by Pastor Doug Kings

In recent months, a number of people have asked me questions or sent articles about Christian nationalism. What is Christian nationalism? Here is the explanation of Texas ELCA bishop Michael Rinehart.

Christian nationalism is a dangerous political ideology and cultural framework that distorts both church and state by attempting to merge American and Christian identities. It suggests that America is a divinely appointed nation instituted by God. Deifying the American state, it suggests that true Americans are Christians. If you are not Christian, you are not a true American. Seeking to create an Ethno-national identity, Christian nationalism does not point to Christ who transcends national boundaries and ideologies, but to a messianic political figure and ideology.

Obviously, Bishop Rinehart has strong opinions about this. Christian nationalism is popular among some (but not all) evangelicals. It is strongly advocated by some evangelical Republican politicians and cautiously advocated by others. There is relatively little support for it among mainline Christians or Roman Catholics.

The question by which support for Christian nationalism is measured is whether the United States should be declared a “Christian country” (though what that means isn’t entirely clear). In a survey last fall, this was opposed overall by a 3:2 margin. Broken down by party affiliation, 61% of Republicans supported the idea while 83% of Democrats were opposed. Interestingly, despite their support, 57% of Republicans agreed such an action would be unconstitutional.

The place of religion, and Christianity specifically, in American culture and government has always been contentious. Religious or political leaders who say the United States was “founded” as a Christian country are flat out wrong, and they know it. One of the most well-known passages of the Constitution makes this clear. The Bill of Rights begins by unambiguously declaring, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” Thus, everyone is guaranteed freedom from any form of state-imposed religion and guaranteed the freedom of individual personal religious expression.

Obviously, over its history, Christianity has been the dominant religion in the United States. But Christianity comes in more different forms here than any place else in the world, all competing with each other. And, as we all know, Christianity’s influence is waning and churches have lost much of their cultural influence.

Christianity’s decline is, of course, the primary impetus of the Christian nationalism movement. It is a movement out of weakness, not strength. Its energy comes from anxiety over cultural changes, as secular values displace religious ones and the population grows more diverse and earlier diversity is recognized and affirmed.

Anxiety over change is natural and even inevitable. But rather than assuaging that anxiety, Christian nationalism grows out of the exploitation and inflaming of that anxiety by both self-serving religious and political leaders. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book for manipulating people and gaining power. “Be afraid of those dangerous people and ideas. Follow us and we’ll protect you from them.”

In her monthly column this past June, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton also challenges Christian nationalism and views it as a personal affront.

God knows I love my country. This beautiful, fragile, yet surprisingly resilient experiment in democracy and nationhood that’s not predicated on shared ethnicity is unique among nations. My grandfather, father and uncles all served during World War I and World War II. I had the honor of placing a wreath on behalf of the ELCA at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. I won’t have my patriotism questioned. Christian Nationalism is a perversion of the gospel and a threat to our democracy. It’s precisely because I love my country that I warn against it.

Bishops Eaton and Rinehart, along with other progressive Christians I’ve read, correctly see Christian nationalism as essentially anti-democratic. What they don’t acknowledge, however, is that the church has had a very spotty record on promoting democracy. In fact, historically Christian leaders have more often been part of the forces opposing democracy.

It wasn’t until well into the 20th that the Catholic Church formally dropped its opposition to democracy. Prior to that, many Catholic churches were disestablished by revolutions, often violent. Nonetheless, the national leadership of many Catholic churches continued to support authoritarian governments and the dominating wealthy property owners often behind them, especially in Latin America.

As on most topics, Protestant attitudes towards democracy have been diverse but the record of their churches is pretty spotty, as well. It certainly didn’t help that as the Reformation got underway, Martin Luther vehemently supported the German nobility in their violent suppression of the Peasant Revolt. And his Reformed counterpart, John Calvin, established an oppressive religious state in Switzerland. This provided an example the Puritans followed a century later in Massachusetts.

Closer to home, German Lutherans were loyal supporters of the Kaiser. After he abdicated at the end of World War I, many church leaders viewed the democratic Weimar republic with disdain and longed for the return of the monarchy. Tragically, many Christians viewed Hitler and the Nazis as an acceptable alternative to the old days of “cross and crown.” And it should be noted that Hitler, who was by no means a Christian, was nonetheless a master at combining and manipulating the mythological symbols of both German nationalism and religion, with disastrous consequences.

The anxieties underlying the support for Christian nationalism are real and shouldn’t be dismissed. There are a lot of good reasons to be worried and anxious these days. The growing economic disparities in the US and around the world are leaving many feeling hopeless and in despair. The climate crisis, directly and indirectly, is causing social disruption and conflict, resulting in millions looking for better lives elsewhere. If these conditions are not addressed, the rise of reactionary movements like Christian nationalism and worse will be inevitable.

In John’s account of Jesus’ trial, Pilate asks him if he is a king. In other words, he wants to know if Jesus is a threat to him or those he represents. Famously Jesus replies, “My kingdom is not of this world.” So no, he has no political aspirations. Yet it is true, as his followers are later accused in Acts, that he is “turning the world upside down.” We don’t need Christian nationalism. That won’t accomplish anything. What we need are genuinely Christian hearts, which lift everyone up and give them the love and dignity that are their birthright.

Blessings in your life and ministry.