How Should We Talk About Christian Nationalism?


Hello my friends!

With the term "Christian Nationalism" being used so frequently and especially with it being an election year, it is a term that needs some clarifying and reflection, especially for us Christians.

So, in an effort to bring clarity, I have provided many other voices below who are scholars and experts on this topic in the resource section. For our purposes here in this newsletter today, I just want to look at some characteristics of the movement that can help clarify our conversations on this topic with others as the year unfolds.

Here are some resources to consider:

-Patriotism vs. Nationalism: What’s The Difference? This is a great, nuanced article from dictionary.com of all places.

-Katherine Stewart has become someone I deeply admire on this topic. She is an investigative reporter and author who has covered religious liberty, politics, policy, and education for over a decade. Her latest book, THE POWER WORSHIPPERS: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, is a rare look inside the machinery of the movement that brought Donald Trump to power.

-Andrew Whitehead is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Association of Religion Data Archives (theARDA.co) at the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at IUPUI. He is one of the foremost scholars of Christian nationalism in the United States. He is the author of American Idolatry: How Christian Nationalism Betrays the Gospel and Threatens the Church, which released August 2023 from Brazos Press. He is the lead author of Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (Oxford University Press, 2020)—along with Samuel Perry—which won the 2021 Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

-Samuel Perry is another great voice to listen to on this topic. Taking America Back for God (Oxford, 2020, with Andrew Whitehead), and The Flag and the Cross (Oxford, 2022, with Philip Gorski) are just two of his wonderful books.

-Kristin Kobes Du Mez is also an obvious voice to read. Her phenomenal book Jesus and John Wayne How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation is a must read on this topic.

-Tim Alberta is also an excellent resource on this topic. His recent book The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism is a deeply personal and powerful look from inside Christian nationalism.

-David French is an Opinion columnist for The New York Times, where he writes about law, culture, religion, and armed conflict. He is a conservative Christian and former lawyer. He is a voice worth listening to, especially as he navigates his faith and politics from within Conservative Christianity and his expertise as a law professional. His latest article for the Times is called "What is Christian Nationalism, exactly?" It may be behind a paywall, but his newsletter is free to access.

-A Pastoral Perspective on Engaging Christian Nationalists w/ Benjamin Cremer I was recently a guest on the Disarming Leviathan podcast, where I had a wonderful conversation with the host, and new friend, Caleb Campbell. He also has a website with some great resources and an upcoming book, which you can check out here.

Okay, onto today's conversation.

How Should We Talk About Christian Nationalism?

Whenever I write or speak on Christian Nationalism, I’ll have people say to me, "so you don't want Christians to be politically engaged?" Others will also ask me, “what is the difference between Christian Nationalism and Christians in the civil rights movement, or Christians in the abolition against slavery? Were Christians in those movements not trying to change laws, government, and culture, just like Christian nationalists are doing?”

I find these questions to be really important, because it brings up a needed clarification for a central characteristic of the Christian Nationalism movement: self-centeredness.

Religious people of all kinds cannot help but bring their values into their political engagement. This includes Christians. The question then comes down to how that engagement is practiced.

In the context of the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement then, what were Christians focused on? Others. Especially the marginalized and the vulnerable. Moreover, these movements were not trying to secure power over the entire nation for themselves and doing so by opposing democratic practices as Christian nationalism does, but rather, they were functioning within democracy to expand rights to all its citizens. Christians in these movements were not trying to make the entire national government privilege and prioritize the Christian religion alone above all others, seeking to abolish the separation of church and state as Christian nationalism does. Rather, they were speaking truth to power on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed, based on their Christian faith. That is a huge difference.

Christian nationalism is inherently self centered. It seeks its own power and control to the exclusion of anyone else who does not fit its definitions of American or Christian.

We Shouldn't Use It As A Slur Against Conservatives.

This brings us to another really important aspect of understanding Christian Nationalism. It isn't synonymous with "conservative Christianity." So, it should not be used as a slur against conservative Christians. Using the term this way not only demonizes all conservatives, but it causes the term to become unspecific and vague. As someone who has lived in a place like Idaho my whole life and who has many conservative Christian family members and friends, it is not only dishonest to categorize all conservatives as “Christian nationalists,” but it immediately shuts down any chance at a productive conversation.

Many of the conservative Christians I know are very vocal against Christian nationalism. In fact, the way things often play out, people who are conservative, but not nationalists, receive the harshest treatment from nationalists. They are called ‘RINOS: republican in name only” or “CHINOS: Christian in name only.” Worse yet, they can be treated as traitors and often get ousted from their positions by people in their own party, simply for resisting extremism from within.

Understanding this reality can better equip us to have more compassion and better intentional conversations across the partisan aisle.

While many issues can and should be debated about how we Christians are called to engage in our culture right now, the main difference between nationalism and authentic political engagement is, are we pursuing political engagement on behalf of others or just for ourselves and our religion?

The words from Paul in Philippians 2:3-4 towards this mentality come to mind: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

Love And Control Are Not The Same

Because Christian Nationalism is inherently self-centered and sees itself as the only rightful authorities of God’s will for the church and nation, it sees its control of other people as “loving them” or doing what’s best for them.

Here again, this is deeply contradictory to the teachings of Jesus.

I feel like the Jesus' teachings against this are so numerous, but let's take Matthew 20:25-27 as one example. Jesus called all his disciples together, and pointed to the rulers of their time and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.”

Whenever I hear the demand for Christians to gain the highest positions of power in this land in order to impose a specific set of values they are calling “Christian” I always hear Christ’s words ringing in my ears. “Not so with you!” Controlling all power over someone isn't very servant like.

Jesus also said in Matthew 7:12, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” If we Christians wouldn’t want another religion imposing themselves and their values on us through political power, why then would we do unto others what we don’t want done to us? If we Christians desire other religions to join together for the common good of everyone in our nation, no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or religion, especially the most vulnerable, then wouldn’t we want to do the same?

Fear over Fatih

This brings us to another characteristic of Christian Nationalism in that it is deeply fearful and distrustful. It not only deeply believes that this nation is founded on its definition of Christian values and is quickly falling away, but it is convinced that there are evil anti-Christian forces trying to overtake America and persecute true American Christians.

With this powerful cocktail of beliefs, combined with its belief that only it knows the truth, it pursues political power with a feverish pace and a hostile distrust towards anyone who doesn’t believe the way the movement does. In stead of trusting in the power of Jesus and his gospel, Christian nationalism places its faith in the power of a political party, a president, a supreme court, and a nation.

What Does A "Christian Nation" Mean?

When Christian Nationalism says it wants the United States to be a “Christian nation,” it is referring to the nation conforming to its own preferred theology, doctrines, and interpretation of scripture, on which many, many Christians do not agree.

For example,

As a Protestant, I wouldn’t want a Catholic controlled nation, nor would Catholics want a Protestant controlled nation.

As a Wesleyan, I wouldn’t want a Calvinist controlled nation, nor would Calvinists want a Wesleyan controlled nation.

On top of that, there are more than 200 different Christian sects within the U.S. alone, all with their own theological beliefs, doctrines, and interpretations of scripture.

Who then determines what kind of “Christianity” the nation upholds over everyone else?

This stems from a faulty assumption that Christianity is not only a monolith, which it is not, but that our nation was established on a common shared set of certain Christian values.

Among the U.S. founding fathers, not all of whom were Christians, there were Anglicans, Quakers, Lutherans, Congregationalists, Dutch Reformed, and Roman Catholics.

Add to this melting pot the pervasive influence of Deism, one would have to ignore the complex historical context of that time to envision them as fitting into the category of what we would think the average Christian is today.

This is not even to mention that they were leaving a “Christian nation” behind, Britain, which was controlled by the church of England at the time (Anglican).

Their desire was to establish a nation that was free from religious control (hence the first amendment) not establish a new nation under a different kind of Christian control.

What Christian Nationalism means by the phrase “Christian nation,” is a nation dictated by neo-evangelical Christianity, tied to a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, which should drive the formation of laws, is deeply entrenched in patriarchy, and is largely white. This vision of a "Christian Nation" not only excludes other religions and nonreligious people from having an equal voice in our country, but many other Christians as well.

From the recent survey put out by PPRI and the Bookings Institute, those who adhere to Christian nationalism are mostly found among white Evangelicals and it is a small minority movement. Yet this small minority movement has gained substantial positions of power, which can make it not only feel outsized but unstoppable. While there is hope to be gained in knowing that it is a minority movement, it is also an important challenge to the majority of Americans to organize as effectively as Christian nationalism has in oder to oppose Christian nationalism.

Separation of Church and State

This is why the separation of church and state is so crucial, which Christian Nationalism rejects. The separation of church and state not only allows all Americans to live according to their own religious and non-religious beliefs, but it also allows the church to maintain a prophetic witness in our culture.

When the church crawls into bed with political power, its voice not only becomes one with the state, but its Christian witness becomes a mouthpiece for the empire, rather than for the gospel of Jesus and advocacy for the most vulnerable.

That’s what Christian nationalism looks like. It doesn't want to be a prophetic voice speaking truth to the power of the empire. It wants to be the empire. It loves the kind of power the empire used to crucify Jesus, rather than embodying the kind of love that led Jesus to the cross.

If Jesus wanted a “Christian nation,” with all his cosmic power, he certainly could have founded one, but he didn’t. He instead called the church (Matt 16:18).

We Christians are called to be the church (the body of Christ), maintaining our prophetic witness towards the world’s empires. Following the way of the cross, not the sword.

We lose that prophetic power when our Christian witness becomes indistinguishable from the ways of the empire.

Instead of pursuing a “Christian nation” then, we Christians should pursue being a “Christian church.” We should pursue a Christian public witness that looks and loves like Jesus.

The reality is, only a government that can guarantee freedom of religion is one that is free from religious control.

As a Christian, I don’t want the government controlled by a different sect of Christianity or different religion.

As an American, I want a government free from religious control, including my own religion.

In this way, the church is free to be the church, and the state is free to be the state. The church can then be a prophetic witness to the state without being controlled by the state.

So as this contentious election year unfolds, it is important that we not only understand the distinct nature of Christian Nationalism moving forward, but be able to be more equipped to navigate conversations about it, use the term with clarity, and resist it in our nation and our churches.

Now I'd like to hear from you!

What are your thoughts on what I have written here? What would you add to this conversation? Feel free to respond to this email and share your thoughts with me.

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I sincerely appreciate you all,

Ben

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Rev. Benjamin Cremer

I have spent the majority of my life in Evangelical Christian spaces. I have experienced a lot of church hurt. I now write to explore topics that often are at the intersection of politics and Christianity. My desire is to discover how we can move away from Christian nationalism, religious fundamentalism, and church hurt to reclaim the Gospel of Jesus together. I'm glad you're here to join the conversation. I look forward to talking with you.

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