It is probably long past time that I addressed this topic in these posts. Multiple recent references to the growing appeal of this ideology make the topic particularly urgent, especially as we approach the mid-term elections.
It is important to describe what Christian Nationalism is, how it is differentiated from Christian activism and address what this means for Americans—Christian and non-Christian alike. But what is Christian Nationalism and why is it a danger to the pluralistic society that has historically been a strength in the fabric of the United States?
A comprehensive answer to this question can be found in Christianity Today, a publication hardly known for its radical theological positions. Georgetown’s Paul D. Miller writes, “Christian nationalists do not reject the First Amendment and do not advocate for theocracy, but they do believe that Christianity should enjoy a privileged position in the public square…Christian nationalists want to define America as a Christian nation and they want the government to promote a specific cultural template as the official culture of the country…Christian nationalism tends to treat other Americans as second-class citizens. If it were fully implemented, it would not respect the full religious liberty of all Americans.
“Christian nationalism takes the name of Christ for a worldly political agenda, proclaiming that its program is the political program for every true believer. That is wrong in principle, no matter what the agenda is, because only the church is authorized to proclaim the name of Jesus and carry his standard into the world…It is taking the name of Christ as a fig leaf to cover its political program, treating the message of Jesus as a tool of political propaganda and the church as the handmaiden and cheerleader of the state.”
The Rev. Nathan Empsall, Episcopal priest and executive director of Faithful America, writes this for NBC News: “This is all part of what scholars mean by the term ‘Christian nationalism’: The Republican Party’s merging of American and evangelical Christian identities to proclaim that only conservative Christians count as ‘true Americans,’ and that only right-wing Republicans can be considered true Christians.
“Of course, not only is none of this rooted in Scripture; it is, in fact, antithetical to Christian values. Right-wing authoritarianism has hijacked vast swaths of the church in order to masquerade as religion, and it falls to faithful churches and people of faith to reclaim and heal what has been seized.”
The idea of the US proclaiming itself “a Christian nation,” once anathema to how we imagined our country, has been gaining acceptance on the political right. Stella Rouse and Shirley Telhami write in Politico that a new University of Maryland poll shows how this view is gaining traction. “We started by asking participants if they believed the Constitution would even allow the United States government to declare the U.S. a ‘Christian Nation.’ We found that 70 percent of Americans — including 57 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of Democrats — said that the Constitution would not allow such a declaration. (Indeed, the First Amendment says Congress can neither establish nor prohibit the practice of a religion.).
“We followed up by asking: ‘Would you favor or oppose the United States officially declaring the United States to be a Christian nation?’…Fully 61 percent of Republicans supported declaring the United States a Christian nation. In other words, even though over half of Republicans previously said such a move would be unconstitutional, a majority of GOP voters would still support this declaration.”
As a person of faith rooted in the Christian tradition, I am a strong advocate for Christian activism—work for social justice devoid of sectarian barriers or constraints. But such a perspective is a universe away from a theology that binds itself to racism, nativism, misogyny and exceptionalism and that does not bind us together or heal our divisions, but rather deepens the divides among us.
In my impatience and frustration, I align with columnist Ed Kilgore who writes in New York magazine, “It’s probably about time to conclude once and for all that Christianity and nationalism are essentially incompatible because the latter always swallows the former.
“Today’s Christian Nationalists need to choose, just as German Christians were called to choose in the Barman Declaration that rejected the Nazi appropriation of Christianity by denouncing worship of party, nation, or Volk as idolatrous. You can choose to follow your culture wars into partisan politics or even authoritarianism and insurrectionary violence, like the not-so-spiritual warriors of January 6. But please, please, be honest about your motives and leave your savior and mine out of it.”