How Nationalism Found Its Way Into the Church
Original article posted here.
In the 1950′s, we were engaged in a cold war with the Soviet Union that lasted until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In the cabinet and leadership of the United States was a growing fervor that the Cold War was a battle between two ideologies–a Christian worldview and an atheist.
Don’t get me wrong, there is some truth to that claim. The USSR thought they could build a country upon atheistic principles and operate their country better. They appeared to be succeeding in the 1950′s with the launch of Sputnik in ’57, our country was in turmoil. The Russians believed their order of society would out-pace American society and through war or ingenuity, they would win.
The U.S. Administration saw this as a battle between atheism and Christianity, a battle between two radically different views of the world.
Thus was birthed Christianity wrapped up in the flag.
My leftists friends will quickly conclude that Eisenhower, a Republican, was the first in the slide to radical nationalism of the conservative movement. While they will be partially right, they will miss the point. The advisers in Eisenhower’s Administration were not conservative Christians, but mainline (modernists/leftists) “Christians” who were antagonistic towards conservative Christians. They were more in line with Barth than they were with Machen or Graham. They treated conservatives like Machen with skepticism.
But the fervor of uniting nationalism in the church took a fevered pitch during the 1950′s under religious liberalism. Believing that the war was between atheism and Christianity, our own President was Baptized while in office–the first sitting President to be Baptized. His Baptism, after all, was the “American thing to do.”
This is not to say that nationalism was entirely absent in the church until that time. We know the extent some Methodists, despite condemnation from Whitfield and Wesley, went to in wrapping the Revolutionary War in Christian Theology. At Whitfield’s funeral, one preacher distorted Whitfield’s views to make him appear friendly towards their nationalistic fervor. The entire era of the Revolutionary War twisted theological language like freedom and liberty to make a theological mandate for the Revolutionary War.
This is not to say that the Bible fails to address issues like war and morals. On the positive end of the spectrum, Abraham Lincoln made one of the greatest theological cases against any vice by a sitting President. The vice? Slavery!
In the case of the Revolutionary War, the laziness towards theology made “proving” the need for war based upon poor exegesis of the text.
Yet, despite some ventures by the church into a form of nationalism, churches have often stood against such. While exceptions existed, many Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, and Lutherans were often against incorporating nationalism into the church service.
In the 1950′s (or should I say 1940′s and 50′s) this began to change. We were once again embroiled in a battle of Christian versus Atheism. We adopted as our motto “In God We Trust” in 1956, our President was Baptized in office, and “under God” was placed in our pledge in 1954. We were communicating clearly, to be an American loving person meant you loved God (or so we tried to convince ourselves).
The churches across the nation were placing American Flags in our sanctuary and the nationalistic services became an annual event. Then twice a year we celebrated other nationalistic events alongside the 4th of July.
Conservatives, often skeptical of liberal advanced ideas, swallowed this new nationalism hook, line, and sinker. What liberals started, evangelicals would perfect. What liberals thought was a mandate from God, conservatives would try to prove (or “over prove”).
The United States has often, though not always, stood on the right side of issues. We were right that at stake between the USSR and us was worldview. Yet, this was not a Holy War. This was not a war by the church or even by God. However, it was an important war to win, but it was wrong to wrap our worship services and the Bible in the flag.
While many nations have sworn allegiance to God, there is only one country God has ever made a covenant and that nation is not the United States. As Christians, we should love our country, defend our country, and pray for those in authority. However, our allegiance should not filter into the worship service. God has designed the worship service to be focused on Him, not our country. Yes, we can acknowledge God’s work in our country, but not as a way of uplifting our country but uplifting God. As well, when people leave our service they should not be in awe of our country, but in awe of the God we worship. They should see two chasms, the city of man and the city of God and there should be no doubt where our loyalties lie. We are not trying to pledge mutual allegiances; we have but one.
Derick Dickens has an MBA in Leadership, MDiv, and MA in Religion. He speaks regularly on topics ranging from Christian Worldview issues to business leadership, and he is an Adjunct Professor of Business and Human Resources. Derick is also an award winning public speaker, speech evaluator, and leader. Married for 16 years to his wife Lacie, they have three children and live in Lynchburg Virginia. You can follow Derick on Twitter at twitter.com/derickdickens.