Is America a “Christian Nation”?: A Response to Sufjan Stevens

By Mark Tooley Published on February 16, 2017

Musician Sufjan Stevens blogged last week about politics and faith, decrying the parochialism of American Christianity while unconsciously offering his own brand of uniquely American impatient individualism.

The blog was republished in The Washington Post online, headlined “Stop repeating the heresy of declaring the United States a ‘Christian nation.’”

“You cannot pledge allegiance to a nation state and its flag and the name of God, for God has no political boundary,” according to Stevens. “God is love, period. God is universal, nameless, faceless, and with no allegiance to anything other than love.” He added: “A ‘Christian Nation’ is absolutely heretical. Christ did not come into this world to become a modifier. Look what happened to the Holy Roman Empire.”

Stevens is a Christian so it’s odd he calls God nameless and faceless. The deity of the Bible is not unknown but discloses Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Christians believe He is incarnate in Jesus Christ, who decidedly has a human body, including a face. This deity is not amorphous but concrete and knowable.

The God of the Bible is indeed universal, as Stevens notes, but He reveals Himself through particularities, including a once obscure tribe who became the Hebrews, through shepherds, queens, maidens, fishermen, statesmen and tent makers, and through the Church. He is sovereign over all, and His knowledge and concerns range from sparrows and the hairs on each head, to the rise and fall of great kingdoms.

Countries may not have eternal souls like individuals that can be redeemed, but they can be broadly Christian demographically and by historical influence.

This God may HAVE no political boundaries, but He does ordain them, creating tribes, nations and empires, which like individuals, have virtues and sins, all of which are subordinate to His power. Neither Scripture nor church tradition forbids fidelity to governments and rulers. Instead they command fidelity within their proper sphere of authority.

Can a nation or empire be Christian? Not in the sense of perfection or complete submission to God or expectation that every citizen or subject is a converted Christian. But then, no church is Christian by this definition. “Look what happened to the Holy Roman Empire,” Stevens exclaims. But also look what happened to the Episcopal Church, or generic Evangelicalism, or First Church on Main Street. Or look in the mirror and let’s consider our own souls. How deservingly or persuasively do any of us, individually or corporately, claim the title of Christian?

Countries may not have eternal souls like individuals that can be redeemed, but they can be broadly Christian demographically and by historical influence. The Scriptures do speak of nations existing in God’s fully restored creation, so seemingly they are neither intrinsically evil nor mere earthly triffles to be discarded.

For most of Christian history, most Christians have believed that political units and people groups could be described as Christian. Perhaps they were naive, or presumptuous, or even heretical, as Stevens suggests. Or perhaps his own hyper Protestant, pietietic view, which seemingly claims the title Christian only for the truly elect, as he defines them, is flawed and at odds with historic Christian teaching. Maybe modesty and context are needed in this conversation.

Stevens urges love for enemies, dying to self, taking up the cross, rejecting the world, following the narrow path and giving away wealth. All Gospel truth, certainly, but how to live them out? He commends a “brotherhood and sisterhood of all humankind,” which is laudable but also empty, unless it begins with love and fidelity to those persons and communities that are most proximate. Loving distant unseen people in Bangladesh or Madagascar means little if there is not first and primarily love for family and immediate neighbors.

“Eradicate all the corrupt, theological fearmongering they preach from the pulpit and from behind the political podium,” Stevens urges without suggesting how such corruption might be discerned or judged, absent the self righteous notion that virtue and truth exist only within ourselves as autonomous individuals. He doesn’t specifically cite any binding transcendent authority outside of self.

In our fallen world, government is only as competent and just as the nation it rules.

Stevens says “money and power and governments are fraudulent and false gods,” as certainly they can be. Humanitarianism, charity, and advocacy for the dispossessed, along with any good cause, also can become idols when divorced from divine love. God created money, power and government, rightly understood, to facilitate justice, peace and human prosperity. Instead of cavalier denunciation, their proper and godly deployment should be carefully explained and commended.

According to Stevens, “when Jesus Christ says, ‘Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,’ he acknowledges it as a necessary evil (and throws some shade), but he also compels us to participate honestly and responsibly and with righteousness and stewardship in a faulty and dysfunctional society even as we are called to be ideologically and socially disposed.”

But government is not merely a “necessary evil.” Christian teaching says there is government in Heaven, and in the New Jerusalem, where the Lamb of God is the King who rules forever with His Saints. In our fallen world, government is only as competent and just as the nation it rules. Christians don’t disparage government or politics any more than other flawed spheres of human activity. Instead, they realistically, with faith and patience, work for human societies that at least in a small, dim way foreshadow the absolute righteousness of the Supreme Ruler.

Doubtless Stevens means well. But his rhetoric and assumptions echo the ennui and impatience only really possible amid wealth, privilege, comfort and security. Would a Christian in Nigeria, India or China talk this way? His demanding but vague American pop theology seems disconnected from the accumulated riches of 2000 years of Christian thought. He is not the first to notice earthly hypocrisy and injustice. There is a long and wide cloud of witnesses across centuries and cultures who offer enduring counsel.

 

Originally published at Juicy Ecumenism. Republished with permission.

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  • Patmos

    “God is love, period.”

    The gospel according to Sufjan is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. There’s a reason why Jesus said he will say to some “depart from me workers of iniquity,” and a reason why John wrote “this is love, that we walk after his commandments”.

    Sufjan Stevens is a selfish imbecile.

    • KentonS

      Wasn’t one of Jesus’ commandment to not call one’s brother a fool (or as you put it a “selfish imbecile”)?

      • Actually, Tooley completely gets it, totally completely. I don’t know if this Stevens fellow is selfish. All we fallen sinners are to some degree, so that doesn’t tell us anything about the lad. But is he an imbecile? That’s a harsh word for stupid, and I’m sure he’s not stupid. But it’s clear he is not well educated because his statements are boiler plate leftism, and theologically incoherent. To say, “God is love” is Scripturally factual, but to add “period” after that makes it Scripturally suspect. Is he saying that that is ALL God is, he is only love? That seems to be his meaning, but I’d have to ask him to clarify it. Is he saying that God’s most important attribute, among others, is love? And that love trumps, let’s say, God’s holiness? That too would be Scripturally suspect.

        The young man has obviously never studied the doctrine of God, nor has he, it seems, read the Old Testament fulfilled in the New. God’s wrath and anger against sin borne of his holiness is all over the Old Testament. I would have him read Isaiah 52:13 through chapter 53, where we certainly see a God of love who is willing himself to take the sin of his people upon himself. That is amazing, incomprehensible love, but God had to “crush” him for our iniquities. He was “pierced” for our transgressions. The Lord “laid on him the iniquity of us all.” “The punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” God’s wrath against sin is what we were saved from, so we could just as rightly say God is a God of wrath as he is a God of love. We ought not to play one of God’s attributes off of the other lest we distort both. God’s being is in perfect harmony in all his attributes.

        Finally, like a good liberal, Stevens doesn’t not think this “God of love, period” is allowed to make distinctions. Even a cursory reading of the Bible shows us that God is constantly making distinctions and judgments and declarations that sinful human beings don’t and won’t like. So I suggest he spend some years doing diligent study about what Christianity actually says, and quit sharing his ignorance so indulgently with the rest of us. Then he might earn the right to not only be heard, but respected for his views, whether we agree with him or not.

        • KentonS

          Maybe it’s not Stevens that needs to check his scripture. Maybe it’s you. Isaiah never says God had to crush him for our iniquities. Nor that the Lord laid on him iniquity. It’s all passive voice. Look it up. (You got the “pierced for our transgressions” and the last two parts right. Three out of five ain’t too bad. 🙂 )

          We attribute the wrath to God, but when it’s passive voice, you have to be careful about whose wounding, bruising chastising, bearing and whipping. It can also be read as OUR wrath, which is how I interpret Isaiah 53. I’m sure you’ll dismiss that as “boilerplate liberalism,” but that doesn’t mean it’s incorrect. John said in his first letter “God is love.” There was no “but” afterwards. Was John a damned liberal?

          Be careful about adding the word “but” to a sentence. It almost always means that everything that was said before the word “but” is a lie. That rule applies to everyone I’ve ever heard say, “God is love, but God is also a God of wrath.” Everyone.

          • KentonS, it’s a blog comment! You really wanna debate me about his on one and a half chapters of the Old Testament? Was the God of Love the same God who came oh so close to killing Moses because he hadn’t circumcised his sons? Good thing his wife was quick with a knife! Was the God of Love the same God who destroyed all the inhabitants of the earth, men, women, and children, except for Noah and his family? Was the God of Love the same God who told Moses after Israel was worshiping a golden calf the one who said, “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them”? Was the God of Love the same God who struck down the poor guy who touched the ark because the oxen stumbled. We read that, “The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah . . .” And that “David was angry because the Lord’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah . . . ” I could go on and on and on and on.

            If you are calling me a liar, I don’t give a donkey’s dung, but what you are actually doing is calling God a liar, for you are distorting his Word, and the whole scope of redemptive history. If I didn’t know better, I would think you are a follower of the ancient Christian heretic Marcion. I hope I’m wrong about that, but vilifying me for not making one attribute of God, love, the whole of his being, smacks of something Marcion could fully embrace.

            Cheers!

          • KentonS

            The God of love revealed in Jesus did NOT come close to killing Moses because he hadn’t circumcised his sons. The God of Love revealed in Jesus did NOT destroy all the inhabitants of the earth, men, women, and children, except for Noah and his family. The God of Love revealed in Jesus did NOT threaten to destroy the Israelites after they worshiped the golden calf, and perhaps most important of all the God of Love revealed in Jesus did NOT strike down Uzzah when he touched the ark.

            Those may be how the stories got reported, but that is not who Jesus reveals God to be.

            Does that me a Marcionite make? No. It does not.

            If you want to talk about Marcion, we should first acknowledge that he was right to ask the question of why the God of the Hebrew scriptures (and in episodes like those in particular) look so different from Jesus. It would be silly not to ask that question. The problem with Marcion was his answer. Marcion turned the contrast into a virulent anti-semitism. He accused the Jews in his day of an evil religion (much like you’re doing to me). In short, his answer to the violent God of the Old Testament was to become violent towards those who gave it to us.

            I don’t think we should abandon the first part of the bible, I think we should read it with critical eyes that isn’t afraid to challenge its conclusions. I think we should read it in anticipation of Jesus. I think we should acknowledge that there were times that they got God right. And I think we should read it with love and compassion towards the descendants of those who gave it to us.

            Cheers to you too!

          • Well, Kenton, we shall have to agree to disagree, most strongly. BTW, your God of Love has a strange way of showing his love, allowing his Son to be crucified on a Roman cross. Not so very lovely.

            Double cheers!

          • KentonS

            God was on the cross. Taking our violence and returning it with forgiveness is the epitome of lovely.

            Grace, Mike.

        • danmm

          Right or wrong, you are so arrogant.

  • KentonS

    I don’t think Tooley gets it. The comment about the nameless and faceless recalls “the least of these” in Matt 25. We see God and interact with God when we see those in our society who are forgotten and uncared for.

    As for being a Christian and proclaiming fidelity to empire, the early Christian proclamation that “Jesus is Lord” was a direct challenge to the empirical proclamation that “Caesar is Lord.” The entire history of the early church was a subversion of empire. Indeed Jesus was not crucified for his spiritual teachings, but for his challenge to the political structure of the empire.

    I could go on (I’m only about a third of the way through.), but I’ll leave it at that. Tooley doesn’t get it.

    • steve

      I think you’re oversimplifying Tooley’s critique. Stevens offers a picture of Christianity’s essence that presents itself as the timeless, pure encapsulation of the Christian faith. And yet, as Tooley rightly points out, Stevens’ interpretation of Christianity is a product of his own context, not a clear window into the essence of the faith.

      Tooley is particularly correct in critiquing Stevens’ blithe dismissal of government per se as a necessary evil. Not only does Jesus not say that in his “Render unto Caesar” statement, but it also flies in the face of Paul’s comments on government as a necessary good, not a necessary evil.

      • KentonS

        How do you get the characterization of Stevens’ post as a blithe dismissal of government per se as a necessary evil? Did you read it? It’s nothing of the sort. What Stevens is critical of is the co-opting of state power in the name of Christianity. Nothing in Jesus nor in Paul suggests that possibility. On the contrary, both the “render unto Caesar” and Paul’s comments in Romans make the distinction between serving God and co-opting political power.

        EVERYONE’S interpretation of Christianity is a product of their own context. Welcome to post-modernity, Steve.

    • CbinJ

      As far as I am concerned, none of the Bible’s teachings regarding submission to governing authority or rendering unto Ceasar apply to people living in a free representative republic whereby the people are the government. Since the people are the government the only authority we truly are under are the laws and our own consciences. Biblically speaking, since we the people are installed as the government, we have a responsibility to live out Truth and Justice in politics. In a free nation, saying “Jesus is Lord” goes from challenge against the empire to a challenge to our laws and consciences. While what I say is idealistic, it is also Constitutional. We have a right to fight against those who would steal our (the people’s) power and violate our laws just as any government does.

  • Michael Freeman

    This column could be summed up as “God is a Republican, I have a delightful time reinventing God in my own image and sticking my social and political views on him, and anyone who didn’t vote for Trump is an anti-Christian bigot.”

    • steve

      This is an oversimplification. What is the point of it? Does it fairly critique Tooley’s column? Does it help refine someone’s thinking on the issues he raises? No, it doesn’t. But then, you probably weren’t going for serious engagement.

      As a general rule, if your represent someone’s argument in a way that he or she would not recognize, then you are involved in building a straw man.

      Oh, and by the way, Tooley was a never Trumper. From what I understand, he took serious flak for it.

    • gordonhackman

      You’ve gotta be kidding. This article is about as sane, balanced, well-reasoned, and specific in its engagement as it can be. As I started reading it, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but was quickly impressed with its careful argument.

  • Irene Neuner

    Tooley, great article. To call Sufjan’s article pop theology is too kind. I think it is small and shallow. God is so big and great. He is full of compassion for even the sparrows and full of wrath for those who practice idolatry. It is also self righteous and generally foolish. I am thankful for articulate articles as such because many young people will happily follow after such nonsense and we need to be able to speak to it.

  • eddiestardust

    You see this is what I don’t like about Protestants…they tend to make things up.
    As a Roman Catholic , I have NO problem pledging my allegiance to the USA and have no problem going to Mass each Sunday.

  • danmm

    “Loving distant unseen people in Bangladesh or Madagascar means little if there is not first and primarily love for family and immediate neighbors.”

    ???

    Only someone far too invested in wedding Christianity to conservatism could make the awful statement that someone’s love for others, particularly others who may be suffering bitterly and are perhaps easy to ignore, “means little.” I have quibbles with both this and Stevens’ article, but for me this is the grossest and most blatant perversion of Christianity in either one. “If we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” Don’t tell anyone that their love, however much of it they can muster, “means little.”

    • Thesaurus Rex

      If you can only love those remote and not show that love to those most proximate to you, you are merely signaling virtue – you are making an “idol” out of your own “love” – you are loving humans only in the abstract and not in their reality. The author does not disagree with loving people in Bangladesh or Madagascar, but questions the true nature of that love if you are unable to find it for your own neighbor.

      • danmm

        The article doesn’t say the love means little if you don’t love family and immediate neighbors at all. It says it means little if you don’t love family and immediate neighbors “first and primarily,” whatever that means.

        I don’t know anyone who is able to muster real love for unseen victims in far-off places yet has no love at all for people they can see. The far more likely problem is exactly the other way around, so it’s odd to me to focus the article’s imaginary problem. But even if we imagine this unlikely scenario, I still disagree with saying that someone’s genuine love for anyone else ever “means little.” Sure, something may be wrong with this make-believe person who loves starving African children but can’t love the people around him, but his love doesn’t “mean little,” any more than my love “means little” because of the things that are wrong with me and all the ways my love for others (whether near or far) is deficient.

        Maybe your psychoanalysis of what causes this hypothetical person to love some differently than others is correct, but it’s not hard for me to imagine other potential explanations. Either way, to denigrate that type of love or to label it idolatry (and put “love” in scare quotes) seems to be perverting the scripture. It’s like the very basic command to love one another is getting caught in the crossfire between “liberal” and “conservative” manipulations of scripture, which I find unseemly and repulsive.

  • David Padilla

    The basis of the very foundation of america is tge bible the city on the hill. God is sonal he has a face. I am the god of the living not the dead

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