Nationalism is idolatry, says prominent evangelical

nationalism is idolatry

Nationalism is a form of idolatry that “turns God into our ‘godling,’ a deity subject to our bidding,” an evangelical leader reminded more than fifty prominent evangelicals gathered recently at Wheaton College in Chicago.

The group met to discuss the crisis in evangelicalism, a crisis also seen across the rest of Christianity in the United States: the church has become too tied to the Republican Party and in particular the radical right and its agenda. A colonized Christianity has spread a fake news Gospel that betrays the good news of Jesus Christ. One result is that young people, recognizing hypocrisy, are fleeing the church in droves.

My first post in this series of five discussed some of the reasons for this, and highlighted the analysis given by Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. The other posts highlight his discussion of what he called “the top four arenas in which this violation of spiritual and moral character has shown itself.” While there is much more that can be said about this crisis, Labberton’s talk was remarkable not only for cutting straight to his points, but for essentially reading the riot act in a kind voice. The second post focused on the issue of power; the third on the issue of racism; this post will focus on the issue of nationalism. Here’s what Labberton said:

One of Israel’s particular temptations was to suppose that because the God of Israel was great, the people of Israel must be great, too.  No wonder God needed to remind them, “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples . . .” (Deut 7:7).  In the greatness of the God of Israel we are reminded of a national life to be centered not in its own greatness, or as the right of its people, but fixed in gratitude and faithfulness and humility before God and, from the New Testament, in service to the God who gave his Son out of love for the world.

By dramatic contrast, nationalism gives pride of place to ourselves, to regional or national assertions of primacy and the quest for power and success, control and dominance, legitimizing violence and pressing for victory.  Nationalism reveals that we have mis-ordered worship. Religiously motivated nationalism simply turns God into our “godling,” a deity subject to our bidding.

In the complex world of global politics and economics, religion and militarism, markets and globalization, nationhood is part of the shifting landscape of human powers and forces.  In a Christian hierarchy of kingdom values, nationhood has a legitimate place, but not a central or a top-tier one—and never one that displaces the authority of God.

For white evangelicals to embrace a platform and advocacy that promotes, prioritizes, and defends America above all and over all is to embrace an idolatry that has only ever proven disastrous.  Respect for nationhood, including borders and immigration, the rule of law, both internally and among the field of nations, are surely legitimate and defensible values. However, identification with the use of demeaning rhetoric toward other nations, not least nations of color that are facing the challenges of poverty and war, is not only confusing but violating to the dignity, value, and truth of the gospel. It is, as well, violating to the people we otherwise claim to see, serve, join, and love—nations to which, ironically, American evangelicals annually send millions of dollars for mission and evangelism.  A legitimate debate about immigration laws and practices is surely necessary, as difficult as it may be. But that debate is distorted if it begins with nationalistic assumptions.

The current administration’s rhetoric may be odious, pejorative, and totalizing against our international neighbors—yet we, too, demonstrate a gospel of fake good news when we ignore any needs or concerns that threaten our self-interests.  In a pluralistic population, debates over such things as immigration policy are legitimate and bound to be contentious. But when it seems that white evangelicals endorse self-interest through political speech that is nationalistic and demeaning to others, our central commitments do not reflect Jesus Christ, but rather a cold, white heart.

The people of God are to follow an enemy-loving God, as exemplified by the life of Jesus.  This is part of the call to our new and peculiar life. This is not meant to dictate national foreign policy, but to hold the people of God to a more severe and demanding standard, calling on our conscience when it comes to foreign policy in relation to the citizens of foreign, militarized, even violent states who are equally loved by God.

There is a clear distinction between having the right as a nation to control its borders, and the Jesus-centered perspective that insists this right be exercised with mercy and justice. “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” as Pope Francis put it in 2016. “This is not in the Gospel.”

The evangelical writer Stephen Mattson said last fall in Sojourners magazine, “Christians shouldn’t extoll the virtues of being a citizen in heaven if they’re willing to deny people a citizenship on earth.” He wrote:

If Christians refuse to take up the cause of the immigrant, or are apathetic toward the plight of those in DACA, or the countless individuals facing deportation, we are ignoring, misinterpreting, and even blatantly rejecting Jesus’s teachings and various texts throughout the Bible (Jeremiah 22:3-5 ;Zechariah 7:8-10 Matt. 25:34-40 Heb. 13:1-2 ).

Unfortunately, the chance to be radically countercultural — to glorify Christ through selfless sacrifice, hospitality, and generosity — is being squandered for the sake of legalism, where “the law” supersedes any form of grace, mercy, or love.

Those who reference Romans 13:1 (“Let everyone be subject to governing authorities”) to justify these hardline immigration policies fail to realize that this Scripture assumes this “submitting” is coinciding — and never contradicting — the supreme call to love God and love others.

Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets . (Matt. 22: 36-40).

Using Romans 13 to oppress and malign immigrants also contradicts the words of Peter when he tells the apostles, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) and the teachings of Jesus himself when he proclaimed “no one can serve two masters” (Matt. 6:24). It’s important to remember that Jesus himself was a law-breaker, arrested and crucified legally under the jurisdiction of Roman law.

Ultimately, turning our backs on immigrants is turning our backs on Christ himself, who famously tell us to love others as we would ourselves, but also asks what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul (Mark 8:36).

If you’re fine with an entire group of people being deported because of racism, xenophobia, and bigotry that’s guised under the pretenses of domestic policy, federal law, and political rhetoric — you’re losing your soul.

If you’re fine with people having their education taken away, careers destroyed, and forcibly displaced from family, friends, and loved ones — you’re losing your soul.

If you’re diminishing the humanity and worth of others because you think “it’s good for the country” — you’re losing your soul.

This is a major problem in America right now, and the public face of Christianity is a slap in the face of Jesus.

Photo: Creative Commons license; via Wikipedia

About the author

David Backes

I have always been drawn to where the wild things are: the natural world around me, and the wilderness within. As a writer, speaker, and university professor, I have for decades focused on this combination of nature and the human spirit. In recent years, my spiritual journey has added another lens: social, environmental and intergenerational justice. Put it all together and you’ve got The Earth Keeper, a blog of integral ecology and the prophetic imagination. The Earth Keeper may at times make you feel hopeful or inspired; it may make you feel uncomfortable or defensive or even angry. I hope it often will be challenging, and always interesting.

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