We are all "America First"ers
(and that isn't a good thing)
One of the disturbing things about the overlap between (particularly white) American Christianity and the conservative movement has been the ongoing power of “Christian Nationalism”: a weird, syncretistic mix of Christianity, xenophobia, and patriotic American mythology.
You can see this in a variety of places — references to the United States as “God’s country”, the occasional American flag or patriotic song popping up in church, the widespread support of white Evangelicals for an “America First” political platform, and recently the public support of powerful conservative pastors for claims that we should love Americans with a “greater love” than people around the world.
This gives me a lot of feelings, including:
Confusion: loving Americans more than other people isn’t just some obscure theological difference I have with Christian nationalists. It’s something that’s so fundamentally inconsistent with the most basic parts of Jesus’s message that it leaves me deeply confused as to what precisely they think Jesus actually stood for, and why it’s so different from what I see in his actual words.
Anger: this is something with real consequences for real people, and people who my religion has given power to speak on ethical issues have decided to support, without any sort of reservation, outright evil. On one hand as an American Christian in Evangelical circles I am used to this. On the other hand it really doesn’t feel very good.
Self-Righteousness: At least I’m not one of the people who believes something like this.
It’s the third part that I’m realizing is dangerous.
At various points over the past decade, I have noticed myself drawn to two bad responses to wrong and harmful ideas.
The first is overly accommodating. Christian ethics demand that we love every single person, no matter what they believe or how they act. But we can misinterpret this into feeling like we have to treat all ideas with respect, and start trying to find a “moderate” stance between true statements and false ones — ignoring the fact that climate change is real, vaccines save lives, systemic racism is bad, and our moral witness is seriously harmed when our churches are unwilling to just say so.
But the other dangerous response is to assume that, since we don’t align with the extremist version of a sin, we have nothing to repent of. I believe in climate change — but if I don’t actually do anything about it, I’m probably more sinful than climate deniers rather than less, because I know the right thing to do and haven’t done it! Similarly, I’m aware of the privilege I have as a straight white Christian man. But if I don’t respond by elevating other voices and pushing for justice, acknowledging my privilege is somewhere closer to bragging than righteousness.
This is a fear I have with the blatantly xenophobic wings of Evangelical Christianity. Yes, “America First” is a heresy and the fact that these people have any power at all in the church is disturbing.
But when we focus too much on the “America is God’s chosen country” extremists, we can miss the extent to which this heresy has taken root in our own hearts — or, to pick a specific example, our wallets.
GiveWell estimates that it costs between two and five thousand dollars to save a life by donating to global health charities. The equivalent cost in the US is much higher - at least a hundred thousand dollars, if not a million.
By standard economic theory, these numbers reveal that — not in our words but in our actions — we consider a typical American to be at least a hundred times as valuable as a typical member of the global poor.
(If we really thought all lives were equally valuable, all our donations would stream to the global poor until the cheap ways to save lives were fully funded and the costs were equal!)
Similarly, my church just spent nearly ten million dollars on a new building. My not-at-all comprehensive Google search gave a cost of between ten and fifty thousand dollars to build a typical church in Kenya.
Why did anyone donate to our fund, especially people who aren’t members of the church? I find it really difficult to interpret this as anything other than “our donors consider one American church to be as valuable as a thousand Kenyan churches.”
This isn’t “I love America the way I love my softball team” — fun and patriotic and not too serious.
This is letting 99 people die.
This is letting 999 churches go unbuilt.
This is our actions exposing our hearts, our voices revealing themselves to be empty talk, and the blood on our hands crying out that nationalism is more than “something other people do.”
For more of this delivered directly to your inbox, consider subscribing to All of it Again!