The Patriotic Idolatry
In many evangelical circles, it is still assumed that conservative theology means conservative politics. And to be fair, the same could be said of the “Evangelical left” and liberal politics. But when politics and theology are seen as synonymous, it is typically not theology that is primary.
The reason for this is simple: a robust biblical theology does not support the hyper-individualism and consumerism needed to maintain public interest in today’s modern politics. Nevertheless, modern politics needs to be cloaked in religious language in order to carry the necessary gravitas. The end result is that theology becomes the handmaiden of political agendas. In turn, patriotism becomes one and the same with Christianity for so many. Among the multitude of factors that have given rise to this fact in the United States is the combination of American exceptionalism and Dispensationalist theology.
American exceptionalism is the belief that the United States is qualitatively and fundamentally different and better than other nations. The reasons behind this widely held belief are varied. The amalgamation of a Puritan history, Protestant work-ethic, manifest destiny, and a general pragmatism have all helped shape the belief that God has, in fact, blessed the United States in a way that He has not blessed other nations.
The belief in American exceptionalism was wedded to the growing theological movement known as Dispensationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dispensationalism, a novel theological movement that was popularized by J.N. Darby and C.I. Schofield, convinced Christians that they could most certainly find American exceptionalism in the Scriptures. Through the vehicle of Dispensationalism, America became the pinnacle of Christendom, the “City on a Hill,” but not in the manner it was originally used by John Winthrop when he quoted Matthew 5:14 in 1630. Winthrop argued that the eyes of the world would be upon their colony and if they dealt falsely with God, then God would make them a byword. Winthrop saw no special virtue or exceptionalism in his colonyl; rather he used it as a call to actually live out their Christian faith in spite of their inherent sinfulness.
Contrary to Winthrop’s original meaning, American evangelicals began to see the United States as THE beacon of God’s divine light and the highpoint of humanity. For example, the fiction series, Left Behind, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins presents a Dispensational view of the end times which makes clear that the US and the modern nation-state of Israel are the principal players in God’s great redemptive plan of history.
Attitudes suggesting that the US has a divine right to global supremacy are pervasive. During the 2012 presidential election cycle, Republican nominee Mitt Romney often referred to the United States as “the greatest hope in the world.” This view of American politics and patriotism cloaked in theology is what I call Patriot-olatry. It is a worshiping of one’s country and a particular political agenda as if it were the biblically ordained way to worship the one true God.
Faithful Christians cannot allow their thinking on how to live their faith in the current culture to be primarily shaped and formed by talking heads, whether they are “fair and balanced” or they “lean forward.” The news media is the megaphone of modern politics. As such, Christians must be cautious when watching. The old adage, “follow the money” is appropriate. The owners and stakeholders in the various news media companies have a corporate obligation to improve the financial bottom line. These conglomerates must turn a profit—which often runs at odds with the pursuit of publishing journalistic truth. The reporting on most cable news stations typically serves only to confirm prejudices and to inflame passions among those already on board. This generates greater viewership which increases ad revenue which enriches the media company. “Patriotism” for them means dollars.
Patriotolatry is dangerous because it flies under the radar for so many American Christians. After all, it can feel dangerously like faithfulness. But when the church begins to wed itself to one particular nation-state, then it begins to prioritize and emphasize its nationality or patriotism as greater than God’s holiness and his global plan for the spread of the gospel.
I am deeply thankful that I have the privilege of living in the United States. I believe that the principles upon which it was founded are rooted in a biblical understanding of human dignity and justice. As such, opportunity has been afforded those who live here that would not have happened in other countries. But as Christians we cannot look at the global scope of the Gospel and think for a moment that the United States is biblically more important than any other nation, tribe, or people. If the apostle Paul could write, “there is neither Jew nor Greek…for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28) then we certainly cannot now say that America has any special claim on God’s Kingdom. Imagine what an Iranian Christian would think if he were to enter most evangelical churches in America. He would be forced to denounce his Iranian-ness while they affirm their American-ness.
The Gospel must be bigger than our patriotism.
This article originally appeared here.