“Yet there is power — wonder-working power — in the goodness, and idealism, and faith of the American people.” Oh wait a second, that’s not how the hymn goes. I do believe the ‘wonder working power’ is in the blood of the lamb. But who needs the blood of the lamb when you’ve got the blood of soldiers? Who needs saving when you’ve been saved by Caesar?
On a very regular basis I have this discussion with family and old friends. How can we, as Christians prioritize our country’s needs above those of others? Facing a trump presidency has brought the civil religion back to front and center as we listen to an extremely wealthy, undeniably arrogant, and unabashedly immoral man talk as if he were doing God’s will in our country. Sometimes even going so far as to paint himself the Savior. This is jarring to be sure, but not new.
What makes it different is the way in which he is using the civil religion to further his causes. Robert Bellah ascribes a civil religion with many benefits; a higher standard of behavior which does not change from leader to leader, an external set of values prompting self sacrifice and compassion. Now however, a re-reading of history is revealing an ethno-nationalism, arrognace, and military dominance. Donald trump’s presidency is changing our civil religion from the do-gooders who help to rebuild other countries after wars and give 60% of worldwide aid, to one of exclusion, uncooperative rage, extreme arrogance. Many of the people who voted for him insist these values are Christ’s. They say they come from their biblical beliefs, but even a cursory reading of Christ’s words show this to be entirely false. What they don’t realize is often they have been unaware of the pervasiveness of the civil religion in their lives. They have confused living in a Christian nation, which would cause the type of Bellah’s civil religion where our country is guided by the principles in an external set of laws and guidelines, with the idea that what our country does is Christian. The latter idea imposes past ideas, cultural norms, and trends onto Christianity until it obscures it. In short, we have replaced Christ with the American people. We have done so in speeches, and in deed. The lifting up of soldiers passed in a worshipful way as a living sacrifice and the reason we have everything we have, is a obvious picture. There are subtler ones though. Ones I’m not even sure we noticed.
President Trump standing at the republican national convention and declaring “I alone can fix it!” to waves of applause and raucous shouts of approval and threats to his opponents was the final straw for me. How can Christians watch a man say that his is the only one who can save us? Is this not in itself blasphemy of the highest order? Yet, we allow that to be said, applaud and stand for it. We see no contradiction in it. This is because we have integrated the civil religion in with Christianity. Patriotism is part of the deal, and not the deep prayer seeking wisdom for our nation’s leaders kind of patriotism, but the speak no ill of this or you are not a patriot kind. As I look back on my life in Christian school, I see how thoroughly I was taught this with no words (aren’t deeds the greatest teachers after all?). Our history books were not Christian value based assessments of American actions over the years. You know, where we were right, when we lost sight. They were glossed over praise-thick American civil religion value based. We weren’t taught to evaluate our nations actions based on biblical principles but only (if at all) compared to our own sacred texts: the constitution, bill of rights etc. Every morning in our school began like many secular schools. We pledged allegiance to the American flag first, then we proceeded on to the Christian flag and lastly the Bible. Just this practice alone has revealed to me so clearly the priorities as I was taught them. This is how deeply the civil religion has pervaded Christianity. That even in Christian school, the Bible is the last thought of. I didn’t know it at the time, but I came to see very clearly how warped my priorities were. Eventually, I have come to believe this is no accident.
If we aren’t supposed to American Christians, what are we supposed to be? As Christians, we are not bound by American values. We are bound only by God’s Word, the Holy Spirit, and our striving to Christ-likeness. If you have followed this blog for a long time, this is an old lesson. We are the body of Christ. We are called to be concerned with how well we are upholding the constitution or how well we are honoring the flag or the anthem. We are called to be conscience of this nation. We are called to hold us up to a higher standard of behavior and ethics, one that drives us to being self sacrificing. We are called not to defend the USA above all others, we have no nation. We are brothers and sisters from every country on Earth and we had better start acting like it. Our responsibility, love and honor doesn’t belong to a nation, but to God. Our behavior doesn’t need to conform with the values of country, but the values of Christ. Our lives are not sacrifices to be given to honor something so small and insignificant as a nation, but to honor God. If you feel lead to give your life, let it be as Christ gave His: to save others, not destroy them.
As you pass through and on your way, look for it. Look for the places where our nation has become an idol; our leaders, the prophets. Look for the times that we are asked to put ourselves above others who’s needs are greater. Would Christ have forbidden refugees into His vicinity for His own safety? Would Christ allow people, perhaps innocent (but let’s face it, that’s not really important to Him), to die so that He could be a little bit safer? All you have know is that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners and the answer is clear. Are we striving to be Christ-like or just great? What is greatness in the face of goodness? Which should we be aiming for.
“Yet there is power — wonder-working power — in the goodness, and idealism, and faith of the American people.” If you started singing the hymn immediately and were confused, so was I. If you think that was me misappropriating, aggrandizing, or just making shit up, sadly no. That quote is taken from the 2003 State of Union address given by George W Bush.
If the video starts from the beginning, skip to 24:11. Or listen to the whole thing. Bush sounds remarkably eloquent now.