What is Christian nationalism?
Since President Donald Trump's election in 2016, Christian nationalism has…
WASHINGTON — “Jesus Saves.”
“For the Glory of God.”
“God, Guns and Trump.”
As thousands rallied to support President Donald Trump’s unproven claim of a stolen election — a protest that turned deadly as an insurrectionist mob stormed the U.S. Capitol — many waved signs linking the Republican political leader to their Christian faith.
“Trump 2020” and “Make America Great Again” flags flew alongside banners with Christian symbols. Some of the mostly White demonstrators — both in the nation’s capital and at other pro-Trump events across the U.S. — carried large wooden crosses.
“I wanted to be here because I feel like the Democrats are slapping our Creator in the face: God Almighty,” said Diane McMichael, an evangelical Christian from California.
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“We are certainly founded on ‘one nation under God,’” said her husband, Bob. “Our roots were there, and we’ve turned our backs on it. … I pray that through this, the light will shine through the darkness.”
“Also,” his wife added, “my Lord wants me here to fight for the unborn.”
Plenty of disturbing scenes characterized the Jan. 6 chaos, from gunfire and gas masks in the citadel of U.S. democracy to rioters chanting “Hang Pence” after Vice President Mike Pence refused to stop Congress from certifying Democrat Joe Biden’s Electoral College win. That’s not to mention the Confederate flags, the antisemitic T-shirts and the nods to QAnon conspiracy theories.
But to many faith leaders, the Christian nationalism on display amid the deadly mob violence was most alarming — and appalling.
“We have too many people in the church who aspire to be Christian Republicans, Christian Democrats, Christian something else. Their alliances and their allegiances are not first and foremost to Christ. People are compromised in their faith,” said Melvin Otey, a minister and law professor at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala.
“People believe that being an American or being a patriot or being a part of a political party is part of their faith. It absolutely is not,” added the former U.S. Justice Department trial lawyer, who preached for the Georgia Avenue Church of Christ in Washington, D.C., for eight years. “That’s what keeps people divided.”
In Philippians 3:20, the apostle Paul writes that Christians are “citizens of heaven.”
But most Christians don’t seem to understand that or even want to hear it, said Otey, who insists on preaching that message anyway.
“The good that I can be to my neighbor, the good that I can be in terms of unity to the church, is lifting my thinking out of this mire of liberal/conservative, left/right, Republican/Democrat,” he said. “We need to get out of that and be the hands and feet of Jesus.”
Most of the pro-Trump demonstrators who showed up in Washington that morning were peaceful.
Many believed they were standing up for a sacred institution, as Christian nationalism “is built on the basic premise that America, its Constitution and its form of government are by God’s design,” said Jeremie Beller, congregational minister for the Wilshire Church of Christ in Oklahoma City.
As such, those believers viewed keeping Trump in office as the only way to “continue pushing the divine cause.”
“However, the Christian symbols linking the re-election of Donald Trump — or any politician of any political party — with the will of God represent a false and dangerous misconception of God’s will,” said Beller, an adjunct communications professor at Oklahoma Christian University whose doctoral dissertation focused on religion and racism.
“Given the dark history of Christian nationalism, it is highly plausible that even the violent participants held the same view, just with greater passion,” he added.
Related: New congressman — a Christian and former Trump doctor — reflects on U.S. Capitol riot
Christians can’t remain silent, Beller warned, as the world watches to see if the Capitol violence truly reflects Jesus’ followers.
“It is absurdity of the highest order to participate in any angry, vengeful, destructive mob while claiming to represent Jesus,” Beller said. “Jesus proposed a radically different approach to changing the world and bringing about justice: Love your neighbor. Pray for your enemy. Go the extra mile.”
Like Beller, Mac Sandlin pointed to Christian nationalism as a factor in the siege that has resulted in dozens of arrests and impeachment proceedings against Trump, whom Democrats and some Republicans blame for inciting the riot.
“The mix of signs, flags and symbols with allusions to Jesus and to America by the protesters was one of the most striking and unsettling aspects of the event to me,” said Sandlin, a religion professor at Harding University in Searcy, Ark.
Sandlin stressed that he wanted to be careful about “attributing any blanket statement to the whole crowd.”
“However, it is undeniable that Christian nationalism has played a major role in American politics for decades and that it contributed in significant ways to the event,” he said.
Historically, Christian nationalism has manifested itself in both major political parties, said Lee Camp, a professor of theology and ethics at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn.
“That being said, it is crucial to note that Donald Trump represents a blunt and unnuanced nationalism, often represented in language such as ‘Make America Great Again,’” said Camp, author of “Scandalous Witness: A Little Political Manifesto for Christians.”
According to an AP VoteCast survey, 81 percent of White evangelical Christians voted for Trump in the 2020 election. That’s similar to the number who cast ballots for him four years earlier, according to other polls. Trump’s opposition to abortion and support for religious freedom were among the reasons cited.
But in the view of Tanya Smith Brice, author of “Reconciliation Reconsidered: Advancing the National Conversation on Race in Churches of Christ,” Christian nationalism has become inextricably linked with White supremacy.
Brice, vice president of education at the Council on Social Work Education in Alexandria, Va., contrasted the number of police visible at the Trump rally with the security presence seen when Black protesters marched this past summer.
“There were militarized officers everywhere and low-flying helicopters,” said Brice, who conducts research on the influence of race in Christianity. “We were there worshiping, singing, praying but were treated like hostile enemies.
“It didn’t matter that we were Christians marching for justice,” she said. “The only thing that mattered to the most powerful people in this land was that we were not White.”
For the nation’s nearly 12,000 Churches of Christ — with roughly 1.4 million men, women and children in the pews nationwide — Christian nationalism ranks as a “significant problem.”
That’s the assessment of Sandlin, the Harding religion professor.
But he’s quick to add that the same is true “in almost all Christian groups in America.”
“Catholics have struggled with it since the Americanist movement of the late 19th and early 20th century,” said Sandlin, who attends the Beebe Church of Christ in Arkansas. “Evangelicals have struggled with it in obvious ways since the emergence of the so-called religious right. Mainline churches have struggled with it via the social movement gospel.”
Then again, the problem predates the United States.
“The Philippians seemed to have struggled with it in relation to Rome in the first century, too,” Sandlin said.
Because nations are powerful and can do so much good and so much harm, he said, they make for “especially tempting idols for the people of God. Churches of Christ have long struggled with the temptation to either completely repudiate America and its government as tools of the devil or, on the other hand, to conflate the nation with the kingdom of God.”
On the positive side, Sandlin said he’s pleased to see many examples within Churches of Christ of men and women who “model appropriate love and respect for the country.”
Jesus’ disciples included Matthew, who worked for the government, and Simon the Zealot, who wanted to overthrow it, noted David Duncan, preaching minister for the Memorial Church of Christ in Houston.
“Can you imagine what the discussions must have been around the campfire at night?” Duncan asked in an online panel discussion organized by The Christian Chronicle.
“Jesus was saying, ‘I’m bringing you into the same kingdom — to a better kingdom.’”
“Jesus was saying, ‘I’m bringing you into the same kingdom — to a better kingdom,’” the Texas minister said. “Somehow, our folks have to see that and demonstrate that so that we can be the light that Jesus called us to be.”
Prayer is crucial, stressed Wendell Edwards, who joined Duncan, Otey and other Christian scholars and journalists on the panel.
“Clearly, the divide is deep. The chasm is there,” said Edwards, a TV news anchor and member of the Riverchase Church of Christ in Birmingham, Ala. “But with the power of prayer, that is our best resource.”
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