It didn’t start well — this American nation conceived in America’s original sin of racial dehumanization through Indigenous land theft and the slavery of Africans. Yet, many of the ideals that the nation’s founders aspired to still hold the potential to build a future nation much better than the one we began with. And that has been the struggle ever since.
I remember a story from South Africa, deep in the heart of apartheid, decades ago. I was there for many weeks building the relationship between the South African and the American churches working together to end the apartheid system. I was mostly staying with friends in black townships for behind-the-scenes, private meetings after having been snuck into the country. One night, I was staying in the Soweto home of Frank Chikane, then president of the South African Council of Churches, and a recently honored “elder” at the Sojourners leadership Summit (where we had precious times of remembering our past together but, most importantly, looking ahead).
“I want to show you something,” Frank said to me. He and a few others had been asked by Nelson Mandela (while he was still in prison) to start writing a new constitution for a new South Africa. On his Formica-topped kitchen table, he began to roll out some documents with his own notes. Two of them were the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Both of us were deeply aware of the flaws in those documents (slavery was in the Constitution) and the horrible hypocrisies of the white American practice of those documents. Nevertheless, there they were on his table, as resources to help inspire the new South African constitution, which ultimately became one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. “Our constitution turned out better than yours!” he reminded me last week. But those ideals, which we formally celebrate this July 4th holiday, have provided over the years, partial and flawed inspiration for other nations stumbling toward democracy and human rights.
Then Frank pointed outside his kitchen window: “See those Casspirs (a South African military vehicle)? One of them is for me and is out there every night to make sure I know they are watching; and the other one is for you, now that they know you are in the country.” The irony was complete. The United States government was still supporting the South African apartheid regime through a policy called “constructive engagement,” and likely helping to pay for those big tank-like weapons outside of Frank’s house. And there we were discussing a new South African constitution with the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution on his table. Ideas inspire.
So, what is this coming July 4: a celebration of traditional patriotism or America first nationalism? Donald Trump seems to be planning for the second. But is there a difference between the two?
First, let’s do some theology for July 4. For Christians, our nations are never first. God is, the body of Christ as the international church is, and our faith is. When I once spoke to a conservative evangelical conference in Washington, D.C., I told the crowd, “We are Christians first and Americans second! We all agree with that right?” It was clear the audience did not; they were grimacing and clearly preferred it be the other way around.
I’ll be clear: All allegiances are always secondary to our allegiance to God. If Jesus is Lord, as the early Christians said when they knew it was a political statement, Caesar is not. And no nation is above other nations in God’s eyes. All nations are under the judgement of God and are to be held to God’s standards for nations. Those standards emphatically insist the biblical test of all kings and rulers is how they treat the poorest and most vulnerable. The Christian nationalism we have seen in this country over many years — and that is being revived now in the Trump era — is nothing short of a theological heresy. “God Bless America” is not found in the Bible, could be a prayer offered for every nation, and can never imply that God will bless America over other nations.
I read up on the history of this, and while some presidents have given speeches or receptions on Fourth of July holidays in various venues (Eisenhower just played golf), none has ever given a speech at the center of the celebration. The rationale is to keep this a “peoples” holiday and not a presidential one. No former president has ever tried to turn the Fourth of July celebration into a partisan or personal event. But as we've heard it said almost every day, the current president is “unprecedented.” Perhaps it’s time to find a new word that goes deeper into what his presidency threatens for a different American future. Trump has invited all his supporters to come to hear him speak at the Lincoln Memorial at the center of the show he is putting on this week. Will this be a non-political speech? Is Trump even capable of that, or will he attack the opposing party, their candidates, and the press, as his political rallies always do? And, like other “strongmen” who want to live like autocrats, Donald Trump is finally getting his militarized parade, bringing “best fighter jets in the world” to fly over his spectacle along with M1 Abrams tanks officials hope won’t break down the Lincoln Memorial foundations or crush the streets. Will there be tanks on the Memorial Bridge?
My family smiles at me when I start to tear up during the singing of "Edelweiss" during The Sound of Music, as Captain von Trapp describes the beauty of his homeland — and I still get fired up by Woody Guthrie’s "This Land is Your Land." But nationalism is not just a love for country; rather, it pits the power of one nation against others, often with ideologies of racial superiority, and has led to the worst violence in human history. There is no Christian nationalism; nationalism is unchristian, and the kind that is militarized by wannabe strongmen like Donald Trump is the worst of all.
So, Sojourners readers, don’t celebrate American nationalism this week. Find ways to love your family and your neighbors and your country — and remember the values and ideals that this nation has, at its best, rightly aspired to and have even inspired others around the world.