Why Saying “America First” Is Not Compatible With Christianity

The American experiment is predicated on the notion of the peaceful transfer of power. We just underwent one such transition. On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump swore on a Bible to stand on behalf of others and gave an address. An inaugural address can tell us a lot about what a new president values.

A new president can tell us a lot about what we value (even though he lost the popular vote in a landslide).

Trump’s speech was simply an extension of his campaign rhetoric promising us that we would win and that, from now on, it’s going to be “America First”. We’re going to put up a wall, we’re going to turn away refugees and immigrants, we’re going to tax companies that build things out of the country. In short, we’re not going to be pushed around any more and gosh-dangit, it’s about time we thought of ourselves. As Trump said:

From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.

I wrote the other day about how Christianity is always political. Our faith informs and fuels our politics. Every election season, Christians confound one another trying to convince each other that certain political positions that automatically mean you’re not a Christian. And, of course, if you only took your faith as seriously as I do, we would vote the same.

Part of the difficulty, of course is that, for many, Christianity also means being a patriot. We have adopted this sentimental notion of the “good ol’ boy” who loves his Momma, loves his truck, loves his guns, loves God and his country. To be a Christian in America, for many, means being an American, and being proud to be an American. There is a good section of our country that believes that America is a “Christian” nation and that to be Christian inseparably means supporting America.
But what do when “American values” contradict Christianity? For example, Trump’s message is unbiblical at best, anti-Christian at worst. Do you think that’s an overstatement? Despite that the fact that many people claim to have voted for Trump out of sincere Christian convictions, he proved on Inauguration Day that he not only misunderstands Christianity, he stands in direct opposition to many core Christian convictions. Do you think that’s an overstatement? Let’s think about it.

During the campaign, Trump promised his supporters that, under his leadership, America would “win” so much that: “You will be tired of winning. We will win win win.” Every candidate promised to help get their country ahead. But “winning” in Trump’s world seems to be a zero-sum game. In other words, for us to “win”, someone else must lose. Trump has proven that he is not the forgiving type. He has admitted to holding grudges and promotes getting even with others.

The Christian understanding leads us to pursue the “flourishing” (shalom) of all. In other words, we win when others win. This is part of the reason why God tells His exiled people to seek the betterment of their captive cities (Jeremiah 29). Christians win when others flourish. But this is not what Trump means by “We will win win win.” He has already shown that, if Mexico is unwilling to pay for our wall, then we will punish them. Winning for Trump always means beating someone else. This is simply not in line with a biblical approach to dealing with others.

Christianity is, at its core, “other-centric”. It requires that we consider others as more important than ourselves (Philippians 2). Paul tells the Romans that if they want to compete, they should out-honor one another (Romans 12:10). Jesus tells us that the path to true greatness is through humbling ourselves and putting others first (Matthew 20:16) and just in case we’re unclear, Jesus clarifies that greatness lies in serving others (Matthew 20: 26-27).

Yet, Trump promised to put “America first” and this is exactly what many of his supporters wanted him to say. Even many of his Christian supporters. But what do when “American values” contradict Christianity? Let’s unpack this a bit for a minute, speaking in the context of a presidential inauguration, to Americans, the contextual implication of putting “America first” equals the same thing as saying: “Let’s put ourselves first (even at the cost of excluding others).” “Let’s put ourselves first” is simply the plural of “ME FIRST”.

But Christianity requires us to put others first. Christianity is simply not compatible with the sort of nationalistic patriotism. Christians in America seem to be at a perpetual crossroads. Will we influence the American culture more than we let it influence us? Alan Wolfe argues in The Transformation of American Religion that, despite the best efforts of many Christians, American culture tends to win:

“in every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture – and American culture has triumphed. Whether or not the faithful ever were a people apart, they are so no longer”

Christians must separate themselves from a culture which promotes self-service. Christians must regain lives of sacrifice and the practice of service. God is love and far too often, no one would know it by watching us. What will we show a watching world? Will we buy in to a nationalistic patriotism that’s simply flag-wrapped selfishness or will we follow Jesus into servanthood seeking the good of others?

Christianity Is Always Political

We are fortunate to live in a country in which we get to re-choose our major leaders on a rotating cycle. The up-side of this is that we get to regularly examine how we come to our political positions. We regularly have the opportunity to discover anew how our worldviews create our political opinions. The down-side is that it is easy to simply take party loyalty for granted and simply assume that (if you are a Christian as am I) our party affiliation is, “of course the most biblical choice” without continually re-examining whether our votes really align with biblical values.

In other words since voting for major offices is such a regular part of our life in this country, it’s tempting to simply fall in to patterns of voting without really thinking about why we’ve aligned with a certain candidate or party. It seems even rarer still for adults to switch party loyalties once they have been ingrained.

But Christians are called to continually re-examine their beliefs, “taking every thought captive” (2 Corinthians 10:5, etc.), striving for a maturity that is not easily swayed (Ephesians 4:9-16). We are told to strive after maturity and expected to think deeply.

The 2016 election cycle has been contentious to say the least and it has caused lots of division among Christians. Many (including myself) have felt as though the Republican candidate is completely and utterly out of step with what I value as a Christian. Others have argued that the Republican party is always the more biblical choice regardless of the candidate. Still others take it a step further and say that Donald Trump is actually God’s candidate.

As I’ve dialogued with family and friends about the different positions Christians might take over this election cycle, one view repeated itself enough that I’ve been thinking a lot about it. In short, many people told me that they have actively tried to separate their faith from their political opinions and votes. Several people told me that Christianity can be interpreted and applied by people of both major political party and can be inconclusive at best and divisive at worst, so they have decided to vote aside from their faith. 

As I’ve tried to understand this position, I’m driven more and more to the conviction that Christianity is always political. Our faith cannot be separated from our politics. In fact, I would argue that our politics are an outworking of our faith. Christianity addresses how we should care for the poor (Psalm 34:6; Proverbs 22:9, 31:20; Daniel 4:27; Matthew 19:21; Galatians 2:10, etc.). Christianity addresses our attitude to violence (Exodus 14:14; 1 Samuel 17:47; Psalms 11:5, 17:4, 20:7; Matthew 5:9, etc.). We could go on, but my point is that Christianity directly addresses issues which fuel our voting habits.

We tend to forget that Rome viewed Christianity as a political threat. Part of being a citizen meant declaring that Caesar was Lord. But as people came to faith in Jesus, they were no longer able to declare such things because Jesus was now their Lord. This might be difficult for us to understand in our current political day and age but it is fairly easy to see why political leaders would not only view this as insubordination but as a threat to their own positions of power.

We tend to forget that it is the Christian faith which has led many to acts of civil disobedience and to become directly involved in politics. Whether abolition, women’s suffrage, the fight for civil rights, Christianity has not only always been political, it has often been quite unpopular.

Christianity in America has often been co-opted to support the pursuit of wealth and comfort. It has been used to justify oppression rather than combat it. Christianity has been turned upside down and used to endorse power structures which directly oppose biblical convictions.

We live in a time whose importance will only really become apparent with time. Christians in America have the opportunity to shed the skin of consumerism and leave behind (and fight) systems of oppression. Christians in America have the duty to follow Christianity rather than America. Christians have the chance (and perhaps obligation) to reclaim the practice of civil disobedience. Part of our prophetic voice in culture has always been to speak truth to power, not to court favor.

The heart of Christianity is for social justice, care for the poor, nonviolence and the flourishing of our cities. These convictions have unmistakable political ramifications. Christianity is always political and it’s up to us to work this out in public.

I look forward to your thoughts.

Can We Talk (Complementarian/Egalitarian Edition)?

One of the things I love about you, my online friends, is that (for the most part) we can have active and respectful dialogue, even (especially?) when we disagree.

I have said this before, but dialogue is one of the ways I process issues. I love to hear from people with different opinions than mine. It helps me to see where other people are coming from and how they arrived at their positions. It helps me clarify my own positions and respect others. The trouble, of course, is that we all think we’re right and we sometimes have a tendency to elevate the importance of our opinions, forgetting that they are just that: opinions. This is all the more difficult when we are passionate about a particular issue or we view it to be somehow controversial.

When I started blogging years ago, one of the things that attracted me to the format was the interactive nature. I always leave the comments section open. So, let’s try something completely dependent on your participation. If you don’t participate, this post is basically just a bunch of questions.

I know that people say that online comments are not the place to make insightful arguments but I have gleaned a great deal from many of you on this exact platform. You have challenged me to grow and I have (hopefully) learned to think more clearly as a result. So I’d like to try an experiment: let’s discuss some topics together.

Over the past couple of years, I have seen the idea of “orthodoxy” applied to issues I’m not sure it should have been. I have seen well-intentioned Christians say that other well-intentioned Christians are not in fact Christians because of their views on things like hell, gender roles and the like. So let’s explore some of these issues together. I’d like to propose a topic in the briefest way possible and let you help fill out the discussion. I’d like us all to listen and learn from one another. Maybe you’ll find your own position strengthened as a result, and maybe you’ll be persuaded to another view. Either way, it is a valuable exercise to to listen to one another.

Let’s start with “complimentarianism” and “egalitarianism”. For those not familiar with these terms, they have to do with the idea of gender roles, particularly in ministry (at least that’s what we’ll focus on for the sake of this conversation though the issue certainly applies to marriage and gender-relations as a whole so feel free to take the conversation there if you’d like). Most Christians would argue that men and women are created equal, that’s not the issue here. Instead, the question becomes gender role, particularly within a ministry context.

Complementarians argue that, because of unique gender roles found in Scripture, women are prohibited from leadership roles within the local church such as “elder” or “pastor” while Egalitarians argue that not only do no such Scriptural barriers exist, women are just as called and qualified to serve in such roles.

Of course this is an over-simplification of the issue but I’m just wanting to get the conversation started; it’s up to you to help fill it out further and help the rest of us understand how you arrived at your particular convictions. Let’s help others understand the issue better. From both sides.

So, some questions to get us started (feel free to add others):

  • Do you view this as an issue of “orthodoxy”? In other words, if someone holds a different position than you on gender-roles, do you believe them to still be a Christian?
  • If you do not view this as an issue of orthodoxy, how important is this issue to you? Where would you rank it on a scale of theological/cultural importance (top, bottom, middle, etc.)?
  • Do you hold to either position? Why? What Scriptures or outside books/authors helped you arrive at your position? How do you succinctly explain your position to others, especially those who might disagree? What pushed you in one direction or the other?
  • Why do you believe that this issue seems to cause such division? Why has it been so controversial to so many?
  • How can people on all sides of this issue come together without sacrificing their own convictions? Or can they?

 As always, please be respectful. I can’t wait to learn from you.