Jesus and American Sniper

HT: SD

Every smart Christian knows that real religion is bigger than any one country, any one patriotic tradition. But in the United States, conservative evangelicalism has become so tightly bound with traditions of patriotism and national pride that it can be difficult to separate the two. Just ask Randy Beckum.

Until Monday, Dr. Beckum served as both University Chaplain and Vice President for Community Formation at Mid-America Nazarene University, a small-ish holiness school in Kansas. After a controversial chapel talk, Beckum found himself out of a job. Beckum had wondered aloud if America’s fascination with the film American Sniper meant that “our culture is addicted to violence, guns, war, revenge and retaliation.”

Evangelical Christians need a reminder, Beckum said, that

We have to be very careful about equating patriotism with Christianity.   We never say God and…anything.  God is above all, everything else is underneath. I love my country and am thankful for freedom. But the earliest Christian creed was very politically incorrect and dangerous. Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. We have put “our way of life”/freedom on the top rung.

For those of outside of the world of MidAmerica Nazarene University, these seem like rather unremarkable sentiments. But at that school, they sparked a firestorm of controversy. As one MNU student tweeted, “So your [sic] saying that my long list of family members in military [sic] are not good Christians?”

MNU President David Spittal denied that Beckum’s removal from the VP job had anything to do with the patriotism controversy. But Blake Nelson, a “resident educator” at MNU, objected. As Nelson wrote in an open letter to the MNU community,

When one exercises his or her right to wrestle with big questions, and is demoted the next week, it feels as if we have all been demoted. If someone’s job security isn’t safe in the aftermath of their wrestling with the Word of God, none of us are safe. No matter what language it is couched in, a demotion like this creates fear where there should be freedom. Whether or not it was intended to be, this is an implicit attack on free expression. If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. The message is clear. This is a censure.

For conservatives throughout the twentieth century, too, it has been difficult to separate patriotism from religious sentiment. As I argue in my new book, educational conservatives have long blended the two into an organic whole. Conservative Texas leaders Mel and Norma Gabler, for example, always linked creationism, traditional Protestantism, patriotism, and free-marketism in an seamless conservative fabric.  As an admiring biographer wrote in 1986,

They understood why the new history, economics, and social study texts trumpeted Big Brother government, welfarism, and a new socialistic global order, while putting down patriotism, traditional morality, and free enterprise. Simply stated, Mel and Norma realized that the Humanists in education were seeking to bring about the ‘social realism’ which John Dewey and other ideologues had planned for America.”

Dr. Beckum and the MNU community are finding out just how hard it can be for conservatives to separate out their love for Jesus with their love for America.

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