Should a Christian ever say “America First”?

Should a Christian ever say “America First”?

In the second century Letter to Diognetus, there is this description of the early church:

They live in their own countries, but only as foreigners. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as aliens. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed.

The point of the passage—aside from the bit on marriage beds—is that while the first Christians were good citizens, they saw themselves as “foreigners” within their “fatherlands.”

They rejected nationalism, because they believed that they belonged to a Kingdom that transcended earthly borders.

I’ve written about this topic elsewhere (“When patriotism goes too far”).

Yet here I want to ask a more specific question:

Is it ever okay for a Christian to utter the now-resurgent slogan “America First”?

AN INITIAL ANSWER

In pondering the question, my initial answer was a quick and solid “Nope.”

America, despite my gratitude for her, is not first.

God is.

And Christ’s Kingdom knows no borders, tribes, or nationalities.

Beyond this, Christ’s Kingdom will endure long after America is a forgotten footnote in the dusty book of human history–alongside Rome, Byzantium, and others.

As Isaiah states:

Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket

they are regarded as dust on the scales (Isa. 40.15).

All this is true.

Unfortunately, “Nope” is not a very lengthy blog post.

And, to be honest, I have considered one qualified(!) sense in which it might be okay for a Christian to put “America First”—though I will not be saying it.

Still, I’ll start with the massive problem with the phrase.

A “NOPE” TO NATIONALISM

If the expression “America First!” carries even a hint of nationalism (as opposed to gracious patriotism), it is quite obvious that a Christian should not say it.

As Ryan Hamm defines it:

  • Patriotism is a love of one’s country (which may be good).
  • Nationalism is a love of country at the expense, or disrespect, of other nations.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the very notion of a “Christian nationalist” is an oxymoron.

It is a form of syncretism that verges on idolatry as much as stacking plastic Baals and Buddhas on the altar at one’s local church.

A less academic term for syncretism (the mixing of gods) is what I call a “Ricky Bobby religion”—as evidenced by his heartfelt plea from inside an imaginary fire in the movie, Talladega Nights:

Help me Jesus! Help me Jewish God! Help me Allah! AAAAAHHH! Help me Tom Cruise! Tom Cruise, use your witchcraft on me to get the fire off me!

giphy

On a more serious note, it was a plea for national allegiance (from religious leaders) that led finally to Christ’s murder, which may make nationalism the first heresy.

“If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar” (Jn. 19.12).

Hence the twinge of pain emitted by the satirical July 4th headline on the Babylon Bee:

  • “Dozens Accept America As Lord And Savior At First Baptist Dallas Service” (here).

The exaggeration only drives home the danger of a more subtle syncretism.

In sum: Nationalism is a cancer to the Kingdom, and one often senses it—like a poorly hidden accent—beneath the chanting of “America First!”

“YES” TO STEWARDSHIP 

Even so, I am trying lately to read the claims of others (and especially those I disagree with) in the most charitable way possible. We need that discipline these days especially.

As I’ve said before, I’m thankful for America; and I think a gracious patriotism may be rooted in gratitude instead of nationalism.

So while things like “charity” and “nuance” are Kryptonite to “blog-clicks,” here goes…

Perhaps, in some cases, it is possible to view the words merely as a call to take responsibility for one’s own “household” before moving on to others.

After all, as a father, if I claim to put my family “first,” I need not be implying that others don’t matter, or that my family is more important than my faith. In this case, the words may simply function as a reminder of, say, my duty to parent my own kids before trying to parent everybody else’s.

And if one works within a particular government, there is a clear duty to give priority to one’s own “house” before venturing off to mow all other “yards” and trim other “hedges.”

This need not be nationalism and it need not be sacrilegious.

It might be a form of stewardship, and the priority might be a “first among equals.”

Maybe.

CONCLUSION

Still, the question is not just what intention lies behind such slogans (for indeed “chants” are rarely the most measured or coherent statements), but what the words connote within the hearts of hearers.

Thus while the catchphrase may not always entail a conscious endorsement of nationalistic syncretism, I still much prefer the attitude described in the age-old Letter to Diognetus.

They live in their own countries, but only as foreigners. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as aliens. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed

When patriotism goes too far

When patriotism goes too far

Confession:

When I was in second grade, my favorite song in the world was the patriotic power ballad by Lee Greenwood: “God Bless the U.S.A.” I still remember singing it, with a lump in my throat, while reverently cradling my glued-together replica of an F-14 fighter jet.

The lyrics epitomized my second grade existence:

If tomorrow all the things were gone

I worked for all my life

And I had to start again

With just my children and my wife

I’d thank my lucky stars

To be living here today

‘Cause the flag still stands for freedom

And they can’t take that away!

That’s right! Try and take it Commies!

Later, I learned to play it on my saxophone.

And around that same time the Iron Curtain fell.

Coincidence?  You tell me.

The point is: I was VERY patriotic.

And in certain ways, I still am. I remain tremendously grateful to those who have sacrificed so that I can live in relative safety and freedom. And I am reminded of what a rare opportunity I’ve had to better myself through education, despite the fact that my family was not wealthy by American standards.

Yet as I grew older I began to grow more wary of certain forms of “patriotism,” and especially as I came to view the Christian gospel differently.

WHEN PATRIOTISM BECOMES IDOLATRY

In short, the problem occurs when patriotism becomes nationalism.

For sake of clarity, Ryan Hamm defines the terms like this:

  • Patriotism is simply love of country.
  • Nationalism is a love of country at the expense (or disrespect) of others.

What’s more, I’ve come to believe that the idea of a “Christian nationalist” is an oxymoron.

So here’s the question: When exactly does patriotism become nationalism, and what are some clues that Christians can use to recognize when our love of country has become an idol?

Four points:

  1. When we fail to see salvation as a change in citizenship.

The contradiction of a “Christian nationalist” is contained within the gospel itself.

To be “in Christ” according to the Scriptures, is to undergo change in primary citizenship.

As Paul argues, “our citizenship is now in heaven” (Php. 3.20). And we exist now as strangers, foreigners, and sojourners in our home countries.

To be sure, this did not change the fact that Paul himself remained a Roman citizen. Yet this identity (as with his Jewishness) was clearly secondary. Thus it is hard to picture him chanting “Roma! Roma! Roma!” while gladiators reenacted Caesar’s Gallic wars.

His primary concern was not to make Rome great again (let’s be honest, Nero was no Octavian), but to serve the King of kings.

Number two:

  1. When we get angrier at unpatriotic actions than at ungodly ones.

You can sometimes tell your idols by what makes you really angry.

In recent weeks, the internet has practically overheated over a football player who refused to stand for the national anthem as an act of protest. And while I’m not endorsing this behavior, I can’t help but notice that many Christians seem far angrier over this than over the spate of players who have been busted for serious crimes including rape, child abuse, and domestic battery. Why is that?

The point is not to endorse a lack of national pride, but to issue a word caution: When you get angrier over things that are deemed unpatriotic than over things that are violently ungodly, you’ve got a problem.[1]

  1. When we feel more kinship with unsaved countrymen than with Christians from around the globe.

While I don’t always agree with John Piper, I think he’s right in this:

Whatever form your patriotism takes, let it be a deep sense that we are more closely bound to brothers and sisters in Christ in other countries, other cultures than we are to our closest unbelieving compatriot or family member in the fatherland or in the neighborhood. That is really crucial … Otherwise, I think our patriotism is drifting over into idolatry.

The issue, once again, is one of primary citizenship.

Last point:

  1. When we are blind to the sins of our nation while being acutely aware of those of others.

Every culture and country has uniquely beautiful and uniquely broken aspects.

In America, I’m proud of our general respect for things like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and democracy. I also celebrate our “can do” mentality, our constitutional design of a balance of power, and our stated belief (not always lived out) that all persons are created equal.

Yet a danger in patriotic pride is that it would overlook the uniquely broken aspects that are there as well. There must be a balance.

On a recent TV show, I watched a correspondent ask a group of political convention-goers to name a time that America was truly great. The responses were hilarious and deeply saddening.

It was amazing how many individuals took us back to the era of slavery or segregation as the time when America was really “nailing it.” To be honest, most of these folks were not intending to condone such acts, but they did portray a startling historical amnesia.

CONCLUSION

In the end, the solution to patriotism gone wrong is not national negativity but the power of the gospel.

In short, Christians must come to see salvation not just as a change of mind, a change of behavior, or even a change of final destination. In addition, it also a change of primary citizenship.

And (on a lighter note) for those still wondering if a man and his saxophone can change the world, I leave you this, and rest my case.

 

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[1] Credit for this point goes to a former student, Matt Atwell, as he noted in a post last week.