Original post: October 22, 2008; repost: March 30, 2010.
I don’t tend to react very well when a person claims God for their agenda or their side or their country. As an American citizen, born and raised in Hong Kong, and educated in London, I have somewhat of an outsider’s perspective on the role of faith and American politics, notably in how many view America’s affiliation with the Christian faith with caution and even outright hostility. I remember following the effects of 9/11 and the subsequent Iraq War with my English friends, Christian and non-Christian, wondering—and at times, cringing—at the ease with which President Bush claimed God for the American ‘side.’
In The Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne describes what he saw in America after the events of September 11th, 2001:
Conservative Christians rallied around the drums of war. Liberal Christians took to the streets. The cross was smothered by the flag and trampled under the feet of angry protesters. The church community was lost, so the many hungry seekers found community in the civic religion of American patriotism. People were hurting and crying out for healing, for salvation in the best sense of the word, as in the salve with which you dress a wound. A people longing for a savior placed their faith in the fragile hands of human logic and military strength, which have always let us down. They have always fallen short of the glory of God. (2006:199)
The Christian faith became too easily subsumed into American patriotism, and there were many in the American Church too easily persuaded to support the war in Iraq. Yet Obery Hendricks Jr. argues that this is not an isolated incident but a cultural phenomenon: “in the strange calculus of American political culture patriotism has come to be virtually equated with Christianity. Love of country is extolled in the same breath as love of God” (The Politics of Jesus, 2006:324).
Such an attitude is not only unbiblical, but it undermines the global and universal nature of God’s invitation and salvation. As Jim Wallis comments, “Nationalism doesn’t go well with the kingdom of God. The church is the international body of Christ, and “God bless America” is not found in the Bible” (The Great Awakening, 2008:74). In Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address in 1865, he acknowledged the tragic irony of asking God to be on one’s side:
Both [sides] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not, that we not be judged. The prayers of both could not be answered—that of neither has been answered fully. (quoted in E.J. Dionne, Souled Out, 2008:186)
His advice: “Do not say that God is on our side. Let us hope that we are on God’s side” (quoted in Hendricks 2006:193).
It would be easy, especially in a country where Christianity—or some semblance thereof—is so ingrained into the cultural identity and where national pride is so encouraged, for Christians to allow their faith and their love of country to become intertwined, for God to be seen as promoting their agenda—whether conservative, evangelical, liberal. When this does happen, as has happened in part already, the American church’s mission to the world—to demonstrate the love of Christ and the power of the gospel—is hampered by her association with all other things American: “For many in America and around the world, the American flag has smothered the glory of the cross, and the ugliness of our American version of Caesar has squelched the radiant love of Christ” (Greg Boyd, The Myth of an American Nation, 2005:14).