The “America first” brand of nationalism that has flourished during the Donald Trump era is a near-idolatrous exaltation of country that has usurped biblical notions of patriotism for many evangelicals and other Americans, Southern Baptist preacher and author Adam Wyatt said.
Scripture encourages Christians to love and serve their countries but not to the detriment of other nations or their citizens because they, too, are divinely created, said Wyatt, pastor of Corinth Baptist Church in Magee, Miss., and author of the 2021 book Biblical Patriotism: An Evangelical Alternative to Nationalism.
“You can’t say America alone is this country that God has chosen to use. God loves all the nations because he wants them all to be saved,” he said.
Even the Puritan vision of America as “a city on a hill” set apart by God is OK as long as Christians realize other nations also may enjoy such distinctions, he added. “If you look at our history, you can see that God has given us some differences, but you can’t say God doesn’t have his hand over North Korea or any other nation, too.”
The one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters has generated attention for Wyatt’s book, which began as the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary doctoral dissertation he completed in late 2020.
The topic of nationalism and patriotism first got his attention when Trump entered the presidential race in 2015 and his “Make America Great Again” vision began to take hold in churches.
“He made the case that America needed to be better. This resonated with many. It resonated with me,” Wyatt writes in his preface, explaining that his sense of patriotism developed as a military dependent growing up on Air Force bases around the world.
But the biblical concept of patriotism, which is rooted in loyalty to nation and the understanding that all nations and people are of equal worth, soon morphed into something indistinguishable from nationalism, he warns. “When you added the firebrand, Donald Trump, to the mix, you had a blurring of nationalism and patriotism, which many could not differentiate.”
Faith-based patriotism, he added, was further challenged in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on churches, professional athletes kneeling during the national anthem, the police killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“People’s thoughts on marches, riots, kneelings, church closings and masks were influenced by their flavor of patriotism,” said Wyatt, who noted that his book seeks to guide readers to a “proper affection for the United States” and to a patriotism steeped in “a deeper affection for the God of the Bible.”
Any approach that does otherwise risks becoming idolatrous by making a nation or candidate the object of faith, he said in an interview.
“Whatever country we are in, we are also in the kingdom of heaven, and that supersedes everything — even in heaven itself where in the Book of Revelation we see God recognizing the tapestry of humanity as all nations and tongues are represented.”
“Whatever country we are in, we are also in the kingdom of heaven, and that supersedes everything.”
Biblical patriotism does not require Americans to embrace globalism, which seeks to merge national identities, he added. “We need to recognize differences. We are not all the same.”
But nationalism isn’t the answer, either. “We cannot say we are inherently better than others.”
Wyatt said he recommends pastors stick to the gospel in their preaching to avoid the political controversies that have invaded sanctuaries with the rise of nationalism. “I think we’ve seen the pulpit becoming more political as a result of all this. If you are sticking to the gospel, you will be dealing with political issues, but you won’t have to force them. That’s kept me out of a lot of trouble.”
Patriotism rooted in Scripture also prevents Christians and churches from falling into serving the wrong master, he said. “Idolatry is anything that’s more important to us than Jesus. Clearly, that is an idol.”
The dynamic has been on display among some Christian Trump supporters convinced the 2020 election was stolen by Joe Biden, Wyatt said. “If my worldview is wrecked because of an election result, then I have to take a hard look at where am I really putting my faith.”
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