Every nation has it god or gods. That is how the Old Testament person would have answered a question if asked about the ultimate commitment of a nation. If you happened to run into a prophet and pressed him on this, he would name any number of national gods. The Baals of Caanan; Dagon of the Philistines; Ra, Nut, or Ma’at of the Egyptians; Marduk of the Babylonians; Ashur of the Assyrians; Yahweh of Israel. The list goes on.
But don’t stop with the names. Press the prophet. Ask him, So what? What does it matter? And he would explain to you that each god has its own distinctive features, which in turn gives a nation not only its religious life but also its social, economic, and political contours as well. Those ancient peoples would certainly have been able to understand what the prophet was on about. And the prophet would be the first to know that to dis a nation’s gods and question their rule is to be deemed a heretic, and that is to invite trouble of the worst kind from the powers that be.
Don’t worry, this isn’t a post to unpack all of that. A decent Bible commentary will help you there. We moderns, of course, don’t think and talk in that language. But maybe we should. Maybe we should learn to understand and discuss our nation’s ultimate commitment in terms of its god(s) and the direct influences it/they wield over our social, economic, and political contours. The ancients got it. Maybe we shouldn’t turn our noses up at them, as if they were ignorant. Maybe we are just blind to a basic truth about life, one that should be obvious to us but today has been made to seem foolish due to the secularism that courses our bloodstream.
In the United States – a perfect example – we only go so far as to talk about America as “Christian nation.” But we stop there. We don’t take the next logical step to the ultimate, the question of the god(s) of the United States. The last few decades alone have seen a universe of pro and con books, articles, and lectures created from Christians and secularists alike on “America as a Christian nation,” not to mention all the Sunday sermons that have been preached on it. It’s a topic that I have researched for decades and written about many times over the years, but I can’t recall any book or article that entered into the question about the god(s) of the nation. Apparently, Christians assume that it must be the biblical God. Probably secularists assume no god at all.
Perhaps we Christians don’t consider this truth about our nation’s god(s) because we go to church, where we hear about the God of the Bible and take it for granted that it is this God that gives our social, economic, and political life its contours. I mean, isn’t that what it means, theoretically, to conclude that America is a Christian nation? Or perhaps we don’t get it because the gods have for a long time been invisible, hidden, among us. In lands where the gospel has made considerable historical headway, like America, the old gods have been driven underground. After all, we don’t have shrines in our homes or state capitals to Baal or Dagon; well, I hope not! Instead, ideologies, big complex ideas, are the gods, the invisible ultimate allegiances, of modern nations.
It is a lot less work to get your mind round a visible god of wood or stone than it is an abstract image such as freedom or equality. I’m not saying that by nature freedom and equality are gods. We make them gods. And because they are invisible, it is easy to assign them whatever meanings we wish. Which is why we Americans are all over the map if asked to define, say, freedom and equality. Not to mention pulling apart. And some gods we make much more significant than others, especially those that become our ultimate allegiances.
The God of the United States is “America,” a trinity of “life,” “liberty,” and “the pursuit of happiness.” Around this trinity we have organized our nation’s social, economic, and political contours. Living it is second nature to us. To question it is heresy. Most ultimately, of course, the one, true, and living God is the God of the United States and of every other nation. My question is, Where are our heretics today?
©2015 by Charles Strohmer
Top image by Steven Zucker, lower image by Waiting for the Word (permissions via Creative Commons)