In this tense political season, I struggle to balance my Christian faith with what I see happening in my country. I question how my faith interacts with my culture and when those two things conflict, how to work them out. I know I’m not alone in this struggle.
As a former missionary married to a missions professor, I think a lot about how culture interacts with the gospel. What makes healthy ministry techniques? The concept of contextualization is important in that process. Contextualization of the gospel is what missionaries and pastors all strive to do. It means expressing biblical principles in a way that makes sense to people in the culture. The Bible makes it pretty clear that the good news of Jesus is for every person in every culture, so this is an important endeavor.
Let me give you an example of contextualization. Let’s say you’re in a church in Nebraska, where football is a really big deal. The preacher may include illustrations from football in his sermon. He may talk about the Church being a team with Jesus as the coach or he may talk about how the Holy Spirit brings unity and enthusiasm to our spiritual lives the way that cheering for a particular team brings unity and excitement to the fans. These illustrations help the people in the audience understand the Bible and apply it to their everyday lives by relating biblical principles to something they know about. This is contextualization, and it’s a good thing.
If we’re not careful, we can take contextualization too far and step into heretical teaching. Syncretism is contextualization taken too far. It means that a group binds the cultural expression of the gospel message so closely to the culture that the two parts cannot be separated. A person who wants to become a Christian must also adopt cultural norms in order to be considered part of the faithful. Syncretism is not a good thing because it adds cultural elements to the gospel and makes them necessary for faith in Jesus.
So if we took the example above to the level of syncretism, we’d have a situation where Christians began replacing worship services with tailgate parties in the parking lot, wearing athletic gear to the parties and including team cheers as a part of the worship of God. There’s nothing wrong with doing those things unless we require that particular dress and activity in order to be a Christian. If someone is unwelcome in the church because he doesn’t wear the football jerseys we require and we say that attendance at a Superbowl party and rooting for a particular team are essential to the gospel, we are stepping past contextualizing and into syncronizing.
It’s easy to look at the above example and know it’s foolish. We’d never say a person had to be a football fan to be a Christian. That would exclude many people from the gospel and wouldn’t even make sense since football did not even exist in Jesus’ day.
Nationalism and Christianity
Unfortunately, syncretism has happened in many churches in America. We have intricately bound patriotism with Christianity. It’s now so completely wound together that we sometimes can’t see where one ends and the other begins. This is why we hear people say things like, “America is God’s country,” and, “America is a Christian nation.” (For a good article from the Christian Standard and a quiz to find out if you’re struggling with syncronistic beliefs, click here.)
How did this happen? One history professor who is himself a Baby Boomer and lived through the time immediately following World War II, tells me that after World War II, Christians began hearing stories of how some soldiers had “miraculously” escaped from certain death and about how America led the fight to free people from oppressive leaders. They believed that God used America to bring freedom to the world and to fight evil. Although nationalistic ideas were probably a part of the American church before this, the events during and following WWII fueled the idea that America was a Christian nation, created by God to bring Christianity to the world. Patriotism was necessary to maintain support for the war, and churches began incorporating patriotic themes into their services.
In order to garner support for the war and win elections, politicians targeted the Christian subculture and appealed to this sense of patriotism, further tying it to Christianity. Christians did not know about or overlooked questionable activities that America might have participated in overseas, saying these actions were necessary to keep the peace and prevent another world war and wasn’t that important in keeping a Christian presence in the world?
In the 1960’s people began balking at that because they began seeing news reports with actual footage of the Vietnam war and other American endeavors. They began to see that things the American government did weren’t always virtuous, so they began to rebel and criticize the government. And, of course, many evangelical Christians criticized those who protested and saw protesters as abominations against the Christian nation of America. Thus began the tension between American culture and Christianity.
The Culture Wars
During the 1980’s, leaders like James Dobson and Jerry Falwell Sr. came into prominence, leading a movement to fight the influence of groups who opposed the American government and this nationalistic form of Christianity. They hoped to do this by fighting what has become known as “culture wars.” I grew up in church and listened to many sermons about the evils of the culture around us, about how we had to take a stand and fight against what we saw going on in America, about how bad rock music or movies were. We were led to believe that we owed it to God to stand up for our faith in a culture that opposed it, that fighting the culture proved our faith.
How many times have I sat in a church service built around 2 Chronicles 7:14 that says, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land”? How many times have I heard the preacher say, “This is a promise to us, America! We were made to do God’s will in the world. Our country has lost its way and now must do what God says in that verse: as a nation we must repent so that he will heal our land and bless us again”? This teaching is heresy. It takes a passage meant for the Israelite people in the Old Testament and incorrectly applies it to America, a country that did not even exist at the time that promise was made.
So we mixed our cultural belief in America with our faith. Influential leaders in the evangelical movement have moved the focus from Jesus to political issues. Those issues are important, but they take second place to the true gospel.
If what I believe I should do to further American strength conflicts with what Jesus taught, I am following the American flag and not Him. If I believe that God has ordained the United States as a special country to promote democracy and freedom in the world, I have mixed my patriotism and my faith, and I have decided to follow a heretical teaching using a misunderstanding of the Bible as its basis. If I believe that I have a Christian duty to stand up for the United States as an effort to preserve freedom and the Christian way of life, I am living according to nationalism and not Christianity.
Is it wrong to promote freedom, to vote based on your convictions and desire to preserve freedom or eliminate abortion, for example? No! Of course not! Our freedoms are important to us as Americans, and it is important to protect those. However, when I say that I do so because I am a Christian and Christians must vote the same way, that they must support a certain candidate or cause in the same way that I do, I am participating in the syncretism of nationalism and Christianity. If I say that I want America to be a Christian nation so that only Christians are free to live here, I no longer speak as an American or a Christian. I am no longer promoting religious freedom. I am promoting a nationalistic, heretical form of Christianity that seeks to eliminate other religions that I believe may threaten my freedom.
Why Does It Matter?
Why is this even important to me? I spent a lot of years just telling myself it was no big deal, that the old school Christians may be wasting their time talking like they did about the culture wars, but in the long run the idea would die out when the older generations did. Now I see I was wrong.
Lately, that idea has made a resurgence. We see it happening in our country in the form of a political candidate who has stirred up those feelings of angry nationalism and has used the evangelical church’s obsession with patriotism to garner votes, despite the fact that we can clearly see that he displays none of the characteristics the Bible tells us to look for in a leader. On the other side, we see Christians urging us to vote for his opponent out of fear that if the first does become president he will take down America. Both of these views smack of nationalism, a dependence on policies to protect our freedom of religion, and not the Christian faith. I admit that I also find myself trapped in this thinking at times. It is a very strong temptation for someone who grew up in an environment where this type of teaching was common.
This is about more than the election, though. The church is now at a crossroads. We can follow the flag and claim we’re following Jesus or we can step away from our patriotism, our desire to make America into some sort of force for Jesus in the world, and actually become a real force for Jesus ourselves, the way that he taught the Church to do. We can live the gospel message, removing dependence upon nationalism and eliminating our reliance on a particular political platform as a test of our faith, or we can continue to fight these culture wars that push people away from Jesus. We do not need a free American “Christian nation” to influence the world for Him. In fact, in both Bible times and modern times we see the Christian faith thriving in places where practice of it is illegal.
Jesus taught his followers to live within their society and to be different from it. The New Testament tells us that the world will know we are Christians by our love, not by the way we promote our causes. Looking at the gospel without clouding it with cultural nationalism, we see that pushing our political agendas as essential to the faith makes about as much sense as incorporating team cheers into our worship services.