Recently British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke in defense of an official letter to British Muslim leaders following the attacks in Paris. In the letter, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles urged Muslim leaders “to show our young people, who may be targeted, that extremists have nothing to offer them.” Toward the middle of the letter he included a curious phrase: British values are Muslim values. Cameron, in defending the letter, reiterated the phrase and reinforced the sentiment behind it.
But what does that mean exactly? And is it true – not only of Muslim values, but also of any religious values? And could we say the same about our values – Christian and American?
The big problem with the idea that a nation’s values are the same as the values of a religion (including Christianity) is that it makes far too little of the distinct nature of a religion. In fact, I would suspect that this kind of statement reveals exactly the sort of sentiment that British Muslims find so oppressing and offensive: that their worldview is not distinct. The statement reveals a huge blind spot that afflicts many Westerners as well as a deeply engrained arrogance and bias. The bottom line of such a phrase is that religion doesn’t really matter.
We have a similar challenge here on this side of the pond. Politicians constantly blabber on about family values and the values that we all share, whether we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or something else. Since Israel Zangwill gave us the image of America as a melting pot, we have suffered under the assumption that America can absorb and assimilate diversity and boil it down into a common set of shared values – and that this is a good thing. The problem with the image is that a melting pot changes the character of the various metals that are forged into this new alloy called America. To become American is to lose your identity, be that an ethnic or a religious identity, in order to gain a new American one.
Christians in America have not only suffered from the assumption that American values are Christian values, we have also contributed to it. Like Esau trading his birthright for lentils, we are all too eager to demonstrate what good citizens we are and in exchange we give up what makes us distinct.
So are American values Christian values? No. While there are some shared values, there are plenty of core American values that run counter to the values of Christ and his followers. Here are a few American values that don’t cut it as Christian values:
- Patriotism is not a Christian value. Patriotism is loyalty to one’s homeland and a willingness to defend it against aggression. Patriotism is needed in order for a country to be free from rule by another country. Christian loyalty is not to America or any homeland; it is to a kingdom (and a Ruler) that is not of this world – a kingdom that extends freedom to all nations and calls us to be free of the rule of any country, including the one in which we live. Patriotism asks Christians to divide our loyalty, to share our devotion, and to split our allegiance between God and country. Not all idols are golden; some are red, white and blue.
- Nationalism is not a Christian value. Patriotism is about loyalty, while nationalism is about identity. Nationalism carries the notion that one’s nation is superior to, preferred over, and otherwise at odds with other nations. God does not love America any more than God loves Finland or India, nor should we. The notion that one’s identity is wrapped up in a nation state is inherently at odds with Christianity. Christians believe that each person belongs to God or the enemy; those are the choices and that is the reality in which we live and die. Nationalism forges and reinforces allegiances and enemies that are false.
- War is not a Christian value. War (and the subsequent killing and dying) is needed by nations, including America, in order to form a national identity and fuel patriotism. For America to really matter, someone has to die for it and it has to be worth killing for. Christian identity is also formed through the shedding of blood, but it is a sacrifice made once and for all by Christ. To kill or die for a nation is neither noble nor godly; doing so elevates country too far, making it a bloodthirsty deity. Many veterans and citizens who have lost loved ones in war have a deep river of sentimentality toward war, but this is a misplaced sentiment; the fact that you suffered or lost a loved one in war does not make war something Christians should value.
- Individualism is not a Christian value. What do Americans fight and die for? Liberty – the freedom of people and each person. Christians believe that each person matters, whether him or her, from fetus to fertilizer, loved or hated, rich and poor and all in between. But the American value is not focused on individual worth; it is focused on individual rights, especially the individual’s right to choose. This value finds its end in allowing each person to be the center of his or her own universe. There is a center to the universe (metaphorically speaking), and it’s not me, or you, or him, or her. The gospel welcomes all people equally to humble themselves before God and find true identity as a members of a chorus praising the One who is the center, beginning and end of all.
- Materialism is not a Christian value. How do we Americans keep score? We look at our wealth, our prosperity, and our accumulation. America is doing well if people buy stuff. For America to “be strong” has as much to do with our economy as our military. But strength and success measured by material wealth is not a Christian value. What it means for Christians to be strong is to put our trust in God, to grow in godly character, and to recognize our weakness and lack so we might more fully give glory to the One who is strong, just, and never lacking.
I think it’s time for Christians in America (and everywhere) to embrace being weird. Christian values are not American values. And while American may be a great place to live (at least for some of us), that’s no excuse for conflating country and church. We can appreciate and even respect the nation in which we reside, but we must not forget that our status is as foreigner and exiles. (1 Peter 2:11)
What do you think? What values do you think are American? What values do you think are Christian? Where do you see Christian values running counter to American values?