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 political kingdoms.
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 historic 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 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.
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 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.