Trading Grace for Power: The Threat of Christian Nationalism
by Robert Crux | 6 December 2022 |
Past generations used Christianity as a prop to support slavery and segregation. It turns out that what was once old has become new again.
With the recent rise of Christian nationalist ideas merging into mainstream American politics (especially over the last two decades), we now see Christianity being used as a prop to support white supremacy and a radical brand of Christianity that supports racial subjugation. The result is that there is a new level of cooperation between evangelical and civic leaders placing Christianity at the center of political influence. More importantly, the Christian nationalist movement sweeping America makes certain assumptions about nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, divine authoritarian control, and militarism that defy constitutional law and the American Bill of Rights.
For Christians, these assumptions fly in the face of how grace is to be lived out in their lives since it is a central concept found throughout the Bible with Micah 6:8, Matthew 7:12, and Colossians 3:12 being just three examples. Is Christian nationalism becoming the new cultural framework through which we filter all questions of Christianity in America? Is that really a problem, or just an abstract worry?
Should religion be political?
A cursory look at the news cycle on the political issues/topics of the day would lead you to believe that religion has been co-opted as a political tool. In fact, it has advanced beyond subtle to obvious, as a growing number of conservative politicians in Congress are either accepting the label or being outwardly supportive of the Christian nationalist cause. Katherine Stewart reminds us that “what today’s Christian nationalists call ‘religious liberty’ is a form of religious privilege—for their kind of religion. But privilege is never free. It always comes at the expense of other people’s rights.”
From the sidelines of mainline politics, many Americans see Christian nationalism as oxymoronic, considering our increasingly pluralistic society with the protection of the 1st and 2nd amendments.
At the same time other Americans, including prominent politicians and state representatives, lament the idea of separation of church and state and proclaim it as “junk,” believing “The church is supposed to direct the government,” and not the other way around. Among the nations on earth, Christian nationalists believe that America is God’s “elect” and must lead the world back to God using its political power to implement God’s laws. Being part of God’s “elect,” Christian nationalists are able to rationalize away the practices of slavery and racial injustice, citing ancient Israel as their model and example.
Encyclopedia Britannica says nationalism is “an ideology based on the premise that the individual’s loyalty and devotion to the nation-state surpasses other individual or group interests.” In “Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States,” Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry define Christian nationalism as “a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems — that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life.…”
The problem with any nationalist movement (Christian or otherwise) is that when nationalists go about constructing their nation, they must define who is and who is not part of that nation. It is this process of determining who is a part of a nation where nationalism is equated with patriotism. A misunderstanding of the difference between patriotism and nationalism has caused many people to fall in line with this movement, perceiving loyalty to their country as top priority above everything else.
Nationalist movements always have a preferred cultural template that the masses must adhere to. Dissidents and minorities who do not or cannot conform to the preferred cultural template are marginalized and viewed as enemies of the state. Further, Christian nationalism has a history of violence. Such movements, including religious nationalism, have employed or induced violence to accomplish their goals for God and country. Christian nationalists had no qualms about arming themselves in the January 6 insurrection, believing they were doing God’s will to save America.
Grace vs. fear
Many people have been willing to trade personal freedoms and benefits away for what is perceived as safety and peace of mind. But now many conservative politicians and theological conservatives are ready to take the next step: to trade away the gift of grace in exchange for political power. In America’s culture wars, political leaders and people of influence have learned to change the hearts and minds of the masses by generating hate and fear towards “the other.”
Christian nationalism is no different; it comes with the rules of ungrace. Giving grace to others can be hard, especially when you have been primed to feel like the other person is evil or that they don’t deserve it because of their racial and ethical identity; or because they follow or support a different religion, ideology, or view of God and/or America. You must be willing to trade away your own grace and kindness to fellow citizens, Christians, and fellow church members to accomplish God’s will on earth and take back America for God by any means possible.
God wants us to live lives of grace and peace toward each other regardless of our differences of politics, opinions, and beliefs. 2 Peter 1 says,
Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness” (vss. 2-3).
You cannot exhibit grace and hate someone else at the same time, can you? Is it possible to generate conspiracy theories, fear, and hate-mongering towards others and at the same time live out the grace of God in your life? Joining the ranks of political and theological conservatives who seek political power involves a personal cost in your relationship with God. To do the work of the Christian nationalist you must deny the central theme of grace found in throughout the Bible and in the life of Christ.
Amazingly, the grace of God is more than salvation (Ephesians 2:8); it’s also everything we need for life and godliness. This new relationship with God and Christ leads to a transformed life that works for God. It is through grace that God works effective change in our hearts and lives, not for some later date but immediately. Through God’s grace we are forgiven, transforming our thinking, resulting in the renewal of our hearts and minds. Through grace we live the kind of life that God would like every one of His children to experience. A life of grace and compassion towards others.
Power without grace
So what happens when you are willing to trade grace for political power? What if, by using that political power, you can transform the United States into a “Christian” nation by legislation and social engineering techniques? Influencing church leaders, recruiting, and grooming school board members, changing school curriculums, helping to elect politicians who support the movement’s agenda—in these, grace and honesty is obscured by manipulation and misrepresentation. More and more Christians are joining the ranks of the Christian nationalist movement and endorsing its political agenda without realizing that grace must be diminished or given up entirely.
Without the grace of God active in our lives, there is no such a thing as Christianity. When religion is confused with politics bad things happen. C.S. Lewis says,
I think almost all the crimes which Christians have perpetrated against each other arise from this, that religion is confused with politics. For, above all other spheres of human life, the Devil claims politics for his own, as almost the citadel of his power.
Yancey amplifies the above Lewis quote when he says,
C.S. Lewis observed that almost all crimes of Christian history have come about when religion is confused with politics. Politics, which always runs by the rules of ungrace, allures us to trade away grace for power, a temptation the church has often been unable to resist.
Yancey believes that “the confusion of politics with religion is one of the greatest barriers to grace.”
With Christian nationalism, the message of the gospel gets co-opted for nationalistic purposes. Confusing the mission of the church with the machinations of a political group is bearing false witness to the world and is a misrepresentation of who Jesus really is. The mission and purpose of the church is not to legislate faith to “make America great,” but to “make Christ known.”
As an example of one the many un-Christlike positions that Christian nationalists have taken, Whitehead and Perry found that
for the Christian nationalists, keeping refugees on the other side of a wall takes precedence over caring, feeding and seeking social justice for migrants, acts of love that many would associate with Christianity.
Indeed, Christian nationalism is a “hollow and deceptive philosophy that depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world, rather than on Christ.”
Even though white supremacy and patriarchy are at the root of the Christian nationalist movement, many Americans believe in some or all the Christian nationalist beliefs. Some statistics from the book Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, helps us understand the support given by various segments of the American population:
- 52% of Americans agree with some or all Christian nationalist beliefs.
- 65% of African Americans are supportive of Christian nationalism
- 88% of Christian nationalists are white evangelical Protestants. Among evangelical Protestants, 80% agree with Christian nationalism.
- 80% of Republicans are supportive of Christian nationalism and just over one third of Democrats are.
- 75% of those Americans who disagree with Christian nationalism are non-Christians.
These statistics show that certain segments of American Christianity have become shameless in their overt and vocal support of white supremacy. Related beliefs, including xenophobia, antisemitism, sexism, and heterosexism, are part of the Christian nationalism package that has been proclaimed under the banner of Jesus and Trump in the most recent general election 2020.
Christian nationalists and extreme right-wing politicians have a symbiotic relationship where they need each other to attain/maintain political power. In the current political culture, very few Republican politicians can achieve power and influence without effectively acting as agents for Christian nationalism.
The Republican party has embraced Christian nationalism primarily because of its power in the voting booth. Similar views supporting the “rigged 2020 election conspiracy,” abortion, gun rights, patriarchy, and making America great again by working to define it as a Christian nation help to make the political conservatives and Christian nationalists comfortable bedfellows.
Another reason the above statistics show substantial support for Christian nationalism is their use of churches and religious institutions as sites for mobilizing political and civic engagement. As a result, there is a real possibility at some churches that when you arrive at your weekly church service, Bible study group meeting, or a prayer meeting, a political rally breaks out instead.
Waging war for God?
Believing that “the nation is on the brink of moral decay” and that “God requires the faithful to wage wars for good” is the driving force behind the Christian nationalist movement.
Are Seventh-day Adventists ready to support a political movement that is ready to wage wars for what they consider to be God’s issues? Where does the admonition of Zachariah 4:6, “Not by might nor by power but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts,” fit into this picture? What kind of God is Christian nationalism reflecting to the nation?
Whitehead and Perry identify that one of the key predictors of those supporting Christian nationalism is the “belief that God requires the faithful to wage war for good, and the belief in the rapture.”
Real people whom we care about are being exploited by a political power broker masquerading as a religion. Many Seventh-day Adventists who have had a long tradition of supporting conservative politics should have cause for concern in consideration of the growing and purposeful alignment of right-wing politics with Christian nationalism.
Michael W. Campbell, speaking for the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists Ministerial Association, says “this kind of Christian Nationalism is the type Adventists have spoken of prophetically. Unfortunately, many Adventists are caught up or involved in it.” It can be argued that extreme-right politicians are fast evolving into a new Republican party that is willing to advance the cause of white supremacy, racial subjugation, and dominionism.
How will Adventists respond to a movement that goes beyond being patriotic, to trying to impose Christianity in the public sphere? Placing one’s political, tribal, national, or Christian identity ahead of one’s faith reminds us of what happened with the Rwandan genocide in 1994 when Adventists killed fellow Adventists. It is a sad reminder of what extremist views can do when motivated by hate and fear, and a difficult lesson to learn about politics and how the hunger for power can turn the hearts of fellow church members against each other.
The Adventist stand?
Finding ourselves in a similar political context today, Adventists have cause to reflect on who they are and what it is that truly defines them as followers of Jesus Christ. Is it grace or the desire for power and influence under the guise of a politicized Christianity? Is our faith making us complicit with the harm done to the vulnerable and marginalized of society? Does our faith inform our politics, realizing that all politics is about who is benefiting and who is being harmed? Could it be that too many people of faith are willing to attribute the power of the gospel to the ideology of Christian nationalism, rather than see it as the political movement that it is? Faith is powerful, and that is why Christian nationalism is so dangerous.
As Seventh-day Adventists, we have a responsibility to do more than simply stand back and affirm our separation of church-state understanding. Presently, the single biggest threat to America’s religious freedom is Christian nationalism. We need to speak out boldly against the alignment of faith with politics.
Most importantly, we need to make the case that there is a difference between Christianity and Christian nationalism. The former is a grace-filled religion; the latter is a threat to our freedoms and our democracy which ultimately leads to an authoritarian graceless society. God’s kingdom is not of this world. He is a God of love and grace and longs to make each person as His own. The quest for power that the Christian nationalist movement seeks is antithetical to Jesus ‘message. Only grace brings hope and transformation to a troubled world.
- Stewart, Katherine. The Power Worshippers. Bloomsbury Publishing, New York, 2019, p. 235. ↑
- Whitehead, Andrew L. and Perry, Samuel L. Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. p.10. ↑
- Lewis, C.S. Yours, Jack: Spiritual Direction by C.S. Lewis. Harper One: 2008. ↑
- Yancey, Philip. What’s So Amazing About Grace? Zondervan: 2002. p.233. ↑
- Whitehead and Perry, p. 163. ↑
- Ibid. p.25, 41-43. ↑
- Ibid. p.12. ↑
Robert D. Crux, Ed.S, worked as a teacher, principal, and superintendent of schools over a period of 35 years in Adventist education before retiring in 2016 to Lawton, Michigan, where he enjoys writing, reading, biking, model railroading, and most of all his grandchildren.