This is a topic that has been on my mind and heart for quite some time. It is by no means something that I have rectified or come to any sincere conclusions concerning; rather, I sense it will be an ongoing struggle as we move ever forward into new ages of this world.
As I dwell on the topic, I realize that the conflation of Nation and Religion is no new thing. Indeed, it seems to me that it has been a struggle since the fall. In some ways, it even seems to be supported by scripture. Throughout the Old Testament, the promises God made were made to a people and those people were a nation. Since the choosing of Abraham to father a nation and the building of that nation through the tribes of Israel and the Kings David and Solomon and their descendants, God’s plan has been intricately woven to a nation, a group of people’s under a specific governance, ordained by God himself. When that nation was threatened or defeated, the goal was ever to reclaim it.
“One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognizes the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty… Christianity and international Socialism are as weak as straw in comparison with it.”George Orwell, 1941
Moving, then, to the time of Christ we see a new power that has emerged, with Jesus and the Jews placed squarely in the midst of it. The Roman Empire, spanning years upon years, went through many religious iterations, as we well know. From torturing and killing both Christ and many of his followers to being the primary vehicle for spreading Christianity as far Northwest even as Ireland, its history is storied and deep and far too complicated for the likes of me to explore. However, we see some similar themes emerge. The Jews have been assimilated into a new governance but are ever seeking their own king (though largely failing to recognize Him when He arrived and neglecting His true purpose) and nation. Over time, God’s people and the government (and the most powerful government to date, no less) seem to be one and the same again.
But what about that part in the middle? That part where Jesus ate with sinners and blood traitors and people unobservant of the Law? Or even afterwards, when what was once an inclusive group based on nationality was expanded to not only include, but welcome with open arms, those of a different heritage (the Gentiles)? That was not so well liked, even though it represented the very heart of God, Christ, and the Gospel.
“The glory of the nation you love is a desirable end, but generally to be obtained at your neighbor’s expense.”John Maynard Keynes, 1920
Each century brought with it new rulers, power, and principalities, but one constant seems to remain: the search for the Christian nation. After the fall of Rome, Christianity through Catholicism continued its reign but slowly became more a political bargaining chip than a sincerity of faith. National religions flourished as status symbols and leaders became head of both Church and State. Christian nations in name, though not always in practice.
Absolute crises of faith emerged with the First and Second World Wars. Faiths that were once presumed based on location and nationality became less relevant, less desirable, in the face of the unspeakable atrocities that emerged. Major players in the national Christianity game, the United States and the United Kingdom, have sunk slowly into a post-Christian era. Though majorities still identify as Christian, those actively practicing the faith shrinks yearly and Christian priests and pastors throughout the West seek inspiration for how to renew it.
“I see no hope for the Church of England if it allows itself to become just an echo for the press.”CS Lewis, 1939
I know admittedly little about economics, politics, and the like. But I do know Jesus. And I think that, whatever the state of Christianity as a national religion, He would not be pleased with a return to the forced, propagandic faiths of the past, nor would he pleased with a Christian people who rejects the outsider. In many ways, I see this post-Christian world, on a national level, as less of a threat than the Christian nationalism I have seen re-emerging in the last few years.
We’re not so very different than the early Israelites who pled with God for a king or the Jews of the 1st century who failed to recognize The King when He appeared before them. We’re unable to live in complete faith of the unseen. We’re unable to let go of false notions of control, instead seeking comfort and security in leaders and laws that bend to our agendas. We are the Pharisees. We are the Sadducees.
All quotations in this post were originally found in The Year of Our Lord 1943 by Alan Jacobs.