God’s ideals or American ideals?

Until coming to college, I did not consider the extent to which my identity as an American citizen affected my understanding of Christianity and of the Bible. Growing up in the Bible Belt of America, I was taught that America was founded on biblical truths. Inevitably, I viewed the Constitution as infallible; the words of George Washington might as well have been printed in red ink. I lived under the presupposition that my worldview was solely biblical and purely untainted by outside influences.

As I experienced different cultures, I began to realize how much of what I believed and assumed was biblical was actually rooted in American ideals. The purpose of this article is not to argue whether or not America was founded on biblical principles, rather, it is to encourage and challenge individuals to distinguish which of his or her beliefs are rooted in American ideology and which beliefs stem from biblical theology.

Independence is an intrinsic American value. From a young age, my parents taught me how to be independent and for that I am wholeheartedly grateful. The concept of independence stems from an individualistic culture which emphasizes the individual as opposed to a collectivistic culture which emphasizes the whole. Over the past few years, I have realized my desire to be independent has hindered me from finding community with others and from relying on God. This has led me to ask: Is independence or individualism a biblical principle? Or is collectivism a biblical principle? Is this an either/or situation or a both/and opportunity? Looking at Jesus’ relationship with His disciples, one finds a community of interdependent believers. When too much emphasis is put on independence, the community is hindered from flourishing to its full capacity.

Freedom of speech is another American ideal that is worth considering from a biblical point of view. James 3:6 warns believers to guard their tongue, “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” As Christians, are we not held to a higher standard in the words and manner in which we speak? Likewise, is it right in God’s will to say anything and everything we want? Sometimes people use freedom of speech as an excuse to speak, write, tweet, text, etc. and do harm to others. According to 1 Corinthians 13:1, “If I speak in the tongues  of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”

Lastly, patriotism is a recent topic that has been put on trial. How is patriotism, one’s relationship to one’s country, addressed in the Bible? Is it condoned or condemned? For early Christians, patriotism meant worshiping Caesar, who was considered a god. However, early Christians refused to worship Caesar because Scripture clearly states in Exodus 20:1, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Early Christians understood the cost of denying patriotism to following Scripture. Patriotism then, becomes dangerous when it includes denying your responsibility as a Christian to love your neighbor as yourself, according to Mark 12:31. Paul acknowledges that one must recognize those in government in Romans 13:1, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” But patriotism becomes dangerous when you stop distinguishing between what is an American ideal and what is a biblical truth.

My journey continues today as I am constantly discovering the cultural effects of an American upbringing on my understanding of Christianity. Conversations like this are not comfortable, but necessary. Often, we leave feeling more confused and frustrated than we were before. But as Dr. Pollard illustrates with the building blocks during freshman chapel every year, we go through periods in our life where our belief system is challenged and sometimes we must work to rebuild. It is important to consider the cultural effects on Christianity. Perhaps the lack of distinction between American values and biblical truths is a reason behind division among the church? We must consider what we study in Scripture not only in the context of the period in which it was written but in the period in which we are reading it. We will never be able to completely eliminate unbiblical cultural influence, however, in order to further His kingdom on earth, we must try.