What’s Wrong With Christian Nationalism?
What’s wrong with Christian Nationalism, bottom line, is that we Americans do not live a country, or nation, with a religious or religion-based government. We live in a pluralistic democracy. This means that we aren’t all the same and don’t all agree, whether religiously or politically, philosophically or morally. This is a good. not a bad, thing. Nations where everyone is compelled to think or believe the same, or pretend that they are do, are called “tyrannies.”
Some of you may have seen the NYT columnist, Tish Harrison Warren’s, interview with Russell Moore. Moore is an evangelical Christian who early on (2015) concluded that Donald Trump was unfit for the Presidency and not someone who could, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as leading a “Christian way of life.” For this, Moore was relentlessly attacked, not only by Trump’s loyalists, but even by Trump himself. Having lost his job with the Southern Baptist Convention, Moore is now the editor of the magazine, “Christianity Today,” arguably the single most influential publication for the world of evangelicalism in the U.S.
While Warren’s interview with Moore covers a variety of topics related to his new book, Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America, I thought their exchange about “Christian Nationalism” was particularly on target. Here it is, first Warren’s question, then Moore’s response.
Your book delves into Christian nationalism as a component of the evangelical movement. How would you define Christian nationalism? And how has it affected evangelicalism in the United States?
Christian nationalism is the use of Christian symbols or teachings in order to prop up a nation-state or an ethnic identity. It’s dangerous for the nation because it’s fundamentally anti-democratic. Christian nationalism takes a political claim and seeks to make it ultimate. It says: If a person disagrees with me, that person is disagreeing with God. No democratic nation can survive that, which is why the founders of this country built in all kinds of protections from it.
Christian nationalism is also dangerous for the witness of the church, because Christian nationalism is fundamentally, at its core, anti-evangelical. If what the Gospel means is for people to come before God, person by person, not nation by nation or village by village or tribe by tribe, then Christian nationalism is heretical.
Christian nationalism assumes outward conformity enforced by social or political power. It transforms the way that we see reality with the assumption that the really important things are political and cultural, as opposed to personal and spiritual and theological.
Let’s dwell on the two thoughts in that last paragraph. “Christian nationalism assumes outward conformity enforced by social or political power.” People are made to conform to a particular religion or belief system by legal and/or social coercion. That is not only a violation of the U.S. Constitution, it is antithetical to the life and teaching of Jesus. Remember that it was the allied power of religion and politics that crucified Jesus. He was an opponent, and victim, of a coercive religion.
Moore’s second sentence is equally important. “It (Christian nationalism) transforms the way we see reality with the assumption that the really important things are political and cultural, as opposed to personal and spiritual and theological.”
This is the heart of Moore’s critique of American Evangelicalism. It has become all about politics and political power. Gaining, holding, using political power to enforce a particular version of the true and the good, has eclipsed personal faith and transformation.
In making this move Evangelicals have parted company with the most influential evangelical of them all, Billy Graham. Graham put his priority on individuals and their change of heart, not on gaining or wielding political power. But today, politics has — Moore argues — become more important to American Evangelicals than changing people’s hearts and minds.
That said, both the left and the right are implicated in this critique of making the political power the be all and end all. Both make politics the arena of ultimate truth and meaning, often seeking some kind of ultimate or final victory over their opponents. People on the right are willing to ignore Trump’s amorality to get control of the Supreme Court. People on the left are willing to undermine academic freedom and journalistic integrity in service to their cause. Pluralism means finding a way to live peaceably with people with whom we disagree, seeking proximate solutions by voting not killing.
While any religion worth its salt has implications for our common life, and is in that small “p” sense “political,” making religion an instrument of partisan politics — which is precisely what many Evangelicals have done — is, argues Moore, a fatal error.
I would add a further thought. To say that a pluralistic democracy means that people have a right to different views, values and opinions is not to say enough. With that freedom comes responsibility: to engage in honest, constructive exchanges about matters that matter. On this score, we aren’t doing so well. Often we dismiss those with whom we disagree as idiots, fools, un-American or fascists.
The great Catholic theologian of the last generation, John Courtney Murray famously said, “A good argument is a great achievement.” Heard any “good arguments” lately? Lots of name calling and fear-mongering, but good arguments?
Pluralistic democracy not only means having differences, but having the courage and capacity to talk about those differences in the quest for wisdom and truth, and to do so without killing or demonizing those with whom we disagree. Having what Murray called “good arguments” takes effort, attention, intelligence and a capacity to entertain the notion that “I may be wrong.” No one ever said this was easy, but it is the hard, good, work of free people in a democratic society.