The Heresy of American Nationalism

I didn’t spend my time wandering ahead in Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion to see what was next on his heresy agenda, so I was surprised a right-wing analyst in the NYTimes would take on America’s nationalism as a heresy. The one person in his scope in this chp is Glenn Beck, who himself blames Woodrow Wilson for all sorts of things.

Douthat is right in regarding American nationalism — and it’s not just America that has this problem — as a heresy, for we have seen since Reagan a blending of the Christian faith and partisan politics at an alarming rate and level. The problem is that Douthat’s analysis isn’t sharp enough or probing enough. To what he says first.

How significant is this problem of American nationalism as a religion?

For many in American history, the USA is to the modern world what Israel was to the ancient world: God’s chosen nation. To be sure, we find this at times in Spain and France and Puritan England and in the USA. The universal claim of Christianity was tied to the universal claim of democracy by the Americans. We’re a promised land, a new order for the ages, with a manifest destiny — that is, American exceptionalism. And this providentialism is found throughout the speeches of presidents: but what Douthat observes is that some have tempered this exceptionalism with humility (Washington, Coolidge, Eisenhower, esp Lincoln’s 2d Inaugural Address) but there’s many who haven’t (including Wilson and Bush the younger).

American’s temptation is two-fold: Messianism, the progressive agenda: “Instead of trying to make all nations Christian, it hopes to make them all American” (255). The second temptation is apocalyptic doom, the method of reactionaries. Since the Founding Fathers it’s been all down hill, with one disaster after another in the future if we aren’t more careful. The dangers are Social Darwinism, colonialism, progressivism, socialism, Marxism, New Deal liberalism, the Great Society and the sexual revolution. This is found in the John Birchers and the fundamantalists and now the Tea Partiers.

Douthat then sketches both Woodrow Wilson, who was both a pious Presbyterian and yet dramatically belligerent when it came to war. Douthat observes the “jingle-jangle of fanaticism” in Wilson (258). It was messianism untempered, and others have followed him including George W. Bush.

Beck illustrates the apocalyptic theme: predictions of imminent collapse, totalitarian regimes arising, hunt for enemies, enemies abroad and attacks on other religions. Beck is rooted in one Cleon Skousen, and he finds modern examples in David Barton and Michele Bachmann.

Messianism is respectable; apocalypticism is the madwoman in the attic (262). Messianism attracts idealists and apocalypticists the bigots. Messianism has done more good and bad. He sees Bush as more infected by the messianic temperament.

One of Douthat’s more interesting elements is that the parties have become both: Dems and GOPers are both messianists and apocalyptists, depending on whether they are in power or not. The Right has become more Wilsonian, the Left more apocalyptic.

Here is where Douthat puts on his hat as a NYTimes editorialist and forgets what his chp is about: there’s precious little analysis of the “heresy” of nationalism, which has been articulated so well by Anabaptists and theologians of empire (think Yoder, Hauerwas, whose voices are not heard here), and too much about politics.

I agree with Douthat’s clear articulation that what we seen in folks like Glenn Beck and Wilson and Bush and even Obama is an American heresy, which can be labeled the “eschatology of politics,” but he needs to turn his probing eye on the substance of this heresy: power, greed, narcissism, and a general lack of humanistic respect. It denies Jesus the rightful place as Lord over all, a Lord whose cross reveals the deepest reality and a Lord whose identification with the poor and marginalized turned politics on its head — from power to love and justice. Douthat lacks a serious engagement with the concept of power, or authority, and how power corrupted becomes idolatry. Ironically, Douthat’s politics deconstructs his own analysis of politics, rendering his own analysis another form of the heresy he derides. He needs some Yoder and Hauerwas, or at least some James Davison Hunter.

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  • Phil

    Thanks for the link and the analysis. Just this morning I was reflecting on the contrast between “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and Jesus’ call to seek FIRST the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. Asking myself if I’m more inclined to focus (“first) on seeking and following God; or on giving myself (time, energy, attention) first to securing the blessings and benefits He freely brings?

  • Bev Mitchell

    ” Douthat observes…..that some have tempered this exceptionalism with humility…..”

    Much of the world would have trouble with the concept of humble exceptionalism, or recognizing a humble exceptionalist.

  • Forgive the shameless self-promotion, Scot, but this is precisely the subject of my book:

    Here’s an interview I did with a friend on the contents of the book:

    We can expect the state to co-opt Christianity for its purposes, but nationalism is particularly problematic when it emerges from within the church itself. Nationalism, which is simply the process that leads to national identity, is most problematic for Christians where it entails the intertwining of narratives of identity: the Christian salvation narrative with the American narrative of history and myth. The fact that this is so often crafted today by Christians themselves is what speaks to the importance of “heresy” here.

  • Harold

    Spot on, Scot.
    While your post does some critiquing of the analysis, the theme of “Christian Nationalism” as heresy is underestimated. While I’m personally not to concerned with the way the “blues” and “reds” co-opt Christian themes, I’m much more concerned when I see Christians buy into the same heresy. I’ve been in too many conversations with fellow brothers and sisters who are more sympathetic to the messages of Glenn Beck than to any conversation about The Kingdom. Let’s restore the American Kingdom has much more appeal to them.
    Paraphrasing Paul, “So I tell you this and insist on it in the Lord that you must no longer live as the Americans do, in the futility of their thinking.” That’s a hard sell.

  • Rana


    “… he needs to turn his probing eye on the substance of this heresy: power, greed, narcissism, and a general lack of humanistic respect. It denies Jesus the rightful place as Lord over all, a Lord whose cross reveals the deepest reality and a Lord whose identification with the poor and marginalized turned politics on its head — from power to love and justice.”

  • Would love a post from you at some point, Scot, with a broad overview that touches on continuity and discontinuity between guys like Hauerwas, Hunter, Yoder. Would be helpful to get your perspective from a birdseye view.

  • AHH

    I’m trying to decide whether the heresy you describe is identical to the idolatry of “American civil religion” in which God and country are blended into a joint object of our devotion. I’m leaning toward thinking that they are two distinct things, but with much overlap.

    This is especially an appropriate post as July 4 nears. At church yesterday it was announced that next Sunday (July 1) we will have a group sing of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as part of the worship service. My wife and I will probably stay home (as we have when such things happened in previous years) — would not be edifying to set off my idolatry alarm on a Sunday.

  • MattR

    Good stuff Scot!

    Is this a significant problem… yes. And some analysis from Yoder and Hauerwas would definitely help us here.

    I would add that it seems like the ‘right,’ which was more messianic under Pres. Bush, has become more apocalyptic now that there is a Democratic president.

    And, the way you describe it here at least, Douthat seems to think good can come from the ‘messianic’ side of nationalism… true? History seems to show, though (even recently), that there is always at least as much harm as good done in our adventurous nationalistic crusades.

  • Scot,
    In true bi-partisan fashion, here are a couple of quotes that reflect the kind of messianism mentioned above-
    “No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end.” – Pres. Obama

    “So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” – Pres. Bush

    There are many assumptions in these statements, but two important ones are that America never does anything that promotes policies that to other parts of the world seem tyrannical, and that America has the capacity through military power to end tyranny (a.k.a. human depravity revealed in the brutal use of power).

  • Cal

    One day in the future our descendents will read in text books the wails of Jerome in the mouth of America’s idolators masquerading as Christ-ones lamenting when the Barbarians have entered the gates and all is lost.

    The delusion is too strong for it to ever shift winds. I’m pessimistic for America but I’m hopeful. The Kingdom will remain despite the idolatry of Founding Fathers’ Democracy, Consumerism, Imperialism (“Ending Tyranny”), Capitalism, American Dream/Exceptionalism etc etc etc.

  • Tom F.

    I don’t substantially disagree with anything said in Scot’s original post or in the comments (though becoming apocalyptic about the apocalyptic folks does strike me as a little ironic, no?).

    I guess I would just add that it seems to me to be a human trait, rather than an American one. Yes, because of America’s unique history with the Puritans, we may fall into this trap a bit more than average. I think of how quickly the church accomodated Constantine (though I understand the impulse- how much better would we fair if we had been persecuted and then ended up basically on top?). It took the Roman empire collapsing around them before Augustine undertook the heroic effort of beginning to move away from this theology. I would guess that, with the lessons of history, we might be able to beat them by a generation or two before the end of U.S. ascendancy, but not much more.

    Even in scripture, the idea that the OT kings were human rulers whose paths could wander astray from God will is something that the prophets have to work fairly hard at communicating, and with relatively little success.

    I wish there was some easy, straightforward way to avoid this tendency. It occurs to me that repentance on behalf of Christians for the ways their support of the US government has led to abuse might be a part of the solution. For example, SBC apologized for racism and slavery awhile back: perhaps linking into this an apology for the church supporting oppressive political structures (i.e., Jim Crow laws) would help to keep the church’s theology on this subject on track? Not to pick on the SBC, the whole American church has probably not really dealt with its complicity in the past three centuries of the American gov’s abuse of Native Americans.

    Seeking to repent in these areas would be something that we should be doing anyway, and perhaps along the way, this repentance might also help to steer our theology of politics, power, and empire in a better direction.

  • Patrick

    Look, study the affect the pilgrims had on our culture. It was big. What did Winthrop call “the new world” which we’ve taken to be the USA? “It’s a shining city on a hill”, borrowing from Jesus’ designation for the Church.

    We’ve never gotten that out of our system.

    What bothers me isn’t that most of us buy this sacrilege, what bothers me is most of us who claim they don’t , do . The lefty wants to kill for this cause, the righty for that.

  • Ron C.

    With the proper understanding, Christian Nationalism is a very positive attribute. However, American Nationalism, along with devotion to any other worldly government, does not fall into this favorable category. Here are a few thoughts on this subject.

    The separation of Church and state is all too often hotly debated along with being repeatedly misconstrued. It may be possible to clarify this issue by merely redefining the two subjects that are to be separated. This statement of separation should be repositioned solely as a separation of kingdoms (nations). In other words, there is no such thing as Christian Nations. The plural form is nonexistent. However, there is one Christian Nation (Kingdom).

    The N.T. overflows with language that directly pertains to a separate Kingdom (Nation) of God. Just look up the passages that contain the word “Kingdom”. Add to that the abundant messianic declarations with each usage of the title “Christ”. Then layer in the various decrees; we are a holy (separate) nation, a city on a hill, citizens in the household of God, pilgrims (someone who travels to a foreign land), foreigners and strangers on earth, sojourners (temporary residents), and finally ambassadors. Every chapter in the N.T. seems to transmit the political theme of a new and separate “Kingdom”.

    Now consider the “icing on the cake”. We are most often referred to as the ekklesia, which is possibly the most mistranslated and misunderstood word in the N.T. At the very least this word had political overtones in the 1st century. However, there is a possibility that it strictly meant a summoned political gathering.

    The ekklesia make up the citizenry of this radical new Kingdom (nation) which encompasses the entire globe. All artificial boundary lines established by worldly kingdoms have been removed by this new form of government. We are scattered within the kingdoms of this world but our earthly citizenship has been completely transcended in Christ. There is no nationalistic identity that should take priority over our identity in Christ. Imagine a world where Jews and Arabs are called into the same family (kingdom). Picture how the 20th century, with its two world wars predominantly fought by “Christian” nations, would have played out if Christians understood this concept. (Much of this paragraph is a paraphrase of an audio message by Bruxy Cavey)

    In a very real sense, American Nationalism can be considered heresy, or even treasonous, because our loyalty should extend to only one nation/kingdom.

  • Outstanding post. Very good engagement with Douthat and with the very important need to be constantly vigilant about the potential for idolatry in its nation-state form. The apocalyptic sensibility is a particular problem in this debate over the HHS Mandate. Between “war on religion” and “war on women” is the inconvenient set of truths that the mandate involves a dangerous new definition of religious organization, but that many opposing it invoke a dangerous form of apocalyptic rhetoric (as in Eric Metaxas who continually compares the mandate to early Nazi laws with no form of substantiation). I have become anti-mandate and anti-Fortnight of Freedom “campaign-style” rhetoric.