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Opinion: Why Christian Nationalism Makes American Christians Less Christlike

By Andrew Whitehead
pastor charged capitol riot nationalism political violence
A supporter of then-President Donald Trump carries a Bible outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Growing up in a primarily white, conservative Christian community, I repeatedly heard warnings concerning what was going to destroy our Christian faith and the United States with it — feminism, divorce, homosexuality, Secularism or non-Christian faiths.

In presidential election years, these threats became even more acute.

Leaders instructed us to “vote our values” and ensure God’s blessing on the United States by placing the right people in positions of power to turn our nation back to God. Many well-meaning and earnest Christians, like myself, fell in line and did what we felt we had to do in order to return the United States to its Christian roots.

It was in this context I was taught to love Jesus, love my neighbor and seek to do God’s will. Being a good American meant being a good Christian. And being a good Christian meant accepting the correct beliefs, caring for those around you, standing up for what is right and advocating for our Christian convictions in the public square.

By doing these things, we could keep the dangers threatening America at bay.

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(Photo: Brad Dodson / Unsplash / Creative commons)

But what if we were wrong? Not about the importance of living our faith out every day, at home and in the public square, but about the nature of the threats facing the country.

What if the greatest danger to the witness of Christianity in the United States wasn’t any of these outside threats? What if the danger was closer to home and looked so familiar that it was able to evade detection?

After years of examining Christian nationalism as a social scientist, I’m convinced the greatest threat to Christianity in the United States is not outside forces.

Instead, it is white nacionalismo cristiano. Over and over, I find evidence that the practical fruit of nacionalismo cristiano is not love; it is power, control, domination, fear and violence.

Christian nationalism makes American Christians less Christlike.

Here’s what I mean.

blanco nacionalismo cristiano is a cultural framework asserting that civic life in the United States should be organized according to a particular form of conservative Christianity. In addition to the standard Christian religious and theological beliefs, Christian nationalism brings with it a host of cultural assumptions about who really matters and who should be in charge of life in the United States — primarily white Christian citizens.

Christian nationalism is not interested in a government for the people by the people, but rather for a particular people, by a particular people. Christian nationalism weakens the church by demanding it seek earthly, self-interested power, rather than seeking to support and serve the marginalized.

Central to Christian nationalism are three idols that make promises of protection and provision to American Christians and require allegiance: Power, Fear and Violence. These three idols co-opt our theological imaginations and distort our knowledge of God and neighbor. They lead us to betray our loyalty to Jesus and the gospel.

capitol insurrection riot nationalism
White #MAGA QAnon Jesus image carried during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurgent protest of the Capitol. (Photo by Tyler Merbler/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Power is the ability to get others to do what you want, despite their resistance.

Wielding power to serve one’s own group is tempting, especially when facing the political realities of living in a pluralistic, democratic society where collaboration and compromise are vital.

But when it comes down to democracy or power, white Christian nationalism chooses power every time.

Fear and a sense of threat, the second idol of Christian nationalism, focuses on a perceived loss of privileged access to power. It seeks to protect the people like us against “them.” It urges Christians to fear their neighbors — those with different skin colors, nationalities or religious beliefs — rather than love them.

Violence is a third idol of Christian nationalism. It is intimately intertwined with worshipping power and demonizing others through fear. When the fires of fear and threat are constantly stoked because “they” are out to steal “our” rightful power, violence is a natural result.

But the use of violence against our neighbors signals a distrust of the work of God in the world and seeing the image of God in all people. This weakens the church by building up dividing walls of hostility, rather than breaking them down.

Two clear examples of these three idols are our country’s continued struggle with racism and xenophobia. Christian nationalism weakens the church and threatens democracy by blinding us to the cries of those speaking out against social inequality. It obscures the structural and systemic causes of racial inequality. And because it claims that the United States has a special relationship with the Christian God, any criticism of America is seen as an attack on God and the Christian faith.

Ironically, the Bible itself is filled with criticism of God’s people when they fail to live up to God’s commands, and especially when they mistreat their neighbors.

I am convinced that we can all — whether Christian or not — recognize that Christian nationalism only leads to harm for our neighbors and betrays more loving expressions of the Christian gospel.

political right conservative patriotic america
On June 28, 2020, First Baptist Dallas in Dallas, Texas, holds a ‘Freedom Sunday’ worship service during the week of Independence Day. (Photo via social media)

As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. showed us, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Injustice experienced by one community is injustice experienced by all.

When Jesus came he preached the Kingdom of God and a gospel that was good news to the poor, oppressed and imprisoned (Luke 4:16-21).

He was not only talking about our personal salvation but about abundant life for everyone.  

Once we see the gospel as good news for the present, good news for the marginalized, good news for the prisoner, good news for the poor, good news for the blind and good news for the oppressed, we can begin to take the evidence that social science hands us about Christian nationalism and recognize that this ideology limits — and in many cases outright opposes — the work Jesus claimed he came to do and commanded us to do likewise (Matt. 22:37–40) — love the Lord your God, love your neighbor as yourself.

I have long wrestled with the implications of Christian nationalism for Christianity, both professionally and in my own faith journey. I hope the American church can move toward expressions of Christianity that allow it to regain its prophetic voice and no longer make it the servant of one particular vision for this nation.

By confronting Christian nationalism in our midst we can journey toward a future where everyone is allowed to flourish.

Las opiniones expresadas en este comentario, que fue publicado originalmente por Religion News Service, no reflejan necesariamente las de The Roys Report.

Andrew Whitehead is associate professor of sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, where he codirects the Association of Religion Data Archives at the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture. He is the author of “American Idolatry: How Christian Nationalism Betrays the Gospel and Threatens the Church.”

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  1. “Christian nationalism weakens the church by demanding it seek earthly, self-interested power, rather than seeking to support and serve the marginalized”

    I believe the challenge here is that white Christian nationalists believe THEY are the ones who are marginalized, and therefore THEY are the ones to be supported and served. While I look around and see OVERrepresentation of white professing-Christians in government, civic, and business leadership (e.g., the % of Presidents, governors, mayors, congressmen, judges, CEOs, etc.) – and I see Christian holidays recognized by the government and major corporations while my Jewish and Muslim colleagues have to save PTO for their holy days, and explain to their children why their holy days aren’t recognized – the messages coming from white Christian nationalists are that of constant victimhood to position THEM as the marginalized.

    As a Black woman who is lucky to see even a handful of leaders who look like me, not only do I wonder how I’m supposed to feel (because if I call attention to my own underrepresentation, I’m “race baiting”), but I largely question the logic of this victimhood.

    Furthermore, it should go without saying to Biblically knowledgeable Christians that Christian nationalism twists scripture and limits our service, outreach and vision as the body of Christ. We are to reject it. The gospel knows no bounds of geography or nationality.

    1. Marin, I always enjoy reading your intelligent, factual and well thought out comments here. I frequently learn something new or I am reminded of something I have forgotten.

    2. You mention the “logic of this victimhood” — the only “logic” present is that if “we” are victims, then “we” have the right to push back in any direction we see fit. Victimhood is a cloak for self service.

    3. So we’ll said Marin! I couldn’t agree more. And this was an excellent article and I’m so glad to see it. We need more of calling out christian nationalisn for the sin that it is. I believe it separates us from God. The US is no more special than Afghanistan or anyone else. I can’t believe some churches have political Sunday. I can’t even say the pledge of allegiance anymore because of the line “and justice for all.” All you need to do is open your eyes and you know there isn’t justice for all in America. If you think differently, you’re blinded or ignorant. All you need to do is start following the Innocence Project. The TRUTH sets us free! Loving our neighbors…i believe that is the heart of Jesus.

    4. Marín:

      Your words: “While I look around and see OVERrepresentation of white professing-Christians in government, civic, and business leadership (e.g., the % of Presidents, governors, mayors, congressmen, judges, CEOs, etc.)….”

      Are you aware that approximately 13% of the U. S. population is Black, but about 18% of federal employees are Black?

      1. Yes; and that includes ALL Black employees, including those at entry levels. Go look at the makeup of the decisionmakers and leaders in the federal government. It will further prove my my point: White professing-Christians are overrepresented in leadership. The victimhood is in their head, and NOT rooted in any data.

  2. When I read this social justice themed article that Julie allowed to be posted, the thought came to me that this author should travel to Arlington National Cemetery and put labels on each tombstone identifying which of these real heros who gave their lives for this country were white christian nationalists. Of course he wouldnt do that….no-one would….its an absurd premise. In the same way, no-one should characterize millions upon millions of God fearing people who love this country who feel its their civic duty to defend and vote their core values are rightwing zealots. The label white christian nationist was probably created by a liberal seminary professor who thought Saul Alinsky was a great man and George Soros is misunderstood. I beg to differ…..

    1. Yes and we should also visit or build similar memorials for victims of foreign military expeditions such as the victims of the My Lai massacre. Civic duty is important but let us never forget that without critical thinking patriotism and even noble endeavors can turn brutal.

    2. Thanks, David. Another opinion highlighting our country’s real heroes is always welcome on this Left-leaning site. The sad reality is that many who post here literally hate the United States.

    3. One can be a Christian, love this country, and fight for this country and NOT be a Christian nationalist. That’s NOT the definition of Christian nationalism.
      One can call out problems in this country, desiring to hold it accountable to its constitutional claims, and not “hate” it. That’s NOT the definition of hatred.
      And there are PLENTY of people of color who have fought and died for this country – including some who are buried at Arlington National Cemetary. Some even fought for this country when this country denied them the right to vote or even eat in a restaurant (my grandparents included; they did MULTIPLE tours of duty for this country before Black people were even allowed to vote).
      THAT is sacrifice.

      And we need to stop conflating patriotism and love of God. THAT is the problem. God is bigger than the USA. Nothing in scripture even tells us to love our country. (Again, problem with Christian nationalism twisting and adding to the Bible.) We are advised to love and serve people regardless of country/nationality; we are to see the ground is level at the foot of the cross (where “there is neither Jew nor Greek”), and understand that being of a certain nationality (American or not) does NOT make one superior or more entitled than another. This is where Christian nationalists miss the point.

  3. Per the article. Christian Nationalists play on people’s fears and create new ones in order to gain power. They need boogeymen in order to gain a following believing that if they are elected the boogeymen will go away.

    Trump knew this and used it to his advantage and even went so far as to claim that “Only he alone could fix it”

    Sadly too many Evangelicals believed him.

    1. Around 90 years ago, didn’t an Austrian cult leader with a funny little mustache make the same claim in the postwar meltdown of Weimar Germany?

      “Growing hate and anger,
      The Fuehrer’s orders were precise:
      Who was to be blamed and pay the price?”
      — Sabaton

      I present the three axioms of a Grievance Culture, i.e. a culture whose only reason for existence is Bloody Revenge on the Other:
      1) Once WE were Lords of All Creation! And everything was Perfect!
      2) Then THEY came and took it all away from Us!
      3) IT’S PAYBACK TIME! WITH INTEREST!

  4. I’m old enough to remember sermons from the 1970s on the subject of whether Henry Kissinger was the anti-Christ. (Spoiler alert: No.) But what I find amusing, if amusing is the right word, about our current times is that the arguments for Trump being the anti-Christ are far stronger than they were for Kissinger.

    I don’t believe Trump is the anti-Christ either, though if he makes too many more statements like “I was indicted for you” I may reconsider. But it’s strange that when someone who exhibits many characteristics and traits of the Beast comes along, 70% of evangelical Christians vote for him.

    1. “But it’s strange that when someone who exhibits many characteristics and traits of the Beast comes along, 70% of evangelical Christians vote for him.”

      Kathleen:

      Could you please explain this statement? The Beast will be loved by most and will trick many. Our former president is hated by many, don’t you think? He has an abrasive personality that many equate with the anti-Christ. Their failure to grasp that the anti-Christ will be incredibly attractive in both appearance and personality is interesting.

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