Civic idolatry: The “Christian nation.”

by K.W. Leslie, 03 July
CIVIC IDOLATRY 'sɪv.ɪk aɪ'dɑl.ə.tri noun. Worship of one’s homeland, its constitution, its government, or its leaders.
[Civically idolatrous 'sɪv.ɪk.(ə.)li aɪ'dɑl.ə.trəs adjective, civic idolater 'sɪv.ɪk aɪ'dɑl.ə.tər noun.]

Tomorrow’s Independence Day in the United States.

In 1776, the British Parliament, insisting they had the right to tax their North American colonies, had violated their colonial charters. The king had sided with Parliament and declared them outside his protection. Congress, representing 13 of the colonies, interpreted this to mean they were independent states, and officially declared themselves so on 4 July. (Or 2 July, depending on which founder you talk to.)

So this week, Americans are gonna express a whole lot of patriotism. American Christians included. As we should.

However, many American Christians regularly cross a line between the love of one’s homeland, and descend into outright worship of the United States. It’s idolatry, and when it’s directed towards a nation we call it nationalism or civic idolatry. It’s when love for our country stops being reasonable and fair-minded; when we treat it, its symbols, its values, and its institutions as holy. And when we treat criticism or contempt for it as blasphemy.

Heck, for those people, my even talking about the subject is blasphemy. Although they’ll call it unpatriotic, subversive, traitorous: How dare I say love of country is a bad thing?

Again: Not saying that. But when love of “God and country” get blended together as if they’re the same thing, we got idolatry. When we attribute things to the United States that are only legitimately true of God, we got idolatry. When our nation takes precedence over the growth of God’s kingdom, we got idolatry. Sometimes in our dual citizenship with the kingdom and the world, we gotta pick a side… and when we pick the world, it’s idolatry.

Give you an example. The image I use on the header for my Christianism articles comes from Jon McNaughton’s painting “One Nation Under God.” In it the Lord Jesus, surrounded by patriots, holds up the Constitution of the United States as some bow before the two of them. And some don’t, but still. The whole painting looks like this.

Jon McNaughton’s “One Nation Under God.” McNaughton Fine Art Company

Sorta looks like the second coming, where Jesus takes possession of the United States, surrounded by his saints—who happen to be great Americans. And he’s dividing the people before him like sheep and goats, with the sheep at his right (our left). Mt 25.32-33

Here’s how we know it’s not. Some of the “saints” include deists Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and arguably George Washington. Folks who believed in God, but rejected Christianity. Would any of ’em be in Jesus’s entourage at his second coming? Not unless you prioritize patriotism over faith in Christ.

McNaughton made clear that isn’t what he meant. This isn’t the second coming, though it seriously borrows second coming imagery. It’s about America, the people who “influenced our country and our Constitution in a positive way,” and it’s why Jesus approvingly points to the Constitution and the citizens on his right as instrumental in preserving our nation. McNaughton believes the Constitution is “inspired of God and created by God fearing, patriotic Americans.” It’s the God-inspired writings of God’s human instruments. Like the bible.

No, seriously. Like the bible. Y’see, McNaughton is Mormon, and that church actually does believe the Constitution is inspired to the very same degree the bible and the Book of Mormon is. That’s why we find so many civic idolaters among the Latter-day Saints.

This is how civic idolaters think: The United States isn’t a human creation, but God’s. The nation wasn’t founded by people seeking worldly success, but by God steering history. The Constitution isn’t the product of clever human compromise, but God-inspired wisdom. And so on. Everything that’s actually true of ancient Israel, Americans claim is true of the United States, and so long that we Americans stay devout (much as the Israelis didn’t) we never have to worry about the cycle of repentance afflicting our nation. So long that we hold back anti-Christian forces, we get to keep our great nation.

But the scriptures are more plain: The true Christian nation is God’s kingdom, 1Pe 2.9 which isn’t limited to one country but consists of people the world over. Rv 7.9 The U.S. isn’t a specially-chosen exception. Once Jesus returns, he’ll take possession of every nation, ours included, and set up New Jerusalem on the ruins of all our kingdoms.

Ancient civic idolatry.

Civic idolatry is far from a new phenomenon. Ancient kings discovered it was way easier to keep their subjects in line if the subjects thought of them as gods, or literal children of the gods. Egypt’s pharaohs, the Roman Empire’s emperors; even Japan’s emperor till the 20th century.

In Israel, there’s no god but the LORD, yet to some degree God’s endorsement was appropriated by the king:

Psalm 2.7-12 KWL
7 Let me now instruct you on the LORD God’s ruling.
“You’re my son,” he told me, “on this day I birthed you.
8 Ask me and I grant the wealth of nations to you.
Your inheritance extends to earth’s horizon.
9 Shatter with your iron staff; like jars you’ll break them.”
10 Now kings, think it through. Earth’s judges, heed this warning.
11 Serve the LORD in fear. Rejoice, but do it trembling.
12 Kiss the son lest he destroy your path in anger.
Small things make him burn. Bless all who seek his shelter.

The Hebrew kings never called themselves gods; they knew better. They only worked for God; sorta as his adopted sons. They had to follow the Law, same as every other Hebrew. Break it and they too could suffer consequences. As many of ’em did.

The Christian kings of Europe didn’t really learn by this example. Most of ’em figured, for one reason or another, the Law didn’t entirely apply to them. They likewise recognized they worked for God. But they also figured God endorsed their reign; that they were clothed with vast power by God himself, and people weren’t allowed to oppose them. They invented the doctrine of the divine right of kings.

Which runs contrary to the scriptures’ idea of cooperation between God and humans in choosing our leaders.

Deuteronomy 17.15 KWL
“Put, put a king above you, whom your LORD God chooses from you,
from among your brothers, to put as king over you.
You’re not to put a foreign man over you as king,
one who isn’t your brother.”

Under divine right of kings, nobody chose their kings: You either had to settle for the heir of the previous king, or some foreign invader like William of Normandy, who used mercenaries to conquer England in 1066. Divine right of kings was perpetuated by the king and his toadies, and God’s intentions went by the wayside. Wasn’t till John Locke took apart the logic behind divine right in his Two Treatises of Government, and Thomas Paine pointed out the appropriate scriptures in his tract Common Sense, that Americans recognized its illegitimacy, and could accept the idea of independence from their wayward king.

In a country where every citizen is their own king, it’s kinda hard to claim every citizen has a divine right of rule. (Although certain libertarians will certainly try.) Instead, what civic idolaters do is treat the nation as God. Sometimes the government, certain politicians, and past presidents. But in the U.S. we largely deify the ideas behind our country and government. Like liberty, civil rights, the wishes of our founders, and self-defense. These abstract ideas are largely invisible, like God, so it’s really easy to make idols of ’em.

Christians will take all the prophecies about Israel and apply ’em to America. Since the U.S. is full of Christians (and, they claim, founded by ’em), what’s true of Israel must be true of us. From “If my people pray, I’ll heal their land” to “I know the plans I have for you,” all sorts of out-of-context verses support the idea this is New Israel. And we’ll follow God even better than the Hebrews!

Hence all the hand-wringing whenever civic idolaters fear we’re not following God as well.

How much civic idolatry has seeped into your life?

True, your average civic idolater is pretty sure they’re not committing any such thing as idolatry; they’re nothing more than patriotic. And wonder whether those of us who are making a fuss about civic idolatry aren’t just a bit unpatriotic.

How can you tell where the line is, and whether you’ve crossed it? For me, I’ve got a really simple rule of thumb. Imagine the United States is a human being. Your favorite Uncle Sam. Now, would your behavior be appropriate if you were behaving that way towards good ol’ Sam?

  • Is Sam the greatest uncle in the world? Maybe he is. So… would you fight anyone, verbally or even physically, who dared to suggest otherwise?
  • Say somebody criticized Sam. Wanna kill them?
  • Do you try to outdo your cousins in praising Sam? Does it bother you when they won’t join in? Do you question whether they’re fit to live if they don’t?
  • Say you found out Sam was doing something evil. Maybe accidentally, maybe deliberately. How would you deal with it? Would you pretend he didn’t do anything wrong—that he never does anything wrong? Would you try to explain how the evil wasn’t really evil? Or figure it’s not your place to correct Sam, and lead him to repentance?
  • Would you kill anyone Sam told you to, for any reason?
  • Would you insist Sam’s a Christian, even though he never acts it?

If you think nothing of being willfully blind to evil out of devotion to your uncle or country—if God’s standard of right and wrong is disposable—you’ve definitely made an idol of Uncle Sam. And all these acts are precisely what many nationalists do with their homeland.

Consider how Americans treat our flag. Compare it with the way Christians treat the symbols which represent Christianity, like crosses and fish and IHS monograms. Do we pledge allegiance to the cross, and the Christ for whom it stands? Yeah, we put both fish and flag decals on our cars, but would you feel comfortable putting shark fins on the flag, or show it eating other countries’ flags? When we place American flags and Christian flags in our churches, which one gets displayed on the right? Which one goes above the other on a flagpole? Which one do we nod in respect to, and which do we stand to attention to, and salute?

Ever notice we’ve been raised to treat the American flag as more sacred than our Christian symbols? No, I’m not saying it’s civic idolatry to honor the flag: I’m saying God merits far more honor than the flag does, and if we fight to honor the flag, yet don’t bother to honor God at least as well… it’s not a good sign.

Opposing civic idolatry.

Because it’s so widespread, and so unthinkingly followed, Christians will suffer public condemnation when we resist civic idolatry. Not “might suffer”: Will suffer.

Lots of Americans, including Christians, don’t care that they’re civic idolaters. They think it’s what any loyal citizen oughta do, and those who say otherwise are traitors. Since objecting to nation-worship doesn’t come close to treason, what they really mean is blasphemers, ’cause their god’s been insulted.

Thankfully, Americans live (for now) in a nation where questioning civic idolatry is still freedom of speech, and not treason. Can’t legally be imprisoned or killed for it. Not that some Americans wouldn’t mind making it legal, and we Christians must stay vigilant lest that happen.

Fr’instance, civic idolaters wanna pass a constitutional amendment against burning the American flag in protest. Now, I’m as offended at flag-burning as any patriot; you may be unhappy with this country, but the flag represents our ideals more than our behavior. But neither do I want the flag constitutionally protected as if it’s a person, nor legally transformed into a holy object. If you can’t pass a law against burning bibles, it shouldn’t be possible for any other object of worship.

I realize civic idolaters are gonna be scandalized by many points in this essay. We’ll certainly disagree about how far civic idolatry goes, and whether they’ve crossed that line. My hope is they’ll wake up to the fact they’re toeing it, at least. Christians must have no divided allegiances: Jesus must be first in our hearts. America can be second, but America is passing away. 1Co 7.31 Jesus and his kingdom are eternal. Don’t give your heart to temporal things.