VIEW VIDEO We’ve been talking about whether religion is a force for good or evil, or both. I’ve identified some virtues of religion, but then spoke about religions failure to honor that which it claims to cherish. Our last time together I mentioned that most every religion contains in its sacred scriptures the imperative to love everyone, but then tends to despise specific people. You’ll remember I quoted perhaps the greatest theologian of the 20th century, Linus Van Pelt, Charlie Brown’s friend, who accurately summarized this phenomenon when he said, “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.”
Today, I’d like to speak about religion’s claim to be universal, in the sense that most religions would be delighted if everyone in the world embraced their faith, while still aligning themselves with a specific culture or nation. For example, many American Christians affirm Christianity as a global faith, while also asserting that being Christian and being American are indelibly connected. Indeed, many American Christians believe this so deeply they believe whatever the United States does is blessed and ordained by God.
This past summer I was driving by my childhood church, St. Mary’s in Danville, and noticed their sign, which usually mentioned the church’s programs, had been changed to read “God bless America and the thin, blue line.” Not only was a nation singled out for God’s favor, but a subgroup within that nation. Can you imagine being a black person driving past that sign, and recalling the surge in “thin, blue line” language after the Black Lives Matter movement emerged. That phrase was then co-opted by white supremacists, which should have given that church pause, but obviously didn’t. In fact, many police departments in America now prohibit their officers from wearing the thin-blue-line flag on their uniforms or placing it on their cars. How ironic that a church named after a woman whose son, a person of color, was murdered by the authorities, was affirming its support for what has become a symbol of oppression and white supremacy. To be fair, the thin blue line language didn’t start as a symbol of oppression and white supremacy, but when its flag was flown at Charlottesville, alongside Confederate and Nazi flags carried by young white men chanting, “You will not replace us,” it came to mean something vile and ugly, and certainly not worthy of any church’s support. It can only be the case that that church’s central feature was no longer the universal God who created and blessed all people everywhere, but was now a nationalist church, whose love extended only to a relative few. And this, I contend, is the inevitable offspring when religions and nations marry—nationalism, xenophobia, and ultimately violence.
History tells us this is true. The rise of the Nazi Party in 1930s was aided and abetted by the German Evangelical Church, born in its pulpits and pews. Today, the fires of religious division in the Middle East are daily stoked in fundamentalist Islamic mosques and madrasas and hardline Zionist schools and synagogues. The toxic mix of religion and nationalism is today laying waste to Yemen, Sudan, Iran, and Afghanistan. And here in America, though there is a firm Constitutional line drawn between government and religion, the marriage of political power and religion is a real force, an inevitably dangerous force. For whenever a nation is convinced God is on its side, whenever a nation believes God blesses their endeavors and theirs alone, whenever a nation is convinced its moral authority and power comes from God, it risks arrogance, and then evil.
Any careful observer of America’s trajectory since the rise of the religious right can not help but see this. Christopher Hitchens, who we mentioned at the start of this sermon series, said, “How dismal it is to see present day Americans yearning for the very orthodoxy their country was founded to escape.”
It is difficult in a culture such as ours, when nationalism and faith are so tightly interwoven, to raise a voice of objection against the all-too common idolatry of nation and race, but it must be done, for the sake of the nation, the church, and the future.
National idolatry is not a new problem. In the Hebrew Scriptures, God raised up prophets, men and women whose task it was to keep Israel and its leaders just and true. Most of them were repaid for their efforts with death. I have a Quaker pastor friend who, on the heels of 9/11, warned from the pulpit against the rush to war. He spoke at 11 AM and was unemployed by noon. Once a religion has allied itself with a nation, prophets become traitors.
As Friends, we believe any religion that is good for us, but bad for others doesn’t merit our allegiance. We believe religion should make room, not push away. We believe the Light of God shines on all, and not a selective few. We applaud governments that are honest, open, and beneficial, and work to make them so by challenging governments that are deceitful, closed, and harmful. We are careful never to lend our moral or ethical weight to leaders who want only to use it for selfish and dangerous ends. We believe any religion which elevates some and diminishes others is a corrupt faith and has lost its way. We believe the strength of a nation isn’t measured in its wealth or military power, but in its commitment to justice, equality, and the betterment of all. Regrettably, many American Christians have forgotten what should never be forgotten—that the ultimate allegiance for the Christian isn’t to a flag, a party, or a president, but to a principle―to love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love your neighbor as you love yourself.