I recall years ago on a Sunday when I was on vacation doing what I normally would do at such times: I went to visit another church in the community. This particular church was one of the ten largest in the country. The sprawling campus was perfectly landscaped and the huge building was impressive. My family and I were running late. We rushed from the parking lot, through the doors to their “worship center.” But what I saw stopped me in my tracks. A color guard in full military uniform was about to walk down the main aisle with an American flag hoisted high. It was only then that I remembered it was the Sunday before Independence Day. I took my children by their hands, turned and walked away to find another place to worship.
Our world is filled with institutions that would like to gain our affection and attachment. These use images, music and slogans in order to impact us. The institutions range from the universities, to the movie theaters, to restaurants, to Federal Express and Delta Airlines. These variously provide us with services, entertainment, education and more. From us they expect remuneration, payment for whatever it is they have provided to us. These institutions attempt to win our loyalty. But the word “loyalty” here is narrowly defined. At best it involves only a small sliver of our lives.
The nation-state is different. It is an institution that calls for comprehensive allegiance of a sort that supersedes every other loyalty. The nation-state is, to use the words of the first of the Ten Commandments, a “jealous God” who has little patience for competitors. This institution demands body and soul. Loyalty to it is a matter of life and death. In other words, it is religious devotion that is expected of citizens. The rituals and practices of the nation-state aim to form, define and deepen our loyalty and in so doing shape our identity so that who we are above all – at least for those in the United States – is American. Of course Christianity is welcome, even applauded in many quarters. But being Christian is assumed to be a subcategory of being American so that those in the church in the United States are American Christians, not merely Christians in America.
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