I know all the words to the Air Force song, the Marine’s Hymn, the official Army song, and other military hymns and songs and have since my youth. I am not from a military family. Nobody in my family was in the armed forces except my grandfather, who served for a short time in WWII. But I know all the songs. The reason I know these things is because the church I went to when I was in junior high and high school went freaking nuts on July the 4th. They spent almost as much time and energy getting ready for their July 4th celebration as they did for their Easter celebration, it seemed. It was an extravaganza of patriotic songs, adulation of the military, lauding our veterans, and drenching the church in flags in red-white-and-blue. And every year the men in our church sang a medley of the official songs of the various branches of the armed forces and asked that if you served you would stand up when your song was sung, and everyone would clap for you. And so I quickly learned the words to all of the military songs in church. Because that’s what you did in church. You celebrated country, military, and patriotism.
None of this struck me as weird until I was older and going to different churches that didn’t treat July the 4th as a holy day. They didn’t disavow it, but they didn’t go out of their way to celebrate the mechanisms of war in church. And I was struck with the profundity of the choices both the church of my youth and the churches of my young adulthood made. Where was the celebration of war? Where were the ties to state? And the further and further I moved away from the church of my youth I realized that those ties and celebrations were perhaps not as celebratory as I once had thought, but perhaps a bit nefarious. When I stopped to think about Christ’s relationship with the state vs. the Church in America’s relationship with the state my childhood looked a bit less rosy.
Today we’re going to talk about Christian Nationalism, a topic that has become pretty important in Trump’s America. Do we (those of us that worship) worship God or country? And when we say country who or what do we mean? How do you separate America from Christianity? These are dangerous questions because if we are honest, these are the kinds of questions that lead us to talk about terrorism in other regions and other religions of the world.
Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel Perry, the authors of Taking America Back for God, define Christian nationalism as “‘an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture'”. Whitehead and Perry assert that “Christian nationalists believe that the U.S. was founded as an explicitly Christian nation; that the country’s success is in part a reflection of God’s ultimate plan for the world; that prayer should be allowed in public schools; and that the federal government should declare the U.S. a Christian nation, advocate Christian values, and support religious displays in public places.” Furthermore, the two authors aver that the “‘Christianity’ of Christian nationalism ‘includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism. It is as ethnic and political as it is religious'”; they add that Christian nationalist rhetoric “‘finds its roots in the desire to create boundaries of group membership around race and the right of white Americans to segregate themselves from minorities'”. Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian. It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation. According to Paul D. Miller, “: It’s easiest to define Christian nationalism by contrasting it with Christianity. Christianity is a religion. It’s a set of beliefs about ultimate things: most importantly, about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s drawn from the Bible, from the Nicene Creed, and the Apostles’ Creed. Christian nationalism is a political ideology about American identity. It is a set of policy prescriptions for what the nationalists believe the American government should do. It’s not drawn from the Bible. It draws political theory from secular philosophy and their own version of history as well….It idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life.”
I don’t know that I would say I grew up a Christian Nationalist. But I could be just wishing I hadn’t. I don’t know that I ever cognizantly thought of America as God’s chosen nation, but it was certainly part of the philosophy I grew up with. How could it be avoided? I mean, I knew all the words to all the verses of Battle Hymn of the Republic by the time I was in sixth grade. Is that normal? Probably not.
“Christian nationalism identifies the nation with God’s will and action in the world; conflates national and Christian identity; and identifies service of the nation with service of God,” writes Dr. David W. Scott, who is a Methodist historical researcher and the Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church. “Christian nationalism gives moral cover for actions, even unseemly ones, taken in pursuit of national or political goals.”
Dr. Kristin Kobes Du Mez, author of Jesus and John Wayne, takes the idea that Christian nationalism provides moral cover a step further, noting that Christian nationalism adheres to “the belief that America is God’s chosen nation and must be defended as such.”
According to Rev. Ryan Dunn, those who hold to a Christian nationalist view assume a religious duty in defending their beliefs in regards to the nation. So many of those who stormed the U.S. Capitol felt quite natural in holding up “Jesus 2020” and “Jesus Saves!” banners. They believed their actions were a defense of the nation and therefore sanctioned by God.
There has been a lot of talk about Christian Nationalism in the last few years because of the connection between Trumpism and Christian Nationalism. But Christian nationalism is by no means new. For example, Manifest Destiny has its roots in Christian Nationalism.
Manifest Destiny was a 19th-century doctrine that American settlers were destined to expand across North America. There are three basic themes to manifest destiny: a) Americans and their institutions were imbued with special virtues; b) Americans had a mission to redeem and remake the west in the image of the agrarian East; c) Americans had a destiny to accomplish this essential duty.
According to Donald M. Scott, ““Manifest Destiny” was also clearly a racial doctrine of white supremacy that granted no native American or nonwhite claims to any permanent possession of the lands on the North American continent and justified white American expropriation of Indian lands.” Scott also explains that Christianity, specifically American Christianity was a driving force behind westward expansion. Since the time of John Winthrop American preachers had been telling Americans that their country was chosen and favored by God. Early settlers believed that had an “errand into the wilderness” and were destined to free this promised land from the hands of “savages.” These ideas would be revived in the First and Second Great Awakenings, running through American culture and thinking throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
As Scott explains,
As is well known, not only was the United States remarkably diverse religiously, its new Constitution, with the first amendment of the Bill of Rights, also established a clear separation of church and state, expressly forbidding the institution of an established Church. It was formally a secular nation—though at the same time a deeply religious society—sustained by Divine will, whose citizens were expected to subscribe to its founding principles with religious like devotion. In effect, what emerged was a sacralized notion of the new nation and the development of what various scholars have termed a powerful “Civil Religion,” a particular form of cultural nationalism to which all ‘true’ Americans, whether native or immigrant born and whatever their personal religious beliefs and affiliations, were expected to adhere. In this sense the United States can be considered a “creedal” society, unified less by geographical boundaries which continually shifted, and more by a set of specified doctrines inscribed in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, to which all citizens of the nation gave their allegiance. The new democratic republic, proclaimed as unique, had been ordained by God and endowed with a special mission to be the new “city upon a hill” to shine the beacon of liberty upon the world—and, at times if deemed necessary, to spread its form of democracy by force of arms to other parts of the world. Quickly were the revolutionary leaders, especially George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, elevated into Founding Fathers, and the Declaration and Constitution turned into almost sacred relics. Essential to the story, of course, was the apotheosis of “the god-like” Washington into an American Moses who led his people out of bondage into a land of liberty. Thus was the new nation and, to some extent, its people, “chosen.” “While such familiar language as ‘promised land’ and ‘city upon a hill’ are only biblical allusions,” as religious historian John Wilson has put it, “the master image or figure which frames and sets their true content, is the type of Israel as God’s chosen people. Thus the apparently secularized expressions [of these phrases] have a deeper resonance which locates the origins of the American mission very precisely even when they are not explicitly elaborated.” Such are the basic outlines of the idea of America’s “chosenness” and providential destiny and mission that not only underlay the invocation of the nation’s “Manifest Destiny” as the rationale for the United States to extend its boundaries to the Pacific Ocean. It is also the constellation of ideas that has informed American nationalism and its actions at home and abroad to this day.
As this example of Manifest Destiny makes clear, Christian Nationalism in America isn’t just Christian Nationalism, it is White Christian Nationalism. This nexus of Christian Nationalism and White Nationalism is a dangerous elixir that has shaped the Evangelical church for years.
As Philip Gorski explains,
White Christian Nationalism (WCN) is, first of all, a story about America. In this story, America was ‘founded as a Christian nation.’ It was founded by and for (white) Christians; and its laws and institutions are based on “Biblical” — which is to say, Protestant — Christianity; or perhaps even breathed into the Founders’ ears by God, himself. This much is certain, though: America is divinely favoured. Whence its enormous wealth and power. Divine blessings lead to national obligations. America has been entrusted with a sacred mission: to spread religion, freedom, and civilization — by force, if necessary. Today, that mission is endangered by the growing influence, and even the mere presence, of non-Christians (also: non-whites) in America. White Christians must therefore “take back the culture” and “the country” — which are, after all, their rightful possessions. What White Christian Nationalists hear when Trump promises to “Make America Great Again” is to “Make America Christian Again” (and, sotto voce, make it “White Again”, too.) WCN is not just a story. It is also a political vision, manifested in a set of “policy preferences.” Violence and retribution are central to that vision. As Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead have shown, White Christian Nationalists tend to favour a strong military and capital punishment; they also strongly oppose gun control. Racial purity is also central to the vision. WCN is thus strongly correlated with opposition to interracial marriage, non-white immigration, and affirmative action.
The American narrative of chosen-ness is an Old Testament one, as we have discussed in this podcast before. Early American settlers saw themselves as a sort of re-telling of the story of the children of Israel. They fled religious persecution, wandered around for a while, then came to a land of abundant resources that they felt was designated for them but had to fight the “heathens” who were already there. They conflated their story with the Old Testament.
But as Gorski explains, that is not all there is to the story of Whiteness in American Christian Nationalism.
…we need to shift our focus to the South, to that other seedbed of American culture: the Colony of Virginia. There, and elsewhere, the most common justification for the enslavement of kidnapped Indians and Africans was that they were “heathens.” But this argument broke down in the late-seventeenth century as some enslaved persons converted to Christianity and some white Christians sought to evangelise them. The problem was initially resolved by shifting the legal basis of slavery from religion to colour: “blacks” could be slaves; “whites” could not. It was then more fully resolved by creating a new theological basis for slavery. Perhaps the most influential was the “Curse of Ham.” Blacks were the descendants of Noah’s son, Ham, the argument went, and their colour and enslavement were a result of the curse that Noah had called down on head. It would be another century before WCN became American. Until the American Revolution, most colonists still considered themselves English. It was only after the Revolution, that they began to think of themselves as “American.” Until that time, the term “Americans” was more often used to refer to the native peoples. So, one way that (white) Americans set themselves apart from their British “cousins” was by claiming to resemble (native) Americans. The American (man) was a little more savage, a little more violent, than his English forebears. He was, in a sense, the true heir of the Indian who was (supposedly) disappearing, and the true inhabitant of the “frontier.”
Trumpism is the latest manifestation of White Christian Nationalism, and offers an explanation as to why Trump was so popular with Evangelicals even though Trump himself was exactly the opposite of what the church stands for. Trump, like Christian nationalists of the past, was looking to “take back” the country from outsiders – in his case non-whites or non-Christians. Trump was the natural result of Manifest Destiny. We have expanded into all corners of the country, now we have to maintain our hold on it – and that means our white and Christian domination.
America has a separation of church and state, but the Protestant, specifically the Evangelical church, has invited the state into the halls of the church in many ways. Some of this is a marriage of power. As we have discussed in a previous podcast the alliance of the church and the state is not just convenient or coincidental. But the development of that relationship has taken a turn in the last few years. The church embraces patriotism and statism, if not the institutions of the government. The church’s love of White Christian Nationalism has led to a drive toward authoritarianism and white supremacy, which are inherently anti-democratic. As a result the church has begun to reject the actual institutions of government and democracy. The church is eschewing democracy in favor of fascism and white nationalism.
And because these philosophies are anti-democratic and largely rejected by mainstream America, the church sees itself as persecuted in America. Lauren Kerby reports that Christian Nationalists believe that they will be persecuted throughout their lives for being Christian in a pagan country because there are no “real Christians” in government and that secularism is taking over the nation.
As Lauren R. Kerby explains, “For white Christian nationalists, taking back the country is about more than just political power. They see themselves as faithful patriots fulfilling the American Founders’ covenant with God to maintain a righteous Christian nation. Their success means the nation will be rewarded with economic prosperity and military might, while failure will lead to divine wrath and, eventually, the demise of the nation itself. The stakes of the battle could not be higher. Washington is where this great battle must take place, whether in the streets or on the Senate floor.”
Connected to White Christian Nationalism is the theology of dominionism. Dominion theology (also known as dominionism) is a group of Christian political ideologies that seek to institute a nation governed by Christians based on their understandings of biblical law. Extents of rule and ways of achieving governing authority are varied. For example, dominion theology can include theonomy, but does not necessarily involve advocating Mosaic law as the basis of government. The label is applied primarily toward groups of Christians in the United States.
Some prominent politicians that have been associated with dominionism are Michelle Bachman, Rick Perry, and Ted Cruz. A lot of conservative politicians see the label of dominionist as liberal fearmongering, but the theology is well documented.
The conclusion to all of this is that the separation of church and state is in danger on a number of fronts. Usually we think of the problem as being a matter of the government adopting a state religion, but the reverse can be true – the church can adopt the state.
I didn’t think it was weird to have a military extravaganza in my church when I was young because it didn’t occur to me to question the connection between the military and the church. So now you know something about my upbringing.
And now we know something about the church in America. It’s got more than Jesus on its mind.
White Christian Nationalism and dominionism are potent forces in American culture and politics today, and they will continue after Trump is gone. Trump was not the source of White Christian Nationalism; he was the beneficiary of it.
If this were a small off shoot of Christianity it would not be a big deal. But this mode of thinking is taking hold of the Republican party, and the Republican party is doing everything it can to manipulate elections, from re-districting to voter suppression. White Christian Nationalism is not just a Fourth of July phenomenon. It’s a force to be reckoned with at a national level with real political consequences. And the Christian church, governmental institutions, and the voting public are all going to have to do their part to combat it.