Well, it’s the Fourth of July. The day of cook outs, fireworks, and full blown idolatry. I’m sorry, but I’ve said it before and I will continue to say it. There is a cult of American nationalism and idolatry, and it was not started by the current President. To whatever extent he is effectively using it, it is only effective because it was bred into the vast majority of us right from the cradle.
As I explained in detail in The American Mythology, the United States has her own mythological narrative that obviously parallels various historical religions (especially those of the Greek and Roman Empires). There are sacred texts, sacramental acts of reverence and worship, holy sites and shrines, and of course a whole pantheon of saints and even borderline demigods. The line between this level of patriotism and faith is blurry at best.
Sadly, so much of the Church, and particularly conservative evangelicalism, have more than just participated in the idolatry; they have virtually mandated it. Somehow, loyalty to Christ is no longer in contrast to loyalty to the Empire - they are actually companions.
Some throughout history, both within and outside the Church, have gotten it right. In Rome, the early Christians were known as “atheists” because they refused to participate in the sacred practices glorifying the Empire. During the Reformation, the Anabaptists refused to swear oaths to any nation (i.e. Pledge of Allegiance) or take up weapons (“the right to bear arms”), and they were clear that the governments of this world were no place for the Church. And here’s a doozy that I found on the Wikipedia entry on patriotism, “For the Enlightenment thinkers of 18th-century Europe, loyalty to the state was chiefly considered in contrast to loyalty to the Church. It was argued that clerics should not be allowed to teach in public schools since their patrie [fatherland] was heaven, so they could not inspire love of the homeland in their students.”
Sadly, many American Christians have gotten it very, very wrong. The claim is that patriotism is nothing more than simply “loving where you come from” and “being grateful” for what you have, but if you look at our rhetoric (or the rhetoric of the ones we applaud the most), it is clearly so much more than that. Do simple affection and gratitude explain the foaming at the mouth rage that happens when people “desecrate the flag” (a very religious word, by the way) or kneel during a song singing the glories of our nation? Do they explain how I once got an elbow to the ribs and a scolding for not putting my hand over my heart during the pledge of allegiance during a chapel service? “Corey,” my family member harshly whispered, “we’re at church. Show some respect!”
This article is not about Donald Trump - although, in a sense, it has everything to do with him, since he is the figurehead of the Empire right now. It would also have everything to do with Biden, Warren, Buttigieg, or Clinton if one of them were elected instead. But since POTUS’s speech yesterday was a perfect example of the religious rhetoric in question, I’ll draw out just a few direct quotes as an example (with a few comments of my own). Just remember, he might be using this ideology, but he didn’t create it. We did. I don’t care about removing Donald Trump from office even a tenth as much as I care about removing Americanism from the Church.
These are some snippets from the speech at Mount Rushmore yesterday evening. They show the American ideology in general, not anything necessarily Trump-specific. This is no more an attack on Trump than it is an attack on the whole religion of Americanism.
We gather tonight to herald the most important day in the history of nations, July 4th, 1776. At those words, every American heart should swell with pride, every American family should cheer with delight, and every American patriot should be filled with joy because each of you lives in the most magnificent country in the history of the world and it will soon be greater than ever before.
They enshrined a divine truth that changed the world forever when they said, “All men are created equal.” These immortal words set in motion the unstoppable march of freedom. Our founders boldly declared that we are all endowed with the same divine rights, given us by our Creator in Heaven, and that which God has given us, we will allow no one ever to take away ever.
Patriotism in Empires can become a religion of its own, but it becomes so much stronger when it becomes a companion of (and, I would say, a perversion of) the religion of the people to further its own ends. Egypt knew it - Pharaoh was the mediator between the people and the gods. Rome knew it - Caesar was a son of the gods. North Korea knows it - the cabin of the dictator’s supposed miraculous birth is a holy pilgrimage site. And apparently, America knows it, when she puts the founding documents on par with Scripture and talks about the authors “enshrining divine truth” when they put “immortal words” to paper.
We believe that our children should be taught to love their country, honor their history, and respect our great American flag. We stand tall, we stand proud, and we only kneel to Almighty God.
The irony here is striking and, for me, sickening. Read those last few words again. Clearly we kneel only to God, not for our flag. That’s the obvious message. But there’s a seriously mixed metaphor here. Kneeling to God is a sign of love, honor, and respect - a sign of worship. Standing for the flag (as opposed to kneeling) is a sign of love, honor, and respect - a sign of worship. Standing for the flag is the equivalent of kneeling to God, not the opposite. The words that sound like “we worship only God” are actually saying exactly the opposite: we worship God and the flag of the United States of America.
Above all, our children from every community must be taught that to be American is to inherit the spirit of the most adventurous and confident people ever to walk the face of the Earth. Americans are the people who pursued our Manifest Destiny across the ocean, into the uncharted wilderness, over the tallest mountains, and then into the skies, and even into the stars.
We are the country of Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Frederick Douglas. We are the land of Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill Cody. We are the nation that gave rise to the Wright brothers, the Tuskegee airmen, Harriet Tubman, Clara Barton, Jesse Owens, George Patton, General George Patton, the great Louis Armstrong, Alan Shepard, Elvis Presley, and Muhammad Ali, and only America could have produced them all. No other place.
We are the culture that put up the Hoover Dam, laid down the highways, and sculpted the skyline of Manhattan. We are the people who dreamed the spectacular dream, it was called Las Vegas in the Nevada desert, who built up Miami from the Florida marsh, and who carved our heroes into the face of Mount Rushmore. Americans harnessed electricity, split the atom, and gave the world the telephone and the internet. We settled the Wild West, won two World Wars, landed American astronauts on the moon.
And one day very soon, we will plant our flag on Mars. We gave the world the poetry of Walt Whitman, the stories of Mark Twain, the songs of Irving Berlin, the voice of Ella Fitzgerald, the style of Frank Sinatra, the comedy of Bob Hope, the power of the Saturn V rocket, the toughness of the Ford F150, and the awesome might of the American aircraft carriers.
Americans must never lose sight of this miraculous story. We should never lose sight of it.
These words just drip with the self-glorification of empire. And they aren’t just Trumpian. They are Obamaspeak. They are Bushlike. They are Clintonese. They are Reaganesque. They are Carterian. They are Nixonian. That’s fine. Let Empire be what it is. The real atrocity is that across the country, evangelicals accept and even promote this narrative.
The early church, as I explained in my series on Christian Anarchism, took the mythology of Empire and redefined it. The “gospel” of Caesar was nothing compared to the gospel of Christ. There was “no king but Christ”, a direct contrast to those who claimed “no king but Caesar”. Caesar’s royal war horse parade was reenacted as Christ entered as a peaceful king, to be crowned not with an olive wreath but with a crown of thorns. The cross, an instrument of imperial torture and domination, became the focal point of “salvation” (also something given only by Caesar). In other words, a lot of the New Testament was written to say this is not like that.
Instead, many American evangelicals have flipped the table - using Scripture to justify imperial dogma instead of subvert it. We have removed the “not” and said simply this is like that. Although there are too many examples to count, this is a perfect one:
Scripture should not be used to justify Empire. It’s true, some empires are better than others. Abolishing chattel slavery was a good thing (plenty of work to be done, though). Giving women the right to vote was a good thing (although scoffing at one who wants to be President isn’t). Trying to establish a separation of church and state was a good thing (although we tend to pick and choose when we want it to apply). And yes, declaring freedoms of speech and press were very good things.
Am I thankful that I can write this article without fear of imprisonment or death? Yes. If that were the extent of patriotism, like some claim, then I wouldn't have to write this article. The great irony, though, is that if I were to be afraid of slander, ostracization, and harsh treatment for posting this, it would be from those within the Church, not those outside of it.
We have to do better.