Christianity vs. Christian Nationalism
As a pastor, I’m sensitive to the Christian church’s reputation, which the “Christian” imagery at the U.S. capitol last week did nothing but damage:
A cross (bringing the number of execution instruments to two, as gallows were present also)
“Jesus Saves” and “Jesus 2020” flags
“God, Guns, and Guts Made America, Let’s Keep All Three” signs
Ichthys images (an ancient symbol of Christian identity)
Multiple articles of religious clothing and paraphernalia
This led many Christian leaders to condemn the scene with extra zeal:
President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission Russell Moore said his hands were “trembling with rage” and wrote that “there is no interpretation of [Scripture] that would support murderous and violent insurrection.”
Dean of Yale Divinity School Gregory E. Sterling said he was “horrified as a Christian that these perpetrators were associating Christianity with their misguided efforts.”
Dr. Eric Mason called the events “the opposite of what we are called to do.”
245 faculty members of Wheaton College signed a statement saying, “The behaviors…celebrated in Jesus' name bear absolutely no resemblance to the Christian teachings or ethics that we submit to.”
Christian recording artist Kirk Franklin said, “My stomach hurts every time I see someone with a ‘Jesus’ sign today.”
Author Beth Moore tweeted, “I don’t know the Jesus some have paraded and waved around in the middle of this treachery.”
More leaders must join this chorus if the church is to preserve credibility beyond its present subscribers.
We can start by clarifying that Christian nationalism (especially the iteration of it on display last week) is not Christianity for at least five reasons:
Christian nationalism uses methods Jesus condemned. Jesus said, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). This statement came right after Peter severed a Roman guard’s ear in an attempt to free Jesus from unjust arrest (Matthew 26:51) and forever distanced Christianity from militaristic action. When Christ was pushed, he didn’t push back. When Christian nationalism is pushed, look out below.
Christian nationalism overinvests in human leaders. When people chant “Jesus is my Savior, Trump is my President,” it suggests that Jesus Christ’s leadership and Donald Trump’s leadership are two sides of the same coin in happy cooperation with each other. They are not. (That this needs clarification is itself an indictment.)
Christian nationalism struggles to submit to a government it sees as insufficiently “Christian.” Christians should engage in appropriate political processes as a means of loving our neighbors and securing their flourishing.(1) As we do this, we will inevitably come to diverse (sometimes opposing) political convictions and strategies. None of this prevents us from returning to humble cooperation with the government and each other after completing a political cycle (Romans 13:1). But Christian nationalism cannot vote-then-submit because “God’s will” isn't done until the “right” person is in power. Christianity instructed submission even to the insane Roman emperor Nero (1 Peter 2:17). Christian nationalism mobilizes people against its perceived “Nero” to get “God’s man” in office. (Christian nationalism is also unable to explain why God needs a new man every four years.)
Christian nationalism denies the Christian reality of exile. By definition, Christians are exiles (1 Peter 1:1) and spiritual pilgrims who are unrecognized by the world (1 John 3:13). Though our names are written on passports and driver’s licenses and tax returns, our ultimate citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). We have earthly rights worth exercising (Acts 22:25-28), but, in the end, we “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16). Christianity teaches we are home “there,” but displaced “here.” Christian nationalism insists on being home “there” and “here.”
Christian nationalism tries to accelerate features of the end times. Christians believe in the future return and reign of God on earth in which “every knee will bow” (Philippians 2:10). Describing the coming merger of heaven and earth, John’s apocalypse says, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15). But Christian nationalism cannot bear to wait. The “kingdom of our Lord” (or rather, a pitiful distortion of it) must immediately become the kingdom of this world. Christianity says, “God will institute his government later.” Christian nationalism says, “I will institute (my idea of) his government now.”
Most Christians know this, so when we see mob artists claim the name of Jesus, we think, “That’s not us.”
Unfortunately, it looks like us. Especially when someone kicks in the door of the U.S. capitol holding a multi-denominational Christian flag.
These events require our most explicit words to condemn not only the violence but the ideology that is its permission slip.
Why refute ideology and not just violence?
First, because we are to bring down “every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,” as these rioters failed to do (2 Corinthians 10:5). And we are not to be “taken captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition,” as these rioters managed to do (Colossians 2:8).
Second, because people outside the church are smart enough and curious enough to ask better questions than, “Is the Christian church pro-violence?” Not being pro-violence is a common societal expectation, and the general populace is aware that average Christians aren't moonlighting as flag-grabbers and door-kickers. Rather, they have more in-depth questions about what produces flag-grabbing and door-kicking, like, “What does the Christian church teach? What does it allow? What does it refuse to confront when it involves someone they call attender, member, or donor?”
These are the real questions, and they deserve the real answers. Spiritual generalities about chaos (“Violence is never the way,” “The real problem is sin,” “Jesus is the answer,” etc.) are not enough because they say the ultimate as a method of avoiding the immediate. These statements come across as calculated obvious-isms designed to avoid saying anything clear enough to alienate a constituency.
The "real problem" last week was indeed sin. Its name was Christian nationalism. How embarrassing it would be if we got tongue-tied here, when we seem to have no trouble with specificity regarding other issues.
Some will say of other problems in the world, "What about ____?" But ____ didn't just storm the U.S. capitol building and kill five people while Christian symbolism stood guard. That event was at least assisted by Christian nationalism, s0 the subject deserves its own space.
Let us name the nonsense that tries to tape itself to the name of Jesus and to us, and issue a root-and-branch rejection for the world to hear.
Let us be a church committed to Christ with no competing allegiances, just the integrity that is attractive to every generation in every place.
And let us lose no more credibility with the world we serve.
Unless, of course, we do have a secret allegiance that we can’t see because it’s been there so long. Unless we have turned a love of land and heritage into a twisted, idolized narrative. Unless we did merge Christianity and Americanism into some indistinguishable, human-made mash that we now worship and therefore can't rebuke.
In that case, let us mourn that we've been understood and distrusted rightly.
(1) Justin Giboney, Michael Wear, and Chris Butler, Compassion (&) Conviction: The AND Campaign's Guide to Faithful Civic Engagement (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2o2o).
Garrett Raburn (DEdMin, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; MA, Dallas Theological Seminary) is the pastor of Mission City Church in New York City. Over ten years of ministry he has served as a conference director, young adults pastor, youth minister, and church planter. He and his wife Gabi are expecting parents and live in Brooklyn.