Saving Jesus from Nationalism – 10/31/21

In the fundamentalist church of my youth, like many other evangelical churches today, I was taught that America was God’s chosen country.   This idea stems from very early in America’s history.  The doctrine of manifest destiny was used to justify American imperialism.  This doctrine asserted that America had a special destiny from God to possess the continent from south of the Canadian border.  This doctrine was also inherently a white supremacist doctrine as it gave no claims to Native American or nonwhite claims to possession of the land.  From its discovery, Spanish and French monarchs financed exploration of what they termed the “New World” because they considered it their duty from God to convert those living in these lands to Christianity.

Donald Scott wrote on these religious origins of manifest destiny that “The new democratic republic, proclaimed as unique, had been ordained by God and endowed with a special mission to be the new “city upon a hill” to shine the beacon of liberty upon the world—and, at times if deemed necessary, to spread its form of democracy by force of arms to other parts of the world. “ The New England Puritans who journeyed to America carried this sense of Providential purpose.  And while America was founded upon principles of a clear division between church and state, the promulgation of religious liberty, faith and nationalism have remained strongly aligned.

During the insurrection on January 6, 2021, we saw many images which are not easy to forget – police being beaten, the capital being stormed.  But perhaps some of the most disturbing images for me were the Christian flags flying, the people who wore crosses on their t-shirts, the signs which said “Jesus saves.”  After members of the mob swarmed the Senate chamber, men came to podium, one saying “Jesus Christ, we invoke your name.”  Samuel Perry, wrote, “the language of the prayers offered by the insurrectionists both outside and within the Capitol indicates the views of white Americans who obviously thought Jesus not only wanted them to violently storm the Capitol in order to take it back from the socialists, globalists, etc., but also believed God empowered their efforts, giving them victory.”

In “Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States,” Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry define Christian Nationalism as “a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems — that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life…. It includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism. It is as ethnic and political as it is religious.”  Christian nationalism assumes that we are a Christian nation, seeks laws privileging Christian views, and embraces a faith that is complicit in acts of racial, gender, and religious discrimination.  Christian nationalists believe that success of the United States is part of God’s plan for the world, and therefore the government should advocate for Christian values.

This idea of American nationalism tied to Christianity has pervaded churches for years.  American flags hang in church sanctuaries.  Patriotic songs are sung in services.  But such a belief runs counter to what Jesus taught.  Jesus is recorded as saying in the gospel of John, “My kingdom is not of this world.”  The division which Christian nationalism creates runs counter to the idea of beloved community found in scripture.  Christian nationalism seeks to divide, exaggerating the differences which exist.  Jesus sought to end those categories, engaging in a ministry of radical inclusion.  Christian nationalism seeks to define the strength of one’s faith by one’s adherence to a political agenda – by our position on abortion, same sex marriage, and immigration.   Jesus spoke of the authenticity of our faith being determined by whether we clothe the naked, tend to the sick, feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned.

In her book The Power Worshippers, Katherine Stewart writes, “What today’s Christian nationalists call “religious liberty” is in reality a form of religious privilege—for their kind of religion. But privilege is never free. It always comes at the expense of other people’s rights.”  And this religious liberty can come at a great cost to people’s health and to their dignity.  Whether that be in the form of restriction on women’s reproductive rights, limitations on the ability of every person to be married or justifying someone’s refusal to provide a cake for such a celebration, the assertion of religious liberty undermines Jesus’s ministry of bringing healing to all and affirming the inherent worth and value of everyone.

Language such as “religious liberty” draws on dominion theology which states that Christians are called to exercise power over all aspects of society including religion, government, education, and business. The issues associated with religious liberty, sometimes explicit and sometimes hidden, have come to transform our political system and shake the foundations of our democratic system.  They assert they are fighting against forces of evil, returning America to its “Christian heritage,” seeking to conform Americans to a single religious identity.  And these forces hold perhaps the greatest responsibility for the election of the 45th president of the United States.

This idea of religious liberty provides cover to continue discriminatory policies which have long infected our country’s political and legal systems.  In a poll conducted before the 2020 election, white Americans who embrace Christian nationalism were more likely to believe that we make it too easy to vote in America.  They are more likely to say voter fraud is rampant and to deny voter suppression.  This is nothing new.  During the Jim Crow era, Christian leaders used their takes on Christianity to justify limiting Black Americans’ access to the ballot.   White Christian nationalists tend to see America as theirs both historically and theologically.  They are more likely to be oppose science, more likely to fear refugees and hold anti-immigration views, to fear religious minorities.

I believe some of the division which exists between conservative Christians and progressive Christians can be abated by moving the conversation from Republican versus Democrat.  I remember growing up, my parents were diehard Democrats.  One of my favorite memories is driving through Eureka with my parents and seeing a sign for the Reagan trail.  When I asked my father where it led, he said “Straight to the unemployment lines.”  But our pastor and the congregation openly advocated for Republicans, strongly aligning their faith with the Republican agenda.  I was sworn to secrecy on my parents’ secret allegiance for fear of the ramifications if their true party affiliation were ever discovered.  But because of that affiliation, they felt like outsiders in the community to which they had devoted so much of their lives.

Rather than focusing our energies on political parties, might we consider framing our discussion in keeping with NCC’s mission statement?  Identifying those candidates and causes which further the ministry Jesus began – those of inclusion, justice, compassion, care for the downtrodden, reaching across divisions to form community, the value of all people regardless of their identity and background.   Not saying that as progressive Christians we always identify with one party, but that we do always identify with the causes which further the agenda Jesus advocated.  And in doing so, perhaps we can move past some of the vitriol which divides us and begin to demonstrate the unity Jesus prayed for in his time on earth.

Stewart goes on to say, “Many leaders of the Christian right like to dress up in red, white, and blue and announce themselves as true patriots. But they are the same people who seek to pervert our institutions, betray our international alliances and make friends with despots, degrade the public discourse, treat the Constitution as a subcategory of their holy texts, demean whole segments of the population, foist their authoritarian creed upon other people’s children, and celebrate the elevation of a “king” to the presidency who has made a sport out of violating democratic laws and norms. We don’t need lessons on patriotism from Christian nationalists. We need to challenge them in the name of the nation we actually have—a pluralistic, democratic nation—where no one is above the law and the laws are meant to be made by the people and their representatives in accordance with the Constitution.”

Christian nationalism has moved beyond a religious ideology and moved to a political one.  It seeks to determine policy on the basis of its Biblical interpretations.  And it has a special power to mobilize its adherents at the ballot box, utilizing conflicts within society as a means of increasing that commitment.  They offer certainty in the face of so much uncertainty in the world.  Christian nationalism makes the path easy – if you want to be a true Christian vote like we say.  They have replaced a sense of unity around the ministry of Jesus to uniting around a specific agenda.

I believe that as followers of the way of Jesus, it is our responsibility to name Christian nationalism for what it is – a corruption of his ministry geared specifically to fulfill political aims.  And rather than allowing it to further divide us, perhaps we can move from animus to understanding.  To no longer use the word Christian as an adjective to describe a allegiance to country, and start using it again as a noun – a stance for unity and compassion rather and division and condemnation.