In a review of John Wilsey’s new book, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion, Richard Gamble raises questions that should make all Christians in the United States wonder if they get a pass, simply by being believers, from the republic’s civil laws and institutions.
In his search for a national mission in line with America’s best traditions and with Christian theology, [Wilsey] affirms George W. Bush’s account of such a mission in his justification for America’s humanitarian efforts in Africa. For Wilsey, this is the kind of mission that patriotic Christians, faithful to their nation’s and their faith’s best traditions, can endorse.
“America is on a mission of mercy,” Bush said in 2008. This mission advanced U.S. “security interests” by preventing the spread of dangerous radical ideologies that prey on suffering, and it served the nation’s “moral interests” by recognizing all people as “children of God” and the moral obligation of the strong to help the weak.
These may be noble ethical sentiments akin to neighbor helping neighbor, but it is hard to see what they have to do with the U.S. Constitution and the president’s oath of office.
In other words, can Christians in the United States commandeer the nation for Christian purposes when our political institutions already define national purpose? Appealing to God doesn’t justify Muslims wanting to establish Sharia law. So can Christians so readily elide the norms of Christianity and the United States’ wider purposes.Gamble goes on to notice what such elision does to Christianity itself:
Wilsey is certainly right to warn that a “nationalized” Christianity unable to tell the difference between the nation’s calling and the Church’s mission is fatal to the gospel. But an “ethicized” Christianity, via the social gospel, is also fatal, as we figured out more than a hundred years ago. Evangelicals have proven themselves to be gullible for both nationalism and social gospelism. (The history of that fatal attraction is yet to be written.) Evangelicals eager to rethink nationalism and imperialism need to go further and rethink the social gospel of “applied Christianity” as well.
As much as Christians want their faith to “matter,” sometimes the better course is for Christianity not to matter. That way American can be a nation, and Christianity can form a church. That way the state can reward good and punish evil, and the church can forgive sin.
Why is this so hard?