American First, Christian Second? | Sojourners

American First, Christian Second?

Recently, I watched an ongoing New York Times online report by Jennifer Steinhauer and Ben Werschkul called "The Road to November." The report focused on Greeley, Colorado. Located about 125 miles north of Colorado Springs -- home to Religious Right leaders like James Dobson of Focus on the Family -- Greeley was solidly Republican in 2000 and 2004 when George Bush won in the area by more than 20 points. Now the town and the entire state are solidly purple and are in play for both candidates in the November election.

Vernon Cecil, an evangelical Greeley resident, said something that chilled me to the bone in this report. Cecil said, "I'm an American first, then I'm a Christian."

In recent days, I've listened with deep interest to the rhetoric flowing from both campaigns about the indisputable greatness of America's work for good around the world. Some of that is to be expected in an election year, and I understand wanting the best for one's country. But the way it is often framed, it is impossible to question one's country -- to call one's country to account for its sins -- and still be a patriot. In other words, America cannot sin. This is a heretical gospel of "America right or wrong" -- absolutely antithetical to the gospel of Jesus.

Jesus' country was Rome, and "The Lord's Prayer" was a direct challenge to the powers of Rome: Caesar considered himself the father of his subjects, but Jesus said, "Pray in this way, 'Our father in heaven.'" Caesar proclaimed that his name was most high. Jesus said God's name is "hallowed" -- which means "lifted up above all names" -- including Caesar's. Caesar extended the reach of his kingdom by treachery and subjugation. Jesus said, "[God's] kingdom come, [God's] will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Caesar supplied a meager pittance of daily bread for his subjects. "Give us this day our daily bread," Jesus beseeched the Father.

I wonder if Jesus would agree that America is the "greatest force for good in the history of the world" or "the greatest nation on earth" as each candidate asserted in last week's debate. I don't think so -- on both counts. To put America first is to do exactly what Vernon Cecil did: put the kingdom of God second. It denies the reality that it has been people of faith who spearheaded efforts to address the very real sin of our nation; loyalists of the kingdom of God led the abolitionist movement, laid foundations for the American suffrage movement, and led the charge to create labor unions. The civil rights movement was sparked in the pews of churches across the South. These reforms did not come because of the benevolence of a sinless nation. They came with blood and tears as people lost their lives standing against the press of U.S. led oppression of its own peoples ... and this says nothing of the sins (both of omission and commission) we have committed abroad.

To look at ourselves in the undoctored mirror of history and to accept it all is the first step of true patriotism. For only then can America live up to its promise. Only then can it repent for the sins of its past and present. Only then will the way be cleared for a future with true hope.

Lisa Sharon Harper is the author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican ... or Democrat and co-founder and executive director of New York Faith & Justice.