“You carry two flags. Over one shoulder is the American flag, over the other is the Christian flag. Which do you wave?”
– Dr. Alan Kemper
A few weeks ago, my best friend and his older sister were arguing about whether immigrants should be expected to assimilate to American culture. The debate was well-fought on both sides and was resolved civilly, but she proposed a question that struck me for its implications: “I would guess you would consider yourself both American and Christian?”
Growing up in North Central Missouri, I had been surrounded by an Americanism that assumed Christianity as part of it, as articulated by my friend in his response, “I do consider myself both American and Christian. However, being a Christian doesn’t interfere with my being an American and assimilating into American culture.” In many ways, he is correct, as some traditional American values tend to line up with those of Christianity. But there is an assumption in his statement that conflict between values should be resolved in a compromise of one or the other. My question is, which set do we compromise?
Knowing my friend, I can be sure he would give the final say to Christianity in any obvious discordance between it and Americanism. The issue is, what defines American? From one coast to the other, north to south, there is a variety of different cultures, and surely not everything they promote can align with Christianity. Where I grew up, everyone is expected to be in church on Sunday, but underage drinking is just given a nod and wink. Surely a Christian cannot assimilate to that! Even through time there are differences in culture. My great-aunt June often reminded me growing up how her parents were convinced that face cards were of the devil – they could play cards, just without the jack, queen, and king.
What I mean by all this is that we often confuse “American” and “Christian.” But if we can’t even decide what American is, then perhaps it’s time we looked at how this confusion affects us as Christians.
I don’t go to the movies very often, but when the second Thor film came out, some friends of mine invited me to join them. I decided to go, but once we got there, we realized that the only showing available that night was 3-D. We had already driven half a hour to get there, so we bucked up the extra $3 for the glasses and went in. Once the movie started, I realized you could watch it without the glasses, but it was blurry and distorted. Putting the glasses on made sense of the images and made it easier for me to follow along with the plot. In the same way, Christianity allows us to make sense of the world around us. It is possible to go without glasses, but you won’t get the full experience, and will probably have a shooting headache afterwards.
Sometimes, however, we can let our nationality, our culture, act as another filter. Imagine if I had worn dark brown sunglasses over my 3-D glasses. I would have been seeing the same film, and would have a clear view of it, but it would be colored in my experience. If another friend had worn red sunglasses, he also would see the colored film. It would be ridiculous for us to argue over who had the superior view of the film, because neither had seen it the way the director intended, and we are certainly not objective. So why do we argue about who has a better culture when in reality, neither of us is seeing the world as God sees it?
Worse yet, we take our culture and use it to interpret our faith. Especially in America, we Christians view our traditions and values as being Biblical, which can be very easily done if we chose to emphasize certain passages over others. By doing this, we enlist the Bible as a tool or weapon to prove our point, legitimize our preference, or justify our peculiarity. This is easy enough to do, as Adam Ford showed with his web comic, Adam4d. This isn’t to argue that there is no right answer and that everything is subjective, but rather that we shouldn’t scrutinize the Bible for passages that support our viewpoint and instead should submit our viewpoint to the “penetrating light of Scripture” in the words of E. Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien in their work, “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes.”
As Christians, we are given a mission statement in Matthew 28:19-20a,
“Therefore go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
Because of this, knowing whether we are truly understanding Scripture or merely using it as a tool to support our culture is vital. Jesus didn’t tell the disciples to make American Christians, Roman Christians, or Jewish Christians. In fact, Scripture is clear that our heritage and culture have nothing to do with salvation (Matt. 3:9, 1 Cor. 7:19). If anything, culture hinders the message: “We can’t strap ourselves to the Gospel, ’cause we’re slowing it down” (What This World Needs, Casting Crowns).
It’s okay to love your culture, and to want to see it flourish, but ask yourself where your loyalties lie. What comes first in your heart? When people look at your life, do they see a Christian who is an American, or an American who is a Christian? Is there something you tie to your faith?
In his book, Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis’s character Screwtape is a senior demon advising his nephew, Wormwood, on how to prevent a soul from being redeemed. When he learns that Wormwood’s patient has become a Christian, he suggests a strategy of “Christianity And.”
“What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call ‘Christianity And’. … If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring.”
As a kid, I certainly understood this, as I was Christian…and Republican. When I got older and more cynical, I became Christian…and conservative. Now, I am Christian…and counter-cultural. Anything can be the “And”. Sports, politics, car brand, almost all of us have something that we allow to influence our worldview. They become even more powerful if we feel we can use Scripture to legitimize it.
Again, it’s okay to have an opinion, but we cannot let it interfere with the Gospel. A friend of mine told me this semester that he was voting straight ticket Republican. When I asked him why, he told me they “reflected Christian values better.” While it’s an admirable reason, the inherent implication is that Christians who vote for Democrats are voting against Christian values. The only conclusions I could draw from this are either that all Christians who vote Democrat are bad Christians, or that it has to do with cultural values outside of faith. As one writer put it (why yes, I did lose the article), “if Christians tie themselves to Republicans, they leave their neighbors to wonder if they are Christian or Republican.”
I’m not endorsing either party, nor conservatism vs liberalism. My point is merely that they are cultural, not Scriptural debates. If we are so focused on inducing self-sufficiency that we lose sight of our spiritual insufficiency, or if we emphasize equality of result on earth at the cost of eternal result, we are equally underselling the Scripture. Seeking to model our culture after Scripture is worthy, but using Scripture to claim the moral high ground for one policy over another, one party over another, is despicable. If we place the Constitution above the Bible, and overlay the cross with the flag, we put our treasure in our culture.
All these differences and arguments which divide us will one day fade away in the light of eternity. In that moment, whether we stuck to the plan the Founding Fathers gave us, or if we let certain people use certain bathrooms won’t matter. What will matter is where we put our treasure, where our hearts reside. Would you sacrifice the political outcome you desire for an outpouring of the Spirit? Would you let go of your culture to reach the foreigner? When you go into the nations, do you wave the American or Christian flag?
Credit to “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes”, Richards and O’Brien; Benjamin Finck; and to my wonderful previewers.