This past Sunday, Vice President Pence was invited to speak at First Baptist Church in Dallas for the “Celebrate Freedom Rally” at their Sunday morning services. Pastor Robert Jeffress called the event, “Our annual patriotic service” in which the church celebrates “God’s unique blessings on our country.”
While some may celebrate this display as faithful Christian practice, followers of Jesus must be careful not to confuse patriotism (pride in country) with nationalism (our country is better than every other country). And nationalism with idolatry (placing love of country before love of God and neighbor).
Dr. John Wisely argues that American Exceptionalism “serves to deify the nation…paving the way toward heterodoxy at best, heresy and idolatry at worst.”
Dr. Michael Gorman describes exceptionalism as “the idea that the United States has a unique place in God’s plan.”
What transpired this past Sunday is nothing short of a bold display of American Exceptionalism. Which, to be clear, is idolatry.
As Christians, our primary allegiance isn’t to any nation-state, it’s to the kingdom of God. A kingdom marked by sacrificial love and suffering sacrifice. The economy of this kingdom runs in direct contrast to the economy of any nation-state or Empire. When these lines get blurred, bad stuff happens in the name of a “god” that looks nothing like Jesus. Without doing a historical overview, this has been the case for most of the past 1700 years since Jesus’s life, death and resurrection 2000 years ago.
Our current administration is not the first to fall victim to propagating this idolatrous relationship between church and state as nearly every President who has come before (both Republican and Democrat) has confiscated the mission of God as a convenient endorsement of their vision for our country.
In his 1865 “Annual Message to Congress,” President Abraham Lincoln described America as the “last best hope of earth.”
Friends, the United States (by the way, to say “America” in this context is an offense to our North American neighbors who are not in the United States) CAN BE exceptional when we leverage our influence to embody equity, equality and justice. But that is NOT the same as saying the United States is divinely elected as “exceptional” such that we can no longer critique it’s behavior in light of the values of the kingdom of God. That is nothing short of idolatry and is unChristian in every way.
There is a better way. A way that liberates us from the shackles of partisan politics and convenient power grabs. A way that doesn’t require us to pledge our allegiance to any other kingdom than God’s and any other king than Jesus.
We don’t need to stick our heads in the sand and disengage from the systems we have a responsibility to renovate. Nor do we have to pander to the power brokers as if they have the last word.
We can be Christians without falling victim to the myth of American Exceptionalism. We aren’t the first nation-state to wrestle with a compromised allegiance and we won’t be the last. But this is our moment to decide to which kingdom we pledge our allegiance.
As for me, my allegiance is to the Lamb that was slain so that all can flourish. Not to the Elephant or Donkey seeking to conquer in the name of a “god” that looks nothing like Jesus.