I recently had my first exposure to Dr. Ben Carson, who is generating Republican presidential buzz with a growing fan base on the evangelical right. On video, he was a glib and entertaining speaker with an inspiring story, flashing the brilliance you expect of a pediatric brain surgeon. You feel smart just for listening to him. Then you hear more of what he has to say, and with all due respect to a fellow Christ follower, maybe the excitement starts to fade.
Did he really say America has become like Nazi Germany? And reaffirm the claim when given the chance to backpedal? And then draw some strained comparison between ISIS and America’s founding fathers? I’m sure he knows what he’s doing, but I’m not sure what it is. I just know I’m getting the sense of someone who is on a mission to shock people. He’ll justify it as his war on political correctness, and some of us will eat it up.
And what are we eating up? For one thing, I detect that staple of the American political menu, fear. Dr. Carson is just serving it up in an edgy plate of greens instead of the usual steakhouse wedge of iceberg. He’s not alone. Louisiana’s Gov. Bobby Jindal, a former Rhodes Scholar who courts the same vote as Dr. Carson, is out pushing the idea of Muslim “no-go” zones, a scare so baseless that Fox News had to back down from it four times in one day.
But my point is not to bash Ben Carson or Bobby Jindal; it’s to ask why American Christians keep responding to the politics of fear. To answer that, consider when we get afraid: when we think something important to us is at risk. Our level of fear reflects how invested we are in that thing.
We invest in certain things with gusto here in the Land of More is Better. “Too much of a good thing” is an alien concept. Americans are so busy going big, they rarely consider whether it might in fact be time to go home. Christians are not immune. Some of us even get over-invested, to the point of entitlement, in the idea of America that we see as our sacred heritage.
At the risk of my own tarring and feathering, perhaps the sense of entitlement springs from our own Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men…are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Life, I’ll give you that. Only God has the right to give it or take it, by His sovereign power or through the instruments of His choosing. Any others exercising that power are merely playing God, at their own ultimate peril.
Liberty? In Christ we are free from the penalty and power of sin, free from Old Testament law, free in debatable matters of conscience, as the apostle Paul declared in Romans 14. But the Bible never promised American-style freedom. God blessed me to be born and to live under it. These very words are protected by the First Amendment, which carries the benefit of a wide-open door for the Gospel. But whenever He pleases, God can let this door be closed and another opened. To Paul, even captivity was an opportunity; in Ephesians 6:20, he declared himself an “ambassador in chains” in his Roman imprisonment. He didn’t protest politically or incite rebellion against his oppressors. He was too busy evangelizing the guards.
Pursuit of Happiness? If we belong to God, our joy is, or should be, in Him above all: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4) Happiness for its own sake is just a warm, fuzzy and unreliable feeling, and the Bible doesn’t promise such happiness.
Still, some American Christians seem to expect politicians, usually Republicans, to guarantee a particular vision of life and liberty, without which they won’t be happy or feel secure.
Holly Fisher found fame or infamy, depending on your viewpoint, when she tweeted a picture of herself holding a Bible in one hand and an AR-15 rifle in the other, while standing in front of an American flag. She had every right to do that, and those who cheered or mocked her had every right to react. America is great that way.
As for me, I had the all-too-familiar sensation of looking at a fellow believer, and squirming a little. That picture neatly captures an unsettling feature of our culture: a peculiar American salad of Christian faith, patriotism, conservative politics and guns, dressed with a dollop of fear that everything we cherish is one generation from oblivion. We’re giving it all away, Dr. Carson warns – an appeal to fear couched as a call to courage.
But where is our true security? Some who call themselves believers seem to put the Constitution, as they understand it, in God’s place. By this vision, we’re secure as long as the framework of our government guarantees we can speak and worship freely, and as long as guns can stand between us and the bad guys and/or a government that turns on us. Which brings us back to America as Nazi Germany. The comparison is, for now, thoroughly over the top. But let’s play what-if.
Some day it may become dangerous to be an American Christian. I don’t say this to sow fear. The threat to religious freedom simply is, and it’s more than a threat to countless people of all faiths around the world. Jesus warns that the persecuted church is the norm: “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.” The view from where He stood in John 15:19 is far from our blessed existence here in America.
So, what if oppression arises in our midst?
In the Garden of Gethsemane, government thugs came to take away Jesus’ right to speak and worship freely. Peter drew his sword and cut off the ear of Malchus, the high priest’s servant. And Jesus told Peter to stop, and healed Malchus. In that moment, I think our Lord set the tone for any believer throughout history facing the loss of civil rights, including religious ones.
In the Bible, when God’s people are oppressed where they live, they continue to worship and they wait for deliverance, however God provides it. Think of the Israelite captivities, from Egypt to Babylon. That God has used America so remarkably, though it was born from a rebellion, may merely testify to His grace and His ability to bring good out of anything (Genesis 50:20). Find a passage in the Bible where God calls His people to insurrection against the government He allows to rule over them. If you can find one, please share, but I’m not aware of any in the Old Testament or the New. Yes, Jesus told his disciples – just before that confrontation in Gethsemane – to get swords (Luke 22:36). But the meaning and implications of that passage are debatable, and it’s not a proof text for the notion that Christians must arm themselves, especially in light of what followed at the moment of Jesus’ arrest.
Still, there are American Christians ready for metaphorical or even literal combat. We’ve seen the Holly Fishers, and we’ve seen the anonymous ones blustering in online comment threads about the day’s news. It isn’t always clear who is serious, but they can’t all be trolling. The ones who are serious have some hard questions to answer:
- To defend your civil rights, given and taken by humans who rule with God’s permission (Romans 13), will you attack a fellow citizen? Or will you extend mercy?
- For your religious rights, will you strike blows in the name of God, and raise the barrier of aggression between your adversary and the good news that you carry? Or like Paul will you simply take whatever opportunity presents itself under the powers that be?
- For your right to bear arms, will you choose confrontation? Or will you trust God with your safety and lower your defenses, not to let the enemy in but to let grace out? Does your security so depend on a firearm, even more than on God, that you will shed blood over your right to keep it?
These very ideas may sound extreme to some, but in today’s supercharged, polarized politics, otherwise sane people seem to be wandering out to the fringes. And even if you’re not ready to take up arms against your government, consuming fear can twist your attitudes and actions. Never harbor the delusion that you’re fighting for God. You’re fighting in Him – His power, strength and wisdom, with spiritual weapons – against forces whose defeat is already sure, because God can fight perfectly well for Himself.
If we rethink how we might answer hostility from our own government in the future, we should separate that from issues of the here and now: personal security at home, or military service to repel external threats to the nation. In both of these matters, I believe a Christian may legitimately be prepared to defend family, neighbors or country against criminals or foreign invaders. I don’t believe millions of military men and women have served in vain. It is right to defend the defenseless against the lawless, as the psalmist says: “Rescue the weak and needy; Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.” (Psalm 82:4) But none of this equates to a divine right or mandate for a Christian to own a gun or any weapon, or to demand that right on our terms.
Remember President Obama’s famously ill-chosen remarks about rural Americans clinging to their guns and religion. It was elitist and condescending. But if Obama saw Holly Fisher’s picture, I could understand him feeling a little bit vindicated. As for my reaction: If she treats her Bible as a symbol for an idea, not as a vehicle to encounter God, she’s missing its purpose. If she trusts the gun and the flag for her security, she’s forgotten where true security lies.
Holly Fisher may be celebrating the latest election results. Fine; God’s plan is moving forward, and we can always celebrate that, as well as the precious right that we have. On this I can agree with Ben Carson: Vote, and if your faith is truly a part of all you do, bring it into the voting booth. But I don’t assume that God’s plan is to advance the American Christian social or political agenda, whatever that is, or to restore America’s greatness.
Perhaps I’ve come to realize that patriotism, while not bad in itself, is best held loosely in light of my relationship with God. Like anything apart from God, my patriotism can crumble into disappointment or fear if the object of my devotion proves unworthy or impermanent. Better to be devoted to the One who will never disappoint us, leave us or forsake us. And I am less likely to regret what I do in my country’s name, if my nationalism doesn’t blur the vision of my heavenly citizenship.