October 26, 2023

Throughout this Fall, I will be reflecting on parts of the book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America by Russell Moore. I hope you are willing to grab a copy and read alongside me. Today I will be looking at Chapter Three: Losing Our Identity (p. 103-152):

I was at Jackson Junior High School walking from my first hour to my second hour class when a friend of mine came up to me and said, “A plane crashed in New York City.” I went to my second hour class (Algebra II) and asked to use the restroom. As I passed the Library, I saw about thirty people staring at a TV screen. With them, I watched as the South Tower collapsed and crumbled to the ground. They screamed in terror and many of them were crying. My third hour class was American History I with Mr. Mabuce and I always be grateful that he had his TV turned on to the news so that we could absorb what was happening on this day. I remember him looking at us and saying, “Your lives will never be the same.”

And he was right. On the evening of September 12, our church held a prayer service for the nation. We usually had about two hundred on a Sunday morning in our Sanctuary that seated five hundred. On that evening, the church was packed to the gills. We prayed and we waved American flags and we mourned together. And in the wake of our grief, suddenly our faith and our patriotism began to merge. The next July we held an Independence Day worship service. Our congressional representative (Rep. Jo Ann Emerson) spoke and the service climaxed in us singing “God Bless America” with confetti cannons blasting over us from the balcony.

That religious fervor mixed with love for country continued to grow and grow. And then it was announced that the United States would be invading Iraq. We were all told that it was somehow related to 9/11 and a “war on terror.” And suddenly my cousin Cory was being sent to Iraq and then we received word that a kid I went to high school with had been killed. And somehow support for the war in Iraq was co-mingled with support for our troops which was further co-mingled by our faith.

That is what is meant by “Christian nationalism.” It’s a term that Russell Moore explores a lot in this third chapter of Losing Our Religion. It is the mingling together of faith and patriotism so that it is difficult to tell them apart from one another. But when they are mixed, says Moore, religion begins to lose its distinctive identity and gets subsumed into the political mire.

Let me be clear: I am deeply patriotic. I am proud to be an American. But as proud as I am, my love of my country is never meant to be on the same level as my allegiance to King Jesus.

And now we find ourselves in a place where our political persuasion is the most dominant part of our identity. I have heard it said that people used to leave a church because they didn’t like the music or the sermons were too long. Now, they leave a church because it’s “too conservative” or “moving in a liberal direction.” Those people are seeking a church not where they can be transformed, but where their already-held-beliefs are affirmed. They are seeking confirmation of their political identity as their most important value. I agree with Moore when he says that is a dangerous place for the Church to find ourselves.

Which is one of the reasons why I am so grateful for organizations such as the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. This organization seeks to combat the narratives of Christian nationalism by affirming the historic Baptist principles of religious freedom for all people and the separation between church and state (which does not mean that we cannot bring our religious convictions to our politics, but it means that we recognize the different spheres in which these two operate).

I’ll be honest, I don’t think this is an area of struggle for Ardmore. Our church is very sensitive about not wanting to mix our faith and patriotism too much. Certainly, many of us are deeply proud of our country (and rightly so in many ways). We only put the American flag in the Sanctuary a couple of times a year in honor of a national holiday such as Veteran’s Day and, even then, it does not become the focus of our worship.

But there are still some things we should be doing, according to Moore, to help combat this slipping-away of our distinctive Christian identity:

Refuse to Secularize – We refuse to allow secular goals (i.e. political victories) to become our goals.

Recognize True and False Frames of Spiritual Warfare – Whenever someone trots out notions that demonize those with whom they disagree as “demons” or “just pure evil” you know that you’ve crossed into false spiritual warfare. Let us not forget what the Apostle Paul says: for our struggle is not against blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)

Believe and Share the Gospel – The best way to maintain our identity is to continually immerse ourselves in the story of God’s Great Rescue Plan for all of creation. We remind ourselves of that story again and again and again, and then we spend our days sharing that story with others.

Cultivate Loyalty in Community – When we are truly loyal and committed to one another, then we do not allow our political disagreements to dissolve our union unnecessarily.

Rekindle Awe – Let us never lose a sense of wonder and mystery about a God who will not be contained in our doctrines.

Make Peace with Homelessness – To the Philippians, Paul writes: But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philippians 3:20) Our true sense of belonging will never be found in trying to make this world right with our faith; our faith instead holds that the one we worship will one day bring heaven and earth together, and our identity to be faithful to that God until that time comes.

My next reflection on Losing Our Religion will look at Chapter Four: Losing Our Integrity (p. 103-152) and it will be posted on November 9.

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