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Elections and Idolatry: Part One

10/29/12+ Share

Nationalism, Elections, and Idolatry

I have been reluctant to vote in national elections for as long as I can remember. My reasons were not novel or profound: I was paralyzed by the poor options, I didn't want to invest the time it would require to make an informed choice, I didn't want to encourage politicians who already had an over-inflated sense of self-importance, and I wanted to combat the notion that the only or best way to be politically involved is to dedicate 15 minutes every once in a while to checking boxes. This time, however, my reasons are a bit different. After the third presidential debate I began to wonder whether voting for either of the two leading candidates could mean unwittingly participating in idolatry.

Let me explain—but you will have to be patient. To understand my position, you need to wade through some technical material. The payoff, I believe, is worth it. I was recently asked to write an article on the subject of "nation and nationalism" for the Oxford Encyclopedia of Bible and Ethics. My intention with this project was to restrain my strongest convictions about the subject and to state the facts as objectively as possible. I realized that an encyclopedia is no place for sermonic rants. For me this would be difficult; my first book focused on God's approach to politics in Scripture, which changed the way I look at politics. But I knew it would be a helpful exercise.

To curb my passions I thought it best to begin not with the familiar stable of go-to theologians, but with nationalism scholars who write for broader audiences. My findings surprised me, to say the least. They also had the exact opposite effect of what I originally expected.

Modernist Approaches to Nationalism

The first thing that the nationalism literature taught me was that a seismic shift is happening within nationalism studies. For quite some time, the modernist school reigned supreme in the field. As the name suggests, this school holds that the nation was the invention of modernity. Its proponents claim that there have always been "states," by which they mean political entities with some form of government over a group of people that reserve the exclusive right to use force to keep order within their realm. The nation or nation-state is something fundamentally different. It affirms that some kind of bond inherently unites a specific group of people and entitles them to shared rule over a specific territory.

A nation, properly speaking, does not belong to an elite family. It belongs to the people themselves. Before there were nations, kings ruled over territories with the help of hand-picked elite warriors and administrators. Commoners did not give their lives for their countries; the king's favored ones gained prestige by working for the king and keeping his reign secure. The masses did not identify with the king or his realm. They learned to make a living for themselves under the conditions imposed upon them by those who happened to be in charge at the moment.

As the modernist tale goes, industrialization, the printing press, and the breakdown of imperial religion created within the people a sense of having outgrown the confines of the old state pattern. Increased literacy and the rapid spread of ideas made it possible for people to develop an immediate sense of camaraderie that was larger than their local clan or family unit and qualitatively different from the king's shifting realm. Realizing this, according to the modernist account, certain elite persons commandeered the ethnic, linguistic, and cultural resources of specific territories and forged the notion that a certain people exists within a certain land with innate commonalities that unite them and entitle them to shared rule over their land. Since religion was part of the imperial glue that kept former states together and because it had led to excessive warring, some nations sought to establish themselves on the notion of religious neutrality. So they kicked religion out of the political sphere where they believed it did not belong.

In sum, the modernist account holds that nation-states emerged at the same time as modernity and that they delivered Europe from deadly religious wars and outdated monarchical forms of rule. The emerging concept of the nation rescued the state from monarchy and religion and made possible a more humane way of life for all.

Beyond Modernism

In recent decades, the modernist paradigm began to shift. Nationalism scholars began questioning many of its basic tenets. The timing was called into question, the causes were called into question and, most significantly for my purposes, the role of religion was called into question. In particular, they have recognized that nationalism itself is highly religious. It has become a new public religion that has filled the void left by traditional religions, which in turn have accepted demotion to the private sector. To achieve this new sacred status, nations have parasitically drawn from the Christian faith. In other words, the early founders of nation-states kicked authentic Christian faith to the curb and used overtly religious resources to create an alternative national religion.

Let me be clear at this point. I am not here giving my unique revisionist spin on the founding of nation-states. I am summarizing what nationalism scholars themselves have been saying as they survey the historical data and connect the sociological dots. Take, for instance, Adrian Hasting (The Construction of Nationalism, 1997). He observes that nation builders pillaged religion for seven specific resources. Here I will discuss four that are perhaps most salient (omitting the social function of clergy, the spread of printed vernacular, and autonomous state religion).

First, they borrowed the notion of a sanctified starting point. Israel and the church could point to a sacred founding event, like the call of Abraham, the Exodus from Egypt, or the death of Jesus. In the same way, nations identified particular founding events and imbued them with a sacred providential aura. Only an act of God could account for their extraordinary yet humble origins.

Second, they learned from the great religions to mythologize and commemorate great threats to their national identity. Christians can point to Egyptian enslavement, various destructions of Jerusalem, or to the martyrdoms of Jesus, his apostles, and the early church as fundamentally shaping their identity. It has long been acknowledged that the church was founded on the blood of the martyrs. Seeing the powerful unity of a common legacy of martyrs, nation-builders were keen to identify and commemorate with national holidays and monuments those who gave their lives so that all citizens might enjoy the benefits of nationhood.

Third, nation-builders drew upon Scripture for their model of what a nation could look like. Old Testament Israel, as they understood it, embodied much of what they wanted for their nations. The Israelites had a sense of entitlement to a specific territory rather than a constantly expanding or retracting borderless realm. Israel had a sense of ethnic identity that connected them to their property as well as their own set of laws. Perhaps most importantly, every citizen in Israel had a sense of belonging, even ownership of their kingdom. The king did not own the territory; God did, and he bequeathed it to all the people. The king came from the people and was expected to rule according to a common set of laws to which he was also subject. 

Fourth, nation-builders learned from Jewish/Christian religion that a sense of unique national destiny provides powerful cohesion for a people. For this reason, they sought to identify a particular national destiny for themselves—even better if, like Israel and the church, they could link their unique destiny to God's providential role in guiding world history toward its intended end. They therefore linked the prosperity of their nation to the best interests of all nations. People will kill and die for their nation if they understand their "political" commitment to the nation as a necessary counterpart to their "religious" commitment to God's purposes in this world.

Hasting's striking summary is worth quoting at length: "Once a Christian history has been constructed for a nation from the baptism of a first king and on through great deliverances . . . once the Bible is meditated upon in one's own language with all the immediacy this could bring, once one's own church is fully independent of any other and identified in extent with that of that nation, the more it seems easy to go the final step and claim to be a chosen people, a holy nation, with some special divine mission to fulfill. The Old Testament provided the paradigm. Nation after nation applied it to themselves, reinforcing their identity in the process" (196).

Hasting is not alone in his account of nationalism. The foremost nationalism scholar in our day, Anthony Smith, acknowledges this religious turn by identifying nationalism itself as the religion of the people (Chosen Peoples, 2003). In his estimation, religion provides four sacred foundations—very similar to Hasting's—for nations and nationalism. First, it provides the notion of a community of chosen people. Second, it provides a holy land in which people dwell. Third, it recognizes a golden age that preceded a specific decline that justifies the nationalist reaction that ensued. Fourth, and finally, it furnishes an account of personal sacrifice by national patriots that reinforces the nation's sacred identity. According to Smith, nations sift, reinterpret, and synthesize various elements of religious and ethnic communities in order to cast themselves as the fulfillment of some sort of salvation narrative.

Hasting and Smith are not theologians, ethicists, or exegetes. They are not writing for Christian audiences in order to move them toward any sort of action. They are historians and sociologists. They are writing to fellow historians and sociologists in order to discern where nations came from and where they fit in the wider global historical picture. They are not ashamed of what they have discovered. It does not offend them that nation-builders would overtly co-opt the biblical story and the unique soteriological role of God's people within it. This is history to them. Nations and states have always done this sort of thing.

Why Should Christians Care?

Can followers of Jesus be so neutral? Should it be acceptable to us that nations would usurp the biblical narrative and insert themselves into it? Christians proclaim that Christ alone is Lord, that Christ alone is the hope of the nations, and that Christ's body does not take the form of a single state or nation that is geographically, ethnically, or culturally confined. Christ's body, the church, is a transterritorial, transethnic, and transcultural community. As such it is properly positioned to be a blessing to all nations.

It is only after stripping God's people of their former provincial status as a geographically bound ethnic enclave, which God began doing with the collapse of Israel's monarchy and completed with the work of Christ, that God was able to propel them into global mission by the power of God's Spirit. Under Christ's global reign, states of all stripes have a role of serving particular territories and maintaining a basic level of order and stability. But that is the extent of their jurisdiction. They do not carry out God's saving purposes in this world; they carry out the necessary task of old world maintenance. They are like giant utility companies that provide an important service on behalf of the local community. They don't represent God's kingdom, the new era in world history that was ushered in by the Messiah of Israel. Only the church has been divinely called and equipped to bear witness to God's kingdom. Nation-states are part of the old order that is passing away. Only by Christ's power and Spirit can the new era break into world history. When they are at their best, the nations of the world keep relative peace so God's people can go about their work of spreading the good news of God's inbreaking kingdom. The most significant movement in world history is carried forth by the work of God's people among all nations, not the achievement of any single nation.

It is not hard to find evidence that America has been particularly susceptible to nationalistic idolatry. Take, for example, David Gelernter's recent book Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. Gelernter unashamedly professes faith in the religion of Americanism. Bill Bennett praises his book, saying, "David Gelernter is a national treasure, a patriot-scholar. In Americanism, he explains what America is to him—an idea, a belief, a religion. The City on a Hill has no greater or more powerful an advocate." This endorsement, with its deliberate appropriation of biblical language, is as eerily disturbing as the book itself.

It would be one thing if this position were a marginal one advocated only by fringe groups with little public influence, but it is not, which leads to the point of this essay. In the third presidential debate, Barak Obama claimed that America was "the one indispensable nation." What could this mean, except that either God is not in charge of the nations or that God would not be able to run this world without America's help? This is not just a statement about America; it is a statement about God. Not wishing to be outdone, Mitt Romney, the president's rival, claimed that America was "the hope of the earth."

If these candidates hope to position America as the one indispensable hope of the earth, then they are not running for president, they are revolting against the lordship of Jesus and striving to usurp his position as Messiah. Has it gotten to the point that American citizens are no longer free to vote for a "president" and can only vote for a messiah? How can a Christian vote for that?

 

 [Part two answers the potential objection that nationalistic statements are not idolatrous because they claim to offer political salvation, not religious or spiritual salvation]

[Part three addresses more positively what kind of posture Christians should assume in this world if not to help Caesar rule it]

http://www.walkandword.com/blog/?id=341

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