By Rudy Barnes, Jr.,
Jesus was a universalist Jew who taught his disciples to follow him, not to worship him. Jesus never promoted a new religion, and his teachings on sacrificial love were never popular. It was the Apostle Paul who popularized the Christian religion. His atonement doctrine made worshiping Christ more essential to salvation than following the teachings of Jesus.
In the 4th century Emperor Constantine ordained a toxic mix of Christianity and politics when he made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire. History has confirmed that when Christianity favors a nation, it abandons Jesus. Christian nationalism led to the American Civil War and to Nazism, and it continues to give divine sanction to unprincipled Christian politicians.
Thomas Jefferson rejected nationalist church doctrines and considered the teachings of Jesus as “the most sublime moral code ever designed by man.” The universal teachings of Jesus are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors, including those of other races and religions, as we love ourselves.
Christian nationalism has no place in America’s polarized partisan politics. As the steward of America’s democracy, the church should be promoting partisan reconciliation based on the altruistic teachings of Jesus; but to avoid controversy and to maintain its popularity, the church does not challenge the partisan divisions promoted by unprincipled Christian charlatans.
Christian nationalism supports the belief that God favors rich and powerful nations over others--America First in the U.S. and Russian World in Russia. The prosperity gospel sanctifies wealth and power as God’s reward to the faithful, and it’s the ideal of Ayn Rand’s self-centered materialism. It’s popular among Christians, yet it's the antithesis of the teachings of Jesus.
Christian nationalism has racial roots. Most Christian nationalists are white and Republicans, while most Blacks are Democrats; and most churches remain racially segregated. To counter demagogues who exploit racial and cultural differences to gain power, the church must promote reconciliation by giving primacy to the altruistic and universal teachings of Jesus.
In America voters are the masters of their political destiny, and many Christians choose nationalism and self-interest over universalism and altruism. Jesus taught that God’s will is to reconcile and redeem while Satan's will is to divide and conquer; but Satan is winning popularity contests in democracies by doing a convincing imitation of God in the church and in politics.
The church and democracy are at a moral crossroads. The church has forfeited the altruistic moral compass of Jesus to Godless nationalism promoted by demagogues like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. To preserve the freedoms of libertarian democracy, the church must challenge Christian nationalism with the reconciling love taught and exemplified by Jesus.
What is Christian nationalism? “Philip Gorski, a professor of sociology and religious studies at Yale University, defines white Christian nationalism as the belief that the country's white founders formed a Christian nation with Christian laws and that the United States is divinely favored and has a divine mission that has been undermined by non-whites, non-Christians and foreigners who live here. White Christian nationalists [now] seek to "retake" the country and return it to its origins, he added.” See https://firebrandmag.com/articles/methodism-amp-christian-nationalism.
In describing the driving force behind white Christian nationalism, Rick Herrick says “A religion focused primarily on personal salvation doesn’t help because it’s all about me. Life in a society organized around economic consumption is also all about me. The time has come to recognize an inconvenient truth. Christianity for many has become a political ideology with no connection to the love and goodness that comes from God. The best way to fix this problem is to change the focus of our religion away from personal salvation to living the teachings of Jesus. It would also help if church services were centered around coming to know God rather than on affirming religious belief. Reciting creeds, singing about a God in heaven, praying for the President, hearing about a Jesus who died for my sins doesn’t do much for me. It’s no wonder that church attendance where the focus is on such beliefs is on the decline. See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/the-driving-force-behind-white-christian-nationalism/.
On How much power do Christians really have? The invisible divide that’s shaping how Republicans and Democrats think about religion--and politics. “Anxiety about what it means to be Christian may be shaped as much by people’s political allegiances as their religious ties. This moment is about four decades in the making. In the 1980s and 1990s, as white Christian conservatives forged an alliance with the Republican Party, Christianity itself started to become a partisan symbol. Identifying as a Christian was no longer just about theology, community or family history — to many Americans, the label became uncomfortably tangled with the Christian Right’s political agenda, which was itself becoming increasingly hard to separate from the GOP’s political agenda. Social scientists have argued compellingly that left-leaning Americans started to reject religious labels altogether around this time because of the perception that Christianity was becoming tainted by politics. The rise in the share of Americans who have no religion wasn’t just about loss of belief — it was about the rejection of a political identity, too.
Carolyn Novak, 54, didn’t stop calling herself a Christian because she no longer followed Jesus. Instead, she stopped going to the Southern Baptist church she’d attended for years because she felt like it made people assume things about her that weren’t true. She found herself increasingly at odds with her fellow churchgoers. “Being labeled a Christian, [people think] you’re some kind of right-wing nut.”
A minority of Americans support views that could be described as Christian nationalist, an ideology defined by social scientists as the belief that the U.S. is a Christian nation, and should be returned to its Christian foundations — by force, if necessary. According to our survey, only 27 percent of respondents agreed that the “government should favor Christianity over other religions,” and even fewer (22 percent) said that “God has called on conservative Christians to take control of our politics and culture.” Only 13 percent said that “the federal government should advocate for Christian religious values,”
There’s a cyclical feeling to these conversations — a sense of one view reinforcing another, which reinforces another, which reinforces another — that has created an almost impenetrable barrier between the two sides. There are people, like Carrizales, who are managing to balance religious and political identities that feel increasingly at odds. But competing perceptions of Christianity’s power seem unlikely to change — if anything, they may deepen further.”
On being apolitical won’t heal polarized churches, “in 2017, a Lifeway poll found that more than half of Protestant churchgoers under 50 say they prefer to go to church with people who share their political views. And few adult Protestant churchgoers say they attend services with people of a different political persuasion. Instead of being a space where people of very different perspectives can build on a shared unity in Christ, many churches are becoming citadels in which Christians’ pre-existing politics and worldviews are simply reinforced.
Given all our nation has experienced in the five years since the poll was conducted, I can only imagine that the polarization in our pews is even more stark today and — like polarization elsewhere — increasingly rooted in contempt. According to a recent NBC poll “some 80% of Democrats and Republicans believe the political opposition poses a threat that, if not stopped, will destroy America as we know it.” If we’re honest, we’ll admit that many churches are exacerbating this polarization rather than trying to treat it.
Being a balm [in a polarized church] also requires a deep commitment to reconciliation: telling the truth and repairing relationships broken by injustice. Within our congregations, this means being honest about the ways our houses of worship have so often fallen short of the message of inclusive love that Jesus preached and modeled and acknowledging the ways in which Christians have misused our faith to baptize injustice throughout our nation’s history. The paradox is that while truth-telling is a pre-requisite forovercoming polarization, telling the truth can also exacerbate it, especially in an environment where social media spreads disinformation and some news sources distort our perceptions of each other. As a result, many churches sacrifice truth-telling to maintain unity.
For pastors and church leaders who fear dividing their congregation or facing a backlash if they engage in more truth-telling, it is essential to ground your congregation in a shared sense of …loving our neighbors (Mark 12:31). Pastors can also model and teach how to center every contentious conversation in steadfast love, which helps to generate empathy and leads us to affirm the humanity in those we disagree with. If the church is to be the conscience of the state, we need to counteract a resurgent white nationalism and deep-rooted white supremacy with what I call in my book A More Perfect Union “redemptive patriotism.” “Patriotism comes in many forms. Its most destructive, often nationalistic forms erode the very foundation upon which the Beloved Community is built. Redeeming patriotism requires reframing our love for the best of America’s ideals and aspirations. It requires understanding that the right to critique America is part of the brilliance of America. … Redeeming patriotism requires greater willingness to have courageous and civil conversations about the very ideals that make us love America. It refuses pointless arguments over who loves America more.”
The church also needs guardrails if it is to serve effectively as the conscience of the state.
“Be engaged but not used” which emphasizes civic engagement as part and parcel to discipleship but cautions against allowing politicians to misuse faith to bless their narrow self-interest and pursuit of power.
“Be political but not partisan.”
Christians need to be both pastoral and prophetic: Pastoral in the sense that we must refuse to demonize those who disagree with us and seek to minister to elected officials; prophetic in the sense that we must continue to speak the truth to those in positions of power and hold them accountable to our values and priorities.” See https://sojo.net/articles/being-apolitical-wont-heal-polarized-churches.
In summary, Christians should be moral stewards of their democracy.
On Faith and politics, see https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/faith-and-politics/.
On Do we dare to disciple people out of Christian Nationalism?, see https://sojo.net/articles/do-we-dare-disciple-people-out-christian-nationalism.
On “ReAwaken America” as proof that Christian nationalism isn’t Christian, see
On Christian nationalism as a racist, ahistorical ideology of violence, see https://www.msnbc.com/opinion/msnbc-opinion/these-midterms-republicans-run-against-first-amendment-n1299932.
‘Russian World’ Is the Civil Religion Behind Putin’s War: The Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church see Ukraine as part of a cultural dominion to be protected from the values of an encroaching West. See https://www.wsj.com/articles/russian-world-is-the-civil-religion-behind-putins-war-11647539958.