by Pastor Doug Kings

A recent article on the NBC News website reported on the rise of “Christian nationalism” here in the United States. It has been promoted by both political and religious figures but what it means is not entirely clear. Instead of being a problem, though, this is part of its strength because it can broaden its appeal by meaning different things to different people.

In general, Christian nationalists believe the problems of the US are due to the loss of Christian principles and standards in the culture and in government. Many of its promoters say the country is embroiled in “spiritual warfare” between godly people and evil forces that are undermining its moral and religious foundation.

It’s a short step from such assertions to a call for the “righteous” to take up whatever tools—or weapons—are available to defeat these evils forces, and the people presumably embodying them. Some believe the US needs to be explicitly declared to be a Christian country. How that is squared with the Constitution’s 1st Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion isn’t made clear.

You don’t have to look very hard in Church history to find other examples of such movements. They have been a sadly common occurrence, typically happening in times of social upheaval. This is the dark side of Christianity, and of most religions.

Apart from the spiritual value it provides, religion is often seen as a source of social cohesion and stability. From ancient times, earthquakes, storms, droughts, famine, plagues, military defeats, corruption, and oppression have been explained as signs of divine displeasure at immorality and irreligion. Evil has taken root somewhere, it is believed, and must be pulled out and destroyed.

In Christianity, probably the most well-known example is the Crusades. While the objective was the expulsion of Muslims from the Holy Land, historians now recognize that its impetus and energy was the increasing social upheaval in medieval European society. This was also expressed in repeated waves of violent antisemitism, witch burning, the relentless search for heretics by the Inquisition, and ultimately in the Reformation and the catastrophic religious wars it spawned.

The latter was the main reason our country’s founders were committed to prohibiting the establishment of a state religion. In many ways, these secular leaders had a better understanding than those in the church of the danger of mixing politics and religion. They saw how easily religious fervor could be hijacked by political forces, often with disastrous consequences.

The most notorious recent example is the Nazi movement in Germany. Hitler was a master at public manipulation and recognized how quasi-religious symbols and ideas could be used for that purpose. He proclaimed that the German volk were destined for greatness by “providence” but that this was being thwarted by the scheming of Jews and Communists. Mired in the Depression, enough people, including many Christians and even church leaders, believed both parts of this message to enable the Nazi nightmare that followed.

Unfortunately, the manipulation of Christian language and symbols is still popular, and easy to do. But detection of that manipulation is also easy, for those who want to recognize it. The simplest method is to simply stand the Jesus of the gospels next to the fervent social and political movements and leaders claiming to be doing God’s work. Do you see compassion as the primary motivation? Is there greater concern for the poor and marginalized than the rich and powerful? Are fear and anger calmed with mercy and forgiveness?

Paul writes in Galatians,

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

And Jesus says in Matthew,

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.”

It’s really not hard to know if those trying to rally us to their cause are moved by the Spirit of Christ, or the spirit of something else. Again, as Jesus says, we just need ears to hear, and eyes to see.

Blessings in your life and ministry.