During the hearings these last two weeks related to the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, Arizona speaker of the house Rusty Bowers made a bold statement related to God and the US Constitution. His resistance to pressure and decision not to alter election results illegally was influenced by his religious beliefs, as a practicing Mormon, that the US Constitution is “divinely inspired.”
Without question, the three of us are thankful to be Americans and we take our responsibility as citizens seriously. We are deeply committed to both the US Constitution and rule of law, and we find Bowers’ commitment to both admirable. At the same time, our personal commitment to the Bible as God’s only specific, inspired, and authoritative written Word is much greater.
Bowers’ statement wasn’t just a matter of personal opinion. Those familiar with Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, would know that he believed and taught the Constitution was divinely inspired. Mormonism emerged as a religious community trying to live out the ideals of this new nation defined by the Constitution and Bill of Rights. They believed the United States of America was how the kingdom of God was advancing in the world. In fact, Joseph Smith ran for president in 1844 motivated by this understanding. However, neither Bowers nor the LDS Church are alone in affirming divine inspiration for the US Constitution.
Although we have very different understandings of the Bible and the nature of God than Mormons, there are many who align more closely with us doctrinally who hold a view similar to Smith and Bowers regarding the Constitution—including some 4 out of 10 White evangelicals. While we believe in and respect our nation’s primary governing document, we’re deeply concerned by the prevalence of views that might give even the appearance of equating the U.S. Constitution with the Bible in terms of authority.
Even more troubling are the results of a 2020 survey analyzed by Joshua Wu, which found that just 13 percent of White evangelicals affirm their Christian faith is more important to their identity than “being an American.” Biblically, our identity in Christ should be primary, far more important than our citizenship in any particular country. Yet, few white U.S. evangelicals seem to agree, suggesting a conflation of American identity with Christian faith that’s of course nowhere to be found in the Scriptures and is both alarming and confusing to Christian brothers and sisters in other parts of the world.
This dynamic is more than evident, however, in some Christian worship settings. With July 4 nearing on the calendar, social media will undoubtedly be set ablaze with videos and images of a few churches filled with American flags, the singing of patriotic songs instead of worship music, and likely even fireworks or pyrotechnics. At the extremes, this syncretistic fusion of U.S. identity and faith manifests itself in Christian nationalism. Though patriotism and nationalistic fervor are not exclusive to the US, there is a unique kind of Christian nationalism in the American Church that has been present from the earliest days of our nation. Just a few decades after the signing of the US Constitution, the French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville observed: “The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other.”
Though nationalism and patriotism are not themselves intrinsically sinful, when the Christian person elevates them over his or her commitment to the living God, His Kingdom, and His Word, they become idolatrous. When such idolatry is combined with the message of the gospel, it leads to syncretism—the blending or equating of Christianity with cultural beliefs, ideas, or institutions. As Latin American theologian Ruth Padilla DeBorst told us, when Christianity and Americanism come “in the same cultural packaging, U.S. Christians send destructive mixed messages both inside and outside of our culture.