It’s fashionable now to denounce “Christian nationalism.” Recently a group of mostly liberal Protestant clerics condemned it, somewhat superficially, as what they denounce, almost nobody defends, and what they defend, almost nobody opposes. Here are some of their bromides:
People of all faiths and none have the right and responsibility to engage constructively in the public square.
Patriotism does not require us to minimize our religious convictions.
One’s religious affiliation, or lack thereof, should be irrelevant to one’s standing in the civic community.
Government should not prefer one religion over another or religion over nonreligion.
Religious instruction is best left to our houses of worship, other religious institutions and families.
America’s historic commitment to religious pluralism enables faith communities to live in civic harmony with one another without sacrificing our theological convictions.
Who disagrees? Allegedly unnamed “Christian nationalists.” What is Christian nationalism?” According to these liberal clerics:
Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian. It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation. We reject this damaging political ideology and invite our Christian brothers and sisters to join us in opposing this threat to our faith and to our nation.
Further, they warn:
We must stand up to and speak out against Christian nationalism, especially when it inspires acts of violence and intimidation—including vandalism, bomb threats, arson, hate crimes, and attacks on houses of worship—against religious communities at home and abroad.
Who are these violent Christian nationalists? They don’t say, which seems like an important omission.
Today there’s a more sophisticated denunciation of conservative nationalism endorsed by prominent liberal Christian academics, including Cornel West and Stanley Hauerwas. It equates nationalism with xenophobia and chauvinism. Significantly, although it laments some Christians have endorsed nationalism, it does not cite “Christian nationalism,” perhaps because its signers realize such an alleged movement is hard to identify and define.
I’ve never met a “Christian nationalist,” so I was interested to read this column by an author who does so self-identify. He mostly makes defensible points about Christianity’s important role in American history and culture. He claims that Christian nationalists, whom he doesn’t name, are merely pushing back against aggressive secularization. And he argues against “religious neutrality.” His version of Christian nationalism includes:
1) a recognition that Christianity has had a unique and privileged influence on our American heritage that overshadows the influences of other faith traditions, 2) a conviction that a Christian understanding of the world should predominate over other worldviews in American civic life, and 3) an understanding that a nation that successfully excised or sufficiently diluted this influence could no longer be called “American” in the same sense as before.
Claiming “privilege” for Christianity in America is problematic. The Gospel seeks to redeem and serve, not “privilege” its adherents. Part of the Gospel’s service is transforming society so that all people are seen as image bearers of God. Nearly all critics of “Christian nationalism” like nearly all Americans wants laws and social standards affirming equality for all races and ethnicities, for men and women, while protecting the poor, the young, the old the sick and vulnerable, and granting free speech and conscience rights, including religious liberty, to all. These expectations, which would’ve astounded pagans of antiquity, are profoundly rooted in Christian anthropology, which asserts each person is created equally before God, has an eternal personhood bearing His image, and will stand before His judgment.
Are these Christian inspired laws and social expectations examples of Christian “privilege?” No, but they demonstrate how America, because it’s been demographically Christian, has of course been shaped by Gospel standards and expectations, however unevenly. Our laws and standard of human dignity are not imposed from above so much as are they are fruit of long-standing Christian influenced popular belief. And even if all Americans claimed to become atheist tomorrow, these beliefs, the fruit and habits of centuries, would not disappear quickly. Long-standing national character is not erased easily.
Is sustaining a Christian ethos about human dignity an example of “Christian nationalism?” Presumably the critics would say no. They imagine and fear a religious and political movement, whose leaders and adherents are largely unnamed, that literally wants to privilege Christianity in law and custom so that non-Christians and heterodox Christians are less than fully equal.
If such a Christian nationalism actually exists as a significant force, it should be denounced and resisted. But where is it? Who are its followers and leaders? Where is its literature? Where does it meet? These questions need detailed answers if this movement really merits denunciation and resistance.