Are Conservative Christians Worshiping America?

Are Conservative Christians Worshiping America? September 22, 2010

Jonathan Fitzgerald at Patrol declares that the Restoring Honor rally heralded the birth of a new national religion.  David Sessions at the same magazine writes that “evangelicals…don’t really get” that they should be “far more worried about their own America-worship than they are about Glenn Beck’s theological errors.”  Similar claims are easy to find at the Huffington Post or any number of other sites and blogs.

Yet I am seeing terms thrown around rather brazenly, terms like Christianism, Americolatry, theocracy and so forth.  Even “civil religion” seems to be employed by some of these writers as a synonym (which it is not) for idolatry.  Many of these writers believe that the Religious Right deeply wounded the Christian cause in America, so their concern is understandable.  They warn of a dangerous admixture of politics and religion.  Yet many (perhaps all) would defend other ways of intermixing politics and religion, such as the abolition and Civil Rights movements or contemporary social justice movements.

So in a spirit of charity and dialogue, I want to pose a set of questions:

  1. When does patriotism pass over into idolatry?  How are you defining these terms: Americolatry, Christianism, civil religion or America-worship?  What is the difference between loving, honoring, venerating, and worshiping America?  We need more finely drawn categories before we can measure whether these claims are true.
  2. What are the healthy (if there are any) and unhealthy ways of mixing politics and religion?
  3. Finally, what is your evidence that conservative evangelicals have fallen into any of these things?  Sessions, for one, accuses Beck of dealing in hysteria, caricature and shadowy innuendo.  Perhaps he is right about Beck; I have not watched him enough to know.  Lest these writers engage in the same thing, however, they need to be very clear about their accusations and they need to produce the evidence.  They owe it to the accused, and they owe it to their readers.

Let this stand, too, as an open invitation to those who would like to write something on the subject.  I will invite some writers to reflect on questions #1 and #2 above, so that we can start by making some conceptual and theological distinctions.  And those who feel that politically conservative Christians have fallen into America-worship are free to write on #3, and if it is reasonable and well-written then I will publish it on this blog or on the Evangelical Portal.

We need to get clear on these matters, and we need to be cautious.  It is all too easy – for the Right as well as the Left – for political animosity to masquerade as Christian concern or theological critique.  But enmity and scorn and political rhetoric-as-usual should have no place here.  This is too important.  Presumably some are guilty of America-worship, but is this a fair indictment of the broader movement?

Abandoning the worship of God for the worship of America is a serious and substantial charge.  Presumably the people making it have equally serious and substantial evidence.  Let’s see them define their terms and make their case.

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  • I don’t think God ever said that Israelites who loved His Law and devoted their lives to following it as well as promoting His ideals of love of neighbor were guilty of Israelotry. Israel stood for God’s chosen people, and Israel was called to be a light unto the world.

    If Christians are each supposed to be a light unto the world, is it wrong to also want ones country to be a light unto the world and to stand for what is right and good in this world–charity, freedom, personal responsibility, the right to reap what one has sown, etc.?

  • CT

    I don’t watch Beck often, either. But I have heard him call on Muslims and Jews as well as Christians to turn toward God. I think that this is what some people are referring to when they speak of a sort of generic “civil religion”. I visited several conservative Christian congregations during the last election cycle. In my experience, conservative Christians are more likely to emphasize the “Christian” part of turning back to God in America than the “civil religion” model that some people are worried about.

    Part of Beck’s exhortation for Americans to come together in turning to God could stem from the Mormon tradition of encouraging people of other faiths to take their religion seriously. As the old Mormon saying goes, “It’s better to be a good Catholic than a bad Mormon”. An example of this attitude in practice: despite some harsh things Brigham Young had said about the Catholic faith, Mormons helped build the first Catholic cathedral in Salt Lake and they made up most of the first congregation (the priest not wanting to face a mostly-empty room). Mormons also made up most of the first “Catholic” choir in Salt Lake (they had to learn some Latin).

    There is also a theme in Mormon theology which suggests that if a population turns away from God (particularly in America, a blessed land in which freedom of religion became part of the founding principles of the nation), some of God’s blessings will be withdrawn eventually. Fine points of theology are less important in this doctrine, as I understand it, than taking God seriously. It reminds me of the Old Testament, and the Jewish distinction between the Law of Moses (to which they held themselves) and the less-stringent Law of Noah (which they hoped the gentiles around them would follow).

    As for the issue of worshiping America, I believe there is some danger of this. For decades we have seen political activists on the Left take their life’s meaning from their activism. A similar intensity of activism on the Right may seem necessary to some, to start to counter the predominance of leftist thinking in our civic institutions – academia, professional organizations, etc. It could be easy to conflate this sort of activism with religious doctrine. Because religious conviction may be the only motivation strong enough to counter the quasi-religious activism on the Left. Most conservatives naturally tend to spend more energy on life outside politics than do the aggressive, committed activists on the Left.

    I think that keeping a true sense of gratitude to God for our blessings in this country is one way to avoid the mistake of worshiping America.

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  • Thanks, Tim for trying to push this discussion in a more fruitful direction. I think your three questions frame the debate quite nicely.

    This is a subject of enormous interest to me – planning on eventually working through it in some posts of my own. But in the meantime, I’ll be curious to see what sort-of replies this generates.

  • My answer to your first questions is here:

  • Timothy,
    Thank you for the thoughts. By the way, how do we, in response to your invitation, submit a response if we wish to write one?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Excellent question, Phil. You can write me at tdalrymple at patheos dot com. I look forward to hearing from you.

      • Thank you for the information; I have sent you an email with my response, and look forward to any comments or criticism you might have!

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  • I shared a few thoughts about Americolatry on my blog.

  • Tim:

    Great questions. Labels like idolatry and nationalism are thrown around far too flippantly by certain folks on the left. It’s as if the very category of patriotism and love of country has dropped out of both their vocabulary and conceptual tool kit. Love for one’s country and its best ideals is a virtue, not a vice. It does not entail or equal nationalism, which tends to foster hatred of other countries. And neither patriotism nor mere nationalism equals idolatry.

    No one who listened to Beck speak at the DC rally could possibly think he was guilty of America-worship. The theme from beginning to end was that our fidelity to God took precedent over, and ought to guide, our other allegiances, including our public policy views. Perhaps some didn’t like how ecumenical the event was. But then they should complain about that. These accusations of America worship strike me as the snarky complaints of someone who lacks certain basic categories of thought.

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  • As I stated over at JesusCreed in response to questions 1 & 3:

    I’ve recently come to think that a good test of idolatry is what we are willing to kill other Christians for. It seems to me that by this definition, many on the Religious Right (as well as across the political spectrum) would fall into “Americolatry.”

    Answering question 2 would be quit a bit longer, but a good place to start would be with John Howard Yoder’s book, A Christian Witness to the State.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thanks for these thoughts. So, do I understand you right, that anyone who is willing to go to war (and presumably kill) for his or her country is committing idolatry? Or the person who flips the switch on the electrical chair? It’s an interesting proposition, but it does seem to make nearly everyone guilty of idolatry. I am willing to kill to defend my country, or my wife and child, or to defend an innocent person, but I don’t particularly feel idolatrous toward my country, my wife and child, or toward innocent life. I certainly value them, but I think worshiping them is something else.

      I wondered who would be the first to bring up Yoder – so two points for you 😉

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  • Ryan

    Late rant from a young but old-fashioned right winger.

    Question 2: Sovereignty and Authority

    Who is the ultimate sovereign, Caesar, the law, or God? Why did Nathan confront King David after the murder of Uriah? How did John the Baptist get off telling Harod who he could and couldn’t lie with? (‘It’s the economy stupid hadn’t been invented yet’) Did they violate criminal law? Certainly. Was there something deeper violated? Yes. I submit that these stories and many more found in Scripture demonstrate that God’s moral law is binding on all; even earthly rulers and their governments. Can the government do officially legal things that are ultimately bad or evil in a metaphysical sense? I think so. Our civil rulers govern at the behest of almighty God and are given delegated authority; they are not an authority unto themselves. Nebuchadnezzar was still spitting chlorophyll out of his teeth when he learned that lesson.

    Question 1: Who Crosses the Line and When?

    When does nationalism cross over into idolatry? When men and women willingly give the state a throne reserved for the Lord alone. In other words, it is a giving over to the state a complete and unrestrained authority to reign and redefine reality- to ignore the rule of God’s moral law in the affairs of nations. Does the religious right do this? Attending a tea-party rally and having a God-bless America bumper sticker on the back of the truck hardly qualifies. I don’t really see where. I would wager that if anyone does this it’s the religious left. From turning a blind eye to the horrors of abortion, to helping redefine marriage, to promote the theft of property through progressive, usury taxation and promoting Marxist-like “Caesar is Lord” government programs that undermine the family and discourage citizens from honest labor and other responsible behaviors- all to empower themselves politically under the guise of a “social gospel.” Yep, I said it…it’s the left that has played the role of the harlot, not the right. You have to admire the pragmatic utility of liberal theology which allows the righteous indignation leftists demonstrate when they see a Glenn Beck talk about God on T.V. We need to be reminded that the only righteous use for invoking religion in public or by a government official is when it is done by Democratic politicians to promote a new government program or used to malign the remaining vestigial American Christian traditions and values. Blessed are the tolerant and progressive.

    Whose Law?

    Government involves the application and enforcement of law, civil and criminal, through the principal of delegated authority. God delegates this authority to man and expects him to administer government with justice, fairness, and in accordance with the character of God. Law must have a guiding principal, some ethical basis by which it differentiates the “thou shalt’s” from the “thou shalt nots”. There are two primary sources for this information: mankind or God. Either God’s law informs and guides the law of man or it doesn’t. This shouldn’t be about polar political parties and diametrically opposed political platforms but about truth. Does this approach mean we should radically redefine long established law and ditch our much-cherished traditional notions of rights and protections, perhaps codifying the entire OT into our constitution? Do we condone the stoning of disobedient children, outlaw shrimp and institute temple sacrifices? Of course not. However, we can have that conversation RIGHT AFTER we quit calling evil good, when we can honestly call homosexuality for the aberrant perversion that it is, and when we halt the flow of blood from the abortion mills, then we can deal with tassels and kinsmen redeemers. You separate God from government and chaos follows; witness the 20th century.

  • Great question but I’m not sure limiting it to conservative evangelicals goes to the heart of the issue. In a word, yes American Christians for the most part are guilty of this. I see this as a theme in much of the work of Hauerwas. My longer response will be posted on my blog tomorrow.

  • I believe one of your ads caused my browser to resize, you might want to put that on your blacklist.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Hmm….Thanks, Emily.