What is a christian? There’s always been some differences in how people and denominations define what it means to be a christian. But lately it seems the gap is widening.
Is a new religion of christian nationalism being formed?
It all began so well
Christianity is named after Jesus, who is believed by his followers to be the Christ, from the Greek word meaning the anointed one. This refers back to the Jewish idea of the Messiah, an anointed king who would come from God to rescue them.
So Jesus came as a king who was announcing God’s loving and just rule over all who saw this as good news …. and eventually everyone.
Jesus showed what God’s rule looked like (people healed, relationships restored, justice announced and God’s forgiveness received). And he gave his followers guidelines on the way they should live.
Drifting from the core
His followers worked hard at spreading the good news and working out the implications of his teachings. You can see the start of that process in the New Testament.
But Jesus’ followers are as human as anyone else, and so they slowly drifted away from some of his emphases, and gradually added layers of hierarchy and tradition to his teachings. It wasn’t all bad, but it wasn’t all good either.
Moving in different ways
Several emphases can be seen in the historic christian church: worship of God, serving people through acts of mercy, teaching doctrine, evangelism, etc.
But when Emperor Constantine embraced christianity, a new emphasis was added: civil religion = subverting religious belief to serve the purposes of the state and those in power.
This abuse of christianity to gain secular power was exemplified in the Holy Roman Empire, which “envisioned itself as a dominion for Christendom”. The history of the Holy Roman Empire includes struggles for power between Emperor and Pope, and also mutual support where the Emperor supported the Pope and the Pope crowned the Emperor.
And so we come to 2020
I have written before about the divide in christianity in the US and elsewhere (How a deep and growing divide is killing Protestant christianity – or maybe renewing it!) – between more conservative and more progressive christians.
But in America and Australia today there seems to be a new edge and a revival of civil religion in the form of christian nationalism.
Jesus as a path to power?
In my lifetime, christians have tended to be divided politically between those who supported political conservatism, especially regarding sexual ethics, and those who followed more progressive and justice-based politics.
But surveys show that in recent years, large numbers of US christians seem to be placing their emphasis on neither morality or justice, but on a President who they see “fighting for their beliefs and advancing their interests”, even if they see his character flaws and dependence on misinformation and fake news.
It appears that they have been led into this support because they see themselves as being persecuted. For example, white evangelicals believe they face more discrimination than muslims. They see themselves as no longer having the political and social power they once enjoyed.
Donald Trump tapped into this in 2015 when he promised if he was elected President “Christianity will have power …. you’re going to have plenty of power.”
It seems this emphasis wasn’t any accident, but the result of a lot of serious political organising. It apparently started with christians wanting to “take back America for Jesus”, and bringing back “pro-life” policies was the rallying cry.
These christians weren’t following the core christian value of being a servant, they wanted power to control who was selected to the judiciary and who made the laws …. and more.
Christian nationalism in the US “seeks to merge Christian and American identities”. To be American is to be Christian. It draws heavily on Old Testament themes of Israel as God’s people, and sees the US as having a similar “manifest destiny”.
It seems that christian nationalism offers the strongest support for christians voting conservatively, even though “appeals to civil religion rarely refer to Jesus Christ”.
Some pastors fear their congregants value Donald Trump above Jesus.
In Australia, the Australian Christian Lobby has taken to labelling as “Marxist” activities that sincere christians support. We are trying to follow Jesus’ teachings to care for the poor and marginalised (Matthew 25:31-46), to act as servants not seeking personal power, and to stand in opposition to the values of power and privilege (Luke 22:25-26). But we are instead called “Marxists”.
This puts political conservatism above the clear teachings of Jesus, and demonises those of us who are trying to follow him.
The logical conclusion?
This blurring of the lines between America and the kingdom of God has been a developing theme, and things have been said that should disturb christians:
- When christians who supported Donald Trump had to face his apparent ethical shortcomings and irreligion, they harked back to Cyrus in the Old Testament. Just as Cyrus served God’s purpose in liberating the Jews from the Babylonian captivity and allowed them to return to Judah, so, it is said, Trump is God’s servant, despite his flaws.
- Trump has used religious language to describe himself (“the chosen one” to take on China in a trade war) and has quoted a radio host saying the Jewish people liked him “like he is the second coming of God”. It is fair to say these comments were to some degree ironic, but his supporters have endorsed these views.
- Supporters make further grand claims. Televangelist Paula White claims Trump has been “raised up by God”. Franklin Graham says opposition to Trump is “almost a demonic power”.
- Trump’s heavy-handed photo opportunity with a Bible in front of a church in Washington was seen by many as reminiscent of Emperor Constantine “co-opting Christianity in the service of power”.
- Donald Trump’s daughter, Tiffany, at the 2020 Republican Convention further blurred the distinction between God and America: “God has blessed us with unstoppable spirit. His spirit, the American spirit.“
Most disturbing of all?
Yet perhaps the most disturbing quote came from Vice President Mike Pence, who is reported to have said:
“Let’s run the race marked out for us. Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents. Let’s fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire.”
This is an adaptation of Hebrews 12:1-2:
“let us run with endurance the race set out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith”
So Pence has slipped into substituting the American flag and “this land of heroes” for Jesus.
Now I would normally be quite prepared to believe that Pence has just used familiar language to make his patriotic point. But when his comment is seen in the context of all that came before, it is hard to believe this isn’t something bigger and deeply disturbing.
What’s a christian response?
Surely, regardless of political persuasion, christians need to be concerned about any “worldly” movement that seems to place itself alongside or above Jesus and his teachings?
Shouldn’t we be concerned about efforts to take power over other people to protect our own privilege (Luke 22:25-26, Philippians 2:3-8)? Shouldn’t government exist to promote freedom for its citizens?
Shouldn’t we reject christian nationalism and any attempt to marry patriotism with following Jesus? Shouldn’t our prime loyalty be to the kingdom of God? Shouldn’t we give our political support to the party and candidate that we think best reflects the teaching of Jesus, without thinking that person and party actually ARE God’s kingdom?
Will the true christian please stand up!
Are we heading towards another major split in christianity?
….. where those christians who blur the distinction between patriotism and the kingdom of God completely split from those who try to heed Jesus’ very clear, though very difficult, teachings on serving others?
….. where two roads diverge – the road of service and the road of secular power?
….. where christian nationalists achieve the power to control and shape society. Where they take away some of the freedom to choose, even if badly, that God gave human beings. And where they lose the next generation and lose touch with the real “author and finisher of our faith”.
Let Jesus have the last word (Luke 9:23):
“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?”
I’m not the only one concerned
- Are American Christians Worshipping America? Micael Grenholm.
- Christians Against Christian Nationalism.
- White Evangelicals Have a Complicated Relationship with Christian Nationalism. Christianity Today.
- US Christian nationalism is far from Christianity, authors argue. National Catholic Reporter.
- The Christian Nationalism of Donald Trump. Religion and Politics.
Photo by Luis Quintero from Pexels