The False Religion of Americanism

The False Religion of Americanism October 21, 2022

The False Religion of Americanism

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What is the religion of Americanism? First, what it is not. Americanism as spoken of here, as a false religion, is not mere American patriotism. Nor is it the traditional, whether true or false, belief that America has a special role in God’s providential plan to make the world a better place—a “light unto the world.” Americans have generally believed all of that, especially white Americans.

Religion scholars are increasingly recognizing “Americanism,” as I mean it here, as another of the world’s great (meaning big, influential) religions. (Here “great” carries no value judgment.) Religion scholars are observing its evolution without pinning down exactly how or when it began. Clearly, however, it grew out of typical, traditional American nationalism and patriotism. But somewhere, sometime, somehow, it took a “leap” beyond that into something new (at least in terms of public awareness, collective belief, intensity of devotion, etc.).

Here I will tell two anecdotes from my own life.

First, when I was growing up in the 1950s most American Christians celebrated Independence Day (July 4) in church by singing one or two “patriotic hymns.” Typical were “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful.” We did not sing the national anthem in church. Perhaps some churches did, but my point is that there was really no hint of worshiping America. America was considered a great country, blessed by God, especially because of our religious freedoms.

Second, during the 1980s I attended a mega-church in the Upper Midwest on the Sunday closest to July 4. I was just a visitor, but I was shocked by the whole Sunday morning service, 90 minutes long, being devoted to militaristic celebrations with color guards in uniforms of every branch of the U.S. military marching down the aisles and standing on the platform while the church’s orchestra, organ and piano played the “hymns” of each branch of the military. All the hymns were patriotic ones. We sang the national anthem and stood and pledged allegiance to the flag. The pastor had members and visitors who served in various branches of the military stand. They were applauded. A U.S. Senator delivered a mini-homily. The sermon was about how America is God’s favorite country, called by God to spread the gospel and (American) Christianity to the whole world. I felt like we were worshiping America as much as God.

Religion scholars generally agree with theologian/philosopher of religion Paul Tillich that the essence of religion is “ultimate concern.” To what are you ultimately devoted? That is your “god.” Add to that the question “To what do you think other people should be ultimately devoted to the point that if they are not, you reject them as unworthy?” That adds to your religion.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas wrote a book entitled “War and the American Exception” in which he laid out his case that Americanism is a religion. It has taken on the aspects of a religion. It is heresy to criticize an American war (or military intervention). Our saints are our soldiers and other military personnel, especially those who put their lives on the line for America. Now, of course Hauerwas knows not all Americans have adopted “Americanism” as (one of) their religion(s). His point is that, in recent decades, more and more Americans have done just that. And many have mixed Americanism with Christianity in an almost idolatrous way.

Not too long ago I went to the web site of a very well-known American-based Christian organization devoted to helping people be delivered from drug addiction. It’s an organization founded by a Pentecostal evangelist in the 1960s, but it has become trans-denominational and has meeting centers and camps and retreats and recovery centers all over the U.S. On the front page of its home page, when I saw it, the cross and the American flag were superimposed on each other. I remember when the organization began. I even gave a “report” on it and its success in a high school class when I was a teenager. I do not remember that then it had any emphasis on American nationalism or patriotism. In my experience of studying American culture and especially religion, I think that “overlay” of Christianity and devotion to America has increased.

I could go on with illustrations and examples, but anyone who pays close attention to the news knows that about which I speak (write) here. One mega-church in Texas had its huge choir sing a hymn to America. I visited a Baptist church in Texas where a huge American flag hung from the ceiling over the pulpit and communion table and another one was draped over the communion table.

A colleague of mine who happened to be a Canadian citizen was helping with his church’s Vacation Bible School. Because he would not participate in the pledge of allegiance to the American flag at the beginning of each morning’s VBS session he was asked to leave and not participate in VBS at all.

Americanism such as I have described here is a false religion, even an idolatrous one. I have no idea how many people have fallen into it and I am not condemning them to hell. That is none of my business. However, I am a Christian theologian and part of my “job,” as it were, is to identify “syncretism”—wrong blending of Christianity with other religions. I am certain that the syncretism of Christianity blended with Americanism and Americanism blended with Christianity is common and growing in America.

A few years ago I attended a mid-sized Evangelical Covenant Church on the Sunday closest to July 4. I didn’t know what to expect, but the pastor delivered one of the best sermons about the subject of “one Lord” I have ever heard. He did not come out “swinging,” but his message was clear—America is a great nation that could be greater by Christians devoting themselves to Jesus Christ alone as Lord to the exclusion of America or anything or anyone else as Lord. My hat is off to him. Would that more pastors preached the same message on the Sunday right before Independence Day.

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