“Taking America back for God” is a common rallying cry in some American Christian circles. But is God asking this of his Church in America? And what does taking America back mean?
The Scriptures never cast a vision of Christ as a King in need of political power. He’s not asking for it. What are the keys to Washington in the hands of a King who already holds the key to eternal life?
There’s a tension here. Christians should not treat politics as trivial even though they are temporal. The good of our neighbor sometimes hangs on politics. The public square is one place where we pursue the common good for our neighbor. (Jeremiah 29.7) Even so, when political outcomes rise or fall, our neighbors may perceive true Christians being trivial towards politics because of our gospel hope that confesses “we seek a city yet to come” (Hebrews 13.14). So, Christians should engage in politics, not to “take back our country”, but to give good to our neighbor. We do this while living in anticipation of God’s future.
The call to take back America for God assumes two things. One, that America’s best is rooted back in a past we must reclaim. Two, that America once enjoyed a unique divine blessing from a relationship to God. Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, in their excellent book, Taking Back America For God, describe these (and other) factors at length. According to their research, Americans fall along a spectrum of Rejecters, Resisters, Accomodators, and Ambassadors
Is America’s past a model for its future?
It’s difficult to say with confidence that America’s past is the key to it’s future. We need nuance, and multi-faceted scholarship here because the past is complex. Certainly, one way to use the past well is to assess the American Bill of Rights today in light of yesterday. Is the press more free today, or in the 1940’s? That’s an important question. We don’t have the time for that study here.
But I’d like to suggest from my experience as a pastor that nostalgia is some of the force driving “taking America back for God”. White Christians must be aware of how nostalgia like this can distance our neighbors from other cultures, destroying goodwill and gospel witness. For example, nostalgia for the pervasive Christian influnce during the “under God” civil religion of the 1950’s ignores the injustice of segregation.
A close examination of the American story will reveal: there is no era of American history worth returning to that does not perpetuate some form of injustice. Chattel slavery, Jim Crow, Chinese immigration, Civil Rights, Abortion, Economic disparities, these are all present in the American story. Nostalgia that selectively ignores the injustices against my neighbor cannot serve as a template for the future, since it is not based in truth.
What about America’s relationship to God?
The American concept of liberty is exceptional, but that doesn’t mean America is divinely inspired. Government of the people, by the people, and for the people was a new undertaking. Locating human rights outside the the State, as something to be recognized and protected, not produced, remains a political ideal worth aspiring to. Pioneering political theory aside, America is more like Rome than the early Church in God’s economy. Christ did not die for America, but to bring all people into His church. If the American experiment fails, God will not be unfaithful to his promise. The Church will endure.
Does God ask the Church to embark on this mission to take back America?
Not once in Scripture does God judge the Church for failing to secure power. God will judge his Church for misuse of power. He indicts Israel in Ezekiel 34:4-5: “You have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bandaged the injured, brought back the strays, or sought the lost. Instead, you have ruled them with violence and cruelty.” The Church today must judge itself by this standard. How have we used American liberty? Have we loved our neighbor, or ourselves?
Today, the drive to “take back America” is a misguided venture of a Church forced to face its future on the margins of a new America. We don’t have to fear the cost of our faith in a way that costs us our witness. When it comes to pursuing power in ways that compromise our witness, I see Jesus asking today a familiar question “what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but forfeits his soul?”
What does God ask of the Church?
Jesus cares more about our witness to the world’s power than any comfort we gain from it. Jesus’ power was unleashed on a hill outside the city on a Roman cross, not in the halls of Pontius Pilate. So whatever power shift happens in the American electorate, it cannot shift one bit of power from the hands of King Jesus.
To that end, Jesus is not asking for America. Jesus is inviting Americans to sit at his table as his brothers and sisters in the new creation. The Church stewards this invitation by participating in and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus’ kingdom today. A red or blue majority in the American political landscape is not a precondition for the obedience of the Church to the mission of God. We can choose faith no matter the cost or we can lay American political power at the feet of Jesus. Are we listening well enough to hear what he’s asking us to do?