The Church and the New Nationalism

D. Stephen Long

Since November 2016, my faith in the church has been rattled more than usual. The complicity of the church in the US presidential election and the current administration’s call for an intensified nationalism leaves me saddened and filled with doubt about the place of liturgy, worship, and active church attendance in the Christian life. According to exit polls, Protestant Christians sided for the current administration by 20 percentage points, Catholics by 7, and white, self-proclaimed evangelicals by nearly 70. These statistics are now well known and have been thoroughly discussed. What troubles me, what shakes my faith, is that these statistics do not reflect nominal, or what Mr. Wesley would have called “almost,” Christians; the more regular and active you are in church, the more likely you are to support the administration’s nationalism. Those who attend church weekly support the new nationalism by 16 percentage points more than those who do not. Those who consider themselves Christian and never attend church (a performative contradiction for sure), did not support the administration by 30 percentage points. I find these statistics troubling, difficult to understand.

I have no desire to interject partisan politics into my theological reflections. I am not defending any alternative candidate or party. Unlike the current administration, I have no desire to overturn the Johnson Amendment that prohibits the church from endorsing specific candidates. The last thing I want to do is to show up in church and be given a list of candidates or issues for which the leadership thinks I should vote. I have never thought that voting would bring about a Messiah, a “Christian” government, or the kingdom of God. St. Augustine recognized in the 390s that governments and nations had limited roles to play in God’s economy, contrary to those who thought a “Christian” emperor meant the kingdom had been realized, and that meant one’s allegiance to them likewise had to be limited. I have no faith in states or governments in the same way I do the church, so I am seldom surprised when the former lets me down, but I regularly confess my faith in the church, and this is the cause of my deep disappointment.

Each week in worship I stand with others and confess, “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” If you also make this confession, you too recognize that the church is an object of faith. The church that is so divided is one. The church that is, and has been, so fallible, faithless, and immoral, is holy. The church that loses its way by finding its bearings only from its contemporary moment is apostolic. And the church that is divided by race, class, and nation is catholic – universal, found in every time and place, creating a communion that transcends these divisions. Please do not get me wrong. I have no romantic illusions about what the church is. I do not expect a pure church of saints; the church is a hospital for sinners more than it is a haven for saints – and I’m in need of its healing as much as anyone. Yet to confess faith in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church should have some influence on those of us who do it. Not to be able to recognize the deep tension between “America First” and the call to be the church is an abysmal failure on the part of US Christianity. What have we been doing in church? On what has our gaze been directed in worship?

Perhaps the problem is that our faith is misplaced, that it is directed to the wrong object. Perhaps we have been convinced that the “city set on a hill” that Jesus proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount, a city that is to be a light to the nations, is not the disciples he gathered and instructed with his beatitudes but the modern nation-state that promises security and deliverance from all our enemies with walls, militarized policing, more prisons, increased surveillance, and other authoritarian practices. To be seduced by this misplaced faith is to fail to see the tension present in our confession of one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church and other objects that compete with it. It is a lesson that we must learn again and again and again. Whoever would tell us that we have no king but Caesar is an enemy of the priest-king who triumphed through his cross, resurrection, and ascension. Walter Miller, the novelist who served as a solider in World War II and saw firsthand real carnage, wrote a novel about this misplaced faith in an imagined dystopian future. He tells the story of a priest who tried to warn his parishioners and all people of good will of the dangers of the State and an impending nuclear holocaust.

“Whoever exalts a race or a State or a particular form of State or the depositories of power. . . whoever raises these notions above their standard values and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God . . . .” Where had that come from? Eleventh Pius, he thought, without certainty – eighteen centuries ago. But when Caesar got the means to destroy the world, wasn’t he already divinized? Only by the consent of the people, same rabble that shouted, “We have no king but Caesar” when confronted by Him – God Incarnate, mocked and spat upon . . . Caesar’s divinity is showing itself again. (Canticle for Leibowitz, 260).

Faith matters. To put faith in “America first” is to place faith in something finite, something that will not deliver, something that has a limited role in God’s economy. All nations are like grass and eventually wither away; they have limited goods that we should support, but our current nationalistic fervor far exceeds those genuine goods, and in fact puts them at risk. Nonetheless, God will preserve the church – and not because any government gives it false promises of support.

My faith in the church is not rattled because so many people with whom I confess faith in the church voted Republican rather than Democrat or Independent. My faith in the church is not rattled because the church, once again, failed miserably to tear down the dividing wall of hostility. My faith in the church is rattled because we seem to have lost the tension between the church as it is – divided, faithless, nationalistic, momentary – and what it should be – one, holy, catholic, apostolic. It has become controversial even to point that out, so most clergy are not free to be faithful in their own church and speak the truth. Losing the tension is a sign we have lost the answer to the question “Are you saved?” – which is why I wrote the previous installment reminding myself and others of Mr. Wesley’s words, “Christianity is essentially a social religion.” We need to return to basics, to remind ourselves that what God is doing with the church is not creating a warehouse for individual souls to be saved through sentimentality, but producing the first fruits of a new creation that ends with the New Jerusalem.

Posted Mar 13, 2017

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