“From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.”
-President Donald Trump
I can’t be certain, but I’m reasonably confident that two words Jesus of Nazareth never uttered in succession are “America” and “first.”
Contrast this with President Trump’s inaugural address, which placed a heavy emphasis on the privileging of American identity, and you’re left with a jarring dissonance.
This dissonance should be instructive for those engaged in the task of discerning how to live as both faithful Christians and engaged American citizens. To be clear, it’s a task that is exceedingly difficult. But rarely in recent memory has the distinction between Christian and American identity been so starkly laid out.
It goes without saying that the responsibility to discern and live out proper Christian practice as an American citizen did not begin when President Trump took office. It’s a responsibility to which Christians were bound during President Obama’s two terms and to which we have been bound since the founding of the Republic.
However, whether or not we have upheld this duty in the past does not change the reality of its claim on our lives in the present. And this means Christians must do serious business with the fact that our Lord tells us the last shall be first while our president tells us we shall be first, not last.
As we consider the relationship between Christian identity and American citizenship, it is always helpful to remind ourselves of what best represents a Christian orientation towards the world. I would suggest that a recounting of Jesus’ life is the best place to find that representation.
A cursory reading of the Gospels reveals a Jesus putting others first, not himself. We see this over and over again, whether in his tireless tending to the sick and hungry, his teachings to his followers, or his laying down of his own life—the highest price one can pay. If this is who Jesus was, and if we are seeking to be imitators of God, should not this example of selflessness and sacrifice be the one to which we point in every conversation about American citizenship and America’s global role?
Of course, even if we agree on the fundamentals of a Christian posture towards the world, turning that agreement into practical policy is difficult.
Keeping more than three hundred million people safe from terrorism isn’t simply a matter of caring more for others. Surely, an “America second” (or worse) approach won’t alleviate poverty or unemployment in local communities. It may be that global security and prosperity are best advanced by an “America first” grand strategy which focuses on economic growth at home and fewer military adventures abroad.
And yet, as I have been learning in my coursework this year, our answers to political and religious questions are frequently limited by the scope of the questions we ask.
In other words, if our questions only ever concern how to guarantee American prosperity, we forget that the vast majority of the world’s vulnerable and marginalized people live outside the United States. If our questions only ever concern how to ensure that immigrants conform to our conception of American identity, we forget the irrationally unstinting scope of Christian charity. And if our questions only ever concern how to maximize American security, we forget that Jesus calls us not to a life of safety but of sacrifice.
In an era of “America first,” will Christians be willing to expand the scope of our questions when we think about our relationship to the rest of the world?
I’m undoubtedly proud of my American citizenship and political heritage. In fact, my friends in London would probably be grateful if I pontificated a little less about how exceptional my country is. But what has been disconcerting of late is the fact that the phrase “America first” smacks of idolatry—a sin of the first order. It should instinctively rankle Christian sensibilities.
Therefore, as we continue to discern how to live as both Christians and Americans, let those of us who follow Jesus remember that “America first” may pass muster as an article of economic or political strategy but that it most certainly does not—and never should—pass as an article of faith.