Thursday, January 6, 2022
As we observe the 1-year anniversary of the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol, I encourage American Christians to remember that pushing back against Christian nationalism does not require a retreat to some sort of imagined secular space — the resources for resistance are available within Christianity itself.
But first we have to be clear that Christian nationalism is a perversion of our faith and a threat to the rule of law. Among the heartbreaking images that linger from Jan. 6, 2021: the "Jesus Saves" banners being held by rioters entering the Capitol, right alongside the Confederate flags, nooses and Holocaust sweatshirts. The attack followed weeks of "Jericho marches," prayer meetings and rallies premised on the idea that God ordained Donald Trump to serve eight years as president, and that those who stood in the way were attempting to thwart God's will for America.
If we don't want the lessons from that day to be obscured by partisan talking points, we need to be clear about why Christian nationalism is dangerous and what healthy Christian political engagement looks like.
Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry provide the most comprehensive account of Christian nationalism, which they describe in Taking America Back for God as "a cultural framework that blurs distinctions between Christian identity and American identity, viewing the two as closely related and seeking to enhance and preserve their union." When we merge our identity as Christians with our identity as Americans, we invest political positions with a level of certainty and fervor traditionally reserved for matters of religious faith. Christian nationalists are no longer debating ideas about which reasonable people can disagree; they are defending Christianity against its enemies. That's a dangerous place for a democracy to be.
If American Christians are not happy with the voices that loudly proclaim direct knowledge of God's will for American politics (often arising on the right), and we're not ready to agree with the voices that insist faith has only a marginal role to play in our political discourse (often arising on the left), what's the path forward?
Christian nationalism has exemplified three characteristics that healthy Christian political engagement must avoid.
First, Christian faith should not be a conversation-stopper. Christians have long used religious language to advocate for particular policies, and there is nothing wrong with doing so, provided the religious language is an entry point, not the entirety of the argument. "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it," may be a pithy and popular bumper sticker, but it's not fertile ground for the dialogues on which our democracy depends. The rule of law requires that the lawgiver offer reasons that are rationally accessible, even if not agreeable, to all. On both sides of the political spectrum, the most effective advocates convey the public relevance of Christian values in terms that are wide open to disagreement.
Second, Christian faith should not be a rationale for self-righteousness. When Christians refuse to recognize the possibility that our political tribe is capable of evil, we are denying the reality of sin. The Christian nationalist narrative does not portray political opponents as fellow citizens with different ideological commitments; rather, they are enemies engaged in spiritual warfare. When outraged Christian nationalists attacked the Capitol, they may not have seriously considered the possibility that then-President Trump and his media champions were exaggerating and fabricating reasons to doubt the election's outcome. Their example is a cautionary lesson for citizens across the political spectrum. Self-righteousness distorts our perception of reality and precludes the mutual recognition of fallibility on which the give-and-take of democracy depend.
Third, Christian faith should not stoke fear of "the other." In contrast to the radical "love thy neighbor" teachings of Jesus, the rhetoric of Christian nationalism engenders loyalty by stoking fear. Christian nationalism is about power — to be won and wielded against external threats. Relying on fear and finger-pointing as a political weapon creates an us-vs.-them mindset. This threatens the rule of law, which aims to guarantee that all are treated fairly, that laws operate prospectively as guides to conduct, and that the application of laws does not depend on a group's popularity. By building a political movement on the scapegoating of particular groups, Christian nationalists' rhetoric creates tension with these guarantees.
Christian nationalists are espousing a version of the faith that has profound and dangerous consequences for the rule of law. We cannot defend the rule of law by relying solely on arguments that fail to address the foundational claims from which threats emerge. Christian nationalism is one such threat, and we need to respond — as Americans and, perhaps more importantly, as Christians.