The words flowed in perfect patriotic cadence. “My fellow Americans, we are going through a time of testing. But if you look through the fog of these challenging times, you will see, our flag is still there today…” Words that sidle up with warm familiarity, reminiscent of any number of speeches discussed in elementary school history classes. But then came the twist.
So let’s run the race marked out for us. Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents. Let’s fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire. And let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith and our freedom and never forget that where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. That means freedom always wins.
In rapid-fire succession, the Vice President interlaced national mythology and biblical imagery with such finesse that a less careful listener might blink and miss it. It was intentional, without question. A masterful rhetorical play meant to stir not just nationalistic, but religious fervor.
Vice President Pence’s speech is a classic example of what Robert Bellah terms “civil religion.” Civil religion is a shared national religious consciousness that, while not clearly defined, significantly interweaves and binds American political life together. Listen to just about any inauguration speech and you will hear it. While many believe the United States was founded as a Christian nation, Bellah is explicit: “[civil] religion is clearly not itself Christianity.” The god of American civil religion is “much more related to order, law, and right than to salvation and love.” Its genius is in its accessible, relatable generality. The moment it becomes too specific, it alienates religious others, and slouches toward state religion.
However, the Vice President’s speech went beyond standard civil religious rhetoric, leaning toward specificity. His climactic conclusion evoked powerful associations with an unnamed (yet entirely understood) figure. The suggestive rhetoric deftly merged the crucified Christ with courageous patriots; blood-bought spiritual freedom with a star spangled one.
Religious rhetoric deployed for political gain is no recent innovation. It is baked into our collective identity as far back as our founding. This speech, however, was intended for a particular audience: American evangelicals committed to the Republican cause, the Religious Right, and Christian Nationalists. And it is an effective strategy because of a deep confusion—a fusion, really—that has taken place between Christian theology and American ideology. This is not a neutral matter. In merging the two, American evangelicalism has diminished its prophetic distance from culture, and in doing so, has impaired its capacity for witness as citizen-strangers.
Christians are commissioned for witness. Entrusted with the truth of Christ, we are made to shine brightly in this world (Matt. 5:14-16), bearing witness to the stunning claim that Jesus is Lord above all (Rom. 10:9), to a world warring for ideological dominance. As heralds of the objective goodness and supremacy of God’s righteousness revealed in Jesus, we are embodied proof of the true life of Christ in this world. We do not proclaim abstracted ethical ideals, but are rather “called into a life that is lived in God’s love, and that means lived in reality.”
Those who incarnate the love of Christ retain a whiff of familiarity—God’s love yet echoes through the fractured imago Dei—yet the substance is as foreign to this world as the first time it penetrated the haze of humanity incurvatus in se. The otherness bestowed upon the people of Christ relocates us at a distance from the burning core of culture. We are, to use Peter’s words, “sojourners and exiles” (1 Pet. 2:11) in our own land. Though we claim legal rights and benefits of American citizenship, our allegiance to Christ renders us citizen-strangers.
It is out of this identity-in-tension—this displaced belonging—that we proclaim the crucified and resurrected Jesus as Lord and King, inviting the world to receive his gracious embrace and partake in his life (Matt. 28:18-20). And it is in living as witnesses in the dynamic and tumultuous overlapping space between kingdoms as ambassadors of God’s righteousness that we become living, breathing indictments of the darkness.
Consequences of Collapse
But witness is ineffective when critical distance is removed. Our displacement does more than make us social oddballs; it produces the detachment necessary to proclaim the supremacy of Christ, and to both critique culture where it opposes him, and affirm it where it manifests goodness. Intimate identification with a particular culture (or subculture) binds us to the very thing we seek to appraise, pegging us to a compromised and biased vantage point. It is hard enough to criticize our heroes; how can we expect to speak out against the culture shaping our identity? In fact, one could argue that this kind of witness is suicidal. If it is imprudent to saw away at the legs of the stool you sit on, it is lethal to critique the grounding reality on which your identity rests.
Of course, there is a place for this kind of closeness. We rightly assume no critical distance in doing theology, which must not lead to an appraisal of God, but adoration of God. To critically assess God, we must possess an epistemological independence which is simply impossible for a creature. Who among us is equipped to embark on this metaphysical spacewalk, untethered from the One who is the ground of our existence, the essence of goodness, justice, and love? All who attempt this journey will soon find themselves floating free and alone into the abyss.
Culture, however, is no deity. While it certainly exercises shaping and socializing influence on each and every one of us, as citizen-strangers we can no longer derive primary significance from any particular culture, heritage, or association. These identitarian forces are formatively subordinated to Jesus. As such, culture no longer bears the existential load it once did, and we are free to speak into and bear witness to our society.
At least, this is what is supposed to happen. This present moment finds us in a very different place, as large sectors of American evangelicalism have subtly collapsed this critical distance. Confusing patriotism with Scriptural fidelity to Romans 13, some reinforce this muddle by posting an American flag near the same sacrosanct pulpit used to speak of the thrice holy God. The Christomorphic way of self-giving humility is often interlaced with the American way of individualism and capitalism. The transformation is reified as churches transform into self-selecting lifestyle enclaves, (unintentionally) preserving this amalgam.
What happens when Christ’s people cease to live as citizen-strangers and choose rather to live simply as citizens; when we pull our world close enough to confuse unflinching allegiance to God with unflinching allegiance to country, culture or community? We lose the clarity and courage necessary to bear witness to the matchless Christ, because we understand that doing so will cut away the very thing we’ve grown to depend on for security and significance.
Dancing with Democracy
To be fair, the American experiment provides a remarkable opportunity unlike anything the early church could have dreamed. We possess the right to freely speak, influence and critique government, irrespective of religious persuasion. This is a gift, and a stewardship of the highest order, requiring the very detachment I have described above.
Unfortunately, many evangelicals desire more than distanced influence and critique, longing instead for primary power. It is possible to pursue power instrumentally, in order to bring about good in society. Where we can bring about change, we should. But power is seductive. The alluring vision of securing not just objective good, but our good—or our way of life—is too much for many to pass up.
But if our way of life is Jesus’ way of life, isn’t this a worthy use of power? This assumes, of course, a certain sober-minded assessment concerning our way of life, namely that we have remained citizen-strangers in this world. And yet the track record of American evangelicalism on that count leaves something to be desired.
In fact, the problem runs deeper than approaching political power with right motives. The pursuit of power in a democratic republic always requires some compromise. Simply put, you cannot win an office without convincing a certain proportion of the population that you are the best candidate—and such a feat in a pluralistic context is impossible without concessions. Herein lies the crux. These accommodations, when gladly embraced, reconfigure our loyalty to Christ to make room for the American values and mythologies which provide political credibility, and access to political power.
When this happens, we become less free to bear the kind of witness that holds all things up to the light of Jesus, lest we bite the hand that empowered us. We therefore introduce a parasitic coregency wherein the singular Christ reigns alongside, and ultimately subordinate to our political ambitions. The human heart cannot serve two masters; we are simple in that way. The Christian who looks to political power as a deliverer and protector will do what it takes to hold on to this power—and will therefore prioritize pragmatism over the lordship of Jesus when the two stand in conflict.
Historic Christianity is fundamentally centered on the reality that Jesus is Lord (Rom. 10:9), who in his incarnation, death and resurrection secures true life and freedom for his people. It is only through his cross-work that we truly understand, find meaning in, and learn how to relate to our social and political context. When we cease to live in this culturally subversive reality as citizen-strangers, we commit a graver sin than merely politicizing Christianity. We become captives to the culture, and so shackled, become unable to follow Jesus faithfully by bearing witness to his goodness in this world.
Christian political engagement can accomplish great good. But it requires humble strangeness. To put it simply, no Christian has any business pursuing political power until they know the freedom of not needing power or status. And this will never happen without humbly renouncing our craving for political saviors, and unconditionally embracing him who loved us and gave himself up for us.
Strangeness also requires courage. It takes backbone to join Christ outside the camp, taking up our cross to crucify our pride, insecurity, and fear. But it is always worth it. For in dying, we rise again to a love that fills us faster than we can give it away. And this love is essential, especially as we face fellow Christians who find our strangeness a threat to their own power, and will invariably question our loyalty to God and country.
But this is where we must live. For it is only in the exilic distance from culture, in the courageous embrace of our identity as citizen-strangers that we can faithfully bear witness to Jesus. After all, “what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matt. 16:26)
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- Epstein, Reid J. 2020. “Full Transcript: Mike Pence’s R.N.C. Speech.” New York Times, August 26, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/26/us/politics/mike-pence-rnc-speech.html. ↑
- Robert N. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” in The Robert Bellah Reader, ed. Steven M. Tipton (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 232. ↑
- Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (New York, NY, United States of America: Oxford University Press, 2020). ↑
- “History and Good ”, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, trans. Krauss, Reinhard; West, Charles C.; Scott, Douglass W., Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works: Reader’s Edition Set, 2015. 156. ↑
- Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley, Calif. Los Angeles, Calif. London: University of California Press, 2008). 71-75. ↑
- See especially Bonhoeffer’s discussion in “Ultimate and Penultimate Things,” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, trans. Krauss, Reinhard; West, Charles C.; Scott, Douglass W., Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works: Reader’s Edition Set, 2015. 81-103. I have discussed his treatment as well: I have treated this in brief as well: https://gcdiscipleship.com/article-feed/bonhoeffers-serious-vision-of-christ. ↑