During these times of political and economic anxiety, there’s been a good deal of talk about American exceptionalism from both the right and left. But there's nothing exceptional about nationalistic arrogance. A good many nations have indulged in religious self-righteousness. The "God-backs-our-cause" mentality has festooned and adorned the rhetoric of countless wars and political campaigns in history, and not just in our country. No, there's nothing exceptional about it, but there's also no virtue in it. Nationalistic exceptionalism is at odds with Christian faith. And when it becomes a tenet of Christian faith, that faith has been seduced into heresy.
It is easy for contemporary Americans to see how wrong the radical German Christians of the 1930s were to recast German history into a false mythology; to elevate "German-ness" to the pinnacle of humanity; to promote a festering racism till it issued forth in unspeakable genocide; to argue that the military supremacy of their country over others was inevitable and righteous; to align their (Christian) faith to the means and ends of their nationalism; to exclude aspects of the biblical witness that did not fit their social, cultural and political agendas.
The pastor, Martin Niemoller, a U-boat captain of World War I, was so alarmed by the idolatry of German exceptionalism that he preached a famous sermon opposing it: "Jesus Christ ist mein Führer" (no translation required). He was imprisoned in a concentration camp for his witness. It is easy for us to recognize his Christian heroism. We laud the courage of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (martyred), Karl Barth (sent packing as an undesirable immigrant; he was Swiss) and countless others.
The Reformed Confession, "The Theological Declaration of Barmen," bears reading today, not as a warning against the transgressions of the people of Germany in a generation past, though it was written in 1934 specifically to protest against the idolatry rising in Germany at that moment, but as a warning against any people (including us) who dress their jingoistic arrogance and national self-interests and base racism in religious garb:
"Jesus Christ as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God whom we must hear and whom we must trust and obey in life and in death . . . Just as Jesus Christ is the pledge of the forgiveness of all our sins, just so -- and with the same seriousness -- he is also God's mighty claim on our whole life; in him we encounter a joyous liberation from the godless claims of this world to free and thankful service to his creatures."
Jesus Christ liberates us from the compulsion always to be right -- reminding us that we are instead forgiven. Exceptionalism is a self-generated doctrine used to justify whatever we do (because we, as a special people, have license to do it). But the core of the Christian message is that, sinners though we are, we have been justified in and through Jesus Christ.
Certainly it is a virtue to love one's country. I love America: the land, its people, our form of government and way of life. But to raise any nation to the level of divine exception is to pervert legitimate love and devotion into an illegitimate idolatry. It is to place alongside the one Word of God, whom we must trust and obey, another word demanding also ultimate allegiance. That, we cannot do without losing our souls.
Michael Jinkins is president and professor of theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
Editor’s note: A version of this post appeared originally on Michael Jinkins' blog, Thinking Out Loud.