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Total Allegiance and American Politics: Tardy Notes on an Inaugural Address

There was an odd passage in President Trump’s Inaugural Speech. 

He said: “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity."[1]

Much could and should be said about such a statement. I have pondered these words numerous times this past year, and have been troubled by how little attention people of faith seemed to have given these words.

It is, for starters, a textbook example of idolatry. “Total allegiance” is a matter, for people of Jewish, Christian, or Islamic faith, only to be given to God. In one mere sentence, the President gave to America what is due only to God. 

Second, there is an implicit assumption in the paragraph that “God’s people” is the same as the “United States of America.” But this is not the assumption in the Biblical text cited, Psalm 133. The Psalmist would have assumed that “God’s people” are the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Jews. The founding of the United States was more than two millennia away.

Perhaps even more problematic is the fact that the New Testament assumes that “God’s people” are in fact a trans-national, trans-boundaried people. This is one of the great revolutionary political facts about the New Testament and about Christianity: that the “in-group” would not be defined by geographical boundary or citizenship.

Because this configuration of “God’s people” rejected imperialist or ethnic identity as their primary identity, they did not pledge to any piece of cloth or any other totem; instead they practiced the ritual of baptism.  

More, they did not discover loyalty to each other through loyalty to their country. In fact, they found loyalty to each other by way of minimizing loyalty to previous strong forms of identity like country, ethnicity, economic standing, or gender; in its place, they found loyalty to one another through total allegiance to one they called the “slain lamb.” 

Compare then the words of Lesslie Newbigin to those of Trump:

“The Christian gospel has sometimes been made the tool of an imperialism, and of that we have to repent. But at its heart it is the denial of all imperialisms, for at its center there is the cross where all imperialisms are humbled and we are invited to find the center of human unity in the One who was made nothing so that we all might be one. The very heart of the biblical vision for the unity of humankind is that its center is not an imperial power but the slain Lamb."⁠[2]

Or, consider the words of Thomas Merton on revolution:

“A revolution is supposed to be a change that turns everything completely around. But the ideology of political revolution will never change anything except appearances. There will be violence, and power will pass from one party to another, but when the smoke clears and the bodies of all the dead men are underground, the situation will be essentially the same as it was before: there will be a minority of strong men in power exploiting all the others for their own ends. There will be the same greed and cruelty and lust and ambition and avarice and hypocrisy as before. 

“For the revolutions of men change nothing. The only influence that can really upset the injustice and iniquity of men is the power that breathes in Christian tradition.”⁠[3]

I want to think that Merton is too cynical here. Surely there are relative political goods which matter a great deal. 

And yet, one wonders. 


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[2] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 159.

[3] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Book, 1972), 144.

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