by Randall Frederick
Last night, I found myself delivering a lecture on “The Intersection of Religion and Nationalism in the Twentieth Century.” I was a bit surprised by the offer, but hurriedly put together my thoughts and a few selections from archival footage here and there.
The following is a combination of my notes, thoughts that developed more once I spoke with members of the audience afterwards, and a few additions where I would have liked to have gone further with a point here or there.
My father has always been a Republican. Many children remember the first time they saw their parents cry, and psychoanalysts tend to think that seeing our parents cry is a defining moment, evidence that the world of childhood is not pristine. It can be a “gateway” moment to the larger world.
My father cried when Reagan left office.
Though he swears this isn’t true, I know it is because I distinctly remember the rolled-up velvet painting he had of Reagan on a horse, and virtually every conversation I have had with him as an adult about politics somehow migrates back to him dreamily saying, “Reagan was the best President that ever lived. Without question.”
To say that my father is a Republican is to miss the point. It has an offhand quality to it, as though I am telling you that the weather in Southern California is balmy, but pleasant, or that McDonalds serves cheeseburgers. There are certain things that everyone knows, and my father is a Republican is one of them. And so it was that I grew up under a Republican umbrella, convinced that the “liberals” were trying to take over television, that former President Bill Clinton was “the antichrist incarnate”, that abortion clinics should be bombed – maybe not by our family, but my someone – and that “those ragheads over there are stealing our oil. So what if it’s on their land? We earned it, and it’s a travesty that we don’t bomb the shit out of them to take what’s rightfully ours.”
I feel about my father’s politics the way that John F. Kennedy once said he felt about his own father’s politics – we don’t agree, but I still love him very much.
It was roughly 2001 or 2002 that I began to really distance myself vocally from the views I grew up with. At the time, I was working as a teaching pastor for a church. Each week, there was some new task. I would research some obscure passage in the Hebrew scriptures, develop an outline of a book, or be asked to teach a Sunday morning class when the regular teacher couldn’t. One week, I had been asked to teach the “Seniors” class – octogenarians who had heard it all, knew God far better than I did, knew the preaching legends of the last century from grade school when they were both “knee-high to a junebug,” and were quick to let me know all of this when I was saying something particularly meaningful to my own spiritual experience. That morning, we started talking about the war in Iraq that was taking place at the time and the room became charged with open disgust at what I was saying – that perhaps we were wrong in assuming that God was on our side and that “No where in scripture are we to behave as though patriotism and religion are one and the same. That kind of talk is always problematic, is exactly the kind of thing Jesus condemned, and which has led to the corruption of the Church time and time again.”
Long story short, by the time the choir had put their robes on, the pastor had heard and wanted to have “a little talk” with me, “just to hear [my] side of it.”
You would think that, growing up with a father who cried when Reagan had to leave office, that I would be more “patriotic” or even “godly” enough to understand that God not only brings us to war, but that God is looking forward to the coming bloodbath described in Revelation 14:19-20. This kind of theology of a bipolar angry-and-also-gleeful God-of-War is reminiscent of Jonathan Edward’s sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741) but foreign to the New Testament literature which depicts God as long-suffering, very much against nationalized religion, and calls believers to be outside the circuit of regimes.
This is difficult to swallow though because we are so used to the constructed union of religion and state. We are so used to discussions about the original intent of the Founding Fathers towards nationalized religion, legislated and mandated religiously-influeced laws and regulations, government documents and architectural inscriptions, even the imprint of “In God We Trust” on our fiduciary legal tender. It is, indeed, foreign to speak of a nation-less God. But when had a nationalized deity ever helped us aspire to something greater? When we do not grow complacent, convinced we are right in all things, we become frightfully oppressive.
Nowhere is this better exemplified in the 20th Century than Germany. Time and distance have allowed us to both forgive and forget the millions who died at Germany’s hands during “the Great War” – Jews as much as the Russians. We forget that Russia became a matriarchal society because millions of Russian men vanished. The Nazis killed not just the Jews, but dissenting Christians. Germany became a country of fear – a fear instilled from the pulpit as much as the podium. Through a short series of changes, Hitler and Goebbels oversaw the “restructuring” of society and the Church played no small part in that change. Convinced that Germany should have a governmental church, patterned off of the Church of England, Hitler set about winning the support of the pastors of Germany, slowly wooing them with the idea of nationalism and distinction among their peers. German Christians who had Jewish lineage were encouraged to form their own churches and religious communities, sensitive to their shared lineage. Those of pure Aryan lineage soon began to dintiguish themselves not just as Christians, but as Evangelicals, then “German Christians.”
In 1933, Hitler appointed Ludwig Muller as Reichbischof or “chief bishop” of the German Evangelical Church, which was the assimilated and amalgamated religious umbrella of all German churches who had sworn allegiance to da Fuhrer. Those who refused to swear an oath to the betterment of Germany under Hitler formed what would be called the “Confessing Church” – the most notable member being Dietrich Bonhoeffer.They were in the significantly pronounced minority, for most of Germany was stirred up politically, socially, economically and now spiritually by the overt racism of the Nazi Party. “Christianity” for Germany was about taking what was rightfully theirs, casting aside (i.e. “executing”) those who stood in their way, and suppressing the feeble conscience for a glorious future in which the Third Reich would rule supreme for thousands of years. Many think that such heightened rhetoric can be dismissed, as though the ideal was a thousand-year reign but that Germany was practical, and far more moderate than their language might indicate. Not so. Albert Speer was chief architect and later Minister of Armaments and War Production. As he testified at the Nuremberg trials, it was his task to create a sustainable government on a very tangible, practical level. That he would serve first as architect and later as war minister is evidence of a connection between the mythologized ideology in the minds of Nazi leadership and the very real, touchable, ends of same.
Sadly, the testament of Germany’s “lapse in judgment” during the Second World War is a striking precedent… but not exclusive. Since then, many other nations have driven their endeavors forward on the backs of oppressed peoples. We see it in subsequent pages of history under names like Kosovo, Viet Nam, North Korea, Afghanistan, and now Syria. We see it even here in the “civilized” and “morally superior” United States where ideas of just wars not only find fertile ground, but are allowed to germinate and blossom into new wars – more often, those of which we never hear. Conflicts in deserts, “skirmishes” that last only as long as an entertaining sitcom. The idea of a nationalized religion, or religion “baptizing” our wars, is sadly not new at all. We see it every time a leader is photographed in the company of “key religious leaders” before they issue orders to launch missiles, as was done in Iraq and Afghanistan. Or seek to silence “traitors” like Edward Snowden. Or pledge themselves to “defend Israel, our only ally in the Middle East.”
As should be obvious every time a genuine question is raised about war and scripture, the idea of God “blessing” and even sanctioning wars and genocide is not new. It did not begin with Germany, but rather Germany found a long precedent of “holy wars” waged by Christendom. What is more, this is not a “Christian” problem alone. Islam has been in a state of conflict for decades, trying to reason out what the true definition of a jihad is. Is jihad the internal war one feels within? The internal war of Muslim believer against Muslim believer? Or is it a “holy” war commanded by Allah – to convert or kill? And what of Westboro Baptist’s rhetoric of wanting to kill fags? The ways in which Fred Phelps, pastor of Westboro Baptist, has raised small children as an “army of God” to kill these “sick beasts, the faggots”? How have we become so ensconced in these religions of death that we fail to see, and name, the ways that we are now entertained by it?
Dissatisfied that we cannot legally kill others, our theologies are subsequently constructed in ways where we can damn and punish those who are not like us. I have personally sat through many sermons which have elevated “us” to the hope of Heaven, and denounced “those people” as going “on a one-way ticket straight to damnation and hellfire.” My own father’s political views are expressly “us versus them”, and his theological views are often skewed accordingly. These kinds of theologies, tied so terribly to our cultural and national identity, are very much alive and well in the churches and houses of worship all across America and around the world. They are promoted each week by ministers we know and love, even local congregations and can be seen every hour on religious networks, heard over radio networks, downloaded through podcasts, tucked into our pleasure reading, and are noted daily on major news stations. This is not coincidence. Our national identity demands that we present a collective narrative of us being right, of being morally and spiritually superior. Of our race, our people, our socio-economic sphere being chosen and called of God. One need look no further than the next street block to see a house of worship raising and waving their flag; the private school who pledges their allegiance to the state before they sit down to catechism and chapel; the college university whose graduation ceremonies and football games begin with a prayer and a short speech by a politician. Each of these are venues that encode our national spiritual identity. Each systematically theologize a message of inspiration and endurance, affirming us and condemning them.
Our world is constantly in a state of flux, and it often appears that the only “stable” things in this life under God are war and hatred. We seek to increase the longevity of our place in this world by reinforcing messages of stability about God, and home, and country, and our “rights” all the while turning a blind eye to the injustices committed all around us and, sadly, often by our own hand. It is no wonder that we see religious surges whenever there is a national correlation. September 11 made believers out of all of us – at least for a few weeks – as we prayed for justice and guidance, prayed through our grief and confusion, and sought forgiveness that so many have still not yet found.
A nationalized religion, espirite de corps, is appealing for many reasons – not all of which are entirely clear. Mammals tend to group into packs, flocks, tribes, and congregations. Humans, as mammals, naturally find themselves coming together into centralized areas. This is not always a positive experience for the individual. In point of fact, the natural tendency of humans to converge stands in marked opposition to our individuality, our autonomy, and self-expression. To make the point obvious, we can swoon our ways into a marriage, but at some point we must begin to make sacrifices for the good of someone other than ourself. This can be terribly hard and is the reason why many marriages end – selfishness. We believe we are entitled to our individuality – our own personal right (and definition) of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So it is that one of the things we face in densely populated areas is a need to define our place in the world through groups. We allow ourselves to be “separate” but also “part of” something else – the construction, again, of the “us and them” motif so prevalent today.
For some, this means that they join racialized groups like the Ku Klux Klan to reaffirm their identity as whites. For others, this means certain foods and folkways – using grandma’s cookie recipe on the holidays, even though we live in a high-rise apartment and prepackaged cookies are far more convenient for our bustling schedule. We need these routines, touch-points, and traditions to remind us of who we are and where we come from. One of the things I noticed quite quickly after moving to Los Angeles was how angry everyone was with “those people.” Asians were greedy and couldn’t drive. Armenians drove too fast and talked about you in “whatever it is they’re saying in that language of theirs.” Latinos “stole” jobs from “real Americans.” Whites exercised white privilege and oppressed “the other.” African Americans were as likely to rob your store as shake your hand. Of course, these are exaggerated stereotypes but each of them are direct quotes from the people I have met and lived with. I admit, at least one them I have perpetuated. The point is that each of us, when we feel that our culture and way of doing things is being threatened, begin to seek affirmation by congregating with those like us even as we express our fear in the form of anger and “othering.” Be it racial, spiritual, or political, we all feel something is wrong with someone else, and that they need to “just accept” our vastly superior way of doing something.
Creating a sense of identity is difficult, whether on an individual or corporate level. Churches fail every day because they are not able to carve out a niche for their beliefs and practices, and there can be no doubt that we are seeing a generation languish at the ever-present demand to self-define. Sociologically, this makes a lot of sense. We know one another by our associations and activities – it is, realistically, the only way that dating sites can successfully match partners. But when we begin to self-identify primarily as members of any group – be it social, political, national, or otherwise – other than in regards to our authentic relationship to self and to God, we are perhaps at a loss to become our most truly realized self.
Naturally, the rebuttal could be made by the agnostic and atheist that this simply is not true. That they can be moral and valuable, contributing members – even realize their actual self. Perhaps, to some measure, this is true. Except that for the agnostic and atheist, they have already gone through the spiritual journey of self-definition. They have come to the conclusion that their choices are their own, without providence. For this, if nothing else, I greatly admire them. Their national activities – be in fireworks on holidays, political rallies, or running for office – are not marked by God-language which might baptize their failures. They take responsibility for the micro and macro. Perhaps this is why I have found stronger friendships with non-believers – they are more responsible and more willing to accept fault when they are wrong.
No, it is the deist – the idealist who commits themselves to a cause rather than the causal – who concerns me, for they are the ones who kill in the name of their gods, who can never admit defeat, or accept fault for their wrongs. They have, knowingly or otherwise, committed themselves to their self-referential grouping, rather than the persons, the human lives, behind them.
Oh, you say, but that sounds like you’re asking us not to respond to the wrongs in the world! A strong military/ economy/ identity is the only thing that can turn the tide! We must fight back and teach them a lesson!
Yes, because of course that course of action has worked out so wonderfully in generations past.
It is sadly ironic that we can shyly admit we have problems with the genocide of scripture, then wrap ourselves in a flag to march out and do the same thing. We can, it seems, excuse ourselves and our actions only as long as we feel that are justified by the disembodied third of deity.