Christian Nationalism May Be Different, and Closer, than You Imagine

“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” Matthew 11:12 (NRSV)

Taking Back America for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, by Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, is promoted as the best book on the topic available. I am about halfway through it. The research base is excellent. The categories they create are meaningful. Their questions are important.

Here is the heart of their perspective:

“Simply put, 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.” But the authors do not mean any particular kind of Christianity. “On the contrary, the ‘Christianity’ of Christian nationalism represents something more than religion….[It] includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism.” (10)

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The authors distinguish Christian nationalism from American civil religion. Along with sociologist Philip Gorski, they identify the latter with the prophetic social justice tradition of Hebrew Bible. Christian nationalists derive their biblical mandates from other traditions that view the U.S. as the same in God’s sight as ancient Israel: a place of blessing if the nation follows God’s laws, and a place of wrath if the nation does not. (But I see a connection between the two traditions, on which I will comment below.) Christian nationalists are drawn also to the apocalyptic—end-times wars using righteous violence to vanquish evil-doers and install the right leaders. In terms of morality, Christian nationalism’s exclusive moral claim is “fidelity to religion and fidelity to the nation.” (15)

In what might be a surprise or at least new to some readers, the authors claim:

  • Christian nationalism, while related to, is not interchangeable with evangelicalism, white supremacy, or theocracy.
  • In terms of stances toward Christian nationalism, there are ambassadors, accommodators, resisters, and rejectors (chapter 1, beginning on p. 23). Interestingly, each political party, brand of Christianity, and racial-ethnic group includes persons who reflect each of those stances. Yes, some more than others.
  • The number of persons who score high on the Christian nationalism scale is in decline. It is an older demographic, and younger people do not share the same loyalties.
  • One does not have to be a Christian to be a Christian nationalist. Persons who adhere to no faith tradition may also align with Christian nationalism.

To oversimplify Whitehead and Perry’s work by some exponential multiple: Christian nationalists believe either that the nation was founded as a Christian nation and must be taken back for God, or that the U.S. was at least supposed to be a Christian nation but no longer acts like it. In either case, declension is part of the story. In Christian theological terms, there was a time in America that was better than now. Currently, the nation is “fallen.” And for the “true believer” Ambassadors, God’s people are authorized agents of God’s holy violence to take America back.

The authors argue that support for Christian nationalism accounts for who voted for the former president more strongly than race or religious adherence. For example, it is not white evangelicalism per se that aligns with voting patterns. “It is the fact that there are more Ambassadors and Accommodators among white evangelicals that creates … differences between religious traditions.” (67)

Here are some questions and comments the authors have raised for me, thus far:

  • How did Christian nationalism play out on January 6 at the Capitol? We saw crosses, prayer before violence, lots of “take back America” talk, a significant older white male demographic, and violence in the name of the apostle of their agenda. What else, besides Christian nationalism, was on stage?
  • I would hope more Christians are thinking sympathetically with the dilemma Muslims have encountered for decades: groups weaving elements of Islam into a violent social change agenda. I wonder how many Christian pastors publicly renounced Christian nationalism (I’ve read some statements, but I wonder about the national percentage), as Christians are wont to do when violence is done in the name of Islam.
  • What are the common instigating factors in the public pairing of white supremacy and of Christian nationalism, at the present time? The relative numerical decline of the percentage of white Christians in the nation and the numerical rise of the “others”?
  • For those of us who prefer an updated version of civic faith, with a focus on justice and compassion, is there anything good for either religion or the nation that comes from associating the U.S. with ancient Israel? That association has been used both to advance social justice and Christian nationalism. The nation’s public narratives have been profoundly shaped by the biblical stories of blessedness/special calling, captivity, liberation, wilderness, and conquest. If those narratives were withdrawn from contemporary U.S. life, like iron filings drawn out by a powerful magnet, would there be any basis for American exceptionalism? Or, what would be the reason(s) for applying biblical plumblines of justice and mercy to this nation?
  • Christian nationalism is a heresy. It should be renounced and rebuked by every Christian leader. But, if and when we all did that, what all would we be renouncing and rebuking? Anything and anyone closer to home than those red-hatted storm troopers? I’m thinking about how Christian nationalism shares air and space with white supremacy. White supremacy is not inhabited only by people with a Klan robe in the closet but lives primarily in and through policies, social norms and mores—and also in personal habits and dispositions. Is simply saying “I am not a Christian nationalist” without taking action akin to saying “I am not a white supremacist” but taking no anti-racist action?

In other words, what would it mean to act like an anti-Christian nationalist, and what are the strategies and tactics Christians should employ in order to dismantle this heretical, damaging “ism”?

Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

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