MUNICH – When I left the United States earlier this month to lead a travel course in Europe, my president was Barack Obama. When I come back on Monday, I’ll be returning to a country governed by Donald Trump. I’m grateful that our nation again witnessed a peaceful transfer of power, but Trump’s inaugural address yesterday reinforced my belief that we have never elected a more dangerous chief executive — and that evangelical Christians ought to be the first to oppose him, rather than remain the most likely to support him.
In his inaugural address, Trump claimed that the solution to “American carnage” is to place “America First.” That phrase by itself is troubling to any historian of World War II, evoking as it does the misguided isolationist movement that tried to keep the world’s most powerful country from opposing the world’s most wicked leader. But I can at least understand that impulse; after all, the phrase originated with Americans who sought to keep their nation out of the futile world war that we’ve been studying this month.
But the new president went far beyond a rethinking of foreign affairs or trade policy:
At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.
When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. The Bible tells us, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.”
At some level, these words do resonate with me. Much of his claim of “carnage” was overwrought or simply dishonest, but there is suffering and injustice in this land. So I do want to believe that “We are one nation — and their pain is our pain. Their dreams are our dreams; and their success will be our success.”
But precisely because of the divisive, corrosive nature of Trump’s campaign and what his election revealed about the even deeper fissures in American society, I have serious doubts that Americans remain “one nation,” bound together by shared pain, dreams, or success.
And if that nation can only be preserved by “total allegiance” to it, then better we follow the psalmist’s call to unity in other kinds of communities.
I say that first as a historian who has spent three weeks teaching students about World War I and its aftermath. We started in London’s Trafalgar Square, where Britons flocked in August 1914 to pledge their love of country. Even so committed a pacifist as Bertrand Russell confessed himself “tortured by patriotism” as the tide swept away a generation of young men whose names we read on cemeteries and memorials. (Notably, these sites’ designers largely kept them free of the language and imagery of national glory.)
Today, as the course nears its conclusion, we came to the memorial site for the concentration camp at Dachau. In fact, I was sitting in that museum as I wrote most of this post, listening to the testimony of Germans who were imprisoned and tortured by their own countrymen: ample evidence that love of country not only leaves room for prejudice, but often deepens it — as some seek to purify and protect the nation by eliminating persons and groups from it.
I don’t mean to draw exact parallels; 2017 is not 1933 (or 1914). But words like yesterday’s at least rhyme with those spoken by an earlier wave of self-styled populists who used the language of unity and community to ennoble the exclusion and violence that soon followed.
Seen from the perspective of a 20th century historian, it’s impossible to hear “total allegiance” without thinking of “total war.” Far more admirable, to my mind, is the limited allegiance of a dissenter like Russell, who ended up losing his job and his freedom for criticizing the British war effort:
Love of England is very nearly the strongest emotion I possess… but when the War came I felt as if I heard the voice of God. I knew that it was my business to protest, however futile protest might be.
And if a confirmed skeptic like Russell could discern a divine call to dissent, how much more attentively should those of us who believe in God listen for that voice as it inevitably clashes with the rhetoric of unconditional patriotism?
(“Put them in fear, O Lord,” reads the psalm inscribed on the Jewish memorial at Dachau, “let the nations know that they are only human.”)
I don’t mean that patriotism is inimical with Christianity. Insofar as love of an imagined community like a nation can inspire the love of our complex, flesh-and-blood neighbors, it is an admirable affection.
(Note that unlike Ronald Reagan, who emphasized patriotic unity in his 1981 inaugural, Trump did not use the word “love”; tellingly, he opted for another word starting with the same letter: “…through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.” As far as I can tell, loyalty does not appear in the New Testament. In the Hebrew Scriptures, it typically refers to political relationships that are absent in a democratic republic — as in a personal fealty to a ruler, which citizens of this nation owe no president.)
But the love of neighbor is inseparable from our love of God, and the latter affection makes us citizens of a heavenly kingdom — one whose laws and values never coincide perfectly with those of the earthly kingdoms in which we sojourn. Inevitably, any pledge of total allegiance to a nation will bring us into conflict with our eternal allegiance to God.
Earlier in our trip, we sat in St Mary the Virgin’s Church in Oxford, looking up at the pulpit where, in the fall of 1939, C.S. Lewis gave the talks later published as The Weight of Glory. The WWI veteran exhorted young students to fight for their nation against the evil embodied by Hitler. But he also warned that there were limits to national allegiance:
A man may have to die for our country: but no man must, in any exclusive sense, live for his country. He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself.