Christian Nationalism: 7 Observations on How We Got Here

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Dear friends,

How did we get here? How has Christian nationalism become such a powerful
force, fusing Christian symbols, nationalistic identity, and a cult of personality
around a political leader?

Here are seven brief observations based on my Evangelical upbringing.

1. None of the Evangelical churches I attended in my formative years ever
spoke about political injustice and violence except abortion. Sin was personal
and private (for example, smoking, drinking, cursing) and rarely, if ever, public
and systemic (for example, greed, poverty, hate, racial prejudice, unjust
warfare). Christians on Sunday mornings were left unpracticed in the analysis
of contemporary public life, despite the common slogan of “understanding the
times” (1 Chronicles 12:32).

2. Political holidays always drew the loudest applause and most emotional
response from the congregation, and this was never addressed. The cross
and American flag sat side by side on the stage, fueling the fusion of these
symbols. Saying “God bless America” and playing the national anthem in
church were never questioned. This pattern was “normal” and led to the
assumption that Christian faith and American patriotism are two sides of the
same coin, leaving us blind to our cultural captivity.

3. Little or nothing was said about slavery, segregation, white supremacy, or
other systemic evils in American history. It was like these devastating, deeply
entrenched sins didn’t exist, and American history was all about the “glory” of
our “city on a hill.” Our people were left completely unpracticed in analyzing
the past and legacies of structural evil. We fiercely preached personal
repentance for private sin, but we never applied repentance to history and
culture, unlike the biblical prophets, Jesus, and the early church. For example,
when many us heard Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s soundbite, “God damn America,”
our response was outrage and condemnation, rather than looking at the evils
that Wright was analyzing and that the Bible teaches God condemns.

4. Little or nothing was said about the Bible’s critique of power, for example,
Moses’s confrontation of Pharaoh’s enslaving domination of Israel or Nathan’s
confrontation of David’s murder of a foreigner and abuse of a woman. We
talked about lust but not the lust for power — what Augustine called the libido
dominandi or lust for domination. I didn’t discover that Christianity even had
an ancient, vast, and profound tradition of political thought until I studied with
Professor Jean Bethke Elshtain at the University of Chicago. Our leaders
were seemingly uneducated in and ignorant of Christian thought. This kind of
study was not valued or seen as important.

5. Our theology was often incoherent and selectively applied. For example,
we taught that pride was a bad thing; everyone knew the saying “pride comes
before a fall” (see Proverbs 16:18). But we never questioned “national pride”

as a Christian virtue. As I noted above, we demanded “repentance” as the first
requirement for being born again and joining the church; but we never talked
about repentance for national and public evils (except abortion and
homosexuality). We confessed, “Jesus is Lord,” but we rarely stopped to think
about what Jesus’s lordship meant for culture, citizenship, and society.

6. We accepted culture’s categories. Growing up, I knew the Republicans
were the good guys, and the Democrats were the bad guys. It was this
simple. I don’t remember cross-cutting, non-binary thinking when it came to
political loyalty, for example, where the good guys actually got it wrong and/or
the bad guys got it right. That was unthinkable. We loved to quote Paul’s
command, “Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world” (Romans 12:2),
but we never applied it to public life or political identity. Thus, again, we were
conformed to American culture’s “patterns,” rather than examining and
transforming them, celebrating justice and challenging injustice wherever we
found them.

7. We were overly influenced by money and approval. I remember talking
many times with my pastors about certain topics, and they were clear that if
we talked about those topics in church, people would get angry and the big
tithers would go to another church. We all learned, directly and indirectly, that
money and approval were making the real decisions when it came to what
was said and done. We watched the people who asked questions and
expressed informed but unpopular convictions get marginalized or kicked out.
It happened to me twice. This goes back to the incoherent theology: we taught
taking up the cross and self-sacrifice, but survival and self-censorship
reigned. Thus, our consciences were stunted and we became comfortable
looking the other way or not noticing at all in the face of historic, public, and
national evil.

As I look back, Evangelical churches’ formation of public Christians was often
extremely weak and sometimes badly failed. It was dominated by ignorance,
silence, and assumption. We incessantly heard, “You reap what you sow”
(Galatians 6:7). But this was also not applied to public life.

We’re seeing the fruit of this in the powerful, reprehensible Christian
nationalism that boldly fuses Christian symbols with nationalistic symbols and
systemic evils like White supremacy, antisemitism, and neo-Nazism. It’s time
to work on 1-7 above and many other structural failures in our foundations.
Our liturgies, sermons, and discipleship need to be dramatically improved so
we are not blindly conformed to the patterns of this world (Romans 12:2) and
call Jesus “Lord” but ignore his will (Matthew 7:21-23).

Why assume that American Christian nationalism is any better than the
German version in the early 1930s or Rwanda in the 1990s, unless we’re still
bewitched by American exceptionalism, which also bewitched the Germans
and Rwandans? As Scripture warns, pride goes before a fall. “Do not be
conformed”!

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