The Heresies of American Evangelicalism, Part VII: Ecclesiology

Part VII: Nationalism, or Depoliticized Discipleship

My original title for this essay in my series on evangelical “heresies” was “a Constantinian doctrine of church-state relations.” I am well aware of the problems that beset my topic before I even begin writing: (1) that to call a modern evangelical position “Constantinian” is anachronistic, since the era of Constantine and Christendom is historically distinct from the contemporary political scene; and (2) that Constantinianism and nationalism are not heresies, in any official sense. The former problem precipitated the change of this post’s topic from church-state relations to nationalism, which is more accurate anyway, since the problem is not how church and state are related so much as how the church views the state. Hence, the problem is not political as much as it is ideological. What justification do I have, then, for calling nationalism a modern American heresy?

I. Cavanaugh, Barth, and the First Commandment

The basis for my identification of nationalism as a modern “heresy” of American evangelicalism is rooted in the first commandment: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:2-3). Nationalism is not a heretical position; it is rather an idolatrous position, which is substantially worse than heresy. Arius and Pelagius may have been wrong, but they certainly were not idolaters, at least in terms of their theological positions. Nationalism, however, is an idol. Technically, therefore, it belongs in its own series on modern idols. But throughout the history of theology, the church has taken a clear stance on the relation between church and state such that nationalism has in various ways been established within the church as an official aspect of the Christian life. Where nation-states have official churches, this nationalism is simply expected. In modern America, however, the situation is more complex. Here the idol of nationalism (among other ideologies) is freely chosen and has become engrained in the cultural consciousness of evangelical Christianity. I speak of nationalism thus as a modern heresy because this cultural aspect of the church’s life has become normalized, even established doctrinally, such that the distinction between one’s confessional identity and one’s national identity is blurred. I will explore this problematic dimension of contemporary evangelicalism by looking at the first commandment.

In July 2005, William Cavanaugh gave the keynote address at the summer gathering of the Ekklesia Project. He lectured on the topic of American imperialism with the title, “The Empire of the Empty Shine.” His thesis is that by enforcing an empty shrine—i.e., having no national religion—nations like the United States end up enshrining themselves. Central to his thesis is the first commandment in Exodus 20:3. Cavanaugh argues, on the basis of this commandment, against the false notion of a neutral public space in which all gods are set aside for the sake of a rational, democratic state. Instead, the denial of a religious god only opens the door to another kind of god, be it economic or political or some other ideology. In America, for example, “the empty shrine … threatens to make a deity not out of God but out of our freedom to worship God. Our freedom comes to occupy the empty shrine.” Cavanaugh ends his talk by urging the church in America to abide by the first commandment, rather than allow any other god than the triune God of the Christian faith to occupy that shrine.

Many years before Cavanaugh, Karl Barth wrote his 1933 essay, “The First Commandment as an Axiom of Theology,” in which he argues that the first commandment is “the presupposition of all theology,” in that the indicative, “I am Yahweh your God,” and the imperative, “You shall have no other gods before me,” set the parameters for the theological task. The first commandment is not a statement that can be proven by other statements but is rather the sole starting-point for all theological thought. The first commandment ensures that the shrine is never filled by some cultural god, but rather that the church is wholly centered upon the triune God revealed in Jesus Christ. According to Barth, the first commandment is thus the starting-point for all theological reflection. But I argue that it is also much more than this. The first commandment is the starting-point for the very life and identity of the church; it is the basis, the presupposition, for our existence in a world dominated by false gods. Without the first commandment at the center of our life, we open the door wide to innumerable false deities waiting to fill the empty shrine.

What complicates the situation in contemporary evangelicalism is the way modern Christians attempt to make nationalism and worship of the triune God into complementary realities: obedience to God requires obedience to the nation-state, even adherence to a particular set of ideological positions. The basis for this mistake—the reason such a grave mistake could be so widely propagated and accepted today—is found in the de-politicization of the first commandment. When the command “you shall have no other gods” is turned into a purely spiritual, internal decree, then one’s sociopolitical allegiances are unaffected. When the confession of Jesus Christ is stripped of its subversive politics, in which only he is Lord and no other, then we end up turning what Christ himself condemned—viz. serving two masters—into a religious norm.

The only way to combat these disastrous misunderstandings of the Christian faith is to undermine the foundation upon which they rest. This can be done in two ways: (1) demonstrate that the division between spiritual and bodily, between faith and ethics, between “internal” and “external” is in fact a false (even heretical) dichotomy; or (2) like Cavanaugh, demonstrate the sociopolitical import of the first commandment. I take the former approach in my series, “The Spirit of the Lord,” while I will take the latter approach here.

II. The Politics of Exodus

The first commandment is situated at the turning-point of Exodus, between Israel’s bondage in Egypt and their new life as the covenant people of God. The first half focuses on God’s liberation of Israel from their bondage in Egypt (chs. 1-18), and the second half focuses on the formation of a new Israelite identity, centered on the cultus (chs. 19-40). The movement from the first half to the second half is a movement from slavery under Pharaoh to worship of Yahweh, from imperial oppression to divine covenant, from sociopolitical subjugation to sociopolitical community. Both sides of the narrative are political in nature: Egypt represents political idolatry, whereas Sinai represents a new political order of justice, peace, and worship.

We further see the political import of the first commandment (20:3) from its immediate context. The first commandment is introduced by a prologue (20:2) that recapitulates the history of redemption in which God acted graciously and sovereignly on behalf of the chosen people. The prologue connects the commandments to two distinct narrative frameworks—the past narrative of oppression and the future narrative of obedience, the past narrative of death and the future narrative of life. The prologue thus looks backwards and forwards; it is both anamnestic and proleptic. By reminding the people of Israel of their sociopolitical past, the prologue orients them toward the vision of a divinely ordained sociopolitical future—a future that comes to them as divine gift rather than as human repression. Put simply, if “the theological claim of the Prologue is a political announcement” (Patrick Miller), then the first commandment is a political imperative: “You shall have no other gods before me.” And “god,” as Luther understood, is simply that “upon which you set your heart and put your trust.”

The narrative of liberation becomes the norm for the social and political shape of the covenant. Exod. 22:21-24 commands fair treatment of foreigners and the poor members of society by reminding Israel of their own treatment at the hands of Pharaoh: “for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 22:21). Israel’s anamnesis of God’s deliverance in the past not only conditions their social hospitality; it also establishes an ethic of economic hospitality that corresponds to God’s gracious provision for Israel in their state of poverty (cf. Exod. 12:35-36). In the subsequent verses in Exodus, the Lord commands Israel to not exact interest, but rather to establish justice among the people. The rationale for both the social and economic aspects of the law is the remembrance of the past narrative in which Israel cried out to God and God answered them. Finally, fidelity to the first commandment is the prior condition—the axiomatic presupposition—for obeying all other laws: “Be attentive to all that I have said to you. Do not invoke the names of other gods; do not let them be heard on your lips” (Exod. 23:13).

In addition to the prologue in Exod. 20:2, the first commandment is introduced by one other important passage in Exod. 19:4-6, where we read the words of the Lord to Moses: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” The summary of God’s liberation of Israel and the now which begins God’s promise to Israel indicates “that Egypt is now past tense to Israel” (NIB Commentary, 834): Israel is freed from the past and freed for the future, from oppression and for obedience, from the nations and for a new beginning as a “holy nation.” God’s speech to Moses in Exodus 19 is “programmatic for Israelite faith” and functions as a kind of prologue to the prologue, in that these verses express Israel’s divinely ordained identity while the Decalogue that follows in Exodus 20 fleshes out the nature of this identity.

The identity of Israel according to Exod. 19:4-6 is clearly a theopolitical identity shaped by the liberating event of the exodus from Egypt. Israel is constituted as the people of God who have a particular sociopolitical existence because of the particular God that they have—a God who is not satisfied with personal piety when there is social injustice, a God who takes up the cause of the poor and the oppressed, and a God who commands obedience in social and political matters in accordance with the covenant. Israel is not freed from oppression in order to oppress others; this would be a rejection of the God who freed them in the first place. Fidelity to the Lord of Hosts entails fidelity to social justice: orthodoxy entails orthopraxis. The lex credendi and lex orandi entail the lex amandi. Israel is only liberated by God in order to be a people who radiate God’s liberating love to others. Israel was taken up on eagles’ wings solely because of God’s gracious election of Israel, and consequently they are given the responsibility of living in correspondence to their elect identity both locally and globally—in relation to the neighbor and the nations of the world. We should note that these three verses make it clear that “the whole earth” belongs to the Lord, but that God choose Israel to be God’s covenant people. God elected Israel for a new sociopolitical identity in which the poor are no longer exploited, the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the oppressed are protected, and the foreigners are welcomed with open arms. This is what it means to “obey my voice and keep my covenant”; this is what it means to be “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”

My argument is that the first commandment establishes the political identity of the covenantal community. The Exodus account does not distinguish between inner and outer, spiritual and physical. The covenantal stipulations are extrospective rather than introspective: they turn us outward toward the neighbor in love and service. The commandments place a holistic and total claim upon our lives, without thereby becoming totalizing and absolutist. The Decalogue encompasses our sociopolitical life within the covenantal relation to Yahweh without calcifying the form such life must take. In its plainest sense, therefore, the first commandment demands complete fidelity to the Lord who graciously liberates, protects, and provides, and thus abuse in one’s “horizontal” relation to any neighbor is a disruption of one’s “vertical” relation to the Lord with whom one exists in a covenant of grace. The first commandment concerns proper worship of God, but God is not worshipped when the neighbor is not welcomed. Love of God and love of neighbor—and as Jesus reminds us, our neighbor might also be our enemy—thus implicate each other: you cannot have one without the other. The command to have no other gods before or in place of the Lord is a command to tear down whatever barriers we might erect between ourselves and the Other.

III. The Ekklesia and the Nation-State

I take it as axiomatic that the covenant of grace between God and Israel applies to the ecclesial community as well. The church is part of the same covenantal community conditioned by the same covenant of grace grounded in Jesus Christ. The foundations of Israel are foundations for the church as well and vice versa. Furthermore, the exodus from Egypt now extends to all people because of the liberating event of the cross in which Christ freed all humanity from the pharaonic powers of sin and death. Similarly, the responsibility to live in correspondence to this covenant extends to all people; God calls the whole of humanity to peace, justice, and righteousness. Certainly, the ethic we find in the gospels and epistles transcends the specific legal stipulations established in the Old Testament law codes. But the new ethical framework established by Jesus and Paul does not undermine the sociopolitical ramifications of the covenant; on the contrary, it radicalizes them (cf. the Sermon on the Mount). More importantly, the ethical framework of the church remains grounded in the same God of grace who establishes the same covenant of grace—it is a “new covenant” only in that it universalizes and radicalizes the redemption that God graciously began with creation and constituted in Christ.

That said, how ought the ecclesial community relate to the nation-state? Or, more personally, how ought the Christian relate her ecclesial identity to her national identity? Or, as Cavanaugh often puts the question, what is the relation between being a Christian and being an American? To really due justice to these questions would take us too far afield. By framing these questions in terms of the first commandment, I have sought to focus the question on the issue of idolatry. American evangelicals are predisposed to see idolatry in things that they already view as morally reprobate, such as sexual “deviancy” and drug addiction. But as any cursory glance at Exodus demonstrates, the problem of idolatry is thoroughly political. The rulers of Israel and Judah in the divided kingdom are identified as idolaters, because they perpetuated the reign of Pharaoh by oppressing the poor and ignoring social injustices. The covenant law was established by God in order to prevent the continuation of Egypt in their midst; the Decalogue was given by God so that Pharaoh might no longer exert his dominion of unrighteousness and injustice. The fact that the Israelite leaders became their own Pharaohs helps explain God’s wrath as recorded in the prophets as a recapitulation of the divine wrath executed against the Egyptians. My point is simply that one’s sociopolitical identity is basic to the question of idolatry. Idolatry is fundamentally corporate and political in nature, and thus righteousness is also corporate and political.

What I find most problematic about American evangelicalism is thus the clear lack of a covenant ecclesiology. Of course, evangelicals generally lack an ecclesiology altogether, and this plays itself out in evangelical engagement in politics. Without a robust ecclesiology in which believers are defined in relation to the church as the covenantal community in fellowship with Christ, evangelicals are free to decide ad hoc—in accordance with their own interpretation of Scripture—what are the sociopolitical implications of the gospel, if any. The lack of an ecclesiology allows the church to become an aggregate of individual believers rather than a community defined by the covenant of grace and called to bear witness to the world with a concrete sociopolitical existence. Consequently, American evangelicals tend to view their American identity in political terms, while viewing their Christian identity in spiritual and invisible terms. Evangelicals are thus too often guilty of neutering the church, rendering it empty of sociopolitical relevance in a world all too happy to see churches affirm and prop up the established structures of oppression rather than confront them with a Christ-centered insurgency.

There are (or at least were) many evangelicals who talk as if being a Christian and being an American are complementary realities. The assumption seems to be that one’s Christian identity determines how one lives spiritually while one’s American identity determines how one lives physically and materially in the world. Being a Christian means that one worships God and proclaims the good news of the gospel to others, while being an American means that one adopts the values and ideals which most promote life in this country. One pledges allegiance to God as a spiritual being and pledges allegiance to the flag as a sociopolitical being. Such compatibilism is only possible, of course, if one neuters the gospel’s political ramifications. Being a Christian cannot have any social or political implications but must instead be a purely individual, spiritual identity that can be freely joined to whatever national politic one deems best.

Things are, of course, quite a bit more complicated than this, of course. Many evangelicals today are well aware that the Christian narrative calls us to a particular way of life. It just so happens that they think the gospel endorses the Republican platform and calls them to serve their nation just as loyally as they serve the Christian church. Sexual ethics—viz. abortion and homosexuality—form the cornerstone of evangelical politics, while other issues are resolved in a more ad hoc manner. For example, many evangelicals have adopted a concern for the environment as part of a pro-life agenda, and some have also joined the ranks of those criticizing the militarism of the Bush administration.

The problem nowadays is not so much the denial of politics, but the assumption that one particular kind of politics is in conformity with the gospel. And not just any particular politics, but a particular national politics. In other words, most evangelicals still seem to think that the United States government sets the terms for what is properly political. Hence, evangelical politics are still bound to the two-party system, a reality that is evident not only in the strict separation between the Religious Right on one side and Jim Wallis on the other but also in the dichotomous rhetoric that divides people along the lines of liberal/conservative, left/right, pro-America/anti-America, ally/enemy. As long as evangelicals take their political cues from national politics rather than from Scripture, the evangelical engagement in social issues will remain at least potentially, if not actually, idolatrous.

A covenant ecclesiology recognizes that the ekklesia and the nation-state are both political bodies with their own allegiances. The ekklesia is a sociopolitical body defined by the covenant of grace and constituted by the person of Jesus Christ; the nation-state is a sociopolitical body defined by its constitution and constituted by its citizens. The church commits idolatry whenever its evangelical mission becomes intertwined with the nationalistic mission of the nation-state (which is often an imperialistic and capitalistic mission as well). The church commits idolatry whenever both Jesus Christ and the flag are considered worthy of allegiance, perhaps not equally but nevertheless in some sort of compatibilist framework that neutralizes the identity of Jesus Christ as Lord and King, and attempts to coordinate one’s citizenship on earth and in heaven. The church commits idolatry whenever Christians attempt to serve two masters—not only God and Mammon, but also God and America (or God and the Nation). The imperatives that Christ gives to the church—“take and eat; this is my body” (Matt. 26:26); “go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19)—are political imperatives: they are a call to cruciform discipleship that pledges allegiance to Christ alone (solus Christus) and submits in humble obedience to the beckoning call of the Master: “Follow me.” Any attempt to conjoin the call of Christ with the call of Uncle Sam—thus depoliticizing discipleship and baptizing citizenship—is an act of idolatry parallel to the Israelites who could not stomach a holy and mysterious God and so bowed down instead before a calf of gold—a god they could domesticate, manipulate, and fit comfortably into their everyday lives.

As the covenantal community of the triune God, the ekklesia has a theopolitical identity shaped by the liberating event of the cross. We are not defined by any particular nation, because the community of Jesus Christ is a catholic community; there are no borders within the church, no boundaries to the worship of God. The ekklesia is a community that bears witness to the God of all grace who universally unites humanity while grounding us in the concrete and local, who demands justice here and now while rectifying injustice there and then in the resurrection, who calls a particular people to be a light to the world while becoming the incarnate Light of the world in Jesus Christ. In its historical embodiment of the eschatological kingdom, the ekklesia is a subversive witness to God’s present and coming reign. The ekklesia thus stands over against the nation-state: the ekklesia says No to the claims of the nation-state and Yes to the claims of Christ, No to nationalism and Yes to the worship of God.

In conclusion, the relation between the nation-state and the ekklesia is both antagonistic and affirming. The relation is antagonistic in that the ecclesial community witnesses against the idolatry of the state that continues to perpetuate Pharaoh’s oppressive reign through systemic violence, economic bondage, and social subjugation. The relation is affirming in that the ecclesial community joins in itself the nations of the world that will one day gather around the mountain of the Lord in worship of the triune God (cf. Mic. 4:1-4, Rev. 21:24-26). The church must be fully aware that their identity as the church, as those who follow Christ in humble obedience, calls them to witness with their lives to a coming eschatological community in which justice, peace, and love will reign for eternity. Here and now, the ecclesial community cannot assume that their witness will be compatible with the claims of the nation-state. Instead, Christians must be aware that the command of Christ may call them to publicly confront the political idolatry of the state that has been and continues to be so prevalent in our modern age. In so challenging current social structures, the ekklesia may find that they are being truly conformed into the likeness of Christ, the one who died at the hands of idolatrous imperial power for us and our salvation. Let us remember that the first commandment is not only the “axiom of theology,” as Barth rightly notes, but it is also on a fundamental level the axiom of the ekklesia.


Anonymous said…
Although I wouldn't phrase everything in quite the same way, I think the major thrust of your post is spot on. Nationalism is idolatry!
Chuck said…
God Bless the USA!
Unknown said…
I'm pretty sympathetic to all of this, except. . .which Evangelicals? Scot McKnight doesn't fit this, neither does Rodney Clapp or any of the Brazos authors. In some ways, much of the impetus for what you're doing in the series is coming from within Evangelicalism. You probably know that, but be careful of the Staw Man Syndrome!

Thanks for that point. Of course, I agree. Throughout this series I have been aware of the possibility for overgeneralizing evangelicalism. Perhaps the biggest problem is that there are about as many versions of evangelicalism as there are evangelicals! This is a huge problem for anyone trying to write about evangelicalism. The best I can do (especially in a blog post!) is apologize and just keep going.

As an evangelical myself and one who grew up experiencing all of these problems, I write this in many ways to myself ten years ago. I hope it still remains helpful.
Anonymous said…
Chuck, by all means God bless the USA! And God bless Iraq; God bless China! God bless Palestine! God bless Russia! God bless everyone--no exceptions!

The USA is not a chosen nation. Since the coming of Christ, no nation is chosen--and all are blessed by the People of God in Christ scattered among them (and called out from every tongue and nation).
Halden said…
We could qualify our definitions of evangelicalism all day long. Regardless, there's still plenty of reason to critique the "god and country" right-wingers who get press. The fact that they don't speak for everyone only makes that critique more important.
Anonymous said…
Apart from nationalism, I wonder about the impact of this political vision on the role of ethnic identity politics not just in the U.S. but globally.

Unknown said…
One of the reasons I don't leave comments very often is that I often come off much crankier than I mean to. I hope this isn't the case here!

To pick up on Halden's comment too: one reason specificity is important is precisely because the "right wingers" don't speak for everyone. If that's true, then there must be a kind of Evangelicalism that doesn't succumb to the "heresies" you've laid out here so well.

I guess my question is whether that is even possible. Is, say, "nationalism" endemic to Evangelicalism or a perversion of it? Is it possible to be Evangelical without the heresy?

So while I like your series very much, at some point someone needs to work whether an alternative is possible. Good luck. ;-)
Halden said…
I agree with you Mark, and I think that's a good question. Can one be an evangelical without heresy? I'm inclined to say yes, but I suppose I will have to think on it.

One thought that I do have is that obviously we can redefine "evangelicalism" all we want until we get a non-heretical description of some sector of Christians who we would identify with. But is that the right way to do things? How far can we go in redefining a term when social and cultural realities have basically handed us a defnintion that is just a given in most people's minds? Maybe we need a new term.

I absolutely do think that we can have a "heresy"-free evangelicalism. I identify myself with evangelicalism in a certain sense, so I sure hope it's possible! By pointing out these "heresies," I am trying to identify where contemporary American Christianity needs to be especially careful. My other posts were more personal and anecdotal. I opted in this post to present a more detailed exegetical argument, since this issue is especially pressing and rarely receives careful exegetical and theological attention.
Unknown said…
Thanks to both of you for indulging me, especially since I jumped in out of nowhere.

Is there one theme that unites all of the evangelicalisms and gets away from the heresies? It occurred to me today that I act, especially in the classroom, as though it were the free - church ecclesiology, since that seems to be what I find myself defending with the most vigor. I realize there are other options, but maybe that's a place to start from.

Maybe a new term is in order. Neo - evangelical, anyone? ;-)

Ok, that's enough from me. Thanks again