Sacralism: Patriots or Pilgrims?
Most people have not heard the word "sacralism." However, in our culture wars that set politicized factions of Christendom against militant secularists, many of us are quite familiar with the concept under the terms "civil religion," "nationalism," and/or "fundamentalism." Nonetheless, the word that best applies to this reality is sacralism, "that perspective on society that views church and state as being tied together, rather than being complete and separate entities. In other words, all people within a given geographical or political region are considered members of whichever ecclesiastical institution happens to be dominant" (Hudson, p. 122). In sacralism, the state is the religion, which results in a civil religion inspired by "Christian nations myths." Neither Jesus nor Paul of Tarsus advocated for a union of church and state, and the idea cannot be found in the New Testament. Rather, the problem of Christian sacralism began with the Roman emperor Constantine I (c. AD 280–337) in the fourth century, some 300 years after Jesus. This "Constantinian shift" in Christianity from a populist network of ecumenical self-governing churches to an ecclesiastical monarchy began with the Edict of Milan in AD 313 that legalized Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. The emperor Theodosius I (AD 347–395) codified this law as a sacralist arrangement between Rome and the Christian bishops with his declaration of Christianity as the official Roman civil religion in AD 392, thereby outlawing paganism as well as every other religion. Coincidentally, the late-antiquity Latin phrase Cuius regio, eius religio ("Whoever owns the region, decides its religion") best represents the definition of "sacralism."
Trigger warning: Make no mistake: politicians do not care about your faith in Jesus; they only can and will exploit it for their own secular—and, often very sinful—whims. This statement refers to any and all politicians, whether they are authoritarian, centrist, conservative, liberal, or libertarian. There is only one Lord and Savior, only one name under heaven that can save us: Jesus the Messiah, the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords (cf. Acts 4:12; 1 Tim. 6:15). Because the Greek derivative "Christ" (Christos; G5547) means "anointed King and Priest," all Christians are first and foremost royal subjects of God's kingdom of heaven (cf. 1 Pet. 2:9).
Definitions of Key Terms
Before we continue with this discussion, let us evaluate some definitions. First of all, there is nothing wrong with being a patriot, which simply refers to "one who loves and supports their country" (Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary), deriving from the Greek adjective patrikos (G3967; "belonging to the fathers, ancestors"). In other words, a patriot considers their home country an ancestral "fatherland" (patria, G3965). Patrikos turns out exactly once in the New Testament, when Paul wrote, "I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors" (Gal. 1:14; emp. added). Patria shows up three times in the New Testament, which the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) renders as "family" (cf. Luke 2:4; Acts 3:25; Eph. 3:15). Nevertheless, civic pride is a good thing, and the best communities across the world thrive from it. Simple things like visiting local businesses and the hometown ballpark are idyllic ways we all love to show civic pride. However, when that benevolent self-identification turns into a malevolent denial of others—seizing control of resources and property—this is nationalism.
A nationalist is someone with "loyalty and devotion to a nation, especially with a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups." So, when a so-called "Christian nationalist" merges their religion with their nationalism, they create a sinful worldview that is "sacral" (Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary), a syncretic blend of the sacred and secular. Yes, this means sacralism is a syncretic religion just like voodoo or santería, and the roots of it are just as corrupt, lending to the term "civil religion." Make no mistake: A follower of a nationalistic civil religion is not a true believer of the Christian faith, but an evildoer who uses religion for their own sinful agendas. This is why Jesus' true message in scripture angers and alienates the civil religion nationalists in our churches. Moreover, national flags do not belong inside church buildings, and probably should not be seen around the property, either. Our allegiance belongs to God alone, and we know that giving our devotion and time to anything else is "image worship" (Greek: eidōlolatria; G1495, "idolatry"). Paul asked, "What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God" (2 Cor. 6:16).
No Country for Old Christians
In his letter to the Philippian church, Paul admonished them, "But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ" (Phil. 3:20). Likewise, Simon Peter warned, "Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul" (1 Pet. 2:11). This idea that Christians are merely pilgrims in this world continued well into the next few centuries. For example, the anonymous Letter to Diognetus (c. AD 200) best explains what it means for Christians to be pilgrims rather than nationalistic patriots:
For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring [see "Pastoral Response: Abortion"]. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life (Ch. V, "Manners of the Christians").
Give to Caesar What is Caesar's
Sacralists use two main passages as proof-texts for their worldview, beginning with Jesus' profound lesson contrasting the Roman emperor (Latin: caesar) with God:
"Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ". . . Show me the coin used for the tax." And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" They answered, "The emperor's." Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's" (Matt. 22:17-21).
The typical American interpretation of Jesus' teaching reads in (i.e., eisegesis) the Establishment Clause, a stipulation at the beginning of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" (National Constitution Center, 2022). Moreover, this is a major category error, considering the Bible and the U.S. Constitution have two vastly different contexts and meanings. Christians should not be using a modern political document to interpret scripture. No, Jesus was not teaching first-century Jews to keep their religion separate from their politics. In context, he was responding to Pharisees who had a libertarian stance toward the Roman Empire versus the Zealots (e.g., Simon) who led various insurgencies against it. Both groups wanted to trap Jesus into siding with one side or the other, a zero-sum game that would make him either an enemy of the state or to the Jewish people if he had fallen for it. Far from picking a side, Jesus redirected the Pharisees and the Zealots to look upward to God. Both groups were guilty of being too concerned about this-worldly goals, but failed to strive for the kingdom of heaven. We Christians know better to make this same mistake.
So, what does "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's" mean if it has nothing to do with the separation of church and state? Once we remove the blinders of contemporary Western systematic theology and open our eyes to see the New Testament's ancient Mediterranean biblical theology, we see that Jesus was contrasting the image of God—us, humankind—with the emperor's image engraved on the coin. With this better understanding, we now see that Jesus was saying that Jews paying Roman taxes had nothing to do with their relationship with God. The coin was the legitimate property of the emperor, so it was his to take and for the Jews to return. However, the human soul is the property of God, something no politician could ever take from him nor from us.
A common phrase we hear today, "You can take my body, but you will never have my soul," actually gives us a better interpretation of Jesus' lesson than the Establishment Clause. A small metal coin is the only thing the emperor can claim from us, but God's jurisprudence and providence extends to all humankind. Yes, Jesus taught that the emperor can keep his money because God owns so much more, and his blessings for us are so much greater! "For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?" (Mark 8:36). Keep in mind, the emperor's coin was technically a graven image forbidden to Jews, especially because its pagan symbolism implied the emperor's supposed deity, and was thereby, a violation of the second commandment (cf. Exod. 20:4). The Greek noun charagma (G5480; lit. "imprint, graven image") translated as "image" in the NRSV (cf. Acts 17:29) was the same word that John used to represent the mark of the beast (cf. Rev. 16:2; 19:20). Therefore, both the Pharisees and the Zealots were guilty of nationalism and idolatry. This was best exemplified when they declared to the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate, "If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor. . . . We have no king but the emperor" (John 19:12, 15). As Christians, we only have God's image and no king but Jesus, who tells us,
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father (John 15:13-15).
The other passage that sacralists willfully misinterpret is Paul's thesis statement about Christians and the Roman government. Yes, it is important to read the Bible typologically and apply its meaning for today, but we must do so according to its original setting. When Paul wrote his letter to Christians living in Rome, the very heart of the empire, he was writing to people who could not vote for their leaders. Although some believers had Roman citizenship, like Paul (cf. Acts 22:25-27), most of the early Christians did not. We moderns must be cognizant not to assume the context of a democratic constitutional republic when reading the following:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due (Rom. 13:1-7).
Paul's instructions here are consistent with Jesus' teaching of "give to the emperor," as well as the Covenant of Noah between God and all nations (cf. Gen. 9:4-6; also "Beliefs & Character," Covenant of Noah). That said, respecting the government does not mean we must swear our soulfelt allegiance to it. Remember, Paul himself was accused of "acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus" (Acts 17:7). Likewise, when the Sanhedrin tried Peter and John, they declared, "Whether it is right in God's sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:19-20). Yes, this was a form of civil disobedience, which is justified when a secular government tries to suppress God's church. In contrast, the Christian bishops of the fourth century were weary of nearly 300 years of Roman persecution (esp., Nero, Domitian, and Diocletian), so they greeted Constantine's reforms with much enthusiasm. To their defense, the bishops subsequently delineated a "two swords" political philosophy that kept the church separate from the empire, unlike the former pagan regimes in which the Roman Senate deified their caesars. However, they also developed a sacralist worldview in which military service was no longer prohibited for believers, culminating in the violent Crusades (1095–1291) that, at times, had Christians going to war with other Christians. By the time former U.S. president George W. Bush (b. 1946)—an Evangelical—remarked, "This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while," Constantinian sacralism was a well-entrenched part of Christendom. This is to our shame.
As Christians, we know that God "makes nations great, then destroys them; he enlarges nations, then leads them away" (Job 12:23). Likewise, the prophet Amos recorded God asking, "Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?" (9:7b). In other words, God formed the boundaries of all nations, not just Israel (cf. Deut. 32:8). Who are we to fight amongst ourselves over who is faster, stronger, and better? One day, every single man, woman, and child from every nation under heaven must bow their knee and "confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. 2:10-11). Moreover, every nation will be erased from the map when God inaugurates the new earth, making the old one pass away (Rev. 21:1). Finally, this advice from Paul, which is consistent with his message in Romans 13, teaches us the proper way for us Christians to view government:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity (1 Tim. 2:1-2).
Let us "Make the Commission Great Again" by doing what Jesus commanded: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19). This is the only way we can truly reach the "leavers" who chose "Chrexit," to deconstruct and abandon the church altogether.
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, you have made of one blood all the peoples of the earth, and sent your blessed Son to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near: Grant that people everywhere may seek after you and find you; bring the nations into your fold; pour out your Spirit upon all flesh; and hasten the coming of your kingdom; through Jesus the Messiah our Lord. Amen.
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