These are anxious times for the body politic. Deep divides exist politically and religiously in ways that are unparalleled in our country’s recent history. Perhaps nothing magnifies this more than the acceleration of Christian nationalist fervor under Donald Trump’s presidency.
Christian nationalism is the belief that in order to be a true American, one must also be a Christian – or more specifically a white, evangelical Christian.
This misguided and dangerous ideology can be attributed to many factors. A prominent one appears to be that white Christians are no longer the dominant religious group in the United States. The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) published findings in 2016 based on a comprehensive survey of American religious and denominational identity that only 43 percent of Americans identify as white and Christian. The survey also reported a growing decline of those who identify as white evangelicals – less than one in five Americans.
It is proving clear that the decline of white Christians generally, and evangelical white Christians in particular, intensifies the rhetoric that America is a Christian nation and galvanizes the white, evangelical Christian electorate who fear the loss of cultural privilege and power. It is no wonder that Trump’s political slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is often translated “Make America White (and Christian) Again.” Trump’s jargon may work politically, but it works against the heart of the gospel of Jesus, who was a brown-skinned Jewish rabbi and reformer born to a refugee family, no less.
“The two-sided ideology of political Trumpism and Christian nationalism imperils robust religious liberty for all and desecrates the constitutional promise of government neutrality toward religion.”
Luke’s Gospel tells that Jesus was dragged to the Roman governor’s palace for three reasons, all political: “We found this fellow subverting the nation, opposing payment of taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King” (23:1-2).
Jesus never lobbied for government sanction of his spiritual movement. Instead, the global relevance of his God-infused message to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed transcended temporal government interests. It still does.
The surest way to trash the gospel is to invoke God’s holy name to propagate a partisan political agenda that has nothing to do with the spiritual wisdom of Jesus and everything to do with political privilege and power.
The truth is that the non-white, non-English speaking Jesus didn’t pledge allegiance to any nation, and he never wavered from his proclamation of the kingdom of God that afflicted the political autocrats and religious theocrats of his own time. Even though he was crucified for it.
This stands in stark contrast today to those who claim that America is a Christian nation. This is truly a fake news item that has been repeated so often that it is embedded in our national consciousness. It is emboldened by the phenomenon of what Yale sociologist Philip Gorski calls “Trumpism.” Gorski defines it as “a secularized version of white Christian nationalism,” in which religious identity has more to do with a political voting bloc than a faith commitment. This helps explain why 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016.
This fusion of political Trumpism and religious nationalism is fueled by a fallacious historical claim that America is a Christian nation, despite all evidence to the contrary. I guess the framers of the Constitution and Bill of Rights were so intent on making sure that the country was founded as a Christian nation that they forgot to include words like God, Christ and Christianity in the founding documents.
To the contrary, of course. The Constitution’s lone reference to religion is in Article VI: “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” No mention was ever made that the United States was to be founded as a Christian nation. What is factually unclear about this?
Those who continue to insist that America was founded as a Christian nation aren’t concerned about Constitutional facts. Rather, they find it more politically expedient to peddle a spiritual and political fantasy that is as credible as the claims of Religious Right leaders and pro-Trump Christians that Trump has been chosen, appointed and anointed by God to be the president, if not a prophet or even a king. Evangelical leaders have gone so far as to make comparisons between America’s 45th president and biblical figures like King Cyrus or King David. The president himself recently quoted a conspiracy theorist declaring him “the King of Israel” and the “second coming of God.” Really?
“This insidious ideology has been translated into a sophisticated legislative strategy.”
Jesus cautions against the kind of leadership that might “sound like” the kingdom of God but falls woefully short of looking and acting like it: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15). The rhetoric that America is a Christian nation is the sheep’s clothing that covers up a ravenous craving for religious liberty and political privilege to be freely and exclusively given to a particular version of Christianity – namely, one that is evangelical and white.
This insidious ideology has been translated into a sophisticated legislative strategy known as Project Blitz, whose purpose is to pass bills informed by Christian nationalism. The intent is bluntly articulated, but it is more commonplace to see it posing in more “patriotic” forms like posting the Ten Commandments in government buildings, protecting Christian icons on government property, promoting government-sponsored prayer and posting “In God We Trust” in public schools.
It is no accident that public schools are a focus. Consider what the Christian nationalist extremist Gary North wrote in 1982, in an overt effort to reach Southern Baptists:
“We must use the doctrine of religious liberty … until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy constructing a Bible-based social, political, and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.”
He didn’t stop there. In his 1989 book, Political Polytheism: The Myth of Pluralism, he wrote: “The long-term goal of Christians in politics should be to gain exclusive control over the franchise. Those who refuse to submit publicly … must be denied citizenship.”
The two-sided ideology of political Trumpism and Christian nationalism presents a clear and present danger to the civil liberties of those who do not conform to its ways. It imperils robust religious liberty for all and desecrates the constitutional promise of government neutrality toward religion.
The time is now for Christians against Christian nationalism to follow Jesus’ lead and to stand up and expose what’s hiding beneath its sheep’s clothing. The integrity of our democracy and the soul of Christianity depend on it.
Bill Leonard | Legislating ‘In God We Trust’: using the state to do the Church’s work
Jonathan Davis | Why I spoke out against Virginia’s ‘Bible bill,’ and why you should too when it comes to your state