I Pledge Allegiance:
A Believer’s Guide to Citizenship in 21st-Century America
Reviewed by Trudy Smith
I grew up Southern Baptist in a small town in Texas. I still remember singing the fight songs of each branch of the military during patriotic worship services celebrating the Fourth of July or Veterans’ Day, and pledging allegiance to both the Christian and American flags that hung in the sanctuary. According to David Crump, this display of Christian nationalism demonstrates that rather than being immersed in the gospel Jesus preached, I was instead awash in the kind of dangerous “civil religion” that characterizes much of the American church today.
In I Pledge Allegiance: A Believer’s Guide to Kingdom Citizenship in 21st-Century America, Crump sets out to write an ethics book that addresses “the social issues confronting today’s church,” roots “its analysis in biblical interpretation,” and takes “the teaching of Jesus as its starting point” (5). The result is a hard-hitting treatise on faithful citizenship in the kingdom of God that addresses the meaning and political implications of that kingdom, and the importance of resolving any conflict between competing loyalties to God and country “in favor of God’s kingdom, whatever the consequences may be” (50). Along the way, Crump draws on both personal narrative and biblical exegesis to confront such issues as the inequality of our current economic system, militarism, the normalization of torture, the belief in American exceptionalism, and the church’s impulse to maintain its “cultural privilege” by wielding political power (87).
Beginning with a chapter startlingly titled “Whom Would Jesus Torture?”, Crump posits that “only an imitation, bogus, pretend church, one that is completely out of step with its Lord and utterly unfamiliar with the tone and tenor of his living voice in the New Testament, could conscientiously harbor a 60 percent majority that condones the torture of a fellow human being”–and yet, shockingly, this is what a 2009 Pew survey has found (3-4). According to Crump, this wildly un-Christian posture is symptomatic of a church that has patterned its life on Christian nationalism rather than on Christ himself.
He explains that religious nationalism enables the state “to take on God-like qualities as the corporate higher power calling for its citizens’ allegiance” (128). It also involves the dangerous practice of “appropriating” ancient Israel’s story to uphold an arrogant view of exceptionalism and superiority, believing that God is always on our side and unconditionally endorses our foreign policy (126). Crump unabashedly compares the United States to Nazi Germany in this regard, asking provocatively whether “crosses embroidered in red, white, and blue” are “fundamentally different from crosses draped with swastikas” when both symbols represent a people’s firm conviction “that their country, alone among all countries, enjoys a special relationship with God” and “is God’s special instrument for accomplishing God’s purposes in history” (118).
Despite the frequent pairing of patriotism and faith in modern America, Crump reminds us that “neither Jesus nor the New Testament ever suggests that patriotism or national identity make any contribution to Christian discipleship” (131). On the contrary, “Jesus died and rose again in order to establish the kingdom of God on earth, and that kingdom is never represented by any earthly nation, no matter what its character is” (118).
Crump calls out the American church’s efforts to avoid suffering (or even inconvenience) by wielding worldly power and “merging… Christianity with a nation’s social, political, and cultural life” such that “Christian discipleship” is confused with “state citizenship” (174). He writes that “the first error… in the so-called culture wars” is “the church’s assumption that Christianity has a right to unchallenged preeminence in the public square” (174). Instead of trying to control or transform government, Crump argues, Jesus (and later, Paul) instead “focused on creating a new, alternative community that would shine as a light to the world, showing the spiritually curious where they might discover the kingdom of God in the midst of this world’s corruption” (175), and they accepted Christian suffering as a matter of course (179).
Examining the question of Christian military service, Crump points out that “all extant Christian literature written before the fourth century reign of Constantine”–at which point Christianity fused with Roman civic religion–”unanimously forbids disciples from either joining the military or shedding blood if they are already enlisted” (141). For Crump, “the fundamental question is not whether a war… can ever be just,” but whether it is “possible for true citizens of the kingdom of God to love their enemies, pray for those who curse them, and turn the other cheek” while simultaneously “preparing, studying, training, and maintaining an expertise in unleashing death, violence, and destruction on those enemies and their families” (137).
In another chapter, Crump examines how scripture challenges “modern Western notions of ownership and private property,” showing that in a biblical worldview, “ownership always entailed social obligation” (160). The earliest believers lived “as God’s faithful community” in which “the economic and social goals for the covenant people” found fulfilment through the sharing and redistribution of resources such that “there were no needy persons among them” (p. 160; Acts 4:34). Far from representing extreme behavior or some infeasible utopia, Crump argues that “such empathy and communal generosity are held out to us as normative characteristics of kingdom citizenship” (161).
Throughout the book, Crump speaks with the bold, unapologetic voice of the prophet, and as with his social-nonconformist, wilderness-dwelling forbears, his proclamations are likely to stir up a fair amount of consternation and hostility because they challenge and probe many of the most deeply-held cultural, political, and theological beliefs held by the American church today. He speaks from a decidedly nonpartisan perspective that frequently wanders off-script from any discernible party platform, and few readers are likely to agree with Crump on all points (I certainly didn’t). Yet regardless of one’s political or theological orientation, readers are sure to benefit from wrestling with the thought-provoking ideas and unsparing critiques offered in these pages. Crump is asking the hard questions that matter most for Christians today, and I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone seeking to live as a faithful follower of Jesus in the spiritual wilderness of 21st century America.
Trudy Smith lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, and is the author of the memoir, God in Disguise: Losing and Finding Jesus at the Ends of the Earth and the Limits of my Soul.