Falwell, Trump, Christianity & Nationalism

Falwell, Trump, Christianity & Nationalism

on January 27, 2016

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr’s endorsement of Donald Trump has provoked important questions about Evangelicals in retail politics. The senior Falwell, of course, was a founder of the Religious Right who helped rally many Evangelicals to Ronald Reagan and to conservative politics in the 1980s. It’s now common among many younger Evangelicals to bemoan the perceived failures and overreach of the old Religious Right. The younger Falwell has been widely critiqued by many conservative Evangelicals for endorsing a casino magnate not renowned for deep commitment to Christian ethical aspirations. Some lament the Evangelical brand has been further tarnished.

Falwell is just one of tens of millions of American Evangelicals. He speaks for a segment of that highly decentralized demographic. Nobody speaks for all, and perhaps no single figure speaks for most. Strong majorities, typically 70-75%, of white Evangelicals, who altogether are about 25% of America, vote Republican. But millions vote for Democrats. Among this cohort of about 80 million, millions of Evangelicals no doubt support Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. This diversity is true for nearly all of America’s faith communities.

Among conservative Evangelicals there are growing apprehensions, sometimes even panic, about the country’s direction. Some, no doubt including many Trump supporters, hope for a strong leader who can steer America in a dramatically different direction. Others are more downbeat or even ambivalent about intense Evangelical political engagement. The senior Falwell was influenced by the influential late Presbyterian thinker and cultural critic Francis Schaeffer, who instructed a generation or two of Evangelical elites to battle for political and cultural reclamation against encroaching secularism. Schaeffer has fallen from favor, and most even well read Evangelical Millennials likely are barely aware of him.

There is no equivalently influential intellectual political counselor among American Evangelicals today at a time when such counsel is more needed than ever.  But there are good resources available, such as the recently published book One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics, by Bruce Ashford of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, co-authored with Chris Pappalardo. (I’ve not yet finished reading it but hope to review it soon!)   Ashford has also been writing some excellent pieces for Canon and Culture, a Southern Baptist online journal, which encapsulate a lot of his perspective, the most recent of which is “The (Religious) Problem With Nationalism.”

Trump has been widely described as a nationalist though Ashford does not mention him in his Christian warning against nationalism, which he describes as an idolatry elevating nation over God.  A commendable patriotism looks “on our country with affection, devotion, and even a measure of pride,” he writes.  “To effectively counter nationalism, we need not love our own nation less; we need only to love, honor, and obey God more.”  He ends hopefully:  “For all of our failings as a country, we still have the opportunity to shape politics through the lens of the gospel.”

These points are very solid.  Where I might press for elaboration is how to apply this Christian political theology to the wider public that is not and never has been universally devout.  I’m also less certain that true nationalism as an ideology has ever been a threateningly powerful force in American politics. Also I wonder if a measured nationalism is not desirable in some historical contexts.

There are many forms of nationalism, not all of them diabolical.  The most infamous and murderous was the Third Reich’s National Socialism.  Somewhat more benign was Franco’s Spanish nationalism, which was authoritarian but not totalitarian and which Catholics supported against anti-Catholic socialists.  Lebanon’s Maronite Catholic Philangists descend from Francoism.  Other forms of Arab nationalisms, often supported by Christians, sought modern unifying alternatives to Muslim theocracy. The most vicious and disastrous forms of Arab nationalism were the Baathist parties of Iraq and Syria, producing Saddam Hussein and the Assads.  Turkey’s Ataturk modernized Turkey with secular nationalism.  Chinese nationalism sought a modernizing unity against feudalism and warlords, founded by Sun Yat-Sen and popularized by Chiang Kai-shek, a Methodist, whose Kuomintang Party still survives in Taiwan.  India gained independence under its nationalist Congress Party, which sought national cohesion under a secular regime aspiring to equality for all religionists and castes.  The main opposition against Congress is the now ruling Hindu party, often distrusted by Christians and Muslims.  The post-WWII Third World anti-colonial struggles were typically led by nationalists, whose rivals were often Marxists.  The nationalists esteemed national identities while the Marxists ostensibly identified with international Communist brotherhood.  Other rivals to nationalism were tribalism.

Patriotism in early America often meant primary loyalty to colony or state.  Early American presidents sought a form of nationalism against local parochialism.  There was no certainty that a national union would survive.  When the Civil War arrived, Confederates like Lee, who reverred Virginia, felt primary allegiance owed to native states.  In that case, a greater nationalism could have been an antidote to disunion and war.

Some nationalisms are rooted in blood and ethnicity. Others have a religious component. Still others are attempts to foster a greater unity that transcends ethnicity and religion. Christians in many cultures have and do support nationalisms in their context as preferable to available political alternatives. Sometimes they are right to do so. Other times, they err, if for understandable reasons.

American versions of nationalism have not often been rooted in ethnicity or religion but in, as Ashford notes, a concept of freedom traceable to our founding documents.  Freedom understood apart from God is potentially dangerous, as Christians should understand.  America’s traditional understanding of freedom descends from a Christian anthropology but can be universally interpreted to affirm dignity and equal rights for all.

It’s very important for theologically literate American Christians to understand subtleties between patriotism and nationalism.  But such distinctions maybe inconsequential to many less observant Christians not to mention the 25-30% of Amercans who are reputedly religiously unaffiliated.  For many of them, a form of nationalism maybe more morally uplifting than hyper individualism or ghettoization into racial, sexual, gender, or economic tribal identities.  A nationalist American will be a better citizen and neighbor than a nihilist, anarchist or indifferent materialist.

Gandhi was a nationalist. So was Nelson Mandela. Both were instruments of Providence who strove to liberate and unite their peoples against ethnic and religious division without conscious (in Gandhi’s case) or strict (in Mandela’s case) adherence to the Christian understanding of nation.  If America becomes more secular and less Christian, some form of nationalism may offer the available threads of continued community and pursuit of the common good. Intra-Christian conversation about God’s purpose for the nation will remain important to the churches but less so for the wider public.

Present controversies among Evangelicals over Jerry Falwell Jr. and Donald Trump  illustrate division and confusion among American Christians over political theology.  But hopefully they will also fuel additional thoughtful analysis by young Evangelical writers like Ashford for counsel to the church and society about our national life together.

  1. Comment by Mike Daniel on January 27, 2016 at 9:21 am

    “Christian political theology” – sometimes I think maybe this very idea is antithetical to Christian discipleship only because “politics” has taken such an ugly tone. I am often torn between my civic duty to be an informed voter and my more profound duty as a witness to the Good News. You’ve given me a great deal to think about. Thank you.

  2. Comment by Paladin on February 10, 2016 at 9:26 pm

    A GREAT DIVIDE indeed.
    No place WITH MAMMON

  3. Comment by gapaul on January 28, 2016 at 1:23 pm

    This week’s lectionary reading from Luke reminds us that the people of Nazareth loved Jesus’ first sermon, until he mentioned stories of Elijah and Elisha, who even when their own people were suffering, healed and fed the “other–” gentiles outside their nation and religion. After Jesus mentioned those stories, his hometown neighbors, fellow countryman and co-religionists, wanted to kill him. It would seem difficult to make a faith-based defense of nationalism or patriotism after that, I think.

  4. Comment by Curt Day on January 28, 2016 at 1:56 pm

    The problem many of us religiously conservative Christians have is that we struggle with distinguishing what makes one righteous in the eyes of God from what makes one righteous in the public square. As a result, too many of us look to share society with others as having privilege over them in determining our laws and mores. Thus, whatever nationalism we choose to embrace will legitimately be seen as oppressive to those who are religiously conservative Christians.

    Also, the division between nationalism and marxism as listed in some examples above gloss over important details. For example, Franco’s nationalism was hardly ‘benign’ considering that it had to undo the Spanish Revolution with its more egalitarian rule through a Civil War in which he obtained support from Nazi Germany. What moderated his autocratic rule was the WW II defeat of the axis powers.

    The “nationalism”of third world nations was not necessarily anti-colonial as colonial. For example, the first effort to defeat the Communists in Vietnam was seen in an attempt to restore Vietnam’s status as a colony of France. After that, it was seen as an effort to stop the reunification of Vietnam by an American invasion with the installment of American friendly dictators.

    In adiition, what some made third world nations battlegrounds between marxists and US sponsored “nationalism” were Marxist revolutions that overthrew US supported dictators, as seen in Nicaragua and Cuba, and democracies that leaned left, as seen in Iran and Chile–though these latter nations could not be classified as third world.

    As for American nationalism, it has always been rooted in racism as seen in our treatment of Native Americans and Blacks.

    Where nationalism can be benign is where people work for the comoon good without causing others to suffer. But once foreign policies come into play, nationalism quickly poisons all who are involved by insisting on relying moral relativity.

  5. Comment by Kingdom Ambassador on February 10, 2016 at 5:22 pm

    Politics cannot be severed from religion anymore than morality can be severed from legislation. One’s political persuasion is a reflection of his morality (or, more often than not, his immorality) and one’s morals determines his religion. Thus, applied politics is applied religion and applied religion is applied politics. It is therefore imperative that we get our religion correct that we might get our politics correct.

    Christians have been confused/bamboozled over religion and politics since circa 1787 when they permitted the 18th-century founders to replace the 17th-century Colonial governments of, by, and for God established upon His immutable moral law for their own humanistic government of, by, and for the people based upon capricious Enlightenment traditions.

    For more on these two polar opposite forms of government, see http://www.bibleversusconstitution.org/BlvcOnline/biblelaw-constitutionalism-pt3.html.

    Then, find out how much you REALLY know about the Constitution as
    compared to the Bible. Take our 10-question Constitution Survey in the right-hand sidebar and receive a complimentary copy of a book that EXAMINES the Constitution by the Bible.

  6. Comment by Art LeBeau on February 10, 2016 at 8:39 pm

    I am a very staunch Christian and I support Trump and every one should vet each candidate and vote for the one who they think will be best for the country. The churches have failed us for years — listen to actually what they teach.
    Any church that is a 50l(c)3 is NOT a true Christian church following the Lord Jesus. I am 82 yrs of age and I delve into these candidates. How many so called evangelical Christians in D.C. truly follow the Lord’s words in what they do? Have any of you checked out Rubio & Cruz? I read that Rafael senior (not jr.) is a preacher & pastor so name me the church he has pastored? Check his background and also of Rafael jr. and his wife Heidi. Problems the same as with Trump –perhaps I am looking at Trump as the “lesser of evil” — you can judge me. Art LeBeau, Villa Ridge, MO (Christian & Conservative)

  7. Comment by Kingdom Ambassador on February 11, 2016 at 8:31 am

    How about the one that best represents God as exclusive sovereign and thus His moral law as supreme?

    See http://www.bibleversusconstitution.org/BlvcOnline/biblelaw-constitutionalism-pt3.html.

  8. Comment by Grundune on February 11, 2016 at 2:43 pm

    How about the one who stays within the jurisdiction granted to us and doesn’t stray into God’s jurisdiction.

  9. Comment by Paladin on February 10, 2016 at 9:27 pm

    Patriotism in early America often meant primary loyalty to colony or state

    FIRST was to JESUS above ALL else, even to get in office it was required to be HIS servant above all else…. IF we but ONLY could as a people realize that this IS the true solution for ALL.

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.