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By Rev. Justin Smoot, special to Wausau Pilot & Review
When we witnessed the events of Jan. 6, there were some things that stood out to me. Images of a person holding a bible aloft as the Capitol was breached. Pictures of a rough, lumber cross erected outside the building. Video of those who entered the Senate Chamber invoking the name of Jesus and praying for the “white light of love, [God’s] white light of harmony” to fill the Senate chamber, and thanking “the divine, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent creator God” for allowing them to, “get rid of the communists, the globalists, and the traitors within our government.”
This is the core of Christian Nationalism. It understands that God is directly at work in and through the politics of our nation, both domestically and internationally. Christian Nationalism believes that God’s relationship with people has taken on a specific and unique character in this country, and looks to the faith of the founders and parallels between the Bible and the Constitution as proof that this nation is favored above and against all other nations. This makes every movement to “save” or “restore” democracy to take on the character of a religious crusade.
The lure of Christian Nationalism starts, innocuously enough, with patriotism. There is nothing inherently wrong about pride for one’s country, standing for the Pledge of Allegiance, or singing “God Bless America.” In fact, there is a lot of good that comes when we are active and engaged citizens who love, serve, and tell the story of our country. We may even feel that our national service is done in fulfillment of our God given vocations in life.
The line between patriotism and nationalism is crossed when the pride you have for your nation becomes hate and derision for other nations. When the changes brought about by the processes outlined in the very constitution that we love are seen as attacks on the heart of the nation. It is one thing to celebrate the history of our nation, but another to ignore and overlook failures or missteps we have made, staying willfully ignorant of the lessons that history wants to teach us. Nationalism is a “love it or leave it” mentality that worships the nation as the greatest good in the world.
Christian Nationalism, then, considers this greatest good to be worthy of our worship because it was instituted by God for the benefit for the world. Christian Nationalists tap into both the zeal of Christian martyrs and the Founder’s conviction in pursuit of this political ideology. The idolatrous divination of the nation and it’s symbols force them to carry the weight of national unity and salvation. This is why the inclusion of both the Pledge of Allegiance and Prayer in Public schools are pushed in civic conversations. It is why the National Anthem played at the beginning of sporting events has been a source of social and political unrest. It is why many people insist that all oaths of office be sworn on a Bible and not on any other document.
For Christian Nationalists, Isaiah 9 and Romans 13 are foundational biblical texts. In speaking of the future, righteous king of Israel, Isaiah writes “authority rest upon his shoulders.” Often times this the translated ‘government’ and due to the connection with Jesus birth is misinterpreted as Jesus being the de facto political king, despite his protestations in John 18, “my kingdom is not of this world.” There is also Romans 13, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” While this could take many volumes to exegete and contextualize, it is one thing to move from a plural, non-specific authorities to a singular, specific authority instituted by God.
Combining these interpretations with the fact that the Founder’s inclusion of “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” creates an intellectual nexus where the rights of human beings and the government they are founding are both endowed and instituted by the same God who created them. When this is placed on top of the search for religious freedom which was part of why the Puritans left England, and the general freedom of religious that existed among the Thirteen Colonies, it begins to paint a picture that upholds the assumption that God directly created the Unites States of America because of its focus on Christian faith and freedom.
One of the major points that Christian Nationalists intentionally overlook is that there are the character of the Deist faith that many of the founders espoused was focused more on the “natural laws” that a Creator God set into place and lets run without intervention. This is a radically different faith than the often “evangelical” Christianity traditions where Christian Nationalists fellowship. While there are parallels that can be drawn between the Constitution, laws of this nation, and the Bible, Christian Nationalists quickly overlook or minimize other influences on the Founders, like the optimism of the European Enlightenment, the Magna Carta and British Common Law, and the Philosophy of Montisque, Locke, and Blackstone.
Shifting the entire nation underneath the umbrella of “God’s institution” involves, and indeed heavily relies upon, the myopic parallels drawn between the founding documents of this country and the Bible. If there are clear lines between the Bible and the Constitution/Founders, then a nation created by people can be cast as a religious nation. If a religious nation, founded upon the God of the Bible, then a reestablished Kingdom of Israel, subject to the covenantal relationship with the God of Israel, whose leadership’s faith has a clear role in the destiny of the nation.
There is some honor and influence that our nation has gained in being the oldest surviving constitutional republic, the American Experiment has been a role model and guide for many nations as they transitioned into a more democratic form of government. Sometimes John Winthrop’s phrase “shining city upon a hill” is used as an image of the uniqueness of this nation, and was repeated several times by legislators in the aftermath of the attempted coup on January 6. Winthrop, however, was addressing the puritans as they endeavored to create their own theocratic colony, free of external, state-based strictures. But, the ultimate source for the quotation that is regularly used to direct the hearers to all the ways that the world looks to this nation comes from the Beatitudes, “the city on a hill cannot be hidden.” (Matthew 5). Jesus’ description of what the community founded upon him is to be has become idiomatic of our style of government. A constant re-contextualization of the history of our nation with an anachronistic theological lens.
It does not hurt the case for Christian Nationalism that prominent leaders have used language to reinforce the connection between faith and the nation. “All must admit that the reception of the teachings of Christ results in the purest patriotism, in the most scrupulous fidelity to public trust, and in the best type of citizenship.” Grover Cleveland words highlight the core of Christian nationalism, that only Christians make good citizens. Whatever the context of these words, the superlatives he uses essentially disqualifies people of other faiths from being a trustworthy patriot and citizen.
The end result of Christian Nationalism is not to move the character of the nation closer to the character of Christ, but to infuse the story of our nation with a divine mandate for its structure, continued existence, and actions. Any opposition to political positions are countered with moral and theological arguments because from a Christian Nationalistic perspective, they are one and the same. This is why the Cold War was more than nuclear standoff between nations, it was a theological showdown between Christianity and Atheism. It is why, “In God We Trust,” replaced, “E Plurbus Unum” as our national motto. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union, America and Christianity were shown to be victorious. Any criticism of this version of history becomes a criticism and an attack on Christianity.
What does this mean for Christians who do not consider themselves to be Christian Nationalists?
We have a difficult road ahead. We have to remember that fact that our Baptism unites us with Baptized believers across national boundaries, which will make us sound like globalists. Our faith is placed in Christ Jesus, not any nation, which is intended to make us more like Jesus rather than any, particular political party. It requires us to know our history and government to be able to articulate the ways our faith challenges our nation. Ultimately, we need to remember what Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.” (Matthew 6) Christian nationalists have chosen nation over God and we need to see their religious fervor for what it is, idolatry and using God’s name for their vain, political ends.
Rev. Justin Smoot
Rev. Justin Smoot is one of the pastors at Saint Andrew Lutheran Church in Rib Mountain. He is always on the lookout for how God’s story turns our lives upside down and draws us closer together.