Flags, faith and fury
WASHINGTON — “Jesus Saves.” “For the Glory of God.” “God,…
Since President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Christian nationalism has been a subject of much discussion and debate.
The Washington Post reported this week that Trump’s four years in office have sparked a rise of “Patriot Churches.”
To help readers better understand the subject, The Christian Chronicle asked three scholars to weigh in. Each responded to the same questions independently.
The scholars are:
• Jeremie Beller serves as congregational minister for the Wilshire Church of Christ in Oklahoma City and as an adjunct professor of communication for Oklahoma Christian University. His Ph.D. dissertation focused on religion and racism.
• Tanya Smith Brice serves as dean of the College of Professional Studies at Bowie State University in Maryland. She is the author of “Reconciliation Reconsidered: Advancing the National Conversation on Race in Churches of Christ.”
• Lee Camp serves as professor of theology and ethics at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn. He is the author of “Scandalous Witness: A Little Political Manifesto for Christians.”
Question: What is Christian nationalism?
Beller: Christian nationalism is the intertwining of the Kingdom of God with the kingdoms of men. In the American context, it is often displayed by describing America through language reserved for the Kingdom of God.
For instance, to speak of America as a “city on a hill” borrows from Jesus’ image for God’s kingdom. The marriage between patriotism and righteousness further blurs the line between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world.
Brice: It is a form of civil religion that places one’s earthly citizenship above one’s obligation as a follower of Christ.
Camp: It’s a perversion of Christian eschatology. It perverts the gospel in at least two ways:
• One, by falsely giving to a nation-state a Messianic identity. The nation-state, and the interests of the nation-state, are seen as the primary mechanism for “saving” human history. Thomas Jefferson called the United States “the world’s best hope.” Abraham Lincoln said that the unity of the U.S. and its form of government is “the last best hope of earth.”
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Woodrow Wilson said that he believed that he would live to see the day in which America would reach all its hopes and would say, “At last, the world knows America as the savior of the world!” Donald Trump said, “We must keep America first in our hearts. … And we must always keep faith in America’s destiny — that one nation, under God, must be the hope and the promise and the light and the glory among all the nations of the world!” All of these are classic examples of the Messianic pretense which characterizes nationalism.
• Two, by embracing Satan’s third temptation of Christ: to take up the way of might and “greatness” as the way of saving the world.
Question: Have we witnessed a rise in Christian nationalism in the United States, and if so, how has that rise manifested itself?
Beller: Christian nationalism has existed as long as America itself. People spoke of the Constitution as if it were inspired to some degree. Even within the Restoration Movement, early leaders viewed America as an instrument through which the Kingdom of God would be ushered into full expression.
Brice: We have definitely witnessed a rise in Christian nationalism. While it has always been present, as is evidenced by conflating policies and practices, such as the institution of chattel slavery, with one’s adherence to the will of God through one’s interpretation of the Holy Bible, there seems to be a more overt subscription to Christian nationalism today.
We can see this in the various polls that suggest that White evangelicals are more likely to support the oppressive laws and behaviors of our current federal administration than those who don’t identify as a White evangelical. There is an unspoken thought that Christianity equals Republican and to support that political party is because of one’s Christianity.
Camp: The U.S. has witnessed numerous occasions of Christian nationalism as noted above. The doctrine of manifest destiny is another glaring, and deadly, example. We are certainly witnessing a revivification of such conceits among some Christians today.
Question: To what extent, if any, is support for President Trump an endorsement of Christian nationalism?
Beller: Both parties and candidates play to some degree of Christian nationalism, though President Trump has been more explicit. Vice President Joe Biden’s August acceptance speech subtly did so through themes of light and darkness. Leaders of both parties have recently attempted to frame policy positions or moral ideas in light of Scripture, suggesting the other side opposes God’s intention.
Brice: Christian nationalists have drawn a line in the sand regarding their belief that the endorsement of Trump is a sign that they are following their faith. For instance, in the October 2020 issue of The Christian Chronicle, respondents stated that they support Trump because of their faith. They go on to say that they support Trump because they are concerned with issues such as freedom of religious assembly, economic growth, national security and defense.
Related: Trump vs. Biden: How to keep politics from dividing Christians
I know of no instances in the U.S. where Christians were not allowed to freely assembly for worship, except for Black Christians whose churches have been burned as a means of intimidation. I certainly have not heard Trump or any other Republican speak to that. Jesus Christ was very clear in his ministry about what was important to him. It was justice, mercy and humility as he addressed the needs of the poor, oppressed and vulnerable. As followers of Christ, these are the concerns that we should have. As Christian nationalists, there is concern about maintaining the empire through economic growth, national security and defense.
Camp: As I’ve indicated, Christian nationalism is a phenomenon that has certainly occurred in both parties in the United States. 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.”
More troubling: Academics like Willie James Jennings at Yale have made a convincing case that nationalism, colonialism and racism have been three strands of a dangerous Christian imagination since the 15th century. The rise of white supremacy in conjunction with the sorts of nationalist rhetoric we are witnessing is likewise deeply troubling, and dangerous, and Christians must be keen to reject and denounce such.
Question: What impact, if any, has Christian nationalism had on the beliefs, actions and voting patterns of members and leaders of Churches of Christ?
Beller: Christian nationalism has impacted voting in at least two ways. First, many Christians see the American political system as the means by which God’s kingdom spreads. This has resulted in a decreased focus on the countercultural claims of Christians in relation to power, humility and inclusion. Second, it has created a false justification for the demonization of opposing views wherein political positions become issues of fellowship.
Brice: Please see my response to the previous question.
Camp: Painting in broad strokes, we might say that Churches of Christ of the 19th century had, by and large among the leadership, a much more pointed critique of nationalist conceits, because it had a clearer vision of the Kingdom of God as an alternative political order which required our complete allegiance. In the 20th century, especially between the first two world wars, Churches of Christ increasingly rejected such a position and began increasingly to embrace various forms of nationalism — a distressing move, in my mind.
Question: What else would be important for people reading a story on Christian nationalism to know?
Beller: The true Kingdom of God does not rest with any nation or political party. Both parties and presidential candidates articulate some elements consistent with God’s Kingdom. And both parties also fall short of the true Kingdom in other ways. Any Christian choosing to vote is simply choosing which issue to prioritize at the moment. What Christians must not do is view their vote as a choice for true righteousness and peace. That choice was already made long ago.
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Brice: It is important that there is clarity about what one means when they profess that they act because of their faith. When one professes to be a Christian, we must ask if they are Christian as a nationalist identity or if are they professing to be followers of Christ. It is only then that one knows how to proceed.
Camp: Perhaps to see it clearly: namely, as a matter of idolatry. We would do well to remind ourselves of the many, many instances of the worship of power and imperialism which are condemned in Scripture. We would do well, for example, to be reading and re-reading the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Or to do careful assessment of the worship of imperialist might in Revelation 13.
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
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