Let’s start with a game called “America or Jesus?”
You guess which one — America or Jesus — goes in the blank in the quotations below.
If you guessed “America” every time, you are correct. (You can find the names of the people responsible for each quotation at the bottom of this post.)
Is it possible that we have conflated our country and our faith?
Ever since the January 6th “Stop the Steal” rally led to an angry and violent mob attacking the Capitol, the phrase “Christian nationalism” has become ubiquitous. The Christian symbols, music, and themes present at the rally mixed with the quest for state power to bring the “God and Country” political philosophy to the attention of many Americans for the first time.
With that introduction, it’s no surprise that Christian nationalism has gotten a bad reputation... even if most people can’t define it. Are Christian nationalists simply Christians who love their country? (Hint: No.)
With a hat tip toward Jeff Foxworthy, let’s try to have some fun identifying Christian nationalism before discussing how it differs from patriotism.
You might be a Christian nationalist if…
There is a lot of misinformation surrounding the faith of America’s founders. While some, like Washington, were more cautious in their public statements, others (like Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin) denied the Trinity, biblical inspiration, and the supernatural.
This isn’t to say they weren’t religious. With few exceptions, the founders believed in a God who ruled the world and sometimes answered prayers. However, it’s unfair to force them into modern categories. For instance, none of the founders would have talked about a personal relationship with God through Jesus.
It’s dangerous to try to ascertain the religious beliefs of another person, especially those who lived more than 200 years ago. But based on their available public statements, it is clear that the founding fathers rejected significant parts of orthodox Christianity and wouldn’t be qualified to be leaders in most Christian churches today.
Thought experiment: Imagine you’re visiting China and you attend a worship service. In the sanctuary, there is a Chinese flag and, during the service, they pledge allegiance to that flag and sing national songs — their version of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, for instance.
How are you doing?
My guess is that if you’re going along with it at all, you’re doing so reluctantly. And that’s how at least some people from other nations feel when they attend services at our churches in the United States that expect them to pledge allegiance to our flag.
The United States flag is a powerful symbol of national pride and unity. It represents a country most Americans love and many have died for. And that’s the very reason it’s unwise and unchristian to place one in a church’s sanctuary. Jesus’s church is a worldwide community made up of people from every tongue, tribe, and nation. No country has a privileged position in God’s eyes. Our churches should be welcoming to all people, including America’s geopolitical foes.
Israel was God’s chosen nation (Exodus 19:6), but, in Jesus, his church now has that special status (1 Peter 2:9). If God is on the side of Americans, who is on the side of the Iraqis, Iranians, Russians, and Chinese? When pastors and political leaders swap out “Israel” for “America” in their prayers, they are playing a dangerous game. God no longer has a chosen nation. He has a chosen people comprising every nation.
Ryan Burge says that 27 percent of self-identified white evangelicals don’t attend church. To this group, the term “evangelical” isn’t describing their Christian convictions but their political convictions. If you think of yourself as an evangelical but don’t gather with God’s people to worship him, the word “evangelical” doesn’t mean what it used to.
Because Christian nationalists fuse faith and country, they believe criticizing America for its past sins is tantamount to criticizing God.
Religious freedom is for all Americans of all faiths.
According to rights granted in the First Amendment, Christianity should not be discriminated against, but neither should it be privileged over other religions in the public square.
All forms of nationalism demonize outsiders. Jesus commands Christians to do the opposite.
Woodrow Wilson described American soldiers in WWI as bringing about “the only thing that is worth living for, the spiritual purpose of redemption that rests in the heart of mankind.”
Ronald Reagan called the United States the “shining city on a hill,” borrowing the phrase from Jesus — except, of course, the president replaced the church with America.
The kingdom of God only arrives through King Jesus.
Ted Cruz’s father, Rafael Cruz, said, “The Framers were seeking divine revelation from God, that’s why the Declaration and the Constitution have lasted over 230 years because they were a divine revelation from God.”
To call America’s founding documents “divine revelation from God” diminishes the Bible.
While full-fledged Christian nationalism is a distortion of Christianity, patriotism is an appropriate love that Christians, along with their fellow citizens, have toward their country.
Patriotism is a love for one’s home country, but it does not elevate that country over others. As C. S. Lewis said, patriotic love for country isn’t aggressive. It does not dominate others or demand uniformity. Instead, patriotism includes a sense of camaraderie with other Americans and leads us to cheer and chant for the USA in the Olympics and then wish the best for everyone, win or lose.
Patriotic Christians recognize they are citizens of heaven first and citizens of America second (Philippians 3:20). They know they have far more in common with Christians of other nationalities and ethnicities than non-Christians from their own neighborhood.
It is because of their love for their country and their desire to see it grow and improve that patriotic Christians are willing to examine America’s past and be honest about our national sins and failures.
At its heart, nationalism puts love for country above Jesus. Patriotic Christians love Jesus more than their country.
It’s time to ask yourself: Have you fallen for Christian nationalism? Have you ever been tempted to view yourself as an American first and a Christian second? (If so, you’re not alone, and it’s not too late to change course.)
Check out our recent interview with John Fea. You’ll hear more on this topic as he shares insights from his book, “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?” We believe you’ll be challenged and motivated to choose the truth Jesus offers over political tribalism.
"America or Jesus"?" quotations by 1. Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Beto O'Rourke; 2. Woodrow Wilson; 3. Beto O'Rourke; 4. Donald Trump; 5. Donald Trump