The Heresy of Nationalism

Ross Douthat, in his much-discussed survey of American religion, exposes one of our most persistent and complex heresies in his final chapter, which bears the appropriate title: “The City on the Hill.” This particular heresy, which has reached across the entire social-political spectrum, is “the heresy of American nationalism” (Bad Religion, 244). Noting that “universal faiths are a relative novelty in human history” he correctly observes that there has rarely been anything like a separation between religion and politics in human history, at least until the formation of the United States of America. On one end of the spectrum societies have deified their rulers while on the other they have identified their unique practices and ideological beliefs with a tribal god. But local gods will go away when the cults and rituals associated with such a deity go away. History demonstrates this point.

The strange revelation, at the very heart of the Old Testament, is that the universal God actually entered into human history and became the champion of a particular race and people. And this universal God, in the Christian understanding, sent his one and only Son into the world, as a human being, to redeem the world. “What Jewish prophecy envisioned, Christian history has operationalized” (Bad Religion, 246). As St. Paul says, “Salvation is from the Jews” and that salvation is now available to all people and nations regardless of their political and social past or present.

So what happened to tribalism when the tribal gods were destroyed? The tribal impulse was retained. This is why advanced nations like America can be so religious and combine their religion so directly with the fortunes of this nation on the world stage of history. The impulse to conflate a nation, or a special ethnic people, with God’s providence has a problematic history, to say the least. In our own recent history ethnic sub-churches, such as the German Lutheran Church and the Italian Catholic Church, have illustrated the power of nationalism to actually destroy a people and create war on a global scale.

As far back as I can recall I have heard patriotic and zealous Christians equate America with Israel, either by consciously bad theology or by, in more cases, an uninformed theology. We thus became “the promised land,” “a new order for the ages,” or fulfilled our “manifest destiny.” This occurs in the closing words of almost every speech by our recent presidents when they finish by saying, “May God bless you, and may God continue to bless the United States of America.” David Gelernter, a much-respected religion writer, suggests that Americanism is “The Fourth Great Western Religion.” Simply put there is a deep sense, seen in the prayers, hymns and symbols of most of our churches, that the American narrative is a continuation of the biblical story. One recent study found that 60% of Americans actually believe that “God has granted America a special role in human history.”

Ross Douthat believes “a version of exceptionalism is entirely compatible with Christian orthodoxy” (250). If God is the sovereign lord of human history then providence has plainly had a role in America’s place in the events of mankind and civilization. I will surely grant this to be a Christian idea. I have serious doubts that most Christians are able to distinguish between divine providence, as it impacts all nations and peoples, and America’s role in having what amounts to a covenantal relationship with God. Douthat says such an “exceptionalism [must] be tempered by a realism about the mysteries of providence and the limits of human perfectibility” (250). Christian orthodoxy makes room for particular loves “but not for myths of national innocence or fantasies about building the kingdom of heaven on earth” (250). It is alright to love one’s country but when this love is equated with God’s favor, blessing or revealed purpose it is quite another matter.

I could suggest a number of ways that this is done routinely. Consider, as just one example, the place of the American flag in most of our churches. If you travel to other countries this symbol of the nation is almost never present in a church. From childhood I have wondered why so few want to discuss this nagging question. (Woe to the church that has the flag displayed and a pastor, or group of leaders, tries to remove it!)

I believe Douthat gets it right when he suggests that no president more accurately understood the proper role of religion in public life than Abraham Lincoln. On the one hand Lincoln equated the horrors of America’s darkest hour with the bloody biblical conflicts of the Old Testament. On the other hand he treated the war itself as divine chastisement as can be seen in his famous Second Inaugural speech, given just weeks before his death. In this context we have one of the most famous lines in all of American history:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and all nations.

Simply put, Lincoln framed a healthy view of providentialism, one which I believe is ultimately right. He could do this because he understood how to use “the language of humility and mystery” (253). It is this aspect that is missing in most modern campaigns and crusades for morality and faith in Americanism. A healthy union of pietism and patriotism may work but in our present context, especially in our current evangelical context, there is a “dangerous theological temptation” here that it seems we routinely miss. One such temptation, especially on the political left, is messianism. The other great danger, especially on the conservative right, is doom-laden apocalypticism. We are not just an “almost chosen nation” but a truly chosen nation! The first temptation fits progressive tendencies while the second fits the more conservative bent of mind and politics. The second is ascendant right now since it is built on the reactionary inclination of conservatives to frame the present by the dark clouds of gloom and doom that hang over a people led by the present occupant of the White House. From Woodrow Wilson’s progressivist use of this paradigm to the modern Christian Right, which argues from the other end of the spectrum than Wilsonianism, this tendency to embrace nationalism has hindered the church from her real mission in America.

I am very concerned personally. I believe the apocalyptic warnings of many conservative Catholics and evangelicals have crossed a dangerous line over the past three years. This is more than revisionist history. But the left has employed its own revisionism as well. Both sides tend to frame our Christian mission in the language of culture wars that threaten both the nation and the church. The greatest loser, in this reaction, will be the church. We might say the greatest loser will be the mission of Jesus Christ, which has been entrusted to the church. This is why I believe Bad Religion is such an important book for missional-ecumenism. Douthat is clearly more politically conservative than liberal. Yet I think he gets the balance correctly when he concludes:

With the example of the Bush presidency, we come to what’s distinctive about religion and politics in our own era. It isn’t the presence of the heresy of nationalism in both its apocalyptic and messianic aspects; that’s been a constant throughout American history. Rather, it’s the coexistence of both aspects within both of the country’s political coalitions. Instead of the normal pattern of American history, in which conservatives are tempted by the reactionary pessimism of the apocalyptic style, and liberals by the seductions of utopianism now messianism and apocalypticism have increasingly become bipartisan afflictions. The right has become more Wilsonian, the left steadily more apocalyptic, and the two forms of the nationalist heresy have intertwined within the Republican and Democratic parties alike (Bad Religion, 264-5).

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