Confronting Christian Nationalism with the Book of Amos
Rioters at the Capitol carrying Christian signs alongside Confederate flags put Christian nationalism in the news like never before. This news cycle has drawn much-needed attention to the power and prevalence of such nationalism, and not least the way some Christians apply God’s promises for Israel to the United States of America. What’s often missed, though, is the way that the Old Testament itself undermines the kind of nationalism on display in so much of the American church.
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The Power and Prevalence of Christian Nationalism
Christian nationalism is more common than we might think. In their book, Taking America Back for God, Whitehead and Perry report that 29% of all Americans believe the “federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation.”1Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back for God, 6. Nearly two-thirds “either mostly or completely agreed” that “God has granted America a special role in human history.” Many Christians describe this “special role” in ways that apply biblical promises to American politics.2Koyzis, Political Visions, 120. Cf. also Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back, 11.
Not convinced? Just listen to former president George W. Bush calling the “ideal of America” the “hope of all mankind” before applying the gospel’s words about the Incarnate Christ to this American ideal: “And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Listen to former president Donald Trump call the American people a “righteous public” that is “defended by God,” or former vice president Mike Pence using the Epistle to the Hebrews to call his audience to “run the race marked out for us” and to “fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents.”
Listen to former president Barack Obama call America the “last best hope on earth,” or former secretary of state Hilary Clinton claiming that the United States is “[a] shining city on a hill,” even “the indispensable nation.” Listen to President Biden speaking of a “faith” that “sustains America,” and then, after quoting a hymn filled with biblical allusions, calling the people to “embark on the work that God and history have called us to do . . . with faith in America and in each other.”
On each of these occasions, political leaders claimed truths about God and his people for a secular nation and its citizens. In doing so, they demonstrate that Christian nationalism is not only widespread, but also politically effective.
Christians have long recognized that, properly understood, patriotism is a Christian virtue, a healthy disposition to value and invest in the particular community in which we live out our love of God and neighbor.3 See Oliver O’Donovan’s comments at the end of his essay “Politics and Political Service:” https://breakingground.us/politics-and-political-service/ “The church will survive the rise and decline of every nation,” Wolterstorff writes. “But the rise and decline of nations is not on that account a matter of indifference to the church. For [in it] lie millions of tales of human joy and suffering.”4Wolterstorff, Hearing the Call, 302.
But when we replace Jesus with a reference to an American flag, suggest that our country plays a uniquely irreplaceable role in God’s sovereign purposes, or claim God’s special protection for our nation, we aren’t practicing genuinely Christian patriotism. We might even be practicing idolatry.
Amos’s Confrontation with Idolatrous Nationalism
Perhaps the book of Amos can serve as a litmus test for whether we’ve fallen into the trap of nationalist idolatry. Though the prophet has a reputation for calling out Israel’s injustice, the moral failures he confronted were grounded in the people of God’s idolatry.
Despite what we might expect, that idolatry doesn’t mean the Israelites were all running around finding new gods to worship. The primary way Amos’s audience created idols was by turning God into a nationalist idol.5A point made repeatedly in Danny Carroll’s outstanding new commentary on Amos (M. Daniel Carroll, R. The Book of Amos, New International Commentary on the Old Testament [Eerdmans, 2020]). The interpretation of Amos I offer here has been influenced at every point by Carroll’s work. They claimed Yahweh’s name, while rejecting Yahweh’s way. They praised Yahweh in worship, but they refused to follow Yahweh at work. Now, Amos calls them to wake up and recognize that the god they have constructed for themselves bears no resemblance to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
How could this happen? In part because they had taken God’s covenant promises and purposes and equated them with their national success. Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, makes the claim in the clearest terms imaginable: Bethel is “the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom” (Amos 7:12).
From a biblical perspective, this is catastrophic. The defining feature of Israel’s kings was to be their embodiment of Yahweh’s law, a law mediated through the priesthood (Deut 17:18). But Amaziah makes it clear that neither this temple nor its priest will confront the king or the country’s failure to live up to Yahweh’s law, because their “Yahweh” has become completely identified with the nation’s success.
This explains why Israel’s national idolatry went hand-in-hand with injustice. Amos prophesied to a people coming out of a time of military expansion and economic prosperity. A god completely identified with the nation cannot be expected to critique the practices of that nation during such times.
So the people’s injustice went unconfronted. They turned justice to bitterness (5:7), trampling the poor while buying second homes and living in the lap of luxury (5:11). They denied justice to the needy in their courts (5:10). Even their worship was corrupted. They used wine gained through predatory lending in worship services (2:8b) and spent their Sabbaths day dreaming about how to hustle the poor in the marketplace (8:6).
From Amos’s perspective, the life of the people of God was in ruins. But the powerful folks among God’s people couldn’t be bothered (6:6). Well, of course they couldn’t. They were the chosen people. God was on their side.
They could not have been more wrong.
Though the Israelites were a part of a political community uniquely chosen by God, Amos recognized that this identity as God’s people ensured God’s judgment when they rejected his way: “You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth,” Yahweh declared, “therefore I will punish you for all your sins” (3:2)
The Israelites thought Yahweh must have been delighted with their worship. Because of the way their nationalist idolatry yielded injustice, Yahweh declared instead: “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me” (5:21).
The Israelites thought that the God who brought them up out of Egypt could be relied on to give them military victories. They were, at least in their own minds, a truly exceptional, indispensable nation! Against this, Yahweh lets them in on a secret: he has led other nations out of their own exoduses, and is in no way bound to prosper his sinful people (9:7–8).
The Israelites longed for Yahweh to come to them. Amos declares God he was indeed on his way, but that his coming meant judgment worse than the famines, droughts, diseases, and plagues he’d already sent. Because unlike their national idol, whose arrival always meant blessing, Yahweh would be coming with judgment (4:6–13).
What hope does Amos offer God’s people in the midst of their nationalist idolatry? On the face of it, not much, especially in the short run (2:6). What short-term hope there is begins with a two-fold seeking.
First, seek Yahweh, while rejecting the very nationalist temples where the people thought he ought to be sought. “Seek me and live; do not seek Bethel . . . Bethel will be reduced to nothing” (5:4–5). Religious centers whose liturgies, leaders, and symbols had become thoroughly identified with the economic and political success of the kingdom could only expect imminent, devastating judgment. Escaping that judgment required rejecting that sanctuary and its system of false worship, turning instead to the true and living God.
Second, Yahweh calls his people to seek the good by establishing justice in their community (5:15). Just as seeking the true Yahweh required rejecting false Yahweh worship, seeking justice would require God’s people to reject the unjust practices of their courtrooms, tax offices, and market places, instead letting “justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (5:24).
Even if some of God’s people embrace this two-fold seeking the short-term prospects remain bleak. The best Amos can promise is that if his audience practice such repentance, then “perhaps the LORD God Almighty will have mercy.” Even then, such mercy would only be for a “remnant” (5:15b).
Such short-term repentance is fueled ultimately by the long-term hope that Amos offers in the final words of his prophecy. One day, Yahweh will restore the house of David (9:11). When he does, the result will be nothing short of cosmic transformation.
“The days are coming, declares the LORD, when the reaper will be overtaken by the plowman and the planter by the one treading grapes. New wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills, and I will bring my people Israel back from exile” (9:13–14).
The long-term hope, then, is that Yahweh himself will completely restore both his world and his people.
Hearing Amos Today
The crosses carried into the Capitol building point to a tendency to equate God’s kingdom and people with the United States of America. Like the people of God in Amos’s day, too often, we American Christians have turned King Jesus into a national god who can be counted on to protect and prosper us. The Confederate flags carried into the Capitol alongside those crosses serve as a disturbing reminder that what we’ve meant by the “us” we expect our god to protect and prosper has often been “white people like me.” Amos gives us a name for this kind of nationalism: idolatry. The fact that we call our idols by the true King’s name doesn’t change that fact.
Such nationalist idolatry leads directly to injustice. For instance, Whitehead and Perry find that when white Christians embrace Christian nationalism, they are more likely to downplay the reality of racism and to support anti-immigrant policies.6Perry and Whitehead, Taking America Back for God, 16–17. Why? Because national idols cannot critique the injustice and racism of our nation’s past or present. How could they?7A point made well in a recent essay by David French: They are made in our image to serve our purposes.
But Amos also offers a way forward. The devastation our Christian nationalism has wrought has not been primarily on the nation, but on the church. It is the church’s witness to the true King of kings that is in tatters. And it is the church that Amos invites to a two-fold repentance. First, to seek Jesus and live by turning away from the kind of worship, theology, and practice that identifies our nation with the people of God. Second, to seek Jesus by confronting and repairing the injustice and oppression that has so often marked our lives as American Christians.
That two-fold repentance would require us to ask hard questions about the place of American flags in our churches and patriotic services in our sanctuaries. It would require us to teach and preach against the idolatrous belief that God has given our nation a special role in the world and is especially concerned with our national prosperity. It would require us to confront our failure to tell the truth about the unjust and racist aspects of our history. It would require us to identify the sinful commitments that lead white evangelicals to be the group in America most likely to downplay our unjust present. It would require all of us to embrace the hard task of sacrificially seeking to open the floodgates of justice.
Even then, Amos might remind us that the short-term hope for the witness of the American church is anything but triumphalist. Christian nationalism has given evangelicalism a reputation for unbreakable allegiance to a President who sought to “Make America Great Again” by devastating the refugee program, separating immigrant children at the border, downplaying racism, and expressing his love for the insurrectionists who took over the Capitol in response to his lies about election fraud. Again and again, many white evangelicals have made excuses for the inexcusable. Now is the time to repent and to “grieve over the ruin” of our witness (Amos 6:6).
But that does not mean we give in to despair. The Christian’s hope is never in the quality of our own character. It is always and only grounded in the reality of Jesus’s kingship. It is God who sent his Son Jesus as the King from David’s line, and it is King Jesus who will one day return to bring full restoration to his world and to his people.
Now is the time for repentance, and that includes repenting of our idolatrous Christian nationalism. So let us do so, in hope that God may yet perhaps restore the witness of his church, even as we await his glorious return.
1. Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back for God, 6.
2. Koyzis, Political Visions, 120. Cf. also Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back, 11.
3. See Oliver O’Donovan’s comments at the end of his essay “Politics and Political Service:” https://breakingground.us/politics-and-political-service/
4. Wolterstorff, Hearing the Call, 302.
5. A point made repeatedly in Danny Carroll’s outstanding new commentary on Amos (M. Daniel Carroll, R. The Book of Amos, New International Commentary on the Old Testament [Eerdmans, 2020]). The interpretation of Amos I offer here has been influenced at every point by Carroll’s work.
6. Perry and Whitehead, Taking America Back for God, 16–17.
7. A point made well in a recent essay by David French
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