I often speak of the dangers of nationalism, and of the kind of worship the nation-state demands of its citizens. (As William Cavanaugh points out, how many Americans would be willing to kill for their religious beliefs? How many have been willing to kill for their nation, even for their belief in abstract national principles like freedom and democracy?) But while many of the people I talk to understand my concerns in principle, they suggest that I’m being creating strawmen, or worrying too much, or simply being paranoid.
But here comes a book – an edition of the Bible, in fact – that precisely illustrates my concerns. Here comes a Bible that explicitly links Christmas to July 4th, identifies the American soldier to the suffering Messiah, and equates the United States itself to the church of God.
I find it hard to imagine the Christian, however patriotic, who would not see these claims as making a functional idol of the United States. This means that to accuse anyone of making such claims in the name of patriotism is an extraordinary claim. Fortunately, the American Patriot’s Bible is very candid in the claims it makes, and I will examine the above three from its pages.
Since I was sent this Bible by the fine folks at Thomas Nelson publishers, let me begin by describing the book itself. It is a beautiful edition. It is hardbound, with a relatively understated artistic style that I find very appealing. The American Patriot’s Bible is preceded by quite a few plates for information about family history, including immigration records, military service records and baptismal records. Also included are maps of the United States and a list of the fifty states, with capitol city and the date each state was added to the union.
There is a general introduction to the Bible, as well as a single-page introduction to each book. The book introductions are very general, with one paragraph describing the context of the book and one relating some theme of the book to American history. The intro to 1 Thessalonians, for instance, describes a radio address of Ronald Reagan, where he talked about the importance of “being in constant prayer,” and about the role of prayer for other American leaders. There are also occasional comments on specific verses scattered throughout the text, ranging from small notes like “Harry S. Truman placed his hand on Matthew 5:3-11 as he took the oath of office in 1949” to half-page sidebars relating verses to specific events in U.S. history. Also scattered through the text are 4-page inserts on various topics, such as the use of scripture in American monuments, or the role of scripture in American westward expansion.
For the most part, this is all well-executed, and I can understand why someone would find this Bible an attractive addition to their collection; even as a family Bible to be passed down. But the commentaries don’t simply include some Americana or Presidential trivia. They go beyond patriotism and even nationalism to make claims for the United States that should make both Americans and Christians uncomfortable.
In a comment on Col 2:7, the American Patriot’s Bible links the birth of Christ with the birth of America. The section is called “The Christmas/July 4 Link,” and quotes with approval from John Quincy Adams, who asked during an Independence Day speech,
Why is it that, next to the birthday of the Savior of the world, your most joyous and most venerated festival returns on this day? Is it not that in the chain of human events, the birthday of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birthday of the Savior? That it forms a leading event in the progress of the Gospel dispensation? Is it not that the Declaration of Independence first organized the social compact on the foundation of the Redeemer’s mission upon earth?
So here Adams links the birth of Christ with the birth of the United States, and suggests that the Declaration of Independence has created the first society capable of living out the Redeemer’s mission on the earth. Of course, the Bible suggests a different “social compact” capable of living out the Redeemer’s mission, but it is not centered around a nation. It is the church.
Adams was not the first American leader to attempt to co-opt the church’s role as the mediator of God’s saving activity, and he is not the only one quoted approvingly by the American Patriot’s Bible. A common reprieve among politicians is that the United States is a city on a hill, a light in the darkness. Obama, Bush and McCain have all used this language in recent years. This is language Jesus applies to his followers in the Sermon on the Mount, and it’s hardly surprising that national leaders try to steal this language for themselves. What is surprising that Jesus’s followers would not only permit but encourage this theft, as the American Patriot’s Bible does when its commentary on Mt 5:14 is called “God’s covenant people,” quoting Puritan leader Peter Bulkley, who described the Puritan colonies (not yet the United States, of course) as “a city set upon a hill, in the open view of all the earth… We profess ourselves to be a people in covenant with God, and therefore… the Lord our God… will cry shame upon us if we walk contrary… [ellipses in original].”
Making the claim that America is God’s covenant people is audacious, surely, but there are Christians in America who would defend even such a claim. But the American Patriot’s Bible goes beyond this questionable move when it equates the United States with God and the U.S. army with Jesus. The commentary on John 3:16 is titled “Freedom Abroad,” and it quotes with approval Colin Powell, when he said that
Over the years, the United States has sent many of its fine young men and omen into great peril to fight for freedom beyond our borders. The only amount of land we have ever asked for in return is enough to bury those who did not return.
Let’s leave aside the ludicrous claim that the United States has never expanded its territorial control through bloodshed, and look at the underlying theology of the American Patriot’s Bible in placing this quote as a commentary on John 3:16. “God so loved the world that he gave his only son;” and the United States so loves the world that we give our sons and daughters. The sacrifice of a soldier is a great sacrifice – not only in the possibility of their dying but in their willingness to put aside the normal unwillingness of a person to kill – but it is the very definition of idolatry to compare a person’s sacrifice to the sacrifice of Christ. What is more, to compare the role of a soldier (who in the words of General Patton, tries not to die for his country but make some other poor bastard die for his) to the suffering servant of Isaiah 55 is to make a mockery out of Christ’s death, when Christ himself had armies at his disposal and did not deign to use them.
The American Patriot’s Bible may not have been a misguided idea. Why shouldn’t there be an edition of the Bible specifically for those who love America and want to study and celebrate its theological heritage? But the American Patriot’s Bible in practice is an exercise in subtly misplaced worship, and thinly subverted readings of the scriptures. Yet I don’t think its editors meant to create a controversial text, which is precisely why I warn against the dangers of patriotism and nationalism for believers.