In a world darkened by superstition a bright light began to shine across the seas: men motivated by faith and freedom sought to build a republic based on human rights and Christian faith. This republic would be sanctified by the blood of many brave patriots who freely gave up their lives for the cause of faith and freedom. To this end the United States of America is an exceptional Christian nation, blessed and favored by God. God helps those who help themselves: Americans who accomplish the American Dream manifest the favor of God and maintain their confidence in that favor for salvation. Those who do not obtain those benefits clearly have not sufficiently trusted in (white) Jesus and the American way; they are prone to turn to godless socialism and seek to destroy America because they did not work hard enough to obtain its blessings.
The above is the American Gospel. It sounds just enough like the Gospel of Jesus to be taken seriously; and yet it is another gospel, compromises the witness of the true Kingdom of God, and cannot save.
The Puritans crossed the Atlantic in the seventeenth century in order to set up a theocratic community so as to embody the purity of what they imagined the Christian faith to be: the “city set on a hill” of which John Winthrop spoke. Enlightenment thinking would pervade secular and religious thinking in late eighteenth century America; many a religious authority proved willing to use Christian themes and language in the cause of the rebellion and to find ways to justify their position in the Scriptures. By the middle of the nineteenth century various forms of Christianity pervaded the United States of America, and its adherents celebrated and exalted in their nation and its ideology. Not a few believed in American postmillennialism: through the American project God was establishing the Kingdom of Jesus on earth. To this end many proved willing to justify and commend whatever America did as the will of God: the subjugation of the land and the dispossession of Native Americans; white supremacy and the oppression of people of color; participation within the government as service; sanctification of America’s military endeavors as service and the sacrifice of some to secure the freedom of many.
And yet much of what is put forth as the “American Gospel” is a product of the twentieth century. The federal government enforced draconian measures to stifle dissent during World War I, casting aspersions on the loyalty and integrity of anyone who would profess Christ and not take up arms to defend the United States (e.g. Sergeant York). During the Great Depression representatives of American business interests and some in conservative Christendom worked together to promote the “gospel” of America’s Judeo-Christian heritage, free speech, and free enterprise; during the early days of the Cold War this coalition would prove ascendant, promoting attendance at the church of your choice as part of the obligation of being a good American resisting the godless communist cause, and of course exalting the virtues of capitalist free enterprise. As American culture has grown more secular, many within conservative Christendom sought to emphasize the “Judeo-Christian” heritage of America and have sought to baptize America’s founding and government as a profoundly Christian polity.
Let none be deceived: the American Gospel is not a harmless celebration of both faith and country. In New Testament times and immediately after the powers and principalities strongly persecuted the people of God through the coercive power of the nation-states. Yet for the past 1700 years the powers and principalities have proven just as willing to try to co-opt the faith: as opposed to resisting the faith, they have tried to embrace it, but only inasmuch as it will advance the purposes of the powers and principalities over the nation-state. If a Christianish form of civic religion will create patriotic, nationalistic, obedient, and compliant citizens to advance the purposes of the nation-state, well and good; but if any practice the true faith in Christ, and seek to advance the purposes of the Kingdom of Jesus even when those purposes deviate from the goal of the nation-state, such are reckoned as unpatriotic, with suspect loyalty, and a “fifth column” who can be excoriated as an enemy or supporting the enemy.
This challenge is manifest whenever American Christianish civic religion is questioned. For the purposes of the state, religious participation is good without regard to many religious specifics; notice how effectively “attend the church of your choice” has been promoted and advanced in our society, and how challenging it can be to reorient people toward the unity of the faith in Christ and the importance of proclaiming the Gospel in its purity (1 Corinthians 1:10ff, Galatians 1:6-9). What happens if a Christian would dare to question the purity and holiness of the heritage of the United States or challenge the presumption that its military members make sacrifices for their freedom? They are denounced as disloyal, unthankful, and might well be sympathizers with ideas deemed “un-American.” How well have conscientious objectors been treated in the military and society? How many arrests and beatings awaited, and continue to await, those who raise up their voices against the injustices and oppression prevalent in American society?
Americans can most assuredly become Christians and serve Jesus in His Kingdom; but the United States of America cannot be a “Christian nation” as commonly construed. The interests of the United States as a nation-state diverge frequently from the interests of the Kingdom of Jesus. The Kingdom of Jesus transcends worldly divisions and reckons everyone as equally valuable in the sight of God and equally worthy of hearing the word of life in Christ (Acts 10:34-35, Romans 2:11, Galatians 3:28); thus God loves Americans, but no more or less than He loves everyone else. The Scriptures never teach that “God helps those who help themselves”: American emphasis on self-reliance is contrary to the goal of relational unity in God and among one another as Christians (John 17:20-23, Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28). Accomplishing the American Dream can be a good thing but it is not evidence of salvation: many faithful servants of Jesus never enjoyed material wealth or stability, and many who enjoy material comfort and stability have done so in ways which dishonor God in Christ (cf. 1 Timothy 6:3-10, 17-19). Every attempt to realize the ideals of equality in America have been resisted by many who profess Jesus as the Christ; at the same time, the pursuit of those ideals has led to intense suffering by those who have worked to call out against the injustice, and many such people were inspired by their commitment to the Kingdom of Jesus to do so.
There are ways in which God has very likely used the United States to accomplish His purposes in the world. Yet the United States is not a pure angelic state in the world. Christians must be wary of the American Gospel and the baptism of patriotic nationalism to advance the purposes of the nation-state to the detriment of the Kingdom of Jesus. No soldier could die for the freedom which God has secured for us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus His Son; Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, not the American way. It is not enough to be a good American to be saved; we must submit to the Lordship of Jesus in all things and seek to advance His Kingdom, His righteousness and justice, and all to His honor and glory, not that of the United States. One day the United States will fall like any other nation-state; the Kingdom of Jesus will endure forever. May we prioritize what God has done in Christ and seek His Kingdom and righteousness to obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry