Tuesday, May 30, 2017

When You Can't Distinguish Between Your Patriotism And Your Faith

Because Memorial Day is a sacrosanct day in America and out of respect for those with strong feelings on the matter, I am delaying this post until the day after although it was written on Monday.

I don't generally care for Allen West which might be surprising since he dislikes many of the same people I dislike. While he occasionally shares something interesting, most of his stuff is way over the top, click-baity stuff laced with all caps like "This new video DESTROYS Barack Obama!". Based on his click-bait headlines Obama should have never made it past his inauguration. On the other hand he had what appears to be a very distinguished military career, at least up until the end, and is an eloquent writer when he isn't being silly. But last night my wife pointed out something very troubling that she read from Col. West. Titled with the obligatory all caps emphasis, I have something deeply PERSONAL to share with y’all, the essay is West's thoughts on Memorial Day weekend.

Much of it is an exhibit of the weird, quasi-religious view of the American armed forces that permeates evangelicalism. He admonishes people that we MUST HONOR (caps in original) Memorial Day. This is "not a time to celebrate swimming pools opening, summer beginning, sales, BBQs, or road trips." Now I was not in the military but I kind of think that those who serve do so in large part so that the rest of us CAN enjoy life, have BBQs with family and go swimming in relative peace. That sort of guilt-tripping is unnecessary but that isn't what troubled me. What I found really creepy was something he said later on. I put the primary concerning sentence in bold:

The door to the mansion of the Lord is closed to those cold timid souls who survive off the sacrifice of others. John Stuart Mill plainy (sic) articulated, “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”

The term "mansion of the Lord" references a song of the same title that sings the praises of soldiers, presumably only soldiers fighting for the good guys but it also carries a theological connotation. In the King James, which the overwhelming majority of Americans are most familiar with, in a very well-known passage, Jesus speaks to His followers to reassure them of the reward in heaven that awaits them:

In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. (John 14:2, KJV)

In other translations like the NASB (many dwelling places), the ESV (many rooms) and the NIV (also many rooms) the word mansions isn't used but like a lot of passages people know it in the KJV language. I always feel weird when the Lord's Prayer doesn't start with "Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name". So there is a clear connection between the mansions of the Father and the mansion of the Lord.

Back to West's statement that "The door to the mansion of the Lord is closed to those cold timid souls who survive off the sacrifice of others.". What exactly does that mean? It certainly sounds as if West us suggesting that there is no place in heaven for those who are cowardly, "timid souls who survive off the sacrifice of others". Since very few of us serve in the military that kind of suggests that we should read the Great Commission as a call to go forth and encourage people to enlist. I can't imagine that is what he means although it really sounds that way. What about the Mennonites, Hutterites, Amish and others who believe that military service is contrary to the calling of Christ? Are they also "timid souls"? Joseph and Michael Hofer were imprisoned and tortured, leading to their deaths, for their refusal to take up arms in World War I. Were they timid for standing up for their belief against overwhelming, if baffling, public support for a foolish war and even suffering untold abuse that led to their death? That doesn't sound like someone with a "cold timid soul". I fully expect to see those brothers one day and share with them eternity with Christ. It is odd that uber-conservative West chooses to cherry pick a concept from Theodore Roosevelt, a man who was barely religious if at all, that Andrew Napolitano scorched in his book, Theodore and Woodrow: How Two American Presidents Destroyed Constitutional Freedom and John Stuart Mill, an agnostic, to create a theory that sort of appears to be Justification by Military Service Alone.

This is what you get when your religious faith gets entangled with your patriotism. You start to elevate and conflate your nationalistic pride with Christianity. Soldiers take on an otherworldly aura, the flag and the troops on parade become holy symbols, Memorial Day and Veterans Day become high holy days on the liturgical calendar, Lee Greenwood's "God Bless The U.S.A." becomes a sacred hymn. Using mysticism laced language like "garden of stone" and "mansion of the Lord" it is hard to decide where Col. West places his faith, in God or in the military. What is worse is that many people who are not Christians also conflate Christianity with American patriotism. You can debate the merit of patriotism and nationalism and I acknowledge that there is a place for a subordinate identity outside of your faith but when you blur the line between love of country and love of God, you have something out of whack.

Allen West is hardly alone in this thinking but he has a big public platform, ironically in large part because of support he received based on the way he was forced out of the military for using illegal methods to try to intimidate intelligence out of someone in Iraq. His Facebook page has well over 2 million followers and is liked by 20 of my friends. His type of thinking infects a lot of the evangelical church in America and it is dangerous, it is incorrect and it is anti-Christian. Stay clear of it. You can properly and respectfully remember and honor those who died in the military of the United States without obscenely conflating John 15:13 with soldiers being killed while trying to kill others or closing the doors to the "Mansion of the Lord" to those "cold timid souls" who didn't go to war or perhaps civilians who were not sufficiently enthusiastic in their support of wars. Whatever Allen West is trying to say with his "The door to the mansion of the Lord is closed to those cold timid souls who survive off the sacrifice of others." rhetoric, it is not Biblical and it is definitely harmful.

For more thoughts on the place of patriotism and the church see: Piper On Patriotism


Kevin said...

"...who survive off the sacrifice of others." Isn't the whole point of Christianity that we can be made right with God only by the sacrifice of another - namely, Christ?

Arthur Sido said...


Yep but such theological nuance is wasted on those who think that patriotism is a fruit of the Spirit.