“Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.” – Proverbs 16:32
There has been a lot of focus on Christian Nationalism as of late, and rightly so (see last post).
Christian Nationalism is a deadly idolatry. It is the temptation to conflate political ideology with theology. It is the desire to see the United States as providentially blessed or “chosen” above all other nations of the world. It is to work toward maintaining a special Christian privilege, often through power, coercion, and sometimes even violence. And this idolatry was put on public display during last year’s attempted coup at the Capital building on January 6th in which prayer and declarations of Jesus’ lordship were mixed with weapons, zip ties, and a crudely created gallows.
And unfortunately, Christian Nationalism seems to have infected large swaths of the American church. Spend any time on social media, attend any school board meeting, or visit any church library and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. But Christian Nationalism isn’t without its opponents. There are many pastors, journalists, theologians, and TikTok influencers who have been rather vocal about its dangers.
Nevertheless, I have noticed that much of the content speaking out against Christian Nationalism is written or filmed in a hostile tone.
It aims to be helpful, but it also invites outrage and wrath. This idolatry is surely something to get angry about, but our anger needs to be directed towards the idol itself and not the people worshipping it. When sensational headlines are used on articles that contain little substance except a divisive click-bate title, fear mongering is promoted over healing. When not-so-flattering stories are swapped about a family’s “crazy right-wing Uncle,” enemy making is promoted over love. Christian nationalism should be fought but using the tools of the idol itself is counterproductive. Our weapons of war should be love, graciousness, patience, endurance, and a sound mind.
So, and towards that end, here is a short but practical list of things we might do to root this idolatry out without falling prey to the sin of wrathfulness.
1. Learn, read, and consider multiple perspectives on American history and our country’s religious founding.
History is complex. Historical events are rarely “black and white.” The past will always be stranger than we think. And it takes a lot of work to truly understand something that happened long ago. This is why simply answers like “yes, America was founded as a Christian nation” or “no, America was not founded as a Christian nation” aren’t always very helpful.
But there are several books out there that aim to tackle this complexity which are worth a read. For example, Mark David Hall’s ‘Did America Have a Christian Founding?’ takes a balanced look at the beliefs of the founding fathers by way of a very thorough consideration of primary sources. And Hall ultimately concludes that most of them believed that God exists and does intervene in the lives of humankind. John Fea does similar in ‘Was America Founded as A Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction’ but doesn’t reach the same conclusion as Hall. And Kevin Kruse’s ‘One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America’ is an excellent read for anyone seriously interested in understanding of the intersection of Christianity and our nation’s public life and policy. Kruse’s work is fair, balanced, and non-judgmental.
2. Fight the temptation of intellectual elitism.
Intellectual elitism is the notion that only certain individuals who know or believe the right things are beneficial to society-at-large; and consequently, they should be the only ones given the ability to influence others.
There is something to be said about expertise. We absolutely should make sure that we listen to the voices most qualified to help us. We shouldn’t shy away from those who might be labeled “elite” in their field of study. But when our right beliefs force us to begin to see others as the embodiment of wrongness, something isn’t right.
3. Pray for Christian Nationalists and commit to truly understanding their concerns.
Psychologist and professor Adam Grant, within a recent tweet, made an excellent point towards this end. He states: “It’s hard to keep an open mind if you don’t have an open heart. You don’t have to agree with what people think to learn from how they think. You don’t have to share their identity to be curious about what shaped it.”
Idolatry always comes from our best intentions. We don’t usually set out to disobey God for purely malicious reasons. No, it’s often the case that we fall prey to an idol because we want to help others, we feel like we’re lacking in some way, or because we are afraid.
As an example, someone who has bought into Christian Nationalism might have done so out of concern for their unsaved family members. And they might hope that an emphasis (even a forced one) on scripture and prayer in public schools might sway their kids and grandkids to show up to church more frequently. Or, someone who has been duped into thinking that Christians have a lot to lose in culture might be tempted to use polity (or violence) to fight a perceived enemy despite Jesus’ insistence on enemy love. These are real fears. And it would be best if we who are concerned with combating Christian Nationalism take these fears seriously by learning to healthily encourage those trapped within the idol’s lies.
4. Remember that we aren’t the ones who decide who is in or out.
We have not been granted the ability to decide who receives saving grace or not. Likewise, we have not been given the right to proclaim ultimate condemnation upon another either. Those are the duties of God alone. In a fight against such a serious idolatry as Christian Nationalism, it is easy to begin to resent those who refuse to consider the idol’s errors. But unchecked resentment over time results in a lack of empathy or love. And we might even be tempted to stop fellowship or label someone as “beyond saving.”
Beware of this. Resist it.
5. Do the hard work of exposing this idolatry inside your own heart, your own home, and in your own expectations.
Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1-6 should always be at the forefront of our minds whenever we attempt to point out the idolatry of another believer, but especially an idol as deeply engrained as Christian Nationalism. If you grew up in the Evangelical church as I have, you have been introduced to this idolatry from an early age (often in inadvertent, unintentional ways). It is not something that is so easily removed. So, before ever giving critique or advice to another, do the serious work of examining your own heart and habits. We need to be sure that there isn’t a plank in our own eye before we point out the splinter in someone else’s.
Think about the songs you sing. Consider how you decorate your house, or the iconography that moves you. Reflect on how you might offhandedly answer questions about religion in relation to America. Examine your gut reaction to the news of someone who practices a different winning an election for public office. And mull over your previous responses to catastrophe or shattered expectations. For example, were you shocked or surprised to see the attack on the Capital building last year? If so, why? Deep down, do you truly believe that American institutions are fallible?
As you consider all of that, here are three helpful and related books you might want to read:
- Lee Camp’s Scandalous Witness: A Little Political Manifesto for Christians
- Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw’s Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals
- Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry
6. Sit with the characters of the Bible that were infatuated with a nationalistic agenda. Observe their character arc. Teach their stories.
Nationalism isn’t new. There is a particular version of nationalism that has wormed its way into the American church, but a form of it can be seen within the pages of scripture itself. The New Testament labels those who fall prey to it as “zealots”, but the ideology is found even within those who wouldn’t self-describe with that first-century political label.
Why did the crowd want to force Jesus to become king in John 6:15? Why was Paul hunting down Christians before his conversion in Acts? Why were Peter’s words equated with Satan in Mark 8:27-33? Or in the Old Testament, why was the prophet Jonah so resistant to sharing God’s message with the Ninevites? Sit with these stories. Read and re-read them. Study them with friends, or within a small group. And if you are in a position to do so, teach from them and point out their connections to today’s nationalistic idolatry in a gracious and compassionate manner.
7. Recognize that it is not our ultimate responsibility to help fix the kingdom of the United States.
Those who buy into the lie of Christian Nationalism believe that the close relationship our country supposedly has with the God of the Bible must be protected at all costs. That is, a Christian Nationalist might explain that it is the responsibility of a Christian to make sure that the United States remains Christian; because, if it doesn’t, it’s special blessing will be removed and the country will collapse.
And, of course, there are several reasons why this isn’t a healthy way for believers to understand our, or our country’s, role in this world (see here and here). However, it is just as easy for someone fighting Christian Nationalism to get swept up into a similar temptation.
Why might we desire to see the idol of Christian Nationalism eradicated? Is it so that our country might be rid of something detrimental to our democracy? It is because we feel that Christian Nationalism is a plague upon society-at-large? Is our aim to fix the nation or to allow freedom to remain unhindered? Those are all noble goals, but none of them should be our primary motivation. They shouldn’t be our end-all-be-alls.
The church has not been tasked with making this world a better place. Instead, we have been called to become that better place ourselves so the world might be drawn into God’s coming kingdom. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work towards justice for our neighbors or remain unconcerned about the plight of the underprivileged and underrepresented. But it does mean that when we work towards justice and reconciliation, we don’t do so by demanding that others do the work on our behalf. God has granted us citizenship in His kingdom, but that doesn’t mean it is our job to force the kingdom (or moral principles derived from scripture) upon those who are rejecting it.
It would be absolutely wonderful if our efforts in combatting this idolatry helped heal the United States. But that should not be our central goal. Instead, Christians should be all about directing others to the One who might save us from the world and its ways so that those within the world might enjoy life in the one to come.
 Just for the record, I do agree with John Barlow, as well as the founding father and second President of the United States John Adams, who stated: “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion” within the Treaty of Tripoli in 1797. But just reading that quote alone isn’t enough to have a fair or balanced understanding of the religious underpinnings of our country’s founding.