The time has come for Americans to acknowledge that we have created a new god and its name is America.
We have turned monuments to history into pagan altars of nostalgia. We join together in a chorus of exultation of state and national pride, challenging all who dare resist the exalting of our history. We have turned the adoration of our armed forces into an impossible burden for its members as we look at them as patriotic gods, commodifying their personal scars, loss and triumphs.
Americans have always been a proud people, but this pride has slipped into something else entirely: something sinful and dangerous. This is an evil we have let fester for too long within our nation’s veins and now here we are trapped in its destructive grip. Pastor and author Tim Keller reminds us that, “Most of the time systemic evil is simpler and more subtle.”
This self-worship was easily ignored, but it is no longer subtle. Not when 8 in 10 White Evangelicals who regularly attend church still support the rhetoric of the current administration. These supporters are goaded by leaders that make them feel comfortable with their embrace of exclusionary patriotism. One such leader, pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas, referred to this country’s first African-American president as, “paving the way for the Anti-Christ.” This marriage of race, patriotism and the Christian faith came well before Trump’s national political triumph, but it is Trump’s presidency in which it has fully flourished. While some White Evangelical leaders have worked to stem the tide, others still are perpetuating it through feigned ignorance, or worse, indifference.
The story of Moses on Mount Sinai is sure to be at least somewhat familiar to everyone: God ends their lengthy conversation by letting Moses know his people have turned to sin: they created a statue of a calf and “…have worshiped it, have given gifts to it…” and made it their god, He tells Moses.
Somehow, in 2017, the destruction wrought by events like Charlottesville and Las Vegas are quickly pushed aside for an endless loop of debates about amendments, rights and what it means to be American. It is clear that the icons we use to define our national identity are our golden calf and our nationalism is the god they represent.
We join together in cathedrals of worship to celebrate our god: every year, sports arenas are filled with bigger flags, team uniforms are re-imagined with camo and flags, there are flyovers by our military and time-out breaks featuring the reunion of a returning soldier and his or her family, an otherwise intimate moment made public and magnified for our voyeuristic sentimental lust.
As we have seen with Evangelical support of the current administration, some of these events now take place in once sacred places: churches and houses of worship previously reserved for the worship of God. Now, crosses stand with American flags draped across them, choirs sing their most patriotic songs and the crowd raises its hands in awe of the visiting president. This is what happens when the separation of church and state fades and the church allows itself to be replaced by the state.
Our national and regional identities are so wrapped up in nostalgia for our past that there is a not insignificant number of us willing to wage war with our neighbors in order to preserve it. The Constitution and Bill of Rights are our Ten Commandments, the Declaration of Independence, our Gospel. We have turned our patriotism into a firehouse used to quiet our protesting Black brothers and sisters. We are no longer on the brink of nationalism; we are there. Far too many of us long for a past that never was. Far too many of us hold on to an idea of America that never will be.
If there are sides in this, neither of them are immune. Each has their own easily identified demigods, rendered infallible by nostalgia: Kennedy, Clinton, Obama, Reagan, Bush, any of the Founding Fathers. Each of us has created our own personal framework with which we view our country’s history and, as time wears on, that framework slowly shifts the darkness out of view in favor of what we deem as light. All of us human, each of us fallible. We must work to overcome our humanity.
We have been told to love our neighbor so many times that it is a phrase that has lost nearly all of its meaning. We must wrestle it back from apathy’s grip. Grace, mercy, compassion and submission to humility are the only way. We have fooled ourselves into thinking we can choose our neighbors, but that is self-deception. When we see our brothers and sisters crying out in pain, our response should not be to tell them to stand and be quiet, but to come alongside them, sit and listen. They will know us by the love we have for one another.
Before we go any further with our nationalism, we should heed the warning found in the rest of the story with Moses: “Because the people had made a god of gold for themselves, trouble followed them for many years.”
Let us restore meaning to Christ’s great command: Love thy neighbor.
Smith Getterman lives in Waco, Texas. Smith holds a B.A. in History and M.A. in Communication Studies from Baylor University. He is in his final year of study for a Master of Arts in Theological Studies at Dallas Baptist University. You can find him on Twitter @getterman.
Photo by dno1967b