Nearly two decades ago, religion scholar Richard W. Fox wrote a history book entitled Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession. That subtitle, minus the “personal savior” part, sums up the appeal of Christian Nationalism, which is, in the final analysis, nothing more than saying that God is on our side – and always has been.
It is useful to understand that what we now call Christian Nationalism is neither new nor just something limited to evangelical or conservative Christians. Indeed, in my mainstream midwestern Catholic church, we had two flags in our sanctuary, the American flag and the Papal flag. It was always important for Christians of all sort to show that, whatever their commitment to their particular version of Christianity, they were loyal Americans. The motto of my graduate school is “God, Country, Notre Dame.”
There have, of course, been Christian leaders who worried about the tendency to confuse the message of Jesus with the imperial reality of American history and life. In 1983, three Protestant evangelical Christian scholars, George Marsden, Mark Noll, and Nathan Hatch, wrote The Search for Christian America, a book trying to correct the often-heard statement that American was a Christian nation. It was, before its time, an attack on the idea of Christian Nationalism a generation before that term was widely used.
As a student of nationalism — my dissertation was a study of the work of Hans Kohn, the major student of nationalism in Cold War America — I learned that the “Idea of Nationalism” (title of one of Kohn’s books) is one that places loyalty to the nation-state above all other loyalties. As a forty-five-year member of a mainline denomination (Presbyterian), I am puzzled to the point of perturbation by the phrase “Christian Nationalism,” which is really an oxymoron.
Mainline churches and their congregants must do the following to disassociate themselves from the basic premise of Christian nationalism in order to preserve the very message of Jesus:
- Remind their members and others that Jesus was not a Jewish nationalist, even though some of his followers wanted him to be the King who would free them from Roman rule;
- Remember that the Gospels, especially those of Luke and Matthew (25:31-46) portray Jesus as a person committed to serving the sick, the poor, and the outcasts of society – not the puppet Jewish rulers of the nation who turned him over to the Romans for execution;
- Recall that the strongest message in the New Testament is the need for inclusion, as illustrated by the ever-popular stories of the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, and the conversations Jesus had with the woman at the well and with the woman caught in adultery;
- Reject as aberrations those elements of Christian history, such as the Crusades of the Middle Ages and the killing of heretics and witches, that stand in direct contrast to the teachings of Jesus, who was in the habit of not judging people but instead telling them to “go and sin no more.”
- Repeat in our private and public lives the love for all manifested in the life of Jesus.
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