This is the second post in a series on Christianity, Nationalism and White Supremacy. You can read the first post here.Growing up, we had American flags in the front of our church.
It wasn’t until years later that I saw something deeply wrong with that.
Looking back, what we were taught it meant to be a Christian was deeply entwined with what it meant to be an American. Jesus had died for our sins and the troops had died for our freedom. Being in the church was how we knew we were saved if we died and being in America meant we were in God’s last and final refuge for Christians just prior to the end times. America, after all, was God’s chosen and favored nation. How else do you explain our military might and booming economy other than an obvious result of God’s blessing? The world was divided between “good guys” and “bad guys.” American Christians were definitively on the side of good.
We sent out missionaries to convert the world and we sent out troops to keep the peace in the world.
It wasn’t until years later I realized that the form of Christianity I had imbibed was deeply influenced by nationalism. A variety of influences helped me see this: learning the history of the global church, engaging with Anabaptists who were always skeptical of national influence in churches, and reading Revelation in a way that didn’t relegate it to future predictions but placed it in a meaning for now where America was just the latest empire offering military might and consumerist comfort in exchange for our soul.
As I’ve moved through my adult years, I have believed that “nationalism” is the greatest sin facing the white American evangelical church. To be fair, this is not unique to America. Nationalism was the greatest sin facing many churches in many nations; German Christians int he 1930s come to mind (and that ended up rather poorly, we all can agree). My next post will actually discuss how my changing view of the book of Revelation put me on this path to rethinking everything. For today, I want to discuss Christian Nationalism.
Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, in their book, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, define Christian nationalism as:
“Christian nationalism is 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” (10).
Though holding the term “Christian”, Christian nationalism is not the same as religion: “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” (10).
The difference between being a Christian Nationalist and a Christian is, perhaps most simply put, in the story you believe about the history of America.
Story 1 – “I believe America was ordained by God and is a beacon on a hill for the rest of the world. God (the Christian God, by the way) inspired the writers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, through this creating a Christian Nation. This nation is God’s instrument to work in the world, similar to Israel in the Old Testament. Throughout its history there have been some tough times for sure, but the country has constantly been getting better under the leadership of strong men. The nation almost broke in the Civil War, as honorable men like Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson fought for states rights in the face of arrogant northerners who didn’t understand most slave owners were kind and most slaves liked being slaves. Thankfully, the nation was put back together and built monuments to these great men fighting for their lost cause. This healing enabled America to be the beacon of hope throughout the 20th century, sending out missionaries and standing strong against evil.”
Story 2 – “Let’s be honest: America is a mixture of good and bad and too often only the good has been spoken of since the story has only been told from the perspective of white Americans. There has been injustice and evil in America right from the very beginning and while we can recognize the good the founders did, we ought not shy away from their flaws. Slavery was America’s original sin and too many of our heroes were okay with it. Leading up to the Civil War, white Christians did not reluctantly accept slavery but vigorously endorsed it from pulpits all across the south. The story of our country is not one of constant progress but is one of a few steps forward and a few back. Hope for a more equitable nation appeared during Reconstruction, but soon the federal troops left the south and white Christians reinforced their dominion. Black American Christians were enslaved again in all but name. The next decades were filled with institutional oppression that kept black people in their second class status. Anytime this institution was challenged, while people responded with lynchings and violent riots. White Christians supported all this, seeing no contradiction in attending church in the morning and lynchings in the afternoon. The Civil Rights movement was a huge step forward, but there is still a lot of work to do.”
Which of those two stories do you think is more accurate?
If you go with the first story, you are more Christian Nationalist than Christian. The Jesus of the first story becomes a cheerleader for America and is essentially “white Jesus.” White people are the primary movers and shakers in this story and are mostly good. Even if we can recognize their support of slavery as something to condemn, we can forgive that because they got the rest of their theology correct. Yet this “correct” theology focused on individual salvation where Jesus’ primary function is to ensure your entry into the afterlife. This Jesus has little to say about matters in this world such as war, slavery, the economy or much else.
To put it another way, the God of Christian Nationalism is a White American Jesus, draped in the flag and carrying a gun.
The second story places America alongside all other nations. We are not a special or unique country in human history. Rather, like Rome or Greece or Britain or Germany, we are merely the latest greatest power. Like those other countries, we are a mix of good and bad. As Christians, we recognize our commitment to the kingdom of God far outweighs our commitment to any nation. As Christians, we heed the call to speak truth to power because we know there is a higher and greater law. Thus, we name the sin and injustice in our nation’s past and seek to repent from it. Just as we do not pretend we have no personal or individual sin, so its fruitless to pretend we have no national sin.
White Christians in America have tried to blend faith in Jesus with faith in America. In missionary terms, this is syncretism: the combining or amalgamation of two different religions. One sign you might be a Christian Nationalist is that the very idea of separating your faith from your national citizenship may surprise you. James KA Smith writes on this in his book Desiring the Kingdom:
“The fact that there seems to be little tension between Christianity and American nationalism is not a function of the generosity (let alone ‘Christianness’) of the American ideal, but rather a sign of a Christianity that has accommodated itself to the American ideals of battle, military sacrifice (which is very different from the Christian ideal of martyrdom), individual (negative) freedom, and prosperity through property” (Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 107).
We have not combined Christianity and American ideals into one thing because they line up together so perfectly as to obviously be one and the same thing. Instead, Christianity has accommodated to America. When the teachings and way of Jesus clash with the principles and ideals of our nation, we have too quickly blunted the way of Jesus to better fit him in with our national ideals. And again, this is not new or unique with American Christians as the temptation to explain away and make easier the way of Jesus is about as old as Christianity itself. We can recall some of Jesus’ followers in John 6 declare, “this is a hard teaching and who can accept it?”
If we just want a Jesus as Savior who provides us forgiveness and a ticket to heaven, then Christian Nationalism is the way to go. We get the assurance of afterlife bliss while we can then move forward in this world utilizing whatever tools we feel are necessary to achieve power and comfort. We have Jesus to save our soul and John Wayne or William Wallace (of the movie Braveheart) to save our ass.*
Is that all Jesus is? A ticket to heaven with no relevance for now?
If I believed that, I would just stop being a Christian altogether. I desire a Jesus who challenges all my ways of thinking, both personal and public. I desire a God revealed in Jesus who does not just affirm whatever I, or my country, does but who challenges everything.
Which Jesus do we want? Which story of America do we believe?
Which story do you believe?
Who is our God: Jesus or the Nation? Because in the end, “Christian” cannot be merely an adjective. If we are Nationalists we are not truly Christians and if we are Christians we cannot be Nationalists.*
Which will we be?
*As I was working on this post, I discovered this website: Christians Against Christian Nationalism (https://www.christiansagainstchristiannationalism.org). Check it out.
*I got this quip from the fantastic book Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Metz. Definitely worth a read!
*We cannot be Nationalists but we can be Patriotic, which I spoke of in the first post in this series.