This weekend in churches all across the United States, Christians gathered to commemorate the crucified Christ right alongside the Pax Americana. 61% of Protestant pastors believe it is “important to incorporate patriotic elements” in the worship service. The most egregious instance occurring at First Baptist in Dallas where the choir premiered a song titled “Make America Great Again“. Just imagine the early church belting out “Make Rome Great Again”! The civil union of church and state that began when Constantine bedded the bride of Christ birthed American civic religion: a toxic amalgamation of God and country linking the Kingdom of God with the American experiment. “It’s an understandable confusion given our country’s history, but that doesn’t make it any less perverted.” The church that was once a thorn in the imperial flesh now rests as a lap dog on the empire’s bosom, swaddled in the American flag. What happened to the church “that once gave the empire fits, but now fits right in with the empire“?
Thankfully, in Donald Trump’s brave new Alt-Right world, woke white folk are starting to resist, but nationalistic worship expressions aren’t idolatrous just because Trump is the POTUS, they’ve always been. For 1,600 years the Western church has been at the bidding of the state, reducing her once prophetic function to an impotent acolyte of empire. This is especially true in America where Christianity acts as a preserving agent of empire, instead of corrupting yeast in the imperial leaven. As Craig Watts reminds us:
“No clear distinction between being American and being Christian is even a possibility because the two have become one in the hearts of many. The God being worshiped is the American God and the nation they love is in some fashion God’s nation. Consequently, many Christians find it incomprehensible that incorporating the rituals of America into the worship of the church could be anything other than a positive, edifying practice.”
A church that co-ops Christianity with nationalism not only worships a false god, but also practices a faulty ethic by instituting the social, economic, and political platform the state sanctions. American Christians thus assume that capitalism, democracy, individualism, wealth, freedom, and redemptive violence are intrinsically Christian virtues. But the Gospel of Christ refuses this marriage of empire and Kingdom, realizing the Christian ‘we’ and the American ‘we’ are not synonymous. When acts celebrating The United States enter the worship space, our Christian identity and the nature of the church are compromised. Do we worship God or Caesar?
The answer to this question is essential because what and who we worship shapes our soul. The practices and rituals that become the liturgy of our lives direct our devotion in certain directions. Are we to be a people of peace and unity or war and division? American Christians cannot in good conscious worship the rightful king who reigns from a tree alongside the imperial, militaristic cult of nationalism. We cannot serve the Prince of Peace while idolizing Mars.
If the message of Jesus is to be implemented today as a political praxis, most American evangelicals would be appalled at Jesus’ platform that distributes wealth, accepts refugees, loves enemies, cares for the climate, and elevates the poor. These are anything but conservative family values! And while theology and political action are conjoined in daily life, in worship, there must be an absolute separation since “the church that sees the cross of Jesus as the central event in history can never identify any political order with the reign of God.”
Why? Because worship is overtly political. It may well be the most public act of resistance you make each week, declaring that Jesus Christ is Lord and Donald Trump is not. Worship is also subversive, it reminds us that the church was born as a collective act of defiance and it prospered best not from the seats of power, but as an underground community of resistance. Scripture itself is a political manifesto against the dominations systems of empire. “Resistance is in our DNA“, we are “holy troublemakers who do not accept the world as it is, but we insist on the world becoming the way God wants it to be“. The adoration of the crucified King is a revolutionary stance against the powers that be who ask humanity to draw boundary lines around race, creed, language, and nationality. Gathering each week to remember that in Christ God reconciled all humanity back to Himself leaves no room for nationalism. His sovereignty nullifies such differences, since “Now you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens.” In Christ, there is no ‘other’, there is only brother. We now stand side by side with the aggregate of believers world-wide who have been called out of every nation as a chosen people and a holy nation. And in so doing we resist the cultural temptation to venerate our nation alongside our God.
The church functions in the midst of the nations as an alternative community whose social, economic, political and ethical allegiance is to Christ alone. She is “a new people who have been gathered from the nations to remind the world that we are in fact one people.” Coming together each week is an eschatological act; it is a foretaste of what the world will be like when the Kingdom of God is finally fulfilled. May the American church, in our public acts of worship, reject the false doctrine that the church exists as a subordinate of the state, “as though the Church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.”