No Greater Love: Idolatry in Patriotic Art

Nationalist Christians often conflate scriptures referring to Christ or to the church with concepts about America or her heroes.  Now, this should not surprise anyone.  Christianity is socially powerful; it’s natural that politicians and others who wish to enlist Christians in their cause will cynically twist scripture to their own ends.  What should shock us is how eagerly some Christians buy into this abuse of scripture.  I’ve reviewed before the American Patriot’s Bible, and numerous pieces of kitschy art.  But here’s a piece that takes the idolatrous cake.

This is a piece from, called Armed with Valor

Ironic: The passage the site is named for is John 15:13, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  Jesus is being self-referential here.  He is the one who exhibits the greatest love by laying down his life.  What is more, while soldiers certainly make many sacrifices for their friends, loved ones and nations, their goal is certainly not to lay down their lives but to lay down their enemies’ lives.  As General Patton famously put it, “Your job isn’t to die for your country, but to make some other poor bastard die for his.” 

Ironic: The soldier is armed with valor, one imagines, but is also armed with an assault rifle. I imagine it’s somewhat easier to display valor when armed with an assault rifle.  I imagine it’s also much more difficult to demonstrate love while holding one. 

Sad: This piece was not composed by some propaganda department vying for Christian recruits.  It was composed by a sincere Christian, who feels that the U.S. soldier exemplifies the great love of Christ.  He is not referring to the general sense of sacrifice/honor/camaraderie that can be developed in wartime situations, either. He sees America as distinctly embodying Christianity.  Here is another piece by the same artist:

This piece is called The Difference Between Us and Them.  The different manifests itself in two forms: “secular” American images like the flag and the eagle, and “religious” images like the angel wings.  But it’s all religious imagery, of course, and the eagle bridges the gap by being apparently a spiritual being, perhaps a stand-in for the dove of the Holy Spirit.  Doves, of course, are images of peace while eagles are predators, hunters.  The difference between us and them would appear to be that God supports us, and enables us to shelter the weak through our use of force.

What do you think?  Am I reading too much into these images, or do they reflect a sincere conflation of God with country?


3 responses to “No Greater Love: Idolatry in Patriotic Art

  1. Robert Howell

    I definitely think you are reading too much into this artwork. Obviously, Christ is referring to His love for the Disciples in laying down his life for them. However, He does say that a man can have no greater love for another man than to lay down his life for that man. If a soldier falls on a grenade to keep his fellow solders from dying then he is sacrificing his life for them, but not in the sense of atonement. It is art, not a theological proposition or exegetical statement. In my opinion, its not idolatry to like and display this artwork with its out of context caption. Seems that sometimes we as Christians get a bit too legalistic when it comes to artwork which incorporates scripture. This is the opinion one who is reformed in theology and an adherent to the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith.

  2. As a Post 9/11 Army Veteran, I think you not only wasted my brain cells by taking the time to read your opinionated garbage, but being able to read into your inner psyche you have an obvious void that significantly disturbs you because you were too afraid to swear an oath to protect our country. So you try to use Christianity to say that we idolize our nation’s military service members. Well you are a narrow-minded emotionally disturbed person to say a member of any branch of our military is anything less than an American Hero and service members who volunteered should be viewed as nothing less than role model to the youth of the nation.

    The country does not few them as “idols” they view them as men and women with honor, integrity, selfless service, and qualities you will never begin to fathom because you lacked the courage to give up your life to protect and serve others.

    Christian or not, you give Christians a bad name by spewing your twisted venom about an artists that portrays those that do the job of less that 5% of the nation in a ungodly manner. Pathetic and you should stop voicing putrid biased cowardly opinions.

  3. That’s a lot of “I imagine.”

    Where can mercy be so tenderly or deeply shown as when a human life is fully in another one’s hand, and that person CHOOSES, despite all instinct, against all training, and against the nature of everything else in their context and environment, to NOT pull the trigger.

    It is easier to “imagine” valor is simple when armed than to re-imagine a better definition of valor.

    Having said that, even as a proud 2-tour veteran, I find the social obsession with all that is good in war to be counterproductive. . . Like deifying politicians. . . War is foreign policy and nothing more. Those who do it should not be judged nor revered for it.

    As it is, we have to get one with the other. Soldiers tried as criminals for killing in war because of a loony idea that war can or should be clean. And worse, sometimes, for people with guilt to have to deal with the torture and isolation of being praised for the actions they feel great shame about.

    Soldiers do good things and bad in war. Just as every human being does good things and bad in life. We are not to pass judgment on others. Nowhere does scripture suggest that we are only prohibited from passing negative judgment.

    But the environment of war sets “normal” existence into sharper relief. Against an expectation of destruction and violence, simple acts of kindness or mercy or self-sacrifice take on a shine and brilliance like God’s own hand reaching into the darkness. But it’s the expectation I think that gives the contrast, not the reality.

    In my experience, combat was no more cruel, no more vicious, no more inhumane, and no more uncertain than life anywhere else. It has simply dispensed with the facade. Ditched the lies and the cover-up and given us human nature, good and bad, simply as it is.

    I share your concern about this phenomenon. It blurs the line between patriotism and the mass practice of nationalism as religion. I won’t invoke Godwin’s Law, but we know what happens when the state supplants the deity.

    But in this case, you’ve targeted the troops. We’re an easier target. Mostly because any member of the polity pointing at the system is ultimately pointing at himself as well. But the problem you’re identifying isn’t that it’s inappropriate to view Soldiers with a degree of reverence for what they were willing to do on our collective behest, but that Soldiers in uniform simply represent national policy, which should NEVER be held in reverence.

    For the same reason that Soldiers should not be condemned (and tried) as individuals for acts made in war (see Joseph Campbell’s commentary, for example, for a philosophy of what ‘agency’ is and means), neither should they be elevated AS INDIVIDUALS for collective traits. And NEVER elevated as proxies for policy.

    But we are prosecuted as individuals for atrocities. And we (at least us lower ranking enlisted) go to jail as individuals for the Abu Ghraibs and accidental Qur’an burning. We are denied employment as individuals. We wait years, as individuals, for our disability ratings to come through. We are left as individuals by ex-wives who take our children and leave the state. We are spat on by hippies (yes, still) as individuals. . .

    So a little reverence for individual Soldiers, or even for Soldiers in general, ain’t gonna swing the balance too far, and it certainly isn’t a threat to God.

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