Against Christian nationalism

In the latest issue of Christianity Today, one article deals with Christian nationalism by surveying three books on the phenomenon. The article offers up about as good a summary of the plague of Christian nationalism in America that I’ve yet seen:

… a movement committed to preserving its own privilege and power, favoring the interests of native-born white people over immigrants and ethnic minorities, and using legal authority to impose a Christianized moral order.

The article explains:

In the mid-2000s, it was fashionable among journalists and academics to worry that America was on the verge of becoming a theocracy. Conservative white evangelicals had fueled the election of George W. Bush and helped turn Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ into a box-office smash. They seemed poised for renewed political and cultural dominance. And so books and articles poured forth warnings about the peculiar dangers of “Dominionism,” “Christian Reconstructionism,” and various other movements conspiring to impose Christian beliefs on an unsuspecting populace.

This narrative came crashing down with the election of Barack Obama. Almost overnight, fears of America descending into a theocracy evaporated. Pundits began forecasting the death of the Religious Right, and the same evangelicals who had helped propel Bush to power spent the next eight years playing defense. More and more, they saw themselves not as ascendant governing partners but as targets of a crusading secularism.

And then Donald Trump broke everything. His surprising election, enabled in part by white evangelical support, reawakened fears that religious conservatives would mobilize underneath a theocratic banner. Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which imagines a fundamentalist dystopia where women are forced to breed, enjoyed a second life repurposed as a Trump-era cautionary tale (and a hit Netflix series).

Yet the idea of America descending into a genuine theocracy lacked the same surface plausibility it had during the Bush years. Though white evangelicals enthusiastically carried Trump into the White House, his lack of personal piety made him an unlikely candidate to preside over a thoroughly Christianized commonwealth. Nor, by and large, did his evangelical supporters mistake him for a godly statesman. Rather than King David, Trump was Cyrus, the pagan Persian emperor who, after conquering Babylon, allowed the Israelite captives to resettle in their homeland and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

Still, with Trump in office, the political fortunes of religious conservatives appeared to improve. This set the stage for a new journalistic and academic preoccupation: uncovering why white evangelicals flocked so fervently to Trump. The books and articles that typify this genre still feature concerns about conservative Christians manipulating the levers of power. But with the specter of full-dress theocracy having dimmed—and with Trump styling himself more as a champion of American greatness than a vindicator of the faith—attention has shifted to a distinct but overlapping phenomenon: Christian nationalism.

There is a generational shift in conservative Christianity. Older Christians, who lived through the heyday of the Religious Right, Jerry Falwell, Sr., James Dobson and the Moral Majority, are often confused about why younger Christians (including younger pastors) don’t echo the Christian nationalism that arguably had its last meaningful victory in the second election of George W. Bush. Some argue that Christian nationalism had its most grotesque perversion of principle in the election of Donald J. Trump.

Russel Moore explained some of this generational shift in his 2015 book Onward:

The typical younger pastor is less partisan than his predecessor, less likely to speak from the pulpit about “mobilizing” voters and “reclaiming Judeo-Christian values” through political action and economic boycotts. This is not because he is evolving leftward. It is because he wants to keep Christianity Christian. As a matter of fact, the center of evangelical Christianity today is, theologically speaking, well to the right of the old Religious Right.

It’s true that the typical younger pastor of a growing urban or suburban church doesn’t look like his cuff-linked or golf-shirted forefather. But that doesn’t mean he’s a liberal. He might have tattoos, yes, but they aren’t of Che Guevara. They’re of Hebrew passages from Deuteronomy.

His congregation’s statement of faith isn’t the generic sloganeering of the last generations’ doctrinally oozy consumerist evangelical movements, but is likely a lengthy manifesto with points and subpoints and footnotes rooted in one of the great theological traditions of the historic church …

He is pro-life and pro-marriage, although he is likely to speak of issues like homosexuality in theological and pastoral terms rather than in rhetoric warning of “the gay agenda.” Unlike the typical Bible Belt congregation of the twentieth century, the new kind of evangelical church has strict membership requirements, both in terms of what it takes to enter the believing community and what it takes to say there. There aren’t likely to be four-year-olds baptized after repeating sinner’s prayers in a backyard Bible club, and the unrepentant often face what their parents never seemed to notice in their red-and-black-lettered Bibles: excommunication. If this is liberalism, let’s have more of it.”

Onward by Russell Moore; Kindle Location 363-377.

Amen to all that.

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