Indoctrinated from birth
At the Sunday meeting a few weeks ago, I showed what I thought was an amazing spectacle of civil religion and the messianic hope that 2020 hopefuls try to offer us in their pursuit of becoming President of the United States. It was Cory Booker’s campaign video. I’ll link it for your viewing pleasure because it amazingly speaks to how the U.S. political apparatus in fact tries to replace Jesus as the agent of salvation in the world.
The discussion that followed was hardly political. People were able to name the (false) hope of the Booker ad, and even the ways that it tried to instill a sense of salvation, transformation, and liberation that only Jesus can offer. I was happy, I admit, with the thoroughly Anabaptist interpretation of the video and comforted that I was in a community that really gets that we are trying to build an alternative to the powers that be.
I think it’s easier said than done, though. I think from the moment we’re born, we’re taught about individual power and individual rights. We’re taught about the importance of patriotism, the honor of sacrificing for one’s country. We’re taught the history of the United States in a propagandistic way, one that elevates the United States above all nations. We religiously honor our Founding Fathers and our Founding Texts with the same fervor that many in the Church honor the Apostles, the Church Fathers, and the Bible itself.
The Bible is not fundamentally political
And while I think, and have argued repeatedly, that the state should not encumber us in that regard and in fact empower us, I do think that the Kingdom of God is creating a new stratus, or a new humanity, that we’re all in: one where valleys are filled and mountains are lowered. This isn’t the result of a coercive political apparatus, but the invitation to love, redeem, and restore the world from the powers that have held it hostage and posed us against one another.
But in the middle of our politically polarized world, with a decidedly aggressive president, it can be hard not to find your hope in one side or another. You might think that a key to your hope is in one of the 2020 candidates, or in Trump himself. I want to sympathize with you because there are practical and existential ramifications to who our leaders are, and the Gospel is hardly apolitical. But the biblical ethical vision does not clearly have a political counterpart in today’s political economy. It’s anachronistic to name a contemporary political philosophy as fundamentally biblical. But we can see political philosophies today as incidentally biblical. Put another way: though the New Testament is not fundamentally political, it has political and economic ramifications.
So, it’s true the Bible doesn’t give us clear answers to political allegiance today. In fact, it commands us to only be allied to God. But our allegiance to God shapes all of us, and though no Christian should be comfortable with any political or economic system, we can name some as more or less evil than others. While at the same time creating an alternative with a new agency, grammar, and epistemology. A new way of doing, saying, and knowing. One that isn’t trapped by worldly patterns. The renewing of our minds and our non-conformity to patterns of this world doesn’t leave us neutral or apolitical, however.
But despite being apolitical, we are not fundamentally political. Our hope is still in Jesus, our identity is in Jesus, and our power in Jesus. We mustn’t forget that. Although you might feel desperate for a new political situation in the United States, it won’t be solve our ultimate problem, even if, in the best case scenario, it plugs some holes in the ship. But more than expecting the newly elected president to save you, we need to remember that our hope is in Jesus because we are told with impunity that it is found elsewhere. The American civil religion is very strong. Political allegiance is powerful and we are asked for it all the time, not just by Democrats and Republicans and Starbucks CEOs, but by the nation itself.
Our polarization is falsely solved by patriotism
I was struck by this as I was watching the State of the Union address. That’s sort of an annual tradition for me. It’s easy to jab the president about his racist anti-immigrant policy, which pervaded every aspect of his speech. The most concerning thing to me were the howls of applause he received, from both sides of the aisle, when he praised the United States. If there is one thing that seems to unite American politicians together it is the love of their nation. Now, this is an obvious point, because they’ve all decided that serving in a public capacity is a good idea. They all think America is worthy of their efforts and time. And I think, at least in part, they’ve put their hope and faith in the country.
Here’s a section of the most patriotic and thus uniting part of his speech:
In the 20th century, America saved freedom, transformed science, redefined the middle class, and when you get down to it, there is nothing anywhere in the world that can compete with America. [applause] now we must step boldly and bravely into the next chapter of this great American adventure. We must create a new standard of living for the 21st century.
An amazing quality of life for all of our citizens is within reach. We can make our communities safer, our families stronger, our culture richer, our faith deeper, and our middle class and more prosperous than ever before. [applause] but we must reject the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution, and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise, and the common good. [applause]
Together we can break decades of political stalemate. We can bridge all divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions, and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future. The decision is ours to make. We must choose between greatness or gridlock, results or resistance, vision or vengeance, incredible progress or pointless destruction. Tonight, I ask you to choose greatness.
The emphases are mine, but they showcase the intense obsession with the supremacy of the United States. It is nothing other than idol worship, period. It is the antithesis of the Gospels. It’s anti-Christ because it replaces the supremacy of God with the supremacy of America. And I want to emphasize it because it showcases us the fight we’re up against as Christians. At every turn, on every channel, on every page, the idea of American greatness is sold to us. Not just by politicians, but by the media, by advertisers, even by our non-profits. If I didn’t know better, I’d think there is an active pro-American coalition indoctrinating us about American domination, strength, and wealth. It’s nonstop.
I’m not suggesting there is something wrong with being proud of being American, but the obsession with nationality that is currently very prevalent on both sides of the aisle troubles me. And I want it to trouble all of us.
So my advice to you today is be on guard. The sin of Americanism and of nationalism is as pervasive as any of the other great evils: MLK listed materialism, militarism, and racism, and much like those it is hard to detect. Most likely, we are acting in it without knowing it. So let’s keep asking questions and talking about it. I think God cares about a lot of the things that Americans care about, so it’s not a zero-sum game. So let’s keep talking. Is your pursuit of power, freedom, individual rights, and progress just a result of the indoctrination? Or is it of God?