In October 2022, Pew Research published a report which states that almost half of Americans believe that the United States should be a ‘Christian Nation.’
To the question ‘Do you think the founders of America originally intended for the U.S. to be a ‘Christian nation’, 60 percent of the respondents replied ‘Yes’, while only 37 percent said ‘No’.
Forty-five percent of Americans believe that the United States should be a Christian nation, compared to 52 percent who don’t believe that to be the case. And 64 percent believe that the United States is now not a ‘Christian nation.’
These statistics also correspond with a growing number of religious as well as political leaders embracing the ‘Christian Nationalist’ label.
This combination of facts may worryingly indicate that many Americans might feel compelled to ‘take America back for God,’ to borrow the arresting, but also disturbing title of the 2020 book about Christian nationalism by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry.
This idea that America is a Christian nation, and thus God’s chosen people, has led some Christian politicians in America to use religious rhetoric to justify and support military action against its enemies.
This is seen spectacularly in America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the ongoing fight against terrorism. Instead of simply asserting that it is in America’s interest to go to war – a proposition with which some would agree while others would not (but that’s another story) – Christian politicians invoke the name of God.
President George W. Bush, who more than once declared that he believed that America is a Christian nation, depicted the invasion as a holy ‘crusade’ against ‘evildoers.’ Quoting John 1:1-5, Bush portrayed America as the ‘light of the world’ which the ‘darkness’ (namely, America’s national enemies) could never extinguish, and ordered the ‘Christianised’ U.S. military to fight this ‘holy war.’
The former President was, of course, not the first to use such rhetoric. The Christian symbols of the Exodus and the New Israel have been used to describe America as its influence spreads in the west. In a similar vein, biblical symbols such as the ‘New Jerusalem’ have been used to justify the Vietnam War.
That many evangelicals did not revolt against this sacrilegious use of the Scriptures is in some sense not at all surprising. Conservative evangelical leaders such as Tim LaHaye (1926-2016), Peter Marshall (b. 1964) and David Barton (b. 1954) have been using their considerable influence to promote the myth of Christian America.
Marshall and Barton sought to advance this myth by writing revisionist histories that tell of God’s guidance and providence in the founding and preservation of the United States. For example, Peter Marshall would often pose rhetorical questions such as ‘Wasn’t Christopher Columbus inspired by the Holy Spirit as he sailed west?’ and ‘Weren’t the pilgrims who arrived at the shores of New England propelled by a divine purpose?’
As Aaron Pattillo-Lunt observes: ‘These perceptions are incredibly persistent, lasting into the twenty-first century. Conservative evangelical figures continue to comment on the seemingly providential rise to power of the United States, particularly as it pertains to the nation’s special, or exceptional, role in God’s plan.’
WHAT IS CHRISTIAN NATIONALISM?
The best and clearest description of Christian Nationalism is by Amanda Tyler, the Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and leader of the Christians against Christian Nationalism initiative.
‘Christian nationalism,’ Tyler explains:
is a political ideology and cultural framework that seeks to merge American and Christian identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy.
This pseudo-Christian ideology, she adds, ‘relies on the mythological founding of the United States as a “Christian nation”, singled out for God’s providence in order to fulfil God’s purposes on earth.’
In an article published in Christianity Today, Paul D. Miller describes Christian Nationalism as ‘the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take steps to keep it that way.’
Miller underscores the fact that Christian nationalists often assert that ‘America must remain a “Christian nation” – not merely as an observation about American history, but as a prescriptive program for what America must continue in the future.’
Christian Nationalism thus has a tenuous and parasitic relationship with Christianity.
On the one hand, it has to be said that Christian Nationalism is not Christianity and should not be confused with it. However, on the other hand, it associates itself closely with Christianity and freely draws upon and relies on Christian imagery and vocabulary to articulate its ideology.
In addition to Christian Nationalism, there is also White Christian Nationalism.
The latter has all the essential features of the former, except for a particular emphasis in its telling of the story of America’s founding. They maintain that the nation’s founders not only established it on the principles of the Christian religion, they also insisted that its leaders will be white men.
According to Anthea Butler, Professor of American Social Thought at the University of Pennsylvania, this implies that ‘others (Native Americans, enslaved Africans, and immigrants) would accept and cede to this narrative of America as a Christian nation, and accept their leadership.’
A THEOPOLITICAL HERESY
One of the core tenets of Christian Nationalism has to do with the exercise of political power by Christians to ensure that the nation’s laws are aligned with God’s laws. As Chris Janssen explains, ‘many believe that in order for God’s kingdom to advance, Christians must be represented in government, Christians must have power over the nation’s law-making process, and Christians must have dominant sway over the culture.’
This is expressed in all its force by Steve Schultz, who styled himself as a prophet and who promotes a version of Dominion Theology. Schultz declares: ‘We as the Church are becoming properly positioned to rule and reign with Christ and establish the kingdom of God on earth.’
Even a cursory reading of the New Testament would show how terribly misguided such a vision really is. There is not even a slightest hint that Jesus had suggested to his disciples that they should aspire to acquire the power of Caesar. In fact, he specifically stated that ‘My kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18:36) and demonstrated it repeatedly in his life and ministry.
The idea of a Christian nation is clearly foreign to Jesus and the New Testament. In fact, as theologians such as Michael Horton have rightly asserted, the Bible opposes any notion of a Christian nation.
The New Testament repeatedly teaches that Christian citizenship resides in heaven and not in an earthly nation (Philippians 3:20). It describes Christians in this world as sojourners, exiles and resident aliens (1 Peter 2:11).
Christian nationalism aims to turn sojourners and exiles into warlords!
Far from upholding Gospel truth, Christian Nationalism in reality represents its most dangerous distortion. As theologian Gregory Boyd has emphatically argued, ‘When kingdom-of-God citizens aspire to acquire Caesar’s authority to accomplish “the good”, we sell our kingdom birth-right for a bowl of worldly porridge (Genesis 25:29-34). To the extent that we pick up the sword, we put down the cross.’
Christian nationalists have often profaned Christian symbols such as the cross by using them to support their ideology and politics that have little to do with Christianity. As the National Council of Churches of America has sharply put it: ‘Christian symbols have been misappropriated, emptied of their profound meaning, and invoked to support idolatrous loyalty to the nation.’
That the loyalty of the Christian nationalists to the nation is indeed idolatrous is seen in their particular understanding that the nation has been given a role that is closely aligned with God.
Christian nationalism has created a civil religion that is presented as a form of Christianity. In fact, it is not Christianity at all. As Boyd has again perceptively pointed out, the myth of a Christian nation ‘reinforces the pervasive misconception that the civil religion of Christianity in America is real Christianity.’
There are a few theologians who believe that civil religion, which Robert Bellah has famously defined as ‘a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalised in a collectivity,’ could unite America.
However, as Boyd has rightly pointed out, in reality ‘civil religion is simply an aspect of the kingdom of the world.’ As Catherine Albanese, J.F. Rowny Distinguished Professor Emerita in Comparative Religions at the University of California, describes it: civil religion is a ‘religious system … with a theology (creed), an ethics (code), and a set of rituals and other identifiable symbols (cultus) related to the political state.’
Civil religion is the inculturation of the Gospel, the miscegenation of Christianity with the cultural, ideological and political ideals of a people.
In his provocative book Attack Upon Christendom (1854-1855), the 19th century Danish Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard categorically asserts that ‘Christendom is the apostasy of Christianity.’
If this judgement is sound, then the idea that America is a Christian nation – which is a version of ‘Christendom’ – may also be described as an apostasy. And the Christian nationalism (together with the pseudo-Christian civil religion it creates) that nourishes this apostasy is nothing but a theopolitical heresy, a disfiguring distortion and perversion of Christianity.