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Posts Tagged ‘Manifest Destiny’

Pastor and prominent Christian leader John Piper has said, “I love not being an innovator” and that he fears new ideas.  This may sound odd to some people but for those of us who recognize and uphold the fact that truth is timeless rather than ever-evolving it’s a statement that is brilliant in its simplicity and prophetic when contrasted with much of modern society.  While Piper has made the comments in reference to finding supporting evidence for his theological and doctrinal positions in works of antiquity, I recently expressed a similar sentiment after stumbling upon an article written by distinguished sociology professor and National Humanities Medal winner Robert N. Bellah.  It is always refreshing as well as humbling for me when I find that a conviction, theory, or even an inkling, that I’ve held has been shared and articulated by smart, influential people!  Honestly, it has the effect on me of affirming that I’m not crazy, or that I think too much, or that I’ve been connecting dots that aren’t there.  In this particular instance the subject matter is something I’ve observed, thought and prayed about for a long time, and written several posts on: the vaguely-Christian, nationalistic syncretism that many individuals and churches hold up as biblical Christianity.

Unbeknownst to me, Bellah is a pioneering thinker in this area with his 1967 article, Civil Religion in America, being highly influential.  Needless to say I was thrilled when I found it reprinted in its entirety online.  Having read it, I believe it’s an important contribution to the discourse I’ve started on this blog so I am pleased to provide a few snippets below to whet your appetite in addition to providing the link where you can read the original article in full.  I, too, love not being an innovator…

The words and acts of the founding fathers, especially the first few presidents, shaped the form and tone of the civil religion as it has been maintained ever since. Though much is selectively derived from Christianity, this religion is clearly not itself Christianity…

What we have, then, from the earliest years of the republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity. This religion—there seems no other word for it—while not antithetical to and indeed sharing much in common with Christianity, was neither sectarian nor in any specific sense Christian…

The American civil religion was never anticlerical or militantly secular. On the contrary, it borrowed selectively from the religious tradition in such a way that the average American saw no conflict between the two. In this way, the civil religion was able to build up without any bitter struggle with the church powerful symbols of national solidarity and to mobilize deep levels of personal motivation for the attainment of national goals…

The civil religion has not always been invoked in favor of worthy causes. On the domestic scene, an American-Legion type of ideology that fuses God, country, and flag has been used to attack nonconformist and liberal ideas and groups of all kinds…

The theme of the American Israel was used, almost from the beginning, as a justification for the shameful treatment of the Indians so characteristic of our history. It can be overtly or implicitly linked to the ideal of manifest destiny that has been used to legitimate several adventures in imperialism since the early nineteenth century…

Behind the civil religion at every point lie biblical archetypes: Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, and Sacrificial Death and Rebirth. But it is also genuinely American and genuinely new. It has its own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own solemn rituals and symbols. It is concerned that America be a society as perfectly in accord with the will of God as men can make it, and a light to all nations…

(Bellah, Robert N.: 1967)

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When it comes to American Christianity and its culture I have spent almost my entire life as either an active participant or a curious observer.  Having been in and out of a wide variety of groups, ministries, and churches–while reading, listening, and asking about those I haven’t experienced firsthand–someone like myself can’t help but carefully look at all the different expressions of Christianity and hope to find some consistent theme that would illustrate our unity in Christ.  This analysis has been kicked into overdrive in the past year while I’ve followed the presidential campaigns.  Since it’s an election year many Americans are verbalizing their values and desires for what kind of “America” they want more than they usually do.  Because of this, the entire spectrum of ‘Christian values’ has been on display via the media: right, left, middle, red, blue, green, rainbow, etc.  Taking it all in, it seems that aside from the fundamental belief in Jesus’ saving resurrection, American Christian values and expressions of faith are just as varied as I’ve seen in my own experiences.

Yet, increasingly, I’ve observed a common thread that seems to tie much of American Christianity together: unwavering devotion to the United States.  While this isn’t true for all Christians living here, my conclusion is that this is true for the majority.

Love your country as yourself?

If this is a correct conclusion then surely we ought to ask whether or not this is a good thing, and answering that question has everything to do with what we believe about the God of the Bible and about the United States.  True, we are to pray for the powers-that-be (1 Tim. 2:1-4), submit to them (Rom. 13:1-7), and pay our taxes to them (Mt. 22:15-22).  But are we to love our nation as our self?  Are we called to forgive our nation as the Lord forgave us?  Are we called to sacrificially love our nation to the degree that God demands we love each other? (See Mk. 12:31, Col. 3:13, 1 Cor. 13:4-7)  Sarcastic questions with emphatic answers: NO, NO, NO.  Contrary to the prevailing Christian worldview in the U.S., our country has never been and will never be a person.  It is an inanimate system, institution, organization, conglomerate, etc.  It is not human for it has no heart, soul, mind, or body.  Despite this, many Christians strangely apply biblically “Christian” principles of love in their relationship to this thing called America.  Ironically this ‘love’ is grossly insufficient in terms of the principles they seek to apply because “love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” (1 Cor. 13:6)

This leads us to the issue of what we believe about the United States.  Are all of its motivations and actions benevolent?  Is all of its behavior inherently selfless?  Does it always avoid hurting itself and others?  Is it…perfect?  No, no, no, and no.  Even if it’s not a part of President Bush’s rhetoric, we all understand that our country is imperfect.  So then, why are so many Christians bent on treating America like their spoiled daughter whom they are afraid to rebuke for misbehaving?  American Christianity too often tries to be nice to America like it’s a person–offering it a continuous stream of grace and devotion–yet doesn’t reprimand it like one when it hurts itself or the world.  That is not democratic or patriotic, and it couldn’t be further from biblical.  If we were called to love America by the same standards we are called to love our fellow man–which we are not–then the American church would be failing miserably.

If you had a daughter that you truly loved wouldn’t you point out her blind spots to show her a better way to live?  Wouldn’t you tell her when she’s hurt you so she could avoid doing so again?  Wouldn’t you tell her if she’d hurt someone but weren’t aware of it?  And wouldn’t you be thankful if others told her about a way they’d been hurt that you weren’t aware of?  Wouldn’t you be stern with her if she were being mean and abusive?  And wouldn’t you want her to change her behavior to be more kind, loving, patient, fair, and merciful to both you and others?   And after all this wouldn’t you hope and expect her to have the humility and compassion to acknowledge her failings and seek your forgiveness and the forgiveness of others?  Yet with many Christians’ unconditional acceptance of their daughter, Ms. America, they are offering her license to do whatever she wants without fear of discipline…or even a rebuke!

Love is not blind

As Christians, the standard of love that we are called to show is very high.  It is sacrificial and selfless, and it should be so dumbfounding that people looking at us should see something out of this world; something of God.  This is God loving people through us, and it is Him displaying His love to anyone watching with the hope that they would chose to give themselves to it (Mt. 5:16, Jn. 17:23).  God’s love, and therefore Christian love, is also based on truth.  The truth is that God is perfect and nothing else is.  No person, relationship, political party, economy, constitution, country, or planet.  As already mentioned, “love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.”  In other words, love is happy and excited when someone does the things God wants them to do but is displeased and sad when they don’t.  Christian love is to be patient and unceasing, but this love is not blind.  If it were, it would rejoice in evil.

Christian love shown toward Ms. America shouldn’t delight in her complicity in the execution of Saddam Hussein, but rejoice that her negotiations with Kim Jong-il’s North Korea have averted a war.  It shouldn’t delight in her 400 years of committing genocide against Native Americans as romantic history or Manifest Destiny, but rejoice that she’s attempted to make things right by giving them some of their own land and equal status under the law.  It shouldn’t delight that she was the first country to use nuclear weapons, but rejoice that the Japanese have recovered from her destruction of their country to have the longest lifespan and most effective health care system in the world.  It shouldn’t delight in her endless stream of tantalizing pornography and sexual movies, but rejoice that her public schools at least try to counter it with the sexual education that most parents are unwilling to give their kids.  It shouldn’t delight in her ethnic diversity as a symbol of her open mindedness, but rejoice over the non-profits and free social services that exist to help her people achieve more than just their racial stereotype.  It shouldn’t delight in her economy’s ability to help us store up treasures on earth, but rejoice that her economy allows us to store up treasures in heaven.   It shouldn’t delight in the thought of laws that make homosexual people feel sub-human, but rejoice that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8) and has given us the Holy Spirit to help us love all our fellow sinners that live here with us.

The love and allegiance many Christians are showing toward America is not biblical love at all, it is idolatry–as defined by the Bible.  Idolatry is worship and Christians are to worship God, not the country that God has mercifully allowed them to live in.

Have we forgotten that God is a jealous God?  Do we believe “that every good and perfect gift is from above,” (Jam. 1:16-17)…or from the White House?

May God help us examine our hearts.

Peace,
The Lord is God

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