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No Nation Under God

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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.”

Miller explains:
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
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  • Rana,

    tax cuts don't cost money. Spending costs money.

    The Bush tax rates aren't cuts. What the democrats want to do is raise taxes.

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  • Guest - Ayesha

    Re: Lily

    If it sounds as if I'm being defensive it is because I've watched both liberals and conservatives politicize the gospel and I believe this muddies the waters of truth within the church. It lessens our effectiveness as a whole and keeps us distracted away from our main goals. I "dared" you because you made a gross generalization that the average Christian knew what the doctrine of justification means when there are studies that show that they clearly don't. That is something to be angry about when you are sitting in various congregations and the pastor won't even discuss why/how we are all there together. It shows that we have let something other than the gospel of Jesus Christ take center stage as the message coming from the pulpit. This was Jason's main point. If you disagree with that that's fine but when you make assertions you need to be able to back it up.

    Secondly, the doctrine of justification is a Biblical teaching (not something cloistered to reformed/confessional circles). Paul clearly states these things for us in the bible for our own understanding. How is a Christian supposed to be an effective witness but doesn't understand how they are saved? I wasn't saying people have to know the confessionals but they should know what they believe. Since one of our main jobs as Christians is to share the gospel I think not knowing something so crucial might be a stumbling block if one ran into a non believer with tough questions. You don't have to be a clone of the WHI to understand that knowing the tenets of your faith is important.

    Thirdly, I didn't say that political ideology should be irrelevant but that if we as Christians focused more on being salt and light that it would become irrelevant. To some professing Christians their political ideology is the gospel. Its probably a misunderstanding of how they are saved which causes them to fill that void with something that is not the gospel. A lot of evangelicals put what party they belong to ahead of whom they belong to. So much so that they don't treat their neighbor as themselves. This calling seems to be ignored in some circles and responsibility laid at the feet of other institutions in others. You are correct in saying that we ought to analyze and critique ideologies and be mindful of the world around us. What you miss is the fact that we live in two kingdoms of which God is sovereign over both. We can spin our wheels putting our trust in earthly things like political parties but God's providence has the last say. Its only right that the Church refrain from kowtowing to institutions that would seek to use it for its own gain. That is not part of our job description.

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  • Guest - Rana

    Richard,

    Two wars/ a military occupation cost money too. Tax rebates/ write-offs to oil companies and other big business also cost money.

    Do you know what the tax rates were for the rich last time the nation was entangled in two wars?

    Guess who benefits from the war industry?

    The poor, uneducated Americans who sign up to get die?

    Or the billion dollar no bid contracts gained by revolving door politicians/ military officers/ lobbyists/contractors/ businesses like KBR (formerly known as Kellog, Brown and Root), Halliburton, Xe (formerly known as Blackwater)?

    Peace,
    Rana

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  • Rana,

    Talking points aside, what is the Gospel?

    Like 0 Short URL:
  • Guest - Greg Scandlen

    Wow, I step away for a few days and come back with too much to deal with. Without engaging in tits for tats, let me add a couple of thoughts.

    Politics versus religion. First let's keep in mind that the word "politics" has many meanings. There is the electoral kind, with parties and ideologies. But there is also a "politics"that happens whenever people and power are involved. Even my congregation has internal politics of alliances and favored people. Politics is often seen as a dirty word, but it is just a fact of life in all human affairs.

    Politics should not and can not influence the teaching of the church - ever. But the teaching of the church should certainly influence politics. How could it not? I am a Christian and I am also politically active. My belief in Christ informs my actions in every sphere of my life.

    This is a very good thing, not a bad thing. Every effort to improve our society has been informed by Christians, from the abolition movement to the civil rights movement. The attempted application of Christian principles doesn't always work well (think prohibition), but human activities are never without flaw.

    The discussion of justification by faith alone reminds me of something C.S. Lewis said that all people of faith have more in common with each other than atheists have with any of them. I am happy to celebrate everything we have in common (even with Mormons) even while I will stand by and speak up for the principles of the Reformation.

    Just quickly on Obama and socialism. He clearly is a socialist in the European, Democratic Socialism sense of the term. But it doesn't matter what label we put on him (or anyone else), the real focus should be on the policies.

    I am a bit surprised that no one on this list has raised the question of his faith, particularly his oft-repeated statements that individual salvation depends upon collective salvation. Can anyone here explain to me what "collective salvation" might be?

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  • Guest - Alberto

    I'm one of those Christians that are sick of the political activity within our churches. I do think many are aware of what happened at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church after it's pastor died. Part of the reason for the schism there was because the incoming pastor refused to continue in the type of political action that the church had done before.

    One of the things I find very disconcerting is how I find Christians speaking of our President as though he were our enemy. I would say this type of behavior coming from Christians is bad within the secular realm, much more within church activities and particularly from the pulpit; perhaps we could call it a "pulpit crime"?

    I do think that Christians, particularly on the Right, have influenced our politics in a bad way. They have baptized their politics and speak in a religious way in the secular realm. Christians feel compelled to move towards conservatism because they perceive that it is conservative politics that are aligned with the Bible; they are not reasoned into certain political views, they are told "Thus says the Lord". If you ask many of them why they support something, they might point to some portion of Scripture instead of offering a good argument. And it does seem that in order to counter this, those on the left are increasingly attempting to integrate a religious, in this case Christian, message in order to gain more support from religious people.

    Christians have increased the polarity and hostility in politics. Since they think of politics in such a religious way, they view their politics like orthodoxy. So they dislike and even hate compromise, because to do so would be to betray their principles.

    I would also like to point out that one can be an exemplary Christian and not be involved in politics. There is no requirement that you must support some particular law or party or that you must vote. I am quite fine with refusing to vote. How that does that affect my standing within the church? I am sinning by not voting? As for helping my fellow man, I don't need to be involved in politics to do this. One example could be that on abortion; someone can be apolitical and yet be involved in one one way or another supporting women who are thinking of having an abortion.

    I am thankful for the kind of work that people here at the White Horse Inn are doing. They helped free me from thinking that I must be a Republican; yes, there churches that are implicit and even explicit about this. They have made me a more thoughtful Christian, and I hope this good influence spreads to more Christians as well.

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  • Guest - Rana

    Richard,
    You said, "Talking points aside, what is the gospel?" What are you implying? I was merely responding to your talking points.

    "When you can't win an argument change the language, when you can't change the language attack the person. " Looks to me like that's your aim. I was asked to comment on this article because of my views, it's unfortunate you feel you have to make comments that imply I don't know what the gospel is. The fact is Christians can disagree about politics and still be Christians.

    Peace,
    Rana

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  • The article argued that President Obama is not a socialist but steered clear of his faith. It does mention Obama's spiritual advisors, Campolo and Wallis. So I only challenged their faith statements.

    President Obama has made it clear, stating specifically that he holds to a "big tent" theology.

    In a Christianity Today interview (2004), he said,"I am a Christian...I'm rooted in the Christian tradition. I believe that there are many paths to the same place, and that is a belief that there is a higher power, a belief that we are connected as a people. That there are values that transcend race or culture, that move us forward, and there's an obligation for all of us individually as well as collectively to take responsibility to make those values lived...I'm not somebody who is always comfortable with language that implies I've got a monopoly on the truth, or that my faith is automatically transferable to others."
    ..............
    "There's the belief, certainly in some quarters, that people haven't embraced Jesus Christ as their personal savior that they're going to hell."

    FALSANI:
    You don't believe that?

    OBAMA:
    I find it hard to believe that my God would consign four-fifths of the world to hell.

    I can't imagine that my God would allow some little Hindu kid in India who never interacts with the Christian faith to somehow burn for all eternity.

    That's just not part of my religious makeup.

    So the President, who I am sure has spoken at at least as many churches as any modern presidential candidate, holds to a very American faith. It is not Christianity. But it IS probably the dominant belief among American church goers.

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  • Politics should not and can not influence the teaching of the church – ever. But the teaching of the church should certainly influence politics. How could it not? I am a Christian and I am also politically active. My belief in Christ informs my actions in every sphere of my life.

    Greg, on the one hand I'm not sure why politics is so adamantly dissallowed to influence the church but why the church is given a lot of room to influence politics. Maybe by \church\ you mean something less institutional and more individual or personal? Given how most American Protestants think, which is to say under-ecclesiastical, that is likely true, and hopefully the case because if you mean something institutional then that is something a doctrine of the spirituality of the church opposes as much as you and it oppose politics influencing the church.

    In which case, that is exactly the kind of two-kingdom point Stellman is trying to make. Believers as individuals are at political liberty. The problem is when someone who has leftish politics thinks his enjoy heavenly sanction as opposed to the other's rightish politics and vice versa. Another option is for people like me who are more agnostic about the power of politics in the first place and skeptical about what James Hunter describes and critiques as \the turn toward politics\ in our modern era. When you say you are politically active I take that to mean you're more a believer in the power of politics than me. So what 2k wants to say is that not only may you as an individual believer and your political opponents as individual believers enjoy sacred space but also may you all and people like me who are more conservative about its power.

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  • Jason:
    Politics and religion are not completely separate spheres. We must be careful of trying to take a middle road in politics. The nature of the thing is human opinions and ideas so we must be wary. There is a lot of right and wrong involved in politics, whether we like it or not. It doesn't mean that you think that America is God's gift to the world if you believe that it needs to be on a godly path as a nation. Of course the church should trump the state in a Christian's allegiance; but I do not think there can be such a thing as politicizing your faith. Politics is an aspect of a whole person's life and decisions, and what you believe on political issues will be affected by what you believe about God. That is partly why some political topics are so polarizing. If you believe that there are principles that political issues are formed on, then you cannot believe that people are just "claiming divine sanction." There is right and there is wrong (on almost every topic), regardless of our opinions of it or what we think we know, so lets be very careful of claiming that both sides of an issue are similar or that they might be neither wrong, just because we may respect people on both sides. I am just as against demonization and picking out others sins as you are, but I am also going to seek God's will in every area of my life and my country's, and speak up for it.
    Also, tangentially, what do you think about those who would still seek to establish a Christian nation?

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