(RNS) — Throughout America’s history, many of its leading politicians and statesmen have misquoted or misused the Bible. While this appropriation is hardly unique to America, it has proven a strong and effective tool in framing people and events in spiritual hues. Yet, lost in this practice is how the subtle — and at times not-so-subtle — mixing of Christian theology and American nationalism can diminish and even co-opt our faith. Too often linked exclusively to conservatives, we cannot ignore how this temptation is bi-partisan.
“Those who have served through the ages and have drawn inspiration from the Book of Isaiah, when the Lord says: ‘Whom shall I send? Who shall go for us?’ The American military has been answering for a long time. ‘Here I am, Lord. Send me. Here I am, send me.’ Each one of these women and men of our armed forces are the heirs of that tradition of sacrifice, of volunteering to go into harm’s way to risk everything, not for glory, not for profit, but to defend what we love and the people we love.”
As a missiologist, I have spent my life trying to understand the idea of mission. Christianity is a sending faith, one that goes out into the world to bring the message of Jesus to those who are hurting, oppressed and confused. Few texts have been as important to the Christian church in this regard as Isaiah 6:8. Many Christians — me included — can point to moments when God called them to a mission field just as he did here for Isaiah. In essence, the verse is foundational for Christian mission.
At least 13 service members and 170 civilians were killed by explosions in Kabul, Afghanistan. I understand the desire to turn to Scripture to make sense of this tragedy, and this is a good thing. However, while men and women were sent on a mission, it was certainly not the mission we read about in Isaiah. Conflating these two is deeply problematic and harmful in the long run for three reasons.
First, the conflation of Scripture and the United States of America — or in this case, the American military — occurs in both Republican and Democratic administrations. This is inappropriate at best and blasphemous at worst.
Let me be clear: It is never appropriate to take the mission of God in Scripture and apply it to the American military, the American dream or the American way of life. They are not interchangeable. The kingdom of God and earthly kingdoms are not one and the same, nor does the kingdom of God depend on the success of earthly governments, movements, campaigns or wars.
A history of bi-partisan attempts to merge God and country can tempt us to play whataboutism with Christian nationalism: “Yes, Biden should not have said this, but what about when Rumsfeld did … or when others did?” This response not only reveals our own political idolatry but severely underestimates the danger of Christian nationalism that transcends party and policy. The personal faith of the speaker is not the issue. When you confuse the mission of God with a military mission, your kingdoms are conflated and the Christian message itself suffers.