This page was originally a 5-part series written on the theme that for most American Evangelicals, the government has become an idol. I’ve collected all 5 posts in the series on the same page for easy accessibility (with slight editing).
“The future of the world is at stake because if America falls, there’s no longer a strong champion of freedom and a champion of the oppressed of the world.” So said Pat Robertson as the Republican primaries for the 2012 election started heating up. And here’s the real zinger—Pat claims that God told him these things. The first time I heard this quote, in the context of a larger speech Robertson gave on his TV show “The 700 Club”, I knew I had to say something to somebody about it. So I did. On Facebook. And I received an overwhelmingly positive response. I still had a feeling that more should be said, though. As bad as Robertson’s quote is, it really is just a symptom of a larger problem. It is that larger problem that we will explore in more depth.
What, then, is the problem with Robertson’s quote? First, we have to note that Robertson is a Christian leader, not just a political commentator. What is wrong from a Christian perspective with finding hope for the oppressed and freedom in one country? Well, on the face of it, it would seem like a good thing if a country provided freedom and hope for the oppressed of the world. Without opening the can of worms of whether America actually does this, it might be acceptable to say something like “America is a champion of freedom and a champion of the oppressed of the world.” But that’s not what Robertson said. “The future of the world is at stake because if America falls…” Robertson said, in effect, that without America, the world is hopeless. Without America, the world is hopeless because nobody will champion freedom or the oppressed of the world.
There’s only one problem—that’s the role of the Church. The People of God, first Israel in the Old Testament, then all believers from the New Testament forward, have always been called to take care of the foreigner, the orphan and the widow; in other words, the oppressed. The 2nd Greatest Command God gave his people was to love each other (the first being to love God). The Church works to set people free through the Son, for if the Son has set you free, you will be free indeed (John 8:36). It has always been the Church’s work to be “a strong champion of freedom and a champion of the oppressed of the world.” Said more precisely, God has always worked through his people to be “a strong champion of freedom and a champion of the oppressed of the world.” And so we come to the problem. Robertson takes something that is the role of God and claims that without America, it can’t happen. In fact, Robertson seems to claim that the hope of the world, “the future of the world”, hangs not on the work of God, but on the work of America.
Robertson takes Christ (and by extension, His body, the Church) out of the equation and replaces Him with America. This is idolatry, plain and simple. When we take anything and put it in the place of God, we are committing idolatry. This is exactly what Robertson is doing with America. He is taking something that is the role of God, and claiming that only America can do it; that without America, the world is hopeless. To see America as a be-all, end-all with regards to hope for the world is to make America an idol. In no way is Pat Robertson the only person to do this, though.
If Pat Robertson didn’t say it clearly enough, Rick Santorum spells it right out on his website. “I truly do believe that we are the ‘last best hope of the earth.’” Here we find the exact same problem with this phrase as we found with the Pat Robertson quote. While Santorum claims that America is the earth’s last and/or best hope, neither is true. Jesus Christ is the earth’s best hope, and the way Christ works in the world is through his Body, the Church. To agree that “we are the last best hope of the earth” is to put ourselves in the place of God. We might as well look God in the face and tell him that he can’t do it without us. That is the very definition of idolatrous, and it doesn’t get any more arrogant than that.
A third example comes to mind, this one more extreme than the others. In a speech on the 1st anniversary of the September 11th attacks, President Bush said this: “This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind…That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it.” We’ve already briefly covered the problem with seeing America as the hope of all humanity. President Bush goes further than that, though. He goes on quote John 1 in reference to America. The context of John 1 has the author describing Jesus as the light of the world, and then John the Baptist coming to teach about that light. The irony of President Bush using this passage in reference to America is that the author tells us that John “himself was not the light; he only came as a witness to the light.” Who is the light? America, says President Bush. America is the light of the world, and the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
So we end up in the same place as we did with our other examples. America is taking the place of Jesus, which once again is the very definition of idolatry. America is not the light of the world any more than Iraq, Canada, England or Switzerland are the light of the world. The light of the world is a person, and that person is Jesus Christ. To say anything else is to take Jesus out of the equation and put some thing else in His place; that is, idolatry.
By means of transition, we will look at a last example—the use of the phrase “City on a Hill”. Ronald Reagan used this Biblical phrase with reference to America. He was not the first to use it in such a way, though. John F. Kennedy Jr. also used the phrase in such a way. In the next section, as we look at the early history of America, we will see that this phrase was used much earlier than the 1960s to refer to America. What we need to note at this point is its use in the Bible. In Matthew 5:14 Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” Who is the “you” Jesus is talking to? He’s talking to the crowds that have come to hear him preach. More specifically, he is talking to his followers. In modern language, that translates to the Church. Who is the city on a hill? The Church. And yet we have powerful politicians, indeed Presidents, claiming that the city on a hill is not the Church, but America. Or on a more dangerous note, perhaps they believe the Church is America; that somehow, America is the Chosen People of God. Now, maybe that sounds extreme, like I’m throwing around crazy accusations. But as we turn to the history of our problem in the next section, I think we will find that there is a very real possibility that America has been understood as the Chosen People of God, and that, in the end, this amounts to idolatry.
The History of the Problem
We concluded the last section with some pretty serious ideas; namely, that many members of the colonies and early settlers of North America saw themselves as a new Chosen People of God, a sort of New Israel inhabiting and settling the new Promised Land of North America. (For the purposes of time, we will only look at a few examples, though whole books have been written on the subject.) We can see these ideas expressed as early as the 1600s, in the writings and sermons of the Puritans. John Winthrop, aboard a ship headed for America, said “…we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” He saw he and his people as “a peculiar people, marked and chosen by the finger of God.” As we quickly mentioned earlier, the phrase “city on a hill” comes from Matthew 5:14, where Jesus is calling his followers, the Church, to be a city on a hill, to shine the light to the world. Of course, Jesus was specifically not speaking about one nation or another. He was speaking to all who would believe in him and go on to become his body, the Church. According to Jesus, it is not a nation who is the City on a Hill, but the Church, across all nations.
Samuel Langdon was a preacher who would eventually become the president of Harvard. In 1788, Langdon preached “We cannot but acknowledge that God hath graciously patronized our cause and taken us under his special care, as he did his ancient covenant people.” Here again we have a Christian religious leader, who also had great political influence, such that he became the president of Harvard, identifying American colonists as God’s new Covenant People. God had a special relationship with American colonists, Langdon thought, such that God was leading the colonists to take land that was already inhabited. I would again argue, though, that Langdon needs help with his Biblical interpretation. The Covenant People, after Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is no longer identified with one nation. The Covenant People now is anyone who would believe—American, English, Iraqi, Irani, Native American, Spanish, German, etc. To say that God leads the American colonists (or present-day Americans) as his Covenant People is to ignore the fact that there are Covenant People in every country.
Next, we find ourselves in the 1830s and 1840s, and we see more evidence of this line of thought. John O’Sullivan was a journalist that lived from 1813-1895. In 1839, O’Sullivan wrote an article called “The Great Nation of Futurity”. In it he wrote “This is our high destiny…we must accomplish it. All this will be our future history, to establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man…For this blessed mission…has America been chosen.” So, America’s chosen mission is to establish the salvation of man on earth? As a Christian, this makes me cringe. I’m pretty sure salvation was established 2000 years ago by a man named Jesus Christ. Once again we venture into the realm of idolatry when we take something that is God’s job and put ourselves in His place.
Later, O’Sullivan went on to write about American expansion, coining the term “manifest destiny”. In the July/August 1845 issue of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, O’Sullivan wrote that American colonists had a “manifest destiny to over spread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us…” Of course, there’s a major problem with O’Sullivan’s idea—that land was already inhabited. What do we do when we think God has given us land which is already occupied? We take it from them. And that’s exactly what American colonists did.
Native Americans died because of exposure to diseases that Europeans brought with them. The Indian Removal Act slowly forced Native Americans to move west. The route along which the Native Americans traveled in order to be relocated is now known as the Trail of Tears because thousands of them died from exposure, disease and starvation in the process of having their lands stolen and being forced to relocate. All as a result of seeing America as a “chosen people” who had a God-given right to the land. Never mind that there were already people living in the land. Never mind that those people would be killed in order for the colonists to take the land.
This is where idolatry leads. When we take God out of the equation and replace Him with something else, what’s done in the name of our new god becomes evil. In the next post we will see what the Bible has to say about all this and where the roots of the problem lie.
Understanding the Problem Biblically
The place to start when trying to understand the Problem Biblically is with the question of idolatry. Idolatry is most specifically and plainly laid out for us in the Ten Commandments. Exodus 20:2-5a says, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God…” So in its most basic form, idolatry is worshiping another god or something in the form of something created. What is the basis for God’s ability to make these commands? He has rescued the people out of Egyptian slavery. God has moved on the part of the people, therefore they are to worship only him. We see this understanding of idolatry reflected a few chapters later in Exodus 32, with the story of the golden calf. In the story, Moses is on the mountain with God so long that the people start to wonder what happened. They go to Aaron and have him make them an idol in the shape of a golden calf, even going so far as to say to each other, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” (Exodus 32:4) The people had decided to take God out of the equation and replace him with something else—in this case, a statue of a golden calf.
We see another aspect of idolatry when we look at the dictionary definition of the word. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has two definitions for idolatry. The first is what we’ve been talking about; “the worship of a physical object as a god”. The second definition, though, gives us a different side to the subject: “immoderate attachment or devotion to something”. The World English dictionary says “great devotion or reverence” and dictionary.com says “excessive or blind adoration, reverence, devotion, etc.”
We see these ideas about idolatry come together with politics in the story of Israel’s first king, found in 1st Samuel 8. The story goes that the elders of the people come to Samuel and ask him to appoint a king. This upsets Samuel, so he prays. God tells Samuel that the people are not rejecting Samuel, but God as their king. God tells Samuel all the evil things that a king would do—take the young men into wars, and take the best of the people, lands and produce for the royal court. Samuel warns the people of all of these things, but they still demand a king. So God gives them one.
Now, this is not idolatry in the sense that the people outright worshiped the king. But remember the story of the golden calf. The people took God out of His role, then gave that role to the golden calf, proclaiming that the calf was now their god. The same thing is happening here. The people are taking God out of the role of king and giving it to someone else. In the words of the dictionary definition, the people are showing a “blind adoration and devotion” to a human king they don’t even know yet, even though God has told them of all the evil things a king will do. (Incidentally, the story comes full circle in the Gospels with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, where God takes back the role of King).
How does all of this apply to what we’ve talked about before? Well, when we use the sort of religious language toward our government and country like we’ve seen in our examples, we are doing the same thing Israel did when they committed idolatry. When we locate the hope and fate of the world in America, or in any country, for that matter, we are committing idolatry. When we do this we are taking something that is God’s role, taking Him out of it, and replacing him with our own golden calf.
When we claim that America is the Light shining in the darkness, and that the darkness has not overcome it, we are taking a role that is very specifically Jesus’ and applying it to ourselves. When we do this we are showing blind devotion and reverence to our country—the sort of devotion that only belongs to God. This is, by definition, idolatry.
The Effects of the Problem
So what? What does it matter if we let government use Christian language to describe its efforts and goals? So far, our discussion has been pretty theoretical. What are the practical implications of this form of idolatry? What difference does it make in real life? In my understanding, there are at least 3 different ways this problem has effected the Church in real, practical ways.
First, the Church in America has largely given away its calling to the government. From the very beginning, the People of God has been called to be a blessing to all people, especially those with special needs—the foreigner, the orphan and the widow. It becomes a pretty logical conclusion that if, as President Bush said, America is the Light of the world, coming into the darkness, then it is America’s job to take care of those in need. But this is the calling of the People of God, who after the gift of the Holy Spirit are never associated with one country or one ethnicity.
The People of God are called to take care of those in need in extreme ways. We see this in the founding of the Church after Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. In Acts 2, God sends the gift of the Holy Spirit. One of the immediate reactions or effects of receiving the Holy Spirit is provision for those in need. In Acts 2:45, we read that when a believer was in need, others would sell what they had in order to be able to provide for their brother. This provision extended beyond simply helping out other believers, though. We see it in Exodus when God gives Moses the law. When it came time to harvest, the people were to leave bits and pieces of their fields unharvested so that those who were traveling through could freely pick the “leftovers” and be able to survive their journey. We see this again in Acts, when we read about ministries being provided for widows.
It is the job and calling of the People of God to provide for the fringes of society. When we blur the lines between country and religion, though, we give away our calling to the government. The government becomes the one who is expected to provide for the fringes of society, and there becomes a void where the Church used to have a calling.
A second way our problem affects the Church flows directly from the first. When the Church gives away its calling to the government, a void is left where the Church used to have purpose. Many times, what comes to fill the void is the goals of the government. So not only does the Church give away its calling to the government, but the goals of the government, or at least a political party, become the goals of the Church. The goal of the Church becomes banning gay marriage, or outlawing abortion, getting a conservative into office or at least throwing the liberals out. How many times have we heard, “If [fill-in-the-blank] gets elected, I’m moving to Canada!”
Really? Governmental and political goals should not run our lives to this extent. The Church is called to so much more than this. The Church is called to change lives. The Church is called to care for those in need. But again, when the Church gives away is calling, something has to be put in its place, and unfortunately, the goals of government become the goals of the Church.
The third effect flows out of the last two. When the Church exchanges its calling for the goals of government, the People of God can no longer effectively critique the government. Throughout the Bible, we see the People of God critiquing governmental leaders. We see this with the prophets in the Old Testament, with Jesus in the Gospels and with the Apostles in Acts. It is the job of the Church to critique the government and tell them when they are acting immorally or unjustly. But when the Church becomes so intermixed with government, or with a particular party, we can no longer do that. We become so preoccupied with getting “ our guy” elected, that when we do, we can’t critique him, because the “other guy” would be worse. Indeed, many times elections aren’t even about getting somebody good elected; they become simply about getting the “other guy” out of office.
And when we finally do get “our guy” elected, the Church is so in-bed with him or her, we can’t critique them, mostly because we’ve just spent 2 years trying to get them elected. If the People of God are going to retain their call to critique government, to help keep government moral and just, then we have to keep all political leaders at arm’s length, because none of them are great and they all will need to be critiqued at one point or another.
The Solutions to the Problem
Now that we have laid out the Problem in detail, what is left is to suggest some solutions for it. Of course, there is no silver bullet, but what follows are a few suggestions that might get us back on track.
A couple of suggestions flow right out of the effects of the Problem. First, we must resist the urge to confuse the purpose of the Church with the goals of government. There are a number of ways we could sum up the purpose of the Church. The purpose of the Church is to make disciples. The purpose of the Church is to love God and love others. The purpose of the Church is to care for the foreigner, the orphan and the widow—in other words, those on the fringes of society. The Church cannot afford to exchange these purposes for the relatively minor ones of government—passing legislation and keeping “our guy” in power. Are the goals of the government unimportant or by definition evil? No. But the purposes of the Church are infinitely more important than the goals of government. To confuse the two is to take something with eternal value and exchange it for something that will, eventually, fade away and be no more.
Second, the Church must maintain its ability to critique the government, with no regard for who is in office. This one is pretty self-explanatory. When we see the government doing something unjust, we must be able to speak out about it. It shouldn’t matter who is doing it, who is in office, or what they might call us when we speak out. Let me give an example. No matter what you think of the war in Iraq, the fact is, we have had some prisoners of war for years without giving them a trial. This is simply unjust, period. Where has the Church been on this issue, though? Why isn’t the Church demanding that they get trials? (Not, mind you, that they be freed—simply that they get trials). My gut tells me that American Evangelicals are afraid of criticizing a war-time President, President Bush, for fear of looking or being called “Anti-American” or “unpatriotic”. But shouldn’t the Church be more concerned about being unjust than being unpatriotic? We have to maintain the call to demand justice of the government, with no regard for who is in office.
Third, we need to recognize that the Chosen People of God consists of everyone who believes in Jesus as Messiah. The nation of America is not the Chosen People of God. The nation of Israel is not the Chosen People of God. For that matter, Arabs and/or Pakistanis are not automatically damned. Rather, the People of God consists of all who believe in Jesus, whether they are found in America, Israel, Pakistan, the Middle East, Africa, Australia, Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria or the ends of the earth. When we recognize this, it will help keep us and our government in check. For instance, if our history was different and we had recognized that America is not the Chosen People of God, and really applied that idea, then we would not have assumed that everything that happened in the founding of America was by definition just. We would not have assumed that relocating Native Americans was automatically the right thing to do, simply because we had a “divine right” to the land.
Put in a modern-day context, when we realize that the Chosen People of God are located in many countries, perhaps even every country, we have to question when a famous Evangelical Pastor suggests that America should bomb Iran in order to jump-start the end times. If God’s People are everywhere, we cannot paint America as good and Iran as evil. It’s not that simple. If we recognize that God’s People are everywhere, we can no longer speak of an “Axis of Evil”; at least, not in any way that identifies whole countries as evil. God’s People are not one country, and though most of us would agree to this mentally, we need to let it soak through to our actions.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the Church must remember where our hope and peace truly lie. The hope of the Church rests in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is a settled matter. There is nothing that can be done to take away our hope and peace. This truth is amazingly freeing. There is no political party, no legislation that can take our hope and peace away. As a result of this, as Christians, we have to be careful of political rhetoric. It will not be the end of the world if this person or that person gets elected. And it will not be the answer to all our problems if “our guy” gets elected or if “our legislation” gets passed. I will not be moving countries simply because somebody gets elected. Politics do not have that hold in my life.
Again, am I saying that elections and legislation are unimportant? No. But I am saying that they do not define us. I am saying that they only have relative importance. At best, legislation effects behavior (many times, only punishment). Jesus Christ, working through the Church, transforms people’s lives. Our hope and peace, therefore, do not lie in legislation or politics. Our hope and peace lie in Jesus Christ. And that, my friends, can never be taken away from us.
For Further Reading/Listening: