Sometimes small alterations make a great deal of difference. For instance, we have about 90 percent of the same genes as cats and more than 98 percent of the same genes as chimpanzees. But those little differences matter a lot.
This is also true when it comes to faith. I have been doing some reading in A Church Undone: Documents from the German Christian Faith Movement, 1932-1940. The German Christian Movement was Germanized Christianity, supportive of Nazism. The church leaders involved in this movement believed that the church should be “relevant” to contemporary German experience.
As I read some of the writings of the religious leaders in this movement, I was struck by how much sounded like normal, healthy Christianity. They wrote of the cross, the resurrection, salvation by faith, and other such matters. A lot of what they said deserved an “amen.” But then they would insert lines about “pure German blood,” “the proliferation of inferior people,” and the need for the church to “rekindle the sense of awe and loyalty to our blood.”
In a Germanized “translation” of the beatitudes of Jesus, one of the prominent ministers in this movement rendered our Lord’s, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9), using these words: “Happy are those who are at peace with their fellow Germans; they do God’s will.” Not quite the same!
These are the kind of distortions that happen when nationalistic devotion is combined with Christian devotion. Much of the language of faith may sound very much the same as what Christians have believed through the centuries. But down deep, the “little” changes actually change everything. That is why “America first” can never be a slogan fitting for people who confess “Jesus is Lord!”
Nationalism is like racism. “America First” is no better than “White People First.” We should have learned this from taking communion at an open table. We don’t come to the table owing one another equal regard only to step away from the table to give preference to one nation, race, or tribe over another. What happens at the Lord’s Table should determine how we approach every other table. The distinctions and divisions that separate peoples have no place in the life of followers of Jesus.
It is tragic that so many Christians can be caught up in national pride. This leads to the kind of preference for one people that justifies neglecting the needs of other peoples, such as turning away desperate refugees. This pride allows for ignoring persecution and oppression that takes place in “friendly” lands crucial for “national interests.” National pride lays the foundation for every act of destruction on behalf of “one’s own.”
The slogan “America First” is a confession of the heart, an expression of love and preferential loyalty. It is, indeed, the very sort of thing Jesus was speaking of when he said, “No one can serve two masters,” for such a one “will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24). Devotees of “America First” may loudly insist that they love Jesus. But in fact they despise the Jesus of the Gospels and replace him with a version of Jesus that is far more supportive of American dominance in the world.
Like those in the German Christian Movement, American Christian nationalists often speak in terms very similar to the ways Christians have always spoken. They take up themes that have been heard in churches throughout the centuries. But the “little” differences make a huge difference, just like the alteration of a few genes can result in a whole new species.
American Christian nationalism is a species I pray goes extinct.