Guest post by Jason Stellman
In her Newsweek article titled “One Nation Under God,” Lisa Miller reports that President Obama met with a team of moderate Christian leaders in Washington on November 30—among them Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo—for the purpose of articulating “a vision of Christianity that will counter a new—and newly powerful—religious-right rhetoric in advance of the 2012 election.”
The reason for such a meeting of the minds is obvious, especially if you’ve been watching Fox News: America enjoys a kind of divine Most-Favored Nation status in the world, and that status is being compromised by socialists who are calling our most beloved core values into question.
What’s motivating religious conservatives now, says Campolo, is a vision of America as God’s own special country, and free-market capitalism as crucial to the nation’s flourishing. Everyone who doesn’t see things this way, according to this perspective, is a socialist or a communist—“Pinkos who are subverting America under the auspices of the president of the United States,” he says. “The marriage between evangelicalism and patriotic nationalism is so strong that anybody who is raising questions about loyalty to the old, laissez-faire capitalist system is ex post facto unpatriotic, un-American, and by association non-Christian.” Support for Obama, in other words, equals an abandonment of American principles equals godlessness.
And there is little doubt who is leading the charge: “And the spokesman for this movement, adds Campolo, is the Fox News commentator Glenn Beck. ‘There’s no question in our minds about that.’” In fact, Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, goes as far as to say that “Right-of-center independents and religious conservatives believe that America is an exceptional place,” says “If you’re going to be a candidate or a leader of a party and you’re seen as a person who doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism, you’re going to have a hard time winning.”
Evangelicals characteristically see themselves as a persecuted group whose values are under assault by the mainstream culture, and Beck has most successfully (and visibly) reframed those values in terms of patriotism. The enemy is no longer “moral relativism,” a term that encompasses sexual promiscuity, divorce, homosexuality, and pornography. It’s socialism, the redistribution of wealth, immigrants—a kind of “global relativism” that makes no moral distinction between America and every other place. Beck speaks frequently about God’s special destiny for America. “We used to strive in this country to be a shining city on the hill,” he said at the “Restoring Honor” rally in August. “That’s what the Pilgrims came here for. That’s what they thought this land was. It’s what our Founders thought … It is the shining example of a place where people work together in peace and friendship and worship God and make things better together.”
(Of course, it wasn’t Glenn Beck’s spiritual ancestors who ventured to the new world on the Mayflower since his religion hadn’t been invented yet. In fact, in the nineteenth- and twentieth centuries Mormons like Beck were routinely persecuted by the very Christians whose vision he hopes to resurrect, ironically enough.)
Miller also highlights the fact that it is the idea that America occupies a unique place in God’s divine plan that helps account for certain aspects of U.S foreign policy:
This sense of America’s divine mission in the world grew. In the middle of the 19th century, legions of Protestant missionaries fanned out across the globe on errands from God, hoping to teach others the lessons of democracy and the Gospel—ideologies that were inexorably intertwined. “We wouldn’t be in Afghanistan if it weren’t for the missionaries of the 19th century,” says Grant Wacker, professor of American religious history at Duke. “It’s this whole complex of ideas: the world is our province, and we have both the right and the obligation to tutor the rest of the world.”
In other words, our city-on-a-hill national vision not only allows us, but in some sense obligates us, to play the role of earth’s guardian-slash-provider whose job is to export our religion, our democratic ideals, and our fast-food restaurants to those who either long for such things, or who would do so if they truly knew what’s best for them.
How ought Christians react to all this? What should be our response to learning that, come presidential campaign season, both the Democrats and Republicans will be playing tug-of-war with Jesus?
I would like to offer a handful of observations that I hope will help clarify our thinking on some of these issues, as well as provide some fodder for further discussion and study of these matters.
First, no matter their political persuasion, all Christians should feel very uncomfortable with the idea that the solution to the conservative politicization of the Christian faith is cheering on liberals when they try to do it. It is extremely anachronistic for anyone, whether on the left or the right, to try to claim divine sanction for free-market capitalism or biblical justification for universal healthcare. The Bible is not a political manual or blueprint for earthly utopia.
Second (and speaking of utopias), we must remember that the biblical doctrine of the liberty of conscience means that one man’s utopian dream is may very well be another man’s nightmarish dystopia. This is why those who long for their ministers to “take a prophetic stance against the culture” need to be careful what they wish for—they may find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to listen to a 12-week sermon series on the evils of multinational corporations and their role in the killing of tens of thousands of innocent civilians during our so-called liberation of Iraq. You see, the thing about prophets is that their hearers have no veto power, nor do they have any say about which sins the prophet chooses to rebuke (and chances are, since “judgment begins in the house of God,” they will pick sins to rebuke that Christian tend to find tolerable [instead of the obvious ones]).
Third, America does not have any role in God’s redemptive plan for planet earth. The kingdom of Christ is manifested in this age in the visible church, not in any nation-state, regardless of how noble its history or how lofty its ideals. Many Reformational people have learned this lesson only partially—they have trashed their Left Behind novels and admitted that they were wrong about Israel, but they still haven’t figured out that they’re wrong about America, too.
Fourth, Obama is not a socialist. Even if our president’s wildest dreams were fulfilled, he would still be miles and miles to the right of much of the rest of the industrialized West. Say what you want about President Obama, but he is a smart man. It would be politically suicidal for him to make any actually progressive moves such as ending our for-profit healthcare system, or re-tailoring U.S. foreign policy in a truly systemic way. Sure, progressive moves such as these may be popular, but the unfortunate fact is that the desire of the people is only one of a host of other concerns. Thus when we take a couple steps back and analyze our two-party system, it becomes apparent that the only thing that distinguishes Republicans from Democrats is not the overall vision for our domestic and foreign policy (they both agree on this), but the miniscule details of that overall plan about which they disagree. To-may-to, to-mah-to.
Lastly and most importantly, American Christians need to remember something that we so easily forget, and that is that our true homeland is an eternal, heavenly one whose allure cannot be compromised by the goings-on of the culture war. It is remarkable that, for all the passionate Christian devotees of right-wingers like Glenn Beck or lefties like Jim Wallis, there are very few evangelicals in this country who can articulate the doctrine of justification in a coherent and biblical way. In other words, we Christians seem to have sacrificed the one thing that makes us unique—the gospel—on the altar of some baptized political ideology for which the divine Son of God isn’t even necessary.
So even if America does cease to be particularly special or unique in the world, we can rest assured that the church will always be so, for it is her errand that cannot be mimicked, and her message that cannot (and must not) be co-opted by the powers that be, whether on the right or the left.
Jason Stellman is the pastor of Exile Presbyterian Church in the Seattle area. He is the author of Dual Citizens: Worship and Life Between the Already and the Not Yet (Reformation Trust, 2009), and The Destiny of the Species (forthcoming). He blogs at Creed, Code, Cult. He is a regular contributor to Modern Reformation:
“Called to Serve” by Michael Brown (Book Review) – May/June 2008 Vol: 17 Num: 3
“Christ & Culture Revisited” by D. A. Carson (Book Review) – Sept./Oct. 2008 Vol: 17 Num: 5
“Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism” by Michelle Goldberg (Book Review) – Jan./Feb. 2008 Vol: 17 Num: 1
Shortchanging the World?: “American Christians and Worldiness: Resisting the Seduction of a Fallen World” by C.J. Mahaney (Book Review) – July/August 2009 Vol: 18 Num: 4
The Destiny of the Species – Nov./Dec. 2009 Vol: 18 Num: 6
Where Grace is Found – July/August 2007 Vol: 16 Num: 4