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Is there a difference in the definition of an American Christian and a Christian American? If so, what does that mean and how can we know which we are?
At first glance the differences are subtle. The words are simply rearranged. Even beyond the rearrangement much of the world views the United States of America as a Christian nation. The difference may not be much different than that of an Iraqi Muslim or a Muslim Iraqi or between a Jewish Israeli and an Israeli Jew. However, in the English language, there is a distinction for the Americans at least. The second word of the question is an adjective that describes the first. So, it is the first word that is the primary definer of the person with the second only modifying the definition. The question then, asks something much deeper, where does your loyalty primarily lie? Are you more loyal to being an American or a Christian? In the question of loyalty, I believe there is a growing divide.
It is worth noting that many will see little difference between being an American and a Christian. This is true. The differences in actions are hard to discern. This is due to the lengthy history of Christianity and the United States. The Founding Fathers of the United States of America are undoubtedly Christian in perspective. Even the capitalistic economy they envisioned depended on everyone giving away at least 10% of their income to the poor. The French ideal of noblesse oblige found a strong purchase in early America due to the strong Christian roots. However, even in early America, there are clear deviators toward country and away from Christianity. American Slavery is, perhaps, the clearest of these indicators, existing long before the Declaration of Independence.
Continual Returns to Christianity
Even with revivals throughout American history, the deviation continued to occur. In my opinion, this is because the “American Dream” does not always line up with the Christian vision of the coming Kingdom of Heaven. This is perhaps most evident in the American drive for individualism rather than community. The community only thrives in America after great hardship such as the 9/11 terror attacks and World War 2. Both periods saw religious revival because of an increase in the spirit of community. Since those periods though we have seen a return isolation due to a variety of reasons, be they race (after WW2) or technology (present day) for example.
The isolation gains contrast in light of the economic differences between America and Christian ideals. The American is greedy and that is a good thing which makes our economy run. The Christian is the opposite, charitable. The American empire is based upon resources and conquest. The Christian empire values the human soul and submission. The distinguishment is not quite clear cut though. The picture of an American as completely greedy is foolish because Americans give away far more resources than any other empire in history by a lot.
Which is it?
The competing narratives of community and individualism are often at odds with one another in American society. The bouncing back and forth has to do with competing narratives of our early days. The early American sought two things: religious freedom and personal independence. This can be seen in our early heroes and even the early government structure.
The American mythical heroes like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett are known for their solitary lifestyles. The heroes moved further and further West throughout their lives as their homes were getting “too crowded.” This desire for solitary rule displayed itself in our first form of government constitution the Articles of Confederation. The Articles gave each state and independence from each other. It quickly collapsed as the early United States Congress learned that we are stronger together than apart. The Articles of Confederation in many cases tells us a great deal about ourselves as Americans. We desperately want to be independent individuals. We do not want anyone telling us what to do or when to do it. The problem is that we are clearly stronger and better equipped to handle problems in a communal setting.
Christianity is our meeting place. Christianity has always been the part of us that drives community. We meet at Church, old, young, slave, free, black, white, red, yellow. It does not matter your descriptor because Christ has something for us all. This is why we return to the church in crisis. It is because that’s where our community is found. It has always been found there. We keep returning to Christianity because it is the only place we belong. America has always striven for individualism. Christianity has striven for the community, which means you belong at church. So in many ways, we bounce back and forth between Christianity and America. How then can we begin to distinguish between the American Christian and the Christian American? Well, we can look at the grammatical structure of our language to begin to find some insight.
The Rules of The English Language
English has a very strict adjective listing rule. Most of us native speakers don’t even realize there is a rule. In “The Elements of Eloquence” by Mark Forsyth lays out the rules plainly. “Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose Noun.” This is the order by which we describe things. If you don’t order things in this way any native English speaker will think something is very wrong with you or immediately know that you are non-native. We also use this order of adjectives to convey slightly different meanings. You can convey a wide variety of meaning through the order of your adjectives, perhaps most importantly is that opinion which comes first.
What this tells us is that English, which also reads from left to right, places the most important words first. The things that I want you to notice first are the first adjectives used. My opinion is the first thing you should notice about any noun. Then the size, age, shape and color help provide context or what we think you might notice first. By listing adjectives in this way, we are answering the questions, “what makes that noun distinguishable to me and what might make it distinguishable to you?” Then we move on to more obscure descriptors that we may or may not know, origin and material. Not every noun’s origin or material is readily apparent. So those descriptors get pushed to the back because we could be wrong about in our assessment. We don’t want our hearers to think we are stupid, so we hide that information in the middle or toward the end of our description. After all, if you are looking for an immaculate, large, old, square purple brick house. You would probably stop once you have found a house matching the earliest set of adjectives, regardless that the house is in fact mostly wooden and not brick. We simply won’t remember the later adjectives.
What order reveals
The first words are the most important from the speaker’s/writer’s perspective. We will use the speaker from here on out, though the points apply to both the writer and speakers. This reveals a great deal about the speaker. It tells us what is most important to them. It also informs us about the hearer. If they receive the order of the adjectives then they also agree with the speaker. How do you know they receive the order, most often it is a facial expression or they reply with the same order. The order is important when we look at objects in the same adjective class. For example, if we look at Christian and American as both in the same class either origin, material or purpose then the word order plays a significant difference. What happens when American and Christian occupy the same adjective class?
So, what does it mean to be an American Christian? It means to idolize America and her ideals, as noble as they may be, above Jesus.
The good thing is that the United States is very intertwined in Christian Western Thought. This means that the United States is incredibly generous with its money and power. It is especially generous in comparison with other world powers throughout history, both to its citizens and non-citizens. The American people do work to improve the world around them simply because they can. Many Americans feel this compulsion to give away some portion of their wealth because of the Christian roots in the country. It just makes sense to us, whether we believe in Christ or not. The intertwining of Christianity and America has produced some different results from prior empires. The focus on the middle class and the poor around the world has been a positive example for all future nations and empires to expand. It hasn’t come without drawbacks though.
The main drawback of the Christian and American intermingling is the self-justification for American Power. This has been a problem since before the United States had even declared independence. Slavery and Jim Crow are the most notorious examples of Christianity justifying American power. That is only domestic though. The American empire has destabilized the entire South American continent repeatedly often using Christianity as justification. In fact, certain dictators have risen to power on the Christian claim with U.S. aid. This has caused Christianity to be subject to the ideas of American power. These ideas like Manifest Destiny and Capitalism are nowhere to be found in the Bible. In fact, Jesus probably would have opposed both. These problems all use Christianity to justify their means. We can see throughout history the problems of Christianity justifying the empire: the Spanish Inquisition the Crusades and even the Nazis.
What does it mean to be a Christian American? It means to be a royal priesthood, a chosen race and a holy nation that reaches out to the place of their residence, the United States of America in this case.
Placing Christianity second to a nation can cause many problems. To the Christian, his/her Christliness must come first. Bonhoeffer exposits this ideal in his work “The Cost of Discipleship.” He exposes that if Christ is not foremost to the Christian then that person is unlikely to be a Christian. For Bonhoeffer, who wrote during the time of Nazi Germany, the problem of the country before Christianity was self-evident. We must be Christian first because Jesus calls us all regardless of nationality or economic status, Jew or Gentile, slave or free in his day. Jesus calls us from our nationality into a new state, the Kingdom of Heaven.
Let us look at which word can stand to be the modifier, Christian or American? Which is ok to come second in our lives? I see no problem with America taking the modifier position or second seat. After all, we describe all non-white people with the American descriptor second e.g. African American, Asian American. So, is there a problem with Christianity being second? I think Christ desires us to have our primary identity be defined in/by God. In 1 Peter 2:9 the apostle Peter expounds that Christian are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation. So, the way we describe black people as African Americans, with race, religious heritage and continental ancestry before current generational citizenship (though many have deeper roots than ours in this country), we must describe the Christian.
What is most important America or Christ?
There are two ways that I see the practical differences between the American and the Christian playing out. The first is in loyalty. When backed into a corner which will a person claim his Americanness or her Christianity? The second is found in the treatment of power? Does a person fully and freely distribute power or do that consolidate it?
Loyalty to Power
Loyalty might be the most obvious indicator of where a person stands. Do they stand with Americans or with Christ when backed against the wall? We might rephrase it in our context as does the person stand with the community first or the individual. However, teasing out the difference between the two is difficult. Christ is for the individual, and America is by definition a community. A better understanding of loyalty can be gained by examining the entity that we give our loyalty.
With America, we give our loyalty to the nation. It is then the nation’s job to protect us both from foreign and domestic enemies. The question becomes: is America doing a good job at that? The answer is yes. Our nation places a priority on defense abroad. Then we seek to protect from things like monopolies and domestic terrorism within with a strong police force. Our nation has done more to protect itself than many empires before it. The problem is that the protection does not extend to all within its borders. The poor and the destitute receive the opportunity to grow, but that does not mean that those in power will ever vacate it. That may be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your perspective. America, while it promotes freedom, has rarely promoted equality. Your loyalty to America supports that ideal, freedom but not equality. The lack of equality can be directly traced to many of the domestic problems in America. This has already been documented by economists much less the activist advocates. The intriguing piece is that the inequality is being noted by the middle class. When equality has been diminished to the point of freedom loss then there will be a revolution in America. Does a place where there are revolutions sound like a place worth your loyalty? We know America will fall one day. I find America no more than an excellently crafted idol. It is no more Christly than the church buildings we worship in.
What we buy with loyalty to America is the opportunity to rise, but we can only rise so far without injuring others. There is a point in which our loyalty to America will inhibit your opportunity to rise. Which is why we have had the financial collapses. American loyalty only goes as far as it helps us. Thus, American loyalty is ultimately self-centered. I am happy with America as long as she helps me. You are simply purchasing your ability to
With Christ, we give our loyalty to God. Now, by definition God is immortal and therefore his kingdom lasts eternally. Let us look into the God, Yahweh and determine how long he has been around. In about 1500 BC, Yahweh is credited with overthrowing the Egyptian Gods, liberating the Hebrews from slavery. Yahweh then assisted the removal of Canaanites from the land Israel occupies today. Through Babylonian captivity and the destruction of his temple, Elohim persisted. Through the rise and fall of the Roman empire, El Shaddai nourished the people. El Roi saw the afflictions through the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Colonial Expansion and resulting slavery. Yahweh has persisted for at least 3500 years. Far longer than any singular dynasty or empire. The wisdom given to us by Yahweh has allowed for insights that still shape advanced scientific and philosophical thought today.
But what are you purchasing with loyalty? You are purchasing pain and heartache. You are also purchasing comfort and community. Both are promised by God. You are purchasing a place in the eternal kingdom. Something that has lasted by our reckoning at least 3500 years. Your loyalty gives you something to hope for after death. For many close to death that seems a worthy price. It costs you everything though. There is no stopping loyalty to God. You can fail at the commands of God, but you must continually renew that loyalty. With America, loyalty is only measured by whether you follow her laws. With God, loyalty is something we grow in. We learn to follow more and more laws by renewing our loyalty. You purchase a relationship. The power you are loyal to is someone you actually get to have a relationship with. You cannot have a relationship with a country.
Radical Christians believe Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as yourself is a viable public policy.
Compromised Christians will tell you why it won’t work.
— Brian Zahnd (@BrianZahnd) August 23, 2018
What you do with Power
After determining what loyalty has purchased, (personal independence or a relationship) we can look at what that has given us. The best way to understand what has been given to us is the way we distribute it. Both America and Christ offer us power. They offer us the power to change ourselves and our lot in life. One tends to take a longer view than the other but in the end, they both offer the same type of power. What differentiates them and what ultimately differentiates the Christian American and American Christian is what they do with that power
The American expends his time energy and well-being on himself. He has purchased the right to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The American exercises the power to do so which consolidates power in himself and America. It is good for both the nation and the person. America cannot just give power, though. Power must be siphoned from somewhere else. The American takes that power for himself and his nation. He does not distribute that power without feeling secure that he has more than enough for himself. That is what loyalty to America gives you. You are given the freedom to consolidate as much power as is legal and America takes its taxes from you. Sometimes those taxes are in dollars and cents other times it something else like manpower or influence. Regardless, America takes its cut from your work.
God, however, distributes power. He does this to both the believer and non-believer. He expects his loyalists to do the same. When they need more power to distribute, they are expected to seek it from God, and then return to distributing power. They distribute without regard for themselves. This is the difference between the American and Christian. The American secures his position first. The Christian does not secure his position at all. He simply has faith in God. Now, this is a radical faith. One in which few if any Christians actually live out. Regardless, God needs nothing from your work so Yahweh never takes from your work for himself. He has no need for you to consolidate power. He only gives you the chance to do more work and thus grow closer in relationship to the family.
Which are you?
Nancy Duarte had this idea at the end of her Ted Talk, “The future isn’t a place we are going to go. It’s a place that you get to create.” If this is true then what is the future for an American or a Christian? The American creates more America which has its up and downs. The Christian creates more heaven. America, as wonderful as it is, is not heaven. What we create now is the future we will live. Is that a creation of greed, selfishness, and independence? Or is it one of self-sacrifice, sharing, and community? It may not have to be one or another, but even Jesus tells us that we cannot serve two masters. Eventually, we will love one and hate the other. What future are you creating?
Perhaps thinking about the future is too ethereal to you. Think about it this way. How do you know which you are, an American Christian or a Christian American? I think the easiest way to determine is from what Jesus said. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.” (John 13:35 NIV) Love is easily identifiable. Love is self-sacrifice. If you are fighting for you and your way of life, then you are likely not loving. True Christian love requires no fight. It must simply be accomplished. Certainly, there are those who will attempt to bar your giving of love, but that doesn’t mean you need to fight against them. It means you need to love them as well. Have compassion for your enemies and you will win them over, or at least they will allow you to do your quiet work of loving Jesus. Who is Jesus, other than the least of the world? (Matthew 20:40). The Christian American places Christ above American ideals.
In the end, it is a question of priority. Do you ally yourself with the United States of America, her laws, rules, and ethics or do you ally yourself with Jesus, his laws, rules, and ethics? It is a simple question. The answer though is hard and personal. Fortunately, there are communities out there for those seeking help to answer that question and the countless other that it spawns. The Christian asks, “what would Jesus have me do?” The American asks, “what is correct for me?”
Which are you? I am trying to live the life of a Christian American. I am not perfect. If you aren’t perfect. I would love to build some community with you. Let me know what you think in the comments.
Disclaimer: This article was written by an American of Americans. My family history in this country stretches to the earliest of colonists on one side and the natives on the other side. On the colonist side, I have a proud heritage of two signers of the Declaration of Independence and men who have served honorably in every conflict in American history from the French and Indian war to Vietnam. On the native side, we come from the Choctaw Indians. I am proud of my American heritage and I am incredibly privileged to have it.
I write this post, not in conflict with my American heritage. I write this from the sense of so many people around me having the conflict with their own heritage, Christian or American or both.