I was having a conversation many years ago with a neighbor in England. At some point he said, "The difference between the English and Americans is that you still believe in your flag and we don't." I was not sure exactly what he meant by that, or even if it is accurate but recent events have me thinking again about that what he said.
First, let me state that I am as conflicted as most of us concerning nation-state and religion. I have family members in the military and I also believe that American flags have no business being on church property, with the possible of exception of it being one of many to represent all nations flowing in. I expect some pushback here as I get it nearly everywhere.
It is impossible to address two related issues here in the few words I have remaining, but I will attempt to say enough to get started. The first has to do with following leaders. The second addresses national religion and invoking the Bible in politics. No doubt I am asking for trouble.
When the apostle Paul addressed a divided church in Corinth he began by saying, "For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, 'I belong to Paul,' or 'I belong to Apollos,' or 'I belong to Cephas,' or 'I belong to Christ.' Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?" (I Corinthians 1:11-13, RSV).
At issue was division over some combination of teaching, language and ethnicity. One can surmise that the issues over sexuality, food, the relationship of the soul with the body, legal proceedings, and economic inequality originated with nuances in teaching content which may have been misunderstood. It is not a very long journey into the realm of politics (which is usually a perilous trip).
Paul's remedy is to focus on the content of the message. A good leader is not the originator of the content, but rather one chosen to get the message across and see its implications to fruition. Even accepting the deity of Christ (which I do) this is the case for both faith and politics. It is the nature of people to frequently choose leaders who fail. See the story of King Saul in the Old Testament and a reference to Hymenaeus and Alexander in I Timothy 1 in the New. In contrast, when God chooses the leader, David (OT) and Christ (NT), things work out considerably better. The trouble we have is that we cannot always tell the difference in religion and politics alike. Seek good content and live it.
Now that we have thoroughly conflated religion and politics, let me say something about national religion and invoking religious texts for political purposes. Both have been around for millennia and will continue to flourish, but that does not mean that thoughtful believers should not provide some countering voice. In the New Testament, it is important to be reminded of the political nature of saying, "Jesus is Lord." Caesar would not have liked that very much. And it was for claiming to be a king (Lord) that sent Jesus to the cross. There was an imperial religious cult in the early days of Christianity, and it was the fact that Christians lived in that world and yet held their allegiance to Christ that caused them trouble.
This is relevant to the United States today because we are historically deeply connected to Christianity (even if it may be catastrophically flawed). Our challenge is that we have developed a national religion that is so mixed with Christianity that many (both religious and secular) cannot separate them. Hence discussions over the Ten Commandments in courtrooms.
Here are some examples from the recent impeachment proceedings. Speaker Pelosi invoked religious language (and intentionally left our "under God" from the pledge). In her opening statement she said, "We gather today under the dome of this temple of democracy. ..." In the next paragraph she referred to a "sacred oath." Make no mistake this is national religion which makes the American flag an idol. (I did not say that it is, but that in context it became so.)
And in the category of using religion for political points Congressman Loudermilk said, "Pontius Pilate afforded more rights to Jesus than the Democrats have afforded this president in this process."
This will not stop. People of faith simply need to stop living in such ways as to be considered a voting block responsive to pandering. And we need to understand that while we live in a great nation that stands for so much good in the world, the flag is not our God, the constitution is not our Bible, and Congress is not our Savior.
Sean Niestrath lives and ministers in Madisonville. You may contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.