus’ death alone on a Roman cross puts American Christian Nationalism to shame. The cross is the culmination of all his teaching and makes abundantly clear that greatness is not about being first and best; it’s about learning how to give your life away for the sake of others and for the betterment of others. True service and true betterment that has the natural consequence of humanizing people so that they can flourish; this is the way of Jesus.
While allegiance to Jesus’ values and teaching may in some circumstances be in harmony with American values, when and where those allegiances are incompatible, whichever you choose demonstrates your ultimate allegiance.
So the question might be asked of you and I today: What if “American interests” are in conflict with Jesus’ interests? Jesus’ mission and work calls us to have genuine concern for our neighbors, and for Jesus, “neighbors” extends to those who are outcasts, those who are rejected, our poor, our sick among us, our elderly, our immigrants, people with a different faith or religion, people who look different, people who are different, and yes, even our enemies. If you find yourself dehumanizing “them” more often than not and it’s becoming clear to you that your allegiance to American Christian Nationalism is compelling you to do so, you might consider that your beef is not with them so much as it is with Jesus.
Jesus said, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you are doing it to me.”
What story are you listening to?
What story are you inhabiting?