Why Sufjan Stevens Is Right About Nationalism and Christianity

When does nationalism override our allegiance to God?

The globalism that created international organizations and cross-border communities like the European Union is not dying, but it faces revived competition in the form of individually-focused nationalism.

Christians of all stripes are speaking out in response to the changing tide. Hundreds of evangelical leaders, including Tim Keller and Max Lucado, took out a full-page ad in The Washington Post denouncing the protectionist executive order that put a moratorium on refugees entering the United States.

Churches and organizations like World Vision and World Relief have written letters in the same vein. Singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens decried the temptation to put any allegiances above or alongside our allegiance to God in an open letter posted to his Tumblr, saying, “for God has no political boundary." He also captured the thoughts of Christians who have expressed confusion at seeing Evangelical peers align with a nationalist doctrine with the words, "A 'Christian Nation' is absolutely heretical. Christ did not come into this world to become a modifier."

Nevertheless, the America-first doctrine is still making ground both within and beyond the Church. Such a doctrine places American interests above the interests of other countries and yet, the United States is not the only country seeing this trend rise among leaders. Nationalism has been the sentiment du jour in Russia, China and Turkey for many years, and countries like England, France, Hungary, Austria, India and Egypt are moving in the same direction.

Who can blame them? Years of attempts at international harmonization have achieved some great things, but haven’t been a cure-all. In the United States, blue-collar workers still feel discarded. Wages have risen, but income inequality has worsened. The fear of terrorism is pervasive. Racial tensions persist.

But, as Christians, we must not elevate the distinction of national, ethnic or cultural identity over our higher identities as disciples of Christ and as human beings, both of which expand our most important communities far beyond the borders of the United States.

It is neither helpful nor fair to critique swelling American nationalism by alluding to pre-WWII Germany. On the other hand, it is equally unhelpful to approvingly equate American nationalism with the nationalism of ancient Israel. Jumping to the most extreme cases to draw comparisons is rarely useful. Nevertheless, history and theology have things to tell us about the phenomenon we are confronted with today.

The Difference Between Nationalism and Patriotism

Nationalism is frustratingly difficult to nail down. Basic dictionary definitions describe a simple loyalty to one’s country, though expanded definitions paint a sharper image. Nationalism includes “a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others,” says Merriam-Webster. The Oxford dictionary echoes, noting nationalism’s “feeling of superiority over other countries.”

Many international relations scholars say a prominent feature of nationalism is primary loyalty to one’s group. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says historical nationalism includes the belief in “the supremacy of the nation’s claims over other claims to individual allegiance.”

Patriotism, as a general love or devotion to one’s country, is much simpler than nationalism.

The distinction is important, especially for followers of Jesus. Nationalism asks you to put your country’s interests above all others. Patriotism asks me to love my country but not at the expense of any other.

Of course, not all nationalism is created equal. Some, like the Third Reich, are totalitarian, seeking the destruction of outsiders. Others are isolationist, meaning they mostly want to be left alone, keeping wealth in and undesirable foreigners out. Still others fall in the middle, seeing other nations as rivals and viewing economics as a zero-sum game in which, when the home country loses, other countries win.

The point is, while patriotism requires a certain devotion to one’s country, nationalism is intrinsically a matter of inclusion and exclusion, of us versus them. Certainly, there are real distinctions between groups of people. There is nothing wrong with admitting that some people are Americans and others are not. But, as Christians, we must not elevate the distinction of national, ethnic or cultural identity over our higher identities as disciples of Christ and as human beings, both of which expand our most important communities far beyond the borders of the United States.

Nationalism and Worship

To some degree, every country puts itself first. Governments are built on promises to protect and prosper the people they rule. We should not expect regimes to stop being nationalistic, though we can hope and work for international justice and development. The question is not whether our political apparatus will favor the United States above anything else, but whether we as Christians will.

It is easy enough to counter nation-first claims with biblical calls to love the stranger (Matthew 25:40; Luke 10:27; Hebrews 13:1), put the interests of others above our own (Philippians 2:3-4), recognize the Christian community has nothing to do with ethnicity or borders (Galatians 3:28-29; Colossians 3:11) and acknowledge the image of God in all people (Genesis 1:27). All of this means Americans are not worthy of more protection or money than anyone else.

But the danger of national idolatry is just as significant. Scripture warns us not to put our hope in earthly powers (Psalm 146:3). No government, or the wealth and security it promises, can be placed above God or his commands (Deuteronomy 6:13-14; Daniel 3). Nationalism easily slides into such subtle idolatry. In God’s economy, the United States cannot claim superiority.

To be sure, many Christians throughout history have been nationalists. Modern nationalism in Europe and the United States also has considerable backing in churches. Such history demonstrates that nationalism, while rallying people around seemingly noble virtues, has a nasty way of feeding state propaganda, fostering a go-it-alone attitude over a cooperative one and diverting blame for national problems onto outsiders.

It is of course not true that all nationalist Christians in the United States are worshipping the country. It’s not wrong to desire safety or comfort, but to desire our own safety and comfort above that of others is the problem. Have we put our own security ahead of the security of refugees, immigrants and foreigners in general—many of them Christians? Have we put the comfort of Americans ahead of the comfort of orphans and widows who will suffer because of the greed and egoism of the United States?

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If the answer is yes, we may be in danger of letting our national loyalty override our allegiance to God. That's idolatry. That's false worship.

Jesus and his followers tore down barriers of culture and ethnicity. Nations will continue to exist, and diversity is important and valuable, but not to the point of overriding human bonds in the image of God and the Church’s bonds in the unifying blood of Christ. Jesus and Paul defended Gentiles as much as Jews. (Acts 11; Romans 10:12) They critiqued Jewish and Roman leaders alike. (Matthew 23; Mark 10:42) They sought the well-being of Jews and Samaritans and centurions. (John 4; Romans 8)

The image of God is international. So is the Kingdom of God. For Christians, our loyalty to the Church and our neighbor comes before our loyalty to country. Our loyalty to God comes first of all.

Wherever possible, American Christians can joyfully seek justice for fellow Americans. But that justice must not neglect justice to outsiders here or abroad. We can love our country patriotically without deifying it nationalistically.

Top Comments

Matthew Cunningham

1

Matthew Cunningham commented…

I agree with this column. But, it does amaze me that there's been a huge out cry over something that was going to be a temporary hold. Many on the left and some on the right have lost their minds thinking we were shutting our doors for good to these unfortunate. Anyways, here's something to think about... God has blessed America for one reason, to spread the Good News! We can talk about all the bad and immature problems we've been and going through, but God is the Author, He's in control Romans 13. Our call of obedience is a personal one, not a National one. But since our Nation has been consistently obedient to His principles then the Nation receives His blessings. Back in November we voted for a president not a King or a Pope. After all the good this country has done in the name of Jesus and all the people around the world that have heard of the Gospel, we as Christians owe our thanks to God for America. He is responsible for America just like He's responsible for the believer because its His plan, not ours. We are to love and forgive like Him, so lets love and forgive this Nation like Christians, and let God handle our problems like He always has...

Linda Decker

1

Linda Decker commented…

I think sometimes we confuse our responsibilities as Christians (the church) and our government. It is the duty of the president of this nation to look after the safety and well-being of the nation's citizens. The country must take care of its own before it can help others. As Children of God, WE are to not oppress the alien and look after the needs of the orphan and the widow. The best way to do that is to support your missionaries through your local church and support relief agencies serving in other nations. Feed the hungry and heal the sick here by contributing to food banks, clinics and other Faith based agencies locally. Share the Gospel of Salvation with the Lost and needy. That is the calling of every believer.

21 Comments

Royce E. Van Blaricome

48

Royce E. Van Blaricome commented…

Mr. Jackson starts his premise out with the headline "Why Sufjan Stevens Is Right..."

Sufjan starts out with "God is love, period." Well, no, God is MUCH more. Period! It's actually a comma that should follow God is Love. For God is also Holy, Righteous, Merciful, Gracious, Just, Longsuffering, Kind, and the God of Wrath. Probably some other attributes I'm not thinking of right now as well.

Thanks to Sufjan for showing why the churches in this country today are so doggone anemic, ineffectual, and full of Biblically ignorant pew sitters.

He's also not nameless nor is He faceless. So who needs to read any further than that to know that whatever god Sufjan has, it sure ain't God!

So if Mr. Jackson think Sufjan in right about Christianity, then why should we listen to anything Mr. Jackson says? I'll admit I didn't read the whole article. When something starts of with a wrong foundational premise it doesn't seem worthwhile to build on it.

Valerie

1

Valerie commented…

This is such an important issue for the Church to grapple with. I have read a couple of great books on the subject of what the evangelical church in America has become. 'Myth of a Christian Nation', by Greg Boyd and most recently 'Jesus Untangled', by Keith Giles.
I can't recommend them highly enough. https://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Untangled-Crucifying-Politics-Allegiance-eb...

Richard B. Sorensen

3

Richard B. Sorensen commented…

I have already commented on "Why Sufjan Is Wrong" in another post, but let me amplify my comments here.

It is absolutely correct for the president of the US, as well as the leader of any country to "put his country first". It is the responsibility of a leader at any level, national, corporate, or family, to put the primary focus on the security and well-being of his or her citizens, employees, or family members. That is the leader's job. It is the job of church leaders also - to focus first on "doing good to those who are the household of faith" as the Apostle Paul indicates.

As a husband, my primary job is caring for and protecting my wife and kids. Those who would claim to say that I should "turn the other cheek" if someone breaks into my house and threatens to rape my wife, have misunderstood Jesus' teaching. Likewise, Jesus cares for the entire world, but his main focus is on the sheep in his fold.

As president, one of Donald Trump's main jobs is protecting American citizens "from all enemies, foreign and domestic." To the extent that his policies are intended for and accomplishing that, he is doing what he is supposed to do - critics be damned.

The above being said, the church also has the responsibility to care for the disadvantaged of all types, and those who resent immigrants for whatever reason are clearly not following in Christ's footsteps. We are called to love - "he who loves is born of God and knows God, because God is love." That will mean reaching out to all people, and showing them that we care, because Jesus cares.

Unfortunately, Trump seems to be catering to those who resent immigrants, and is seemingly taking a "meat axe" approach to immigration. That is very unfortunate, and it is totally correct to criticize him for it. In my opinion we certainly need patrols on the Mexican border for protection from lawless elements in Mexico, and given the fact that drug cartels control much of the country, that is an unfortunate reality. But building a wall seems to be rather silly - Mexico is not Palestine.

Unfortunately, the distinctions I mentioned above are lost on the political herds who either mindlessly support Trump, or mindlessly criticize him.

Linda Decker

1

Linda Decker commented…

I think sometimes we confuse our responsibilities as Christians (the church) and our government. It is the duty of the president of this nation to look after the safety and well-being of the nation's citizens. The country must take care of its own before it can help others. As Children of God, WE are to not oppress the alien and look after the needs of the orphan and the widow. The best way to do that is to support your missionaries through your local church and support relief agencies serving in other nations. Feed the hungry and heal the sick here by contributing to food banks, clinics and other Faith based agencies locally. Share the Gospel of Salvation with the Lost and needy. That is the calling of every believer.

Todd R. Lattig

1

Todd R. Lattig commented…

I agree with this article 100%. Judgmental comments on who's God Sufjan worships is NOT a Christian response. That's is, in and of itself, proclaiming you know Sufjan's heart and to claim that is to claim that you are God. Sufjan identifies as a Christian and whether or not one agrees with his understanding of Christ's teachings does not put one in a place to judge the man's heart or his faith. Back to the point. The point of this article is that first and foremost WE ARE CHRIST'S, not the governments. What's more, while there are some texts in the Bible that would point us to obey our authorities, nowhere in Scripture are Christians called to obey one's government over and above our Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, who is our ULTIMATE authority? The White House? Congress? or Christ? One cannot simply dismiss what the government does as if our faith doesn't need to address what our society and government are doing. Read the prophets. read the Gospels, read Paul's letters. In all of those and more, prophets, Jesus, his apostles, and the people of God have cried out against injustice because God called them to do so. When Jesus said, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesars and unto God what is God's", he wasn't advocating for the unjust Roman tax system. All one has to ask is this, what is God's? EVERYTHING. Jesus's comment is both a backhanded slap toward Caesar (who claimed to be a god), and a command to put GOD FIRST! Jesus wasn't apolitical when he went into the Temple (and Temples always doubled as national banks in the ancient world) and over turned the tables right under the noses of the Romans and the Temple leadership. Jesus was not acting for the purpose of being political, but for the purpose of putting God FIRST...and holding others accountable to that. But, the Gospel does have political implications. That is undeniable. Thus, this article is spot on. We cannot change what Government does but we can, and should, as Christians speak out against it when it is not inline with God's vision of the world. And not just speak, but counter the conventional wisdom of the day with action that reflects Christ's wisdom.

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