There’s been some general disquiet about the First Baptist Dallas choir performing a song entitled Make America Great Again as an ode to President Trump at the Celebrate Freedom Rally in Washington.
The rally, held on July 1, was sponsored by the megachurch’s pastor Robert Jeffress, and it gave the President an opportunity to reaffirm his commitment to traditional Christian values (as he sees them), as well as reminding the audience of America’s Christian heritage.
Mr Trump referred to God bestowing the gift of freedom on the USA, while praising the military’s defense of that freedom.
“Since the signing of the Declaration of Independence 241 years ago, America always affirmed that liberty comes from our creator,” he said. “Our rights are given to us by God and no earthly force can ever take those rights away.”
“Our religious liberty is enshrined in the very first amendment in the Bill of Rights,” he continued. “The American founders invoked our creator four times in the Declaration of Independence. Benjamin Franklin reminded his colleagues at the Constitutional Convention to begin by bowing their heads in prayer. Inscribed on our currency are the words: ‘In God We Trust’.”
When the First Baptist Dallas choir fired up with a rendition of a song based on Mr Trump’s campaign slogan the fusion of religion and politics seemed secure.
The audience loved it. As did President Trump.
But, as squeamish as some critics might be about the sacralization of a campaign slogan, America isn’t the only nation to fuse worship and patriotism into the one song.
Currently, 128 national anthems include religious references, whether Islamic, Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu or traditional. The majority of them are Christian, in fact.
The Brits have been singing God Save the Queen/King for hundreds of years.
And the Canadian national anthem, O Canada, has lines like, “Your arm knows how to carry the cross” and “Your valour steeped in faith”.
Other modern secular democracies have even more explicitly religious lyrics.
The South Africans sing:
“Lord bless Africa / Rise high, Her glory / Listen also to our prayers, / Lord bless us, her family. / Lord protect our nation, / Stop wars and sufferings, / protect it, Protect our nation, / The nation of South Africa, South Africa.”
And even the New Zealanders get in on the act. Their national anthem is practically an out-and-out hymn:
“God of Nations at Thy feet, / In the bonds of love we meet, / Hear our voices, we entreat, / God defend our free land. / Guard Pacific’s triple star / From the shafts of strife and war, / Make her praises heard afar, / God defend New Zealand.”
So I guess whoever wrote the lyrics to Make America Great Again would have had no qualms about fashioning a mélange of Christian hymnody, patriotic singing and American imperialism to be presented as an offering to their still relatively new President.
I mean, if the Brits, the Canadians, the Mexicans, the Italians, the Pakistanis and the Kiwis can do it, why can’t the Americans?
Of course, the Americans can sing whatever they like. It’s their business. But when it comes to blending religion and the state let me sound a few cautions.
When the state (or politics) co-opts Christianity it’s always expressed as a desire to promote the church and its mission. But I think it was GK Chesterton who said, “Whenever the church gets into bed with the state it’s always good for the state and it’s never good for the church.”
Referring to the Tea Party’s appropriation of Christianity for its own political aims back in 2015, Regina Nippert helpfully pointed out, “As Christians, our faith rightly informs our actions. However, we must remove religion from the political sphere. We must make it known that right wing demagoguery is not Christianity in action. If we don’t, Christianity may not survive the loud voices of a minority of its Christians.”
In other words, it doesn’t go well for the cause of Christ to be linked so strongly with a partisan political agenda.
President Jimmy Carter, a former politician and a devout Christian, offered this dire warning decades ago:
“When a group of Christians try to implant through government our beliefs on others as superior, that subverts the basic constitutional prohibition concerning separation of church and state. And when we try to use the federal government to intercede in religious affairs, it inherently weakens the unique character of Christ’s kingdom.”
It might feel powerful to appear to be able to dictate terms to politicians. But it’s a mirage. And that’s because the values of the kingdom of Jesus are so antithetical to the business of politics that any President’s affirmation of the church is always done with his fingers crossed behind his back.
As Scott Higgins recently wrote,
“The Jesus of the Gospels calls us to belief in a God of love who is establishing his reign over our lives and world; to build our lives on the notion that Jesus of Nazareth was the greatest revelation of God in history; to live out of the conviction that Christ rose from the dead, is history’s lord and will return to remake our lives and world; to love our enemies; lay down our lives for each other in love; divest ourselves of wealth; remain steadfastly faithful to our spouses; value inclusive community over the exclusivity of family boundaries; take the initiative in making peace with those who have offended or wronged us; abandon the quest for revenge; value the interests of others before our own; seek justice for the exploited and oppressed; and to share the good news of the reign of God.”
These values are radically and subversively counter-cultural and counter-intuitive to the way politics is done in a liberal democracy. They should stand in contradistinction to the business of politics, and the church should see itself as a prophetic community, a beacon to the alternate way of Jesus, rather than a lobby group co-opted by the political winds of our day.
By all means cheer for decisions made by lawmakers and politicians that appear to be in keeping with the values of King Jesus, but hold your unreserved applause for any politician or party.
In the Old Testament, you’ll find the story of Daniel rebuking the corrupt and evil Babylonian King Belshazzar, but you also find Nathan, the court prophet of Israel, condemning God’s chosen King David for adultery, murder and the abuse of power.
Maintaining an arm’s length from partisan politics allows the church to not only condemn a foreign king, but also a king who appears to be one of their own.