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.
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!
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.”
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