Where Our Allegiance Lies

Ben Sansburn
The images and events of January 6, 2021 will live on in history books for a long time. Like many, I watched with a mixture of grief and anger the unfolding scenes yesterday at the US Capitol. Scenes I never thought I would see. Sure, over the past several weeks there had been warnings of the potential for violence, but it seemed those were certainly overblown. The reality that ended up playing out in front of a watching world was more surreal and saddening than we could have imagined.

While I grieve the breakdown of democracy in America, the increasing polarization of our culture, and the continued effort to challenge the Constitution by the sitting president of the United States, what is especially troubling, and should be troubling for all Christians, is the way the language and emblems of Christianity have been tied to all of this. As rioters stormed the Capitol, flying alongside Trump and Confederate flags were “Jesus Saves” banners, Christian flags, and “Jesus 2020” placards. And that wasn’t just the case in DC. Outside the Michigan capitol, in a similar though less violent protest, protesters erected a cross on the grounds outside the capitol building.

This is nothing less than idolatry. Over the past four years, much of the Evangelical church in America has tied its fate to the leadership of Donald Trump and the Republican Party. Brothers and sisters in Christ have sold their birthright for a bowl of stew. Out of fear of the progressive left, allegiance to Jesus and his kingdom have been traded for political power, Supreme Court justices and the promised protection of religious liberty; the only true inheritance exchanged for the preservation of a mythical “Christian” America. We can rationalize it any way we want, but as members of the American church we have to come to grips with the blatant and blasphemous religious syncretism we have slid into. 

Fifty years ago, philosopher and theologian Francis Schaeffer issued a prophetic warning that is strikingly relevant for the church in our political and cultural moment. In The Church at the End of the 20th Century, Schaeffer cautioned against the tendency of God’s people to run to political allegiances that promise safety and affluence. Doing so is risky business:

“… at first, an establishment elite [Schaeffer’s language for conservative politics and parties] will be less harsh on the church than a left-wing elite if that should come to power. But that is a danger. The church will tend to make peace with the establishment and identify itself with it. It will seem better at first, but not in the end if the church is identified with the establishment in the minds of young people…. I believe the church will be greatly hindered.”

Schaeffer was identifying a massive risk for Christians in connecting ourselves with any political movement. We may tie our cart to what promises safety and security and power now, but in the end it will cost us. It will cost us in our prophetic witness to an onlooking world, and it will cost us our witness to a younger, onlooking generation in the church.

But it’s not just tying ourselves to the “establishment elite” that concerns Schaeffer. Any conflation of our allegiance to God’s kingdom with an allegiance to the kingdoms of this world is dangerous. If we think our allegiance to Jesus and our allegiance to America go hand in hand, we’ve got serious problems.

“These are not two equal loyalties…. It must be taught that patriotic loyalty must not be identified with Christianity. As Christians we are responsible, under the Lordship of Christ in all of life, to carry the Christian principles into our relationship to the state. But we must not make our country and Christianity to be synonymous.”

What Schaeffer was warning against is Christian Nationalism - the idea that “God and country” are two equal, or even close to equal allegiances. Christian Nationalism has a long history and I won’t take time here to unpack it. (See Thomas Kidd’s brief article for a helpful synopsis). What Schaeffer would say, and what I am saying here unequivocally, is that Christian Nationalism is not real Christianity. But alarmingly, this false gospel has taken deep root in the American church. The images on the Capitol steps are another example that makes this sadly clear.

As Donald Trump’s presidency comes to a disgraceful end and we begin a new chapter under a new president, American Christians have the opportunity to do some serious self-examination. And make no mistake, we must. With hearts full of grief and repentance, we must ask ourselves honestly where our allegiance lies. And where the Lord graciously puts his finger on idolatry, we must seek deep repentance. What have we got to lose? For in losing every other hope for power and prosperity, in losing every competing allegiance, in losing every other kingdom, we gain the one that will last far after America itself is a mere footnote on the pages of history.