By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 by white Christians discredited the church as the source of America’s standards of political legitimacy. It was clear and convincing evidence that the church could no longer be relied on to provide the moral glue needed to hold together the fabric of American democracy. It was a dismal watershed event for the church and democracy.
With a racist president, a polarized Congress and a church that has lost its moral compass, America is a house divided against itself that cannot stand (Mark 3:26). It came apart once before; and it cost over 500,000 American lives and took 100 years to glue it back together again. A politics of reconciliation is needed to avoid another national meltdown.
The church is not helping. It has created a moral vacuum by emphasizing exclusivist church doctrines over the universalist and altruistic moral teachings of Jesus. A church bereft of moral standards will allow a hybrid form of Christianity to fill the moral vacuum; and one likely possibility is a form of Christian nationalism that thrives on a politics of fear, division and hate.
That happened in the most Christian nation in Europe in the 1930s. Hitler exploited the resentment of Germans to the harsh “war guilt” terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles that followed World War I. He promoted a resurgent German nationalism (Make Germany great again) based on white (Aryan) supremacy and a divine will to support his Nazi regime.
America has its own nascent Christian nationalist movement. It was spawned by an unprincipled demagogue disdainful of libertarian democracy and supported with a religious fervor by mindless masses motivated by charlatan evangelicals. It has made the Republican Party into a radical right movement in a polarized partisan duopoly that has lost its political center.
Christian nationalism is a deceptively innocuous term. Christianity and nationalism (love of God and country) have long been uneasy ideals in America’s democracy, but the combination can be toxic. According to Amanda Tyler, “Christian nationalism harmfully suggests that to be a good American, one must be Christian or that to be a good Christian, one must be American.”
Tyler is the executive director of BJC, a Baptist organization that has developed a statement on the dangers of Christian nationalism. Tyler explains: “BJC recognized an urgent need for a strong response from the Christian community to denounce Christian nationalism as a gross distortion of our faith and a dangerously divisive movement for our body politic.”
The BJC statement describes Christian nationalism as “a persistent threat to both our religious communities and our democracy” and “a damaging political ideology,” asserting that it distorts “both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Whether we worship at a church, mosque, synagogue or temple, America has no second-class faiths.”
The recent massacres in El Paso and Dayton followed hateful and racist comments by President Trump, and they appear to have been conducted by white supremacists motivated by a form of Christian nationalism. Even if unorganized, violence by white supremacists who are motivated by Christian nationalism is a plague on America’s church and democracy.
The task of saving America from itself is made difficult by the failure of the church to promote the stewardship of democracy based on the altruistic teachings of Jesus. The silence of America’s pulpits on the need for a politics of reconciliation has been deafening. If not soon corrected, it will be a silent death knell for Christianity and libertarian democracy in America.
Nationalism, like Christianity, means different things to different people. Daniel Luban considers Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism “the closest thing to a manifesto on nationalism for intellectuals on the right.” “Hazony frames his theory around a conflict (“as old as the West itself”) between two principles of international order: “an order of free and independent nations,” and a universal empire striving to unite all nations under a single legal regime. The former ideal, he suggests, originates in the Hebrew Bible, with the biblical kingdom of Israel serving as the first national state, but reached its apotheosis in early modern Europe under the “Protestant construction of the West.” The golden age of nation-states stretched from roughly the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 until the end of World War II. But after Hitler discredited nationalism (wrongly, for he was actually an imperialist rather than a nationalist) the imperial principle made a comeback, at least among “educated elites who have, to one degree or another, become committed to a future under an imperial order.”
...The age-old conflict between nation and empire is a clash of particularity and universality. To be a nationalist is to be attached to one’s own particular traditions and way of life, while respecting the similar attachments of others; hence nationalists have an “aversion to the conquest of foreign nations” and a “tolerance of diverse ways of life.” The most fundamental mark of imperialism, on the other hand, is universalism—a belief that “the entire earth should be subjected to a single regime,” and “an ideology of universal salvation and peace.” At bottom, Immanuel Kant’s vision of a global federation of states ensuring perpetual peace is generically similar to Nazi Germany’s dream of becoming “lord of the earth.” Hazony thinks both should be seen as “transformations of a single ideal and passion, that of emperors and imperialists.” According to Hazony, “Imperialism and nationalism represent irreconcilable positions in political thought.”
“...Nations do not always see the value of each others’ cultures, or recognize each other as having cultures at all, and nationalists are sometimes not the most broadminded in this respect. ...It’s grimly appropriate that just as Hazony’s book was being cast as the foundation of a non-crusading “Trump Doctrine,” the Trump administration itself was stepping up its efforts at regime change in Iran and Venezuela, spearheaded by the unimpeachably nationalist John Bolton. It turns out that misplaced Kantian idealism is not the only or even the major source of global conflict: Paranoia about threats to the nation, exaltation of military force, and obsession with national glory are more frequent triggers.
“Hazony mocks the “fairy tale” offered by early modern thinkers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, who allegedly thought that political community actually originated from a contract of isolated individuals.
He notes that states in our modern sense haven’t always existed, being preceded by smaller groups of families, tribes, and clans. ...The result is a communitarian version of the old individualist fairy tale: the nation as a pristine and consensual community, unsullied by coercion or conquest, which might have a history but doesn’t really have a politics.
“Far from being primordial units knit together by a pre-political culture, modern nation-states are agglomerations still displaying the fault-lines of the political struggles that produced them. Their rise rested on external expansion, which helps explain why the line between national assertion and imperial expansion is often so tenuous.
Luban concludes, “Today’s nationalists make savvy use of populist and anti-imperialist rhetoric. But the unfractured nations they aim to return to have never really existed, and it’s unlikely that they’ll ever run out of enemies.” See https://newrepublic.com/article/154531/man-behind-national-conservatism.
Pope Francis has warned against nationalism, and said recent speeches sound like “Hitler in 1934.”
The Washington National Cathedral has condemned Trump’s racist remarks as dangerous:
“These words are more than a “dog-whistle.” When such violent dehumanizing words come from the President of the United States, they are a clarion call, and give cover, to white supremacists who consider people of color a sub-human “infestation” in America. They serve as a call to action from those people to keep America great by ridding it of such infestation. Violent words lead to violent actions. When does silence become complicity? What will it take for us all to say, with one voice, that we have had enough? The question is less about the president’s sense of decency, but of ours. As leaders of faith who believe in the sacredness of every single human being, the time for silence is over. We must boldly stand witness against the bigotry, hatred, intolerance, and xenophobia that is hurled at us, especially when it comes from the highest offices of this nation. We must say that this will not be tolerated. To stay silent in the face of such rhetoric is for us to tacitly condone the violence of these words. We are compelled to take every opportunity to oppose the indecency and dehumanization that is racism, whether it comes to us through words or actions.” See https://cathedral.org/have-we-no-decency-a-response-to-president-trump.html.
Following the massacres in El Paso and Dayton, Max Boot asserted that Trump is leading our country to destruction, “enflaming the sickos of America” with his hateful rhetoric. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/08/04/anything-real-say-about-shootings-mr-president/?utm_term=.3e129f9b669d. Yet Trump blames everything but his own words for hate in America. See https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/05/politics/trump-rhetoric-el-paso/index.html.
On Christian nationalism:
(3/29/15): God and Country: Resolving Conflicting Concepts of Sovereignty
(5/6/17): Loyalty and Duty in Politics, the Military and Religion
(12/16/17): Can Democracy Survive the Trump Era?
(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