By Rudy Barnes, Jr., April 15, 2023
Religious nationalism has ancient roots that go back 4,000 years to the birth of Judaism. Christianity evolved from Judaism in the 1st century, and in the 4th century Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire. Islam completed the trio of Abrahamic religions in the 7th century, and introduced Jihad as holy war to promote Islamic nationalism.
It would be the 16th century before Hugo Grotius challenged the divine right to rule with secular nationalism. Religion and politics remained inseparable until the 18th century when the Enlightenment made religious freedom a fundamental right of democracy. Even today, in many Islamic nations apostasy and blasphemy laws continue to prevent the freedom of religion.
Democracy has exacerbated the problem of Christian nationalism since popularity is the measure of success in both democratic politics and the church. Americans have difficulty distinguishing their obligations to God and country since the teachings of Jesus were never popular, and Trump’s GOP has corrupted the church and democracy with radical right politics.
America is not alone. Russia claims to be a Christian democracy, but the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church and most Russians support Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, while Netanyahu and conservative Jews are undermining Israel’s democracy. Religious nationalism seems to be eclipsing democracy, with loyalty to religion becoming more popular than freedom.
Two centuries ago, America initiated a hopeful experiment in freedom and democracy that would make people masters of their political destiny; and 50 years ago it was a popular global ideal. Since then national power and greed have distorted those libertarian ideals. Since democracy requires a popular majority to support its altruistic ideals, its future is uncertain.
Religion and culture play pivotal roles in the battle for political legitimacy. The American church has ignored partisan politics like Trump’s MAGA that promote nationalist politics. In Russia a nationalistic Orthodox Church and an authoritarian culture stifle freedom and promote Putin’s aggression. In China economic freedom is allowed, while political freedom is denied.
Russia and China support a new global hegemony that promotes authoritarianism over democracy, and Israel illustrates how a corrosive coalition of radical right politics and religion can undermine an existing democracy. The survival of freedom and democracy depends on the will of democracies around the world to defend freedom--a will that seems increasingly in doubt.
It will likely take a 21st century Enlightenment to revitalize a healthy balance between freedom and religion and enforce international humanitarian laws that prohibit unlawful aggression like that of Hitler in WWII and Putin in Ukraine. Nationalism is the enemy of freedom and democracy, and it must be countered by a global alliance of NATO and Asian democracies.
David French will be speaking on Christian Nationalism and the New Right at the Barnes Symposium at USC on April 20. See Barnes Symposium French_Flyer 2.pdf David French served as a military lawyer in Iraq (see My Decision to Serve: A Veterans Day Reflection, The Atlantic, November 11, 2022, at https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/11/veterans-day-us-military-iraq/672081/). I’m a retired JAGC officer who served in Special Action Force Asia in the 1960s, and have written on the importance of law and as a standard of legitimacy in military operations. See Military Legitimacy: Might and Right in the New Millennium. A copy of the manuscript and other writings on military legitimacy are provided in Resources at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/p/resources.html.
On Christian nationalism in America and Russia (3/26/2022), see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2022/03/musings-on-civil-religion-christian.html.
Other commentary on Christian nationalism and military legitimacy:
(3/29/15): God and Country: Resolving Conflicting Concepts of Sovereignty
(5/6/17): Loyalty and Duty in Politics, the Military and Religion
(12/23/17): If Democracy Survives the Trump Era, Can the Church Survive Democracy? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/12/if-democracy-survives-trump-era-can.html.
(6/23/18): Musings on the Separation of Church and State and Christian Morality in Politics
(4/12/19): Musings on Religion, Nationalism and Libertarian Democracy
(7/13/19): Musings on Sovereignty and Conflicting Loyalties to God and Country
(8/10/19): Musings on Christian Nationalism: A Plague on the Church and Democracy
(8/31/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Politics of Christian Zionism
(1/9/21): A Reckoning and Repentance Following the Storming of the Nation’s Capitol
(1/16/21): Truth and Reconciliation in Politics and Religion in a Maze of Conflicting Realities
(4/30/22): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Obsolescence of Christianity in Politics
(6/25/22): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Church and the Greatest Commandment
(11/5/22): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Jesus, the Church and Christian Nationalism
(11/12/22): Musings on the Need for a Civil Religion in America’s Dysfunctional Democracy
(12/10/22): Musings on the Evolution of Christianity into the American Civil Religion
(3/11/23): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Future of Christianity and Democracy
(Mar 2013) Back to the Future: Human Rights and Legitimacy in the Training and Advisory Mission, in
Special Warfare, posted in Resources at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/.
(12/29/14): Religion, Violence and Military Legitimacy
(5/24/15): De Oppresso Liber: Where Religion and Politics Intersect