American politics is in the midst of an incredible shift. Gone are the days of assuming that we would actually want to put our own nation first, and debating which policies will help America retain its status as superpower. Nowadays, we are debating whether putting our nation first is even ethical, Christian, or even if such a desire should be considered uncouth or evil as it is seen as merely continuing a long line of imperialistic tendencies.
The idea of putting America first or some vague concept of “Christian Nationalism” is often blamed for the events of January 6, and many pastors have officially renounced the entire episode as if it had been inspired solely by Christian nationalism. But connecting the particular Christians who participated in the events of that day with all patriotic Christians is just dumb. There is a place between storming the capital to “save your country” and believing that “America First” is akin to white supremacy. That’s where I’d like to land, and I don’t think it is un-Christian to end up there.
What’s in a Name and a Nation?
So to answer the question of whether there is something un-Christian about putting “America first”, we must first ask, “Well, which nation, and which Christian, and what do you even mean by ‘first’ and ‘nationalism’?” Depending on how you answer those questions, Christian nationalism may be the most evil thing ever or a perfectly harmonious way to be both a citizen and a Christian.
Let’s start with some distinctions. I would agree that it is definitely possible, as a Christian, to be “too” patriotic. As Christians, we must remember that we are citizens in God’s Kingdom first and foremost, and we want God’s Kingdom to be present among us. Thus what we want from our nation is basically the opportunity for God’s Kingdom to flourish and for the execution of justice. I would like to think that all Christians – given the opportunity – would trade any nation for God’s Kingdom. But until Jesus comes again, I do not believe that choice is before us.
So we accept the development of nations, and can even see the good in some of what they have to offer, such as: borders, the rule of law, and provision for the general welfare of citizens. If and when we equate any nation with the Kingdom of God itself, we have certainly gone too far. Yes, God blesses and curses nations as a whole in the Bible and there is no reason to think He has stopped doing that. However, there is also no reason to believe that America is especially blessed at the time being, given our toleration of many, many evils.
There are also different ways to understand what a nation even is. Is it the group of people who are presently numbered as its citizens in the present day? Is it a set of founding ideals and documents that gave rise to the nation in the first place? Is it certain historical events that are definitional to that nation, both good and bad, noble and ignoble? Is it its present-day practices of generosity or genocide? Surely within the borders of any nation, you will find combinations of cruelty and charity, historical horror and present pleasantries.
In my own nation I am just as likely to see an incredibly compassionate act by a dear soul as I am a random act of violence against an innocent elder. I am as likely to meet a tireless advocate for the unborn as I am a tireless defender of abortion. I am as likely to meet an apathetic atheist as I am a born-again Christian. There are pacifists and war mongers, socialists and libertarians, prudes and libertines. Who among all these people and which of these acts define the nation in which I live? Will the true Americans please stand up?
What it Means to be First?
When we talk of being first, it is obviously a comparison between us and other nations. It seems a general spirit of Christian humility and shame at our nation’s past has led some to apologize for our empirical tendencies. (And yet, “their” president just bombed Syria.) And since our nation is basically just a bunch of white supremacists, the worst thing we could do is export our hatred to the world. So far from being first, we should probably be last.
Well, I’m not sure how good of an idea that is. Should we trust that other nations, having surpassed us in power, will treat us fairly when it comes to threats of war, currency manipulation, or imposing UN resolutions against us? If our economic prowess falters and we are in need after a natural disaster, can we trust that the countries that are now “first” will come to our aid, as America often did for them? I think not.
Perhaps the most important question is, do Christians even have a dog in a fight such as this, or are we merely Kingdom-minded neutral observers, a community of Switzerlands in any nation? “Hey, first or last, we just want to worship, Jesus, okay? Christians will just have to deal with whatever hand we’re dealt.”
Well, with all the caveats above, I’ll offer my own thoughts. Any nation is a complicated mess of vice and virtue, so being proud of your nation as it exists now or as it has historically existed is almost certainly a rose-colored glasses kind of foolishness. Just as we judge a religion on its founding principles and not by the adherents of that religion, we do the same with our nation.
So, if I were to say I want America to be first, that is not me saying I am proud of everything or everyone that emanates from America. It is me saying that my government should consider our nation’s interests first, because there is good reason to believe that other nations will not put our interests first and suffering will surely be the result. While the poor may be blessed, poverty is not a virtue in and of itself. Peace, prosperity, liberty, and extended lifespans are all good things. They are not ultimate things, but they should be welcomed and worked for because, you know, we are to love our neighbor and care for them.
Because I believe America’s founding values to be objectively good, I find there to be no conflict in being a Christian and promoting them. You know, things like the rule of law, the dignity of man, the right to self-defense, and freedom of religion are wonderful things and I would hate to lose them. My faith is not at stake when I endorse those things.
But, in other contexts, putting your nation first could indeed be a dreadful thing. The vast majority of Christians who adopted the moniker “German Christians” in 1930s Germany were absolute sell-outs. That kind of “Christian nationalism” was obviously a problem. Also, American Christians who are patriotic are not Nazis.
Clarity and Intent is Key to Our Love of God and Country
So is it un-Christian to have an “American First” outlook? Well, it depends, doesn’t it? Are they elevating their nation above God’s Kingdom? Then, yes. If their nation is ruled by wanton, tyrannical despots, then also yes. But if their nation offers a better chance for people’s lives to improve and their dignity to be observed, then no. If China, for example, is clearly in line to be “first”, I would take ye olde United States any day, given the incredible abuses we have seen there over the last 75 years.
To decry all forms of “Christian nationalism” as reincarnations of swastikas on altars is absurd. It just may be that some nations – imperfectly to be sure – still provide a better hope for Christian values to flourish. So before you answer “yes” to the headline, at least ask, “Which Christian? Which nation? And first in what way?”
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