We were Christians with American flags behind the pulpit, and that worked just fine.
A year after the insurrection, a dangerous mix of nostalgia, Christian nationalism & racism continue to co-exist.
Christian nationalism melts God and Country together like broken crayons in a cookie tin. A country of many colors becomes gray-purple.
Some white folks talk about how America used to be when they were younger with a glint in the eye: cheaper, simpler, safer. Back porches and sweet tea. White nostalgia can cast a warm light on a past remembered as golden. But golden for whom? That light does not shine on the inequity and racism we fail to mention in a make-America-great-again narrative. The prosperity and comfort that white people enjoyed and enjoy is the result of the oppression of our black brothers and sisters.
When white American evangelicals were raising families in the decades before our present time, nationalism was less examined. We were American patriots and we were Christians with flags behind the pulpit, and that worked fine. For a long time, for those of us with the right skin color, that myth has worked in our favor.
But as the mix of Jesus Saves signs, confederate flags, and MAGA hats on display at the Capitol insurrection suggest, the Trump presidency fully surfaced our hidden and unconsidered political motivations. In its worst distortion, Christian Nationalism equates Donald John Trump with Jesus Christ.
Christian Nationalists are working for an outcome just out of their grasp. America has turned away from God as a nation, some say, but maybe we can elbow ourselves back in God’s favor. As the line of reasoning goes, we were and can still be exceptional—and if we have the right person in the White House, we can nudge closer to restoration. Restoration that keeps white citizens in power, in jobs, and filling city council seats. There is no room for compassion in this vision for America.
Christian Nationalists are like Pharisees, who thought that the kingdom of God would play out in national politics and cultural battles. If the Pharisees could force what they deemed right living, they thought God’s redemption would be realized on a national scale. The gospel story of Jesus’s disciples plucking wheat to fill their stomachs on Sabbath was a scandal for the Pharisees, because it stood in the way of the kind of right action that would lead to redemption.
If the Pharisees withheld a little bit more, emptied a little bit more, studied a little more, it might be enough to light the flame and bring their king. But by keeping laws that chose order over compassion on Sabbath, the Pharisees lost empathy. Along the way, they crushed the poor who were a threat to their mission, the ends of oppression justifying the means of glory they tried to work into reality. Part of their problem was a lack of imagination and an overly literal interpretation of how to please God.
But the Kingdom Jesus taught is small as a mustard seed. It is fragile. It turns the stinging cheek. It supersedes ethnic and national boundaries with its boundless and global message of hope. It centers the displaced.
Christian Nationalism is Not Particularly Christian
Interestingly, the Christian identity of Nationalists, both stateside and overseas, may not be particularly Christian after all. As David Brooks writes in a New York Times opinion piece, “popular far-right movements on both sides of the Atlantic are actually not that religious. They are motivated by nativist and anti-immigrant attitudes and then latch onto Christian symbols to separate ‘them’ from ‘us.’ In Germany, for example, the far-right group that aggressively plays up its Christian identity underperforms among voters who are actually religious.”
Democracy is built on pluralism, an ethic that evolved in Western society because of the influence of Christianity. In order to move towards a more perfect union, as Christians we are called to welcome diverse interests and beliefs, not to simply tolerate them.
Pluralism cultivates a space in society where it is ok to believe different things about God, and to love each other across those differences. No matter how much you believe in your own cultural identifiers, pluralism creates a society where there is space for others to organize life around different core beliefs, and for those choices to be respected.
Pure Idolatry v. Pure Love
Christianity is not defensive, and Christians have no need to take a defensive stance against religious pluralism. Separation of Church and State is a key ingredient in pluralistic society—an ecumenical safety net that democracy should continue to protect. And any person claiming a Christian identity who sees diversity of belief as a threat is revealing a hierarchy of priorities that may well place country—in particular the conception of “country” as a place of white normativity —in front of God.
The Christian story upholds human dignity and leads with love and forbearance. There is no border of separation between the heart and the hands. The work of the cross does not cling to a personhood that others people in the service of dominance or control.
A year after the insurrection, nationalism remains idolatry. Because it adds an extraneous label to the Gospel that reflects the image of white Americans. Instead, the Gospel is a message of love and hope for every person, created by God. For all cultures and times throughout history, in our present moment, and in the future.
Read & Listen
An evangelical climate scientist wonders what went wrong [NYT]
At the top of a new year, this NPR podcast reminded me of some things I’ve learned about the body—and opened my eyes to history I didn’t know. [Life Kit]
On that note, this Anne Lamott Facebook post was completely refreshing. “Gratitude is the fountain of youth. It’s soul food—chicken and waffles and peach cobbler. It’s magnetized.”
All eight hours of the new Beatles “Get Back” documentary from Peter Jackson played in the background of my week between Christmas and New Year’s. I don’t totally get why I was so into it, having not grown up listening to The Beatles. But there was something profoundly comforting about watching. This review gets at some of what I’m talking about. [Vox]
What’s not to love about this Cat Power cover. It hits the right tone for me today. Later, Christmas music.