04 July 2023

Civic idolatry.

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.]

In 1776 the British Parliament, insisting they had every right to tax the colonies of British North America to fund the Seven Years’ War, violated the colonies’ charters which had guaranteed them self-governance under a common king. King George Hanover 3 (who lacked the political strength to do anything anyway) sided with Parliament and declared the colonies outside his protection. The Americans’ Continental Congress, representing 13 of the colonies which later became the United States, interpreted this to mean they were now independent states. On 4 July (or 2 July, depending on which founder you talk to) they officially declared themselves independent.

So today’s Independence Day in the United States. This week, Americans are gonna set off a lot of fireworks, eat a lot of barbecue, and 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. Yep, full-on idolatry. We also call it civic idolatry. It’s when love for our country stops being reasonable and fair-minded: We treat it, its symbols, its values, and its institutions as sacred and holy. When we treat contempt for it, or even fair-minded criticism of it, as blasphemy. Civic idolaters might call it other things than blasphemy, like “unpatriotic” or “subversive” or “seditious” or “traitorous,” but yeah, they mean blasphemy. ’Cause how dare we speak negatively of the United States?

Civic idolaters are also gonna do their darnedest to say they worship God, and God alone; not the United States. But y’notice they too often confound God and country, and blend ’em together as if they’re the same thing.

  • When we attribute things to the United States which are only legitimately true of God, we got idolatry.
  • When we claim things about our country which are only legitimately true of God’s kingdom (“This is a Christian nation!” or “Jesus reigns over this land, and American laws should reflect this!”) we got idolatry.
  • When our nation or our politics take precedence over the actual growth of God’s kingdom, we got idolatry.
  • When our political principles actually defy Jesus’s teachings, we got idolatry.

Hey, sometimes in our dual citizenship with God’s kingdom and the world, we gotta pick a side. But when we pick the world, it’s idolatry.

American civic 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 a depiction of a white Lord Jesus, surrounded by American 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 the second coming at all: You’ll notice some of the “saints” in the painting include deists. There’s Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and arguably George Washington. These are folks who publicly stated they believed in God, but—sometimes publicly, sometimes privately—rejected Christianity. I know; Christian nationalists will insist these were all good Christians, but they don’t have any historical documentation to back ’em up; just wishful thinking.

Would any deist be in Jesus’s entourage at his second coming? Not unless you prioritize patriotism over faith in Christ.

To be fair, McNaughton made clear this isn’t what he meant. This is not 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 the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially does believe the Constitution is inspired by God—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. It’s approved LDS doctrine.

To civic idolaters, the United States isn’t a human creation, but God’s. The nation wasn’t founded by people seeking worldly freedom and worldly success; it was foreordained by God as he steers 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 and their particular covenant with God, civic idolaters claim is true of the United States. Therefore so long that we Americans stay devout (much as the Israelis didn’t) we never need 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 around the planet. Rv 7.9 The U.S. isn’t a specially-chosen exception. There are no specially-chosen exceptions. (Nope, not even the Jews. God granted his gentile followers equal status.) Once Jesus returns, he takes possession of every nation—the United States included—and sets 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’s way easier to keep subjects in line if the subjects think they’re 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. Period. Yet to some degree, God’s endorsement was appropriated by the king:

Psalm 2.7-12 KJV
7 I will declare the decree: the LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee. 8 Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. 9 Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.
10 Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth. 11 Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. 12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.

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: 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. As Moses put it,

Deuteronomy 17.15 KJV
Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the LORD thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee: thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother.

Under divine right of kings, nobody chose their kings: You had to settle for the heir of the previous king, or settle for 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 useless 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 men who aspire to patriarchy will certainly try.) Instead, what civic idolaters do is treat the nation as divine. Sometimes they speak this way about government, certain politicians, and past presidents. But in the States—especially among people who really don’t trust government—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 bible’s prophecies about Israel and apply ’em to America. Since the U.S. is full of Christians (and, they claim, was founded by ’em), what was true of ancient 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 their idea we live in New Israel. And we’ll follow God even better than the Hebrews!

Hence all the hand-wringing whenever civic idolaters fear America is not following God to their his satisfaction.

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 just patriotic. Nothing more. And kinda wonder whether those of us who are making a fuss about civic idolatry aren’t being just a bit… un-patriotic.

How can you tell where the line is, and whether we’ve crossed it? I’ve actually got a really simple rule of thumb. Imagine the United States is a human being. Say, your favorite Uncle Sam. Now, would your behavior be appropriate if you were behaving this 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? Do you demand they leave the state or country 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 insist he’d never do anything wrong? Would you try to explain how the evil wasn’t really evil? Or figure it’s not your place, or anyone’s 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’s the most fleshly person you know, and never acts Christian?

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 when it comes to Sam—you’ve definitely made an idol of him. Yet all these acts are precisely what many Christian nationalists do with our 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? (Some certainly do, and put political heroes and their logos on it, regardless of the Flag Code.) When we place American flags and Christian flags in our churches, which one gets displayed on the right? Which one do we place 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.

For now, Americans thankfully live in a country where questioning civic idolatry is still freedom of speech, and not treason. Can’t legally be imprisoned or killed for it. Not that some fascists wouldn’t be thrilled to make 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. Burn all the Confederate flags or Trump flags you want; keep your dirty hands off the American flag. But neither do I want the American 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 to do this with 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.