The Idolatry of Nationalism

John Witherspoon Satue

Statue of John Witherspoon in Paisley, Scotland

The New York Times reports that at a ceremony in Paris for the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, President Emmanuel Macron of France rebuked the nationalist impulses that are reshaping the world today.

“Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism,” Mr. Macron told world leaders at the ceremony. “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism by saying: ‘Our interest first. Who cares about the others?’”

I couldn’t agree more.  Love for God and neighbor is the heart of any Biblical ethic.  The prophets said this over and over in the Hebrew scriptures, and Jesus teaches the same in the New Testament.

The command to love God includes the prohibition of idolatry:

 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:1-5)

The Reformed Tradition is particularly sensitive to the allure of idolatry.  The Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) lists as one of the tenets of reformed theology:

The recognition of the human tendency toward idolatry and tyranny, which calls the people of God to work for the transformation of society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word God.

In short, nationalism is a form of idolatry, and out of idolatry flows tyranny.  When we put nation before God, it’s not long before we find ourselves bowing at the feet of tyrants. Presbyterians, of all people, should know this.

It is precisely this “recognition of the human tendency toward idolatry and tyranny” that prompted the framers to build checks and balances into the U. S. Constitution.  We can thank Presbyterian John Witherspoon of Princeton for teaching this to his student James Madison.

Merci beaucoup to the President of France for prompting the theological memory of the folks in my branch of the Christian family tree.

About Brant Copeland

I was born in Brownsville, Texas, grew up in San Antonio and in Lake Charles, Louisiana. I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Tallahassee, Florida.
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2 Responses to The Idolatry of Nationalism

  1. j.s.martin@blueyonder.co.uk says:

    Thank you. It is not only justice but something better, kindness, that we need in every country. Blessings. Jenny

  2. A beautiful and heartening testimony. Thank you for your writings. Peace be with you!

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