An Antidote to Christian Nationalism

A Christmas Message from the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary
December 23, 2020
That They Might See Your Christmas Trees: A Post-Christmas Reflection on Arab Christianity and the Challenge of Presence
January 14, 2021

by Caleb Hutcherson

Imagine with me for a moment the following scene from a Sunday morning church service…

——-

As you enter the worship center, you see the whole room draped in the colors of the flag. A dazzling feast of patriotic sayings fill the hall as the faithful worshippers crowd in to find a place to sit. A large Bible has been prominently arranged on the altar along with a variety of national symbols. The service begins with the patriotic hymn “for God and country” accompanying the entrance of a parade of men in military uniform. They march to the front and are seated prominently in places of honor. The pastor begins, reading from 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and I will heal their land.”  [end scene]

——-

Would it surprise you to hear that this familiar scene depicts a type of one of the deadliest fusions of Christianity and politics in the history of the Church? Maybe that sounds melodramatic. But switch the national colors you may have been imagining on the flag, the symbols on the altar, and you have a scene portraying a phenomenon repeated numerous times through history.

Maybe the most infamous version of it was when German Christians blended Christian doctrine and Nazi ideology. But there are many other examples of Christian nationalism. Brazil, the UK, India, Spain, Russia, Romania have all witnessed forms of it. Even here in the Middle East, we have had political movements that fused Christian religion and national symbols, giving birth to various forms of militant Christian nationalism. The result is always tragic.

Looking at the history of the Lebanon, in particular, to the circumstances of the Lebanese Civil War, there are numerous examples of the participation by Christians in explicitly Christian militias. Their political ideologies were framed in terms of protecting Christianity. And the result fed into deadly sectarian conflict that still curses Lebanon today. But I digress. I mention this history in Lebanon simply to say that Christian nationalism is not an exclusively American or “western” phenomenon.

Technically, Christian nationalism is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was born sometime in the 18th century alongside the idea of “nations” and the assertion of “national identity.” But Christian nationalism can also be understood as modernized type of that “Christendom” mindset that seeks to assert and establish the dominion of the Christian religion in the realm of politics and civic life. Linking Christianity with that impulse for Christian dominion takes us all the way back to February 380 AD and the Edict of Thessalonica when the three reigning Roman emperors made Nicene Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and authorized state discipline and persecution of theological dissenters. From that point forward, Christians who claim to follow Jesus have had to grapple with this difficult question:

What is Christianity’s relationship to any particular political identity and civic life? What should it be? And especially, how ought Christianity relate to, or use, political power and authority?

In the past few weeks, a number of prominent evangelicals in the US (Beth Moore, Jemar Tisby, Michael Horton) have posted to social media denouncing the widespread evangelical form of Christian nationalism that is currently shaping US politics. This talk got me thinking about ways the present political conflict in the US helps to understand how Christian nationalism develops among evangelicals. And, more importantly, to identify one key antidote.

Two new books, in particular, make significant arguments in this regard. Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, in Taking Back America For God, offer a social scientific analysis of the phenomenon of Christian nationalism in the United States today. They define it as

 a cultural framework—a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems—that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life … the ‘Christianity’ of Christian nationalism represents something more than religion. As we will show, 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.[1]

This definition highlights a conservative political and theological orientation. That theological part is what especially concerns me because it seems that Christian nationalism is associated with “conservative” evangelical theological convictions about the Bible, male/female relationships, and about the future. Is there something to evangelical theology that leads to Christian nationalism?

Whitehead and Perry argue that Christian nationalism is associated with forms of evangelicalism that center its concept of morality on fidelity to religion and nation exclusively, rather than showing tenderness and care for others.

In the second book, Jesus and John Wayne, Kristin Du Mez draws a similar conclusion from the history of white evangelicalism in the US. Tracing historical evangelical practices, rather than theological commitments, she demonstrates how white evangelicalism is a part of the problem when it prioritizes a militant masculine version of Christianity and promotes defending authoritarian control and protecting oneself and one’s “people.”[2] What has been increasingly concerning to me is the considerable number of Lebanese and Arab evangelicals following this white American evangelical tendency in recent years.

Of course, evangelical beliefs don’t inevitably lead to Christian nationalism. But both of these books powerfully demonstrate the problems within evangelicalism when our practice prioritizes grasping political or cultural power and defending it. Christian nationalism is political idolatry because it loses sight of an essential element of Christian practice.

It’s an element that the Desert Fathers, monastics who fled from “Christian” empire, remind us of:

“What is a living faith?” was the question put to Poemen one day. “A living faith,” he answered, “consists in thinking little of oneself, and showing tenderness towards others.”[3]

This is but one example of a Christian practice of rejecting the militant grasp for authority and power, and instead centering one’s approach to life on care for others. This Christian tradition exists because the character of God revealed in Christ points us to God’s preferential care for another “other”…those who are marginalized and oppressed. It’s right there in Mary’s Song of hope of the soon-to-be-born messiah in her womb (Luke 1):

“My soul exalts the Lord,
47 and my spirit has begun to rejoice in God my Savior,
48 because he has looked upon the humble state of his servant.
For from now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 because he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name;
50 from generation to generation he is merciful to those who fear him.
51 He has demonstrated power with his arm; he has scattered those whose pride wells up from the sheer arrogance of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up those of lowly position;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty
…“

Christian nationalism denies Christ by seeking power to preserve religion and nation. The effects of this sort of politics provide the single most effective argument for banishing religion from the public square. The antidote to Christian nationalism is other-centered tenderness and care. By keeping people who are marginalized and oppressed prioritized in our thinking and practices, precisely as Christ teaches us to do, we neutralize the kinds of political ideologies in our midst that leave abuse and destruction in their wake.

Caleb has been teaching theology at ABTS since 2011 and gets a thrill from overcoming Beirut traffic congestion with his motorcycle.

Endnotes:

[1] Andrew L. Whitehead, and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020) p.10

[2] Kristin Kobes De Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, (New York: Liverlight, 2020) p.5-9

[3] Sabine Baring-Gould, Lives of the Saints, 2nd ed. (London: John Hodges, 1875) p.342

7 Comments

  1. […] “Would it surprise you to hear that this familiar scene depicts a type of one of the deadliest fusions of Christianity and politics in the history of the Church? Maybe that sounds melodramatic. But switch the national colors you may have been imagining on the flag, the symbols on the altar, and you have a scene portraying a phenomenon repeated numerous times through history”…(open here) […]

  2. Mike Kuhn says:

    Thanks for these thoughtful words, Caleb. I think you are striking a chord that we need to hear and heed. What has been so disturbing lately is seeing Evangelicals embrace a pseudo narrative of events. Media outlets that propagate that pseudo narrative become the “go-to” options of evangelicals. Very quickly, we find ourselves blinkered to alternative views, unwilling to adjust our assessments, even when events demonstrate that we have taken a wrong path (e.g. the storming the capitol building yesterday). Surely a return to other-centered tenderness and care (i.e. love) is a step in the right direction.

    • caleb says:

      Thanks for your note, Mike. To give credit where it is due, our non-white and non-American evangelical brothers and sisters have been calling attention to this blind spot in white US evangelical practice for some time now. I hold in highly your example of valuing, listening to, and learning from their wisdom.

  3. brenthamoud says:

    Thanks Caleb for this timely and poignant commentary. The issue of Christian Nationalism is a reminder of how important it is for us to develop nuanced understandings to territory and territorial membership. Our senses of identity and our engagement in the world is strongly cultivated by how we understand the narrative of our places, the nature of our (national) communities, and the confidence in our own place within places. I believe Biblical theologies of place, of land, and of belonging are crucial to addressing Christian Nationalism in all of its expressions, as well as a host of other human problems. Thanks for framing this dicey topic so effectively in the post!

    • caleb says:

      I’ve been learning about the importance (as well as the danger) of territory and territorial membership from you, Brent. Thanks for drawing attention to it!

      I was reading a piece this last weekend that argued for the positive role of unifying national or civic symbols and myth (say the Declaration of Independence). It establishes a sense of common values or “criteria” that all sides call each other back to. Conversely, the lack of this kind of unifying symbol…a contested myth…fosters political polarization. Hadn’t thought about it in that way before.

      It seems like some assert that Christian symbols and story should play that role…but that is problematic in a pluralistic society. It marginalizes those who don’t believe in those symbols, or worse, those who have experienced oppression at the hands of those claiming that “myth” and those symbols. Christian witness needs to be able critique national myths, but also offer an alternative that is unifyiing and inclusive. Otherwise Christian witness (and critique) contributes to the polarization.

      It’s interesting to think about the role of national identity and myth in Lebanon, for example…

  4. JCSA says:

    If mixing politics and religion is wrong because it produces a poisoned religion and politics (Christian Nationalism) then you have to criticize the Left when they when they do it as well. In particular I reference the injection of woke critical race theory into Christianity. Looking at your quote from Andrew Whitehead (as well as his Twitter) he ascribes to an ideology equally as dangerous as “Christian Nationalism”. Really, “white supremacy”? That’s the cliche leftist response to anything and everything they oppose, it’s “white supremacy”. Trump calling for free and fair elections? “White supremacy”. Pouring out the glaring hypocrisy of those who condemn the Capitol “riot” but praised the months long “peaceful protests”? “White supremacy.” Caleb you even mention “white evangelicals”… if a living faith “consists in thinking little of oneself, and showing tenderness towards others” what the hell does one’s race have to do with it? If you’re going to criticize the right for corrupting religion with politics that at least be fair and judge the left as well when they do the same. To be fair, perhaps you have, I’m new here and to your writing, but by the sources you’ve cited in this article I’m wary. Christ condemns both the rigid church that thinks not of others AND the “liberal” church that is so open that they have to water down everything to the point of being having no meaning (that’s in the letters to the churches in Revelation).

    • caleb says:

      Hi JCSA,
      CRT, “wokeness”, and “the Left” have not been manifesting as the biggest danger to Christianity in the US during the past week or month. Nor have asteroid strikes from space. Christian nationalism has. That’s why I’m talking about it and not CRT.

      Thanks,
      Caleb

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