Every day it is a new headline, but they all sound alike: “Christian Nationalism On the Rise.” “White Christian Nationalism ‘Is a Fundamental Threat to Democracy.’” “White Christian Nationalism Is at the Heart of ‘the Most Radical Fringe Groups.’”
I saw a headline yesterday that read something like, “Evangelicals Are Imperiling America’s Freedom.” As a Christian from an evangelical tradition, I want to object to being cast as the bad guy. But as an observer of the current political scene, I am not sure that I can.
Admittedly, the headlines are political hyperbole that expose an engrained distrust and misunderstanding of religious people. Further, such headlines reflect an editorial bias and serve a political agenda. Nevertheless, there is reason for concern, for there is an obvious link between American nationalism and evangelical Christianity.
To grasp what this is all about, it is necessary to understand the term “nationalism”. There is nothing necessarily religious about it. Nationalism has been around as long as nation-states have existed. It thrives in atheistic, irreligious societies as well as in religious ones.
Briefly defined, nationalism is an attitude that gives priority of place and standing to the nation. Nationalists subordinate other commitments to that of supporting the nation and seeking its wellbeing. This differs from patriotism, for a patriot can honor and sacrifice for their country without elevating its importance above other primary commitments.
It is all about what Augustine referred to as the “order of loves.” Nationalists elevate the nation within that order in a way that sets it at odds with Christian faith. When the nation assumes a place that belongs to God alone, when government crowds out the church in a believer’s thoughts, and when religion is used as a tool in the service of politics, then nationalism has become Christianity’s adversary.
Secularists denounce “Christian Nationalism” because they see it as a threat to democracy, or at least to their version of democracy. Committed Christians also denounce it, but for a different reason. They see it as a threat to the integrity of the faith.
A growing number of Christian leaders warn that nationalism distorts the gospel. This is true, but it could also be said that a diminished gospel causes, or at least leaves people susceptible to, an idolatrous nationalism. Both Christianity and nationalism have a gospel – a message of good news – but they are not the same gospel.
Nationalism, depending on which nationalist “denomination” one belongs to, proclaims the good news that the nation can bring justice, end poverty, rescue the oppressed (fetuses or LGBTQ folk, depending on one’s brand of nationalism), stop crime, protect our borders, punish the wicked (variously defined), bring prosperity, and defend democracy around the world.
The Christian Gospel, on the other hand, proclaims the good news that God has already acted through Christ to forgive our sins (some of which are listed above), to install his king, and to bring his kingdom which alone is peaceable, just, and secure. It is this kingdom that Christians are to “seek first.”
The nationalist longs for power over others. The Christian seeks submission under God. The nationalist serves as judge of the wicked (again, variously defined). The Christian leaves all judgment to God. Nationalists try to crush their enemies. Christians try to love theirs.
The willingness, even eagerness, of some evangelicals to embrace nationalism betrays a lack of confidence in, and even knowledge of, the gospel of Christ. They have relegated it to the religious sphere and to Sunday mornings. The rest of life belongs to the secular world, which is where they suppose the real power lies.
When the church proclaims a diminished gospel – one that is just about getting into heaven when you die – even Christians are drawn away to the gospel of nationalism, which promises to get things done in the here and now. Dressed up in religious attire, nationalism has been attracting liberal Christians for at least a century, and conservative ones since the 1980s.
The trend will continue in the absence of the proclamation of the authentic gospel of Christ, which is world-changing and life-transforming. Such a proclamation is our pressing need.