Christian Nationalism is a form of theological syncretism, a blending of religion & politics. It hijacks Christian Scripture, symbolism, and imagery to promote American glory & good as ultimate. In contrast, the Christian gospel of Jesus’ kingdom announces grace for all mankind. In Christian nationalism, the nation of America becomes essential to God’s plan to bless mankind. (This will be the longest article to date, feel free to bookmark & return)
Why This Matters
Studies show most American Christians have been discipled into a form of Christian Nationalism. I believe this discipleship has occurred at the intersection of cultural norms, media consumption, and political idolatry within the American Church ~70% of white Protestants believe America’s founding documents were divinely inspired. Source This is fundamentally at odds with Christian orthodoxy which holds the Scriptures alone are inspired.
In the aftermath of President Trump’s electoral loss, I believe American Christians who hold beliefs like “God has a special relationship with America” (one element of Christian nationalism) will work to reframe this perceived loss of “necessary” power & influence. This will mirror how Christians in the American South reframed the Civil War as a righteous struggle through the Lost Cause narrative.
Today’s reframing will borrow from patriotic sentiment mingled with theological conviction, from political intrigue and concerns for “truth”. All along along lines acceptable to the Christian nationalism framework that conflates American empire with Jesus’ kingdom. In White evangelical circles post-Trump, the goal will once again become how to take back America, not how to reveal the kingdom of Jesus through gospel proclamation and participation in America. Kingdom citizens elevate faithfulness to the gospel, Christian nationalists fight a culture war.
I believe the danger of Christian nationalism in a post-Trump America is the creation of ideological ghettos which may serve to strengthen the captivity of many American Christians towards the goal of “taking back America” at any cost. This will only further polarize the world to whom we are debtors with the good news of Jesus.
In this article, my aim is to refute Christian Nationalism by dealing with a particular cultural moment, not a comprehsive assessment. What does Christian nationalism look like wholesale? Sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry provide a comprehnsive treatment of that question here. For our purposes, I’d like to treat this excerpt taken from the end of Vice President Pence’s speech at the 2020 Republican National Convention. This is how Christian Nationalism framed the stakes for the 2020 election:
“So let’s run the race marked out for us. Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents. Let’s fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire. And let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith and our freedom and never forget that where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. That means freedom always wins.” – Vice President Mike Pence
This statement contains 5 allusions or direct quotes from the Christian Scriptures. Below, I break down each of these with theological commentary. My main goal in this undertaking is to reveal how the Scriptures in their original context cannot accommodate what Pence’s contemporary comments are trying to communicate. In other words, quoting the Bible does not mean you’re saying what the Bible aims to say.
Christian Nationalism is not the only threat to Christian witness in America, but it’s prominance inside many evangelical circles demands a clear repudation. I celebrate Christianity as public truth, and therefore relevant to public life, and fully acknowledge that other faiths make the same claim. All cannot be true. This is beyond the scope of our task here. I am inviting American Christians to recognize when religious language is being spoken from a political foundation. We must reject any attempt to leverage religion as a lever for political power.
“Let us run the race marked out for us”
The book of Hebrews defends the supremacy of Jesus. There is an undeniable irony as lines from Hebrews are used to explicitly promote the supremacy of an American political party. Because Trump’s campaign so explicitly aligned their cause with the cause of God, a loss at the ballot box in this framework leads one to ask, “Did God lose?” This is no different from the pagan Ancient Near Eastern deities, who were perceived to have strength only within their borders, unless of course military conquest enlarged their power. See Elijah’s conflict with the prophets of Baal for more on this dynamic.
Contrary to these contemporary words, the original author of Hebrews wrote to discouraged Jewish Christians on the verge of returning to Judaism in the first century. They wanted to give up the distinct call of Jesus for traditional Jewish practices. The “us” was not American citizens, but Christians. The “race” to be run was enduring with Jesus, not a political contest, as Pence’s comments suggest.
So in context, the “race” of Hebrews 12:1 cannot be the hard fight to carry the American experiment forward by electing a particular candidate. Scripture cannot mean today what it never meant then. The contemporary context attaches a meaning to this Scripture (namely the political process or the progress of America) that simply is not found in the original Hebrews 12.
“Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents. Let’s fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire. And let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith and our freedom“
These comments suggest an idolatrous relationship between Jesus and America that is not in step with the way of Jesus. The original author invites listeners to consider “a stadium of witnesses”. This is a call back to Hebrews 11, which lists out dozens of names in the Biblical story who were faithful to obey God. These are saints and witnesses to God’s faithful word on the race of faith. The author commands listeners to “fix their eyes on Jesus” as the one and true example of the enduring faith that marks the Christian life.
The faith that Jesus pioneered and finished led him to endure the cross for mankind’s sin and to ascend to the throne to offer forgiveness & establish righteousness in and for humanity. Faithful and forgiven Christians now fix our eyes on Jesus in a way that empowers a life like his; one of sacrifice, hardship, and endurance brought on by devotion to God alone. This is the full context of verses 1-2.
Given the context of Hebrews 12, it should be clear that these contemporary comments create a false equivalence between the American flag, American heroes, and Jesus. This is idolatry. By invoking “land of heroes”, these comments equate various figures of American history with the Hebrew 11-12 “great stadium of witnesses”. American saints with Biblical saints. In mentioning “old glory”, these comments elevate the American flag to a quasi-religious symbol of devotion and adoration. American worship with Christian worship. Inviting Americans to “fix our eyes on old glory” and “on the author and perfecter of our faith…” drapes the throne of Jesus with the American flag. Consider how this language might sound to a follower of Jesus in Paraguay or China. Would it not lead them to question who our god really is?
“Never forget that ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom’ That means freedom always wins.”
Moving out of Hebrews, this final quote is drawn from Paul’s letter in 2 Corinthians 3:17. Political victory was not Paul’s point. The freedom Jesus brings runs deeper than political victory, which these comments imply is ultimate. Instead, Paul was writing to defend his ministry from charges of illegitimacy. Why? Because he suffered too much for some early Christians to believe he was truly legitimate. (2 Corinthians 1:3) Paul was insisting that the Corinthians themselves, by virtue of his ministry & their lifestyle, are his living letter of recommendation (3:2). Paul goes on to say that Jesus’ work at the cross & empty tomb (the “gospel” or “good news”) has fulfilled and thus outpaced the old Jewish written law, even though some remain blind to this new work. (3:4-15). Paul’s point is now God’s Spirit makes it possible for men and women to see Jesus rightly, thus stepping into the forgiving and freeing work of Jesus. As it relates to his own ministry, Paul reminds them that stepping into the life of Christ involves sharing in his sufferings. (2 Cor. 4.8)
The freedom of the Spirit of the Lord at work places Christians in new family centered on and transformed by Jesus, who is revealed through our hardship to the world. None of this context involves freedom attached to the victory of a political party. In fact, Paul is emphasizing freedom in suffering. Transcendent hope, not political victory.
Pence’s insistence that freedom always wins is now suspect since, in his estimation, “winning” meant a second term for President Trump. As AND campaign founder Justin Gibboney states, “Faith must win out over partisanship.” Christians set free by the Spirit of Jesus centered around devotion to Jesus alone, are transformed to live as His body, his hands and feet on the earth, regardless of the political power afforded them. (2 Corinthians 3:18)
Where Christian Nationalism Fails…
Christian Nationalism puts a stumbling block before those who seek Jesus.
Ray Ortlund says it well, “a god who has to fight for power every four years isn’t much of a god.” Christian Nationalism issues a political litmus test to prove one’s faith in Christ. God does not side with Republican, Democrat or other. But in many evangelical circles, the deep assumption of Christian nationalism remains: God votes red. What’s more, CN binds God to political outcomes in the eyes of the unbelieving world. This is a major stumbling block to the witness of the Church, who witnesses not to the power of political office, but rather is the community of witness through the ages to the resurrection of Christ. The witness of the Church is affected by its relationship to Christian Nationalism.
Christian Nationalism rejects truth.
Christian Nationalism is heresy. By subordinating the claims of Christ into a singularity of American ends, Christian Nationalism puts limits on the Kingdom of Jesus. As Christianity is public truth for all humanity, any theological system that narrows the truth of the Christian gospel to a particular political expression is stunted and blind. Truth for the world cannot be limited to the American experiment.
Christian Nationalism forms a community other than the Church.
Political tribalism stops at the Lord’s table. Paul locates God’s power not in the halls of government but in the community of those who confess Jesus as Lord by the Spirit of Jesus. He writes “we all (plural) with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (v18) Contrary to Vice President Pence’s claims, The Church, not America, is where freedom wins. In the Church is where the rule of Jesus breaks out to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God as the prophet Micah says.
While there will always be a plurality of threats to Christian witness, the house sin of Christian Nationalism must be rejected, wholesale. This will inevitably mean the perceived loss of influence, power, security, and comfort. What the church gains in repentance is far more than we lose. “Better is a little with righteousness than great gain by injustice”, Proverbs 16.8.