Bill Lockwood: Christian Nationalism?
by Bill Lockwood
A new bogeyman has supposedly made an entrance in the American scene: Christian Nationalism. Multitudes of Christians – specifically white people who support the Republican Party platform–are said to be in its clutches. The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), a humanist organization that attacks all things Christian, co-founded by atheist Dan Barker and whose board boasts rabid anti-Christian heavy-weights such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, summarized what the concept means in a 2007 article by Michelle Goldberg.
She explains that it is a political ideology masquerading as a faith. Christian Nationalism basically holds that America was founded as a Christian nation, that the founders never intended to separate church and state, and that church/state separation is a lie and a fraud perpetrated by secularists in the last 100 years, which has to be undone so America can reclaim its ‘former glory.’
Christian Nationalism is the charge against those who believe America was founded as a “Christian Nation.” Goldberg worries that “this movement” seeks to “Christianize all the institutions of American life, from the schools to the judiciary to the federal government, the presidency, Congress, etc.” A similar screed by FFRF (10-14-19) blasted former Attorney General William Barr with “Christian Nationalism” for referring to the values upon which our nation was founded as “Judeo-Christian” ethics.
A 2017 booklet entitled Christian Nationalism in the United States, edited by Mark T. Edwards, a professor of US History and Politics at Spring Arbor University in Michigan, likens Christian Nationalism to the belief that America is a “Christian Nation,” even when the verbiage itself is absent. The accusation includes that even in the early 19th century, “lettered men and women were ‘reinventing’ the United States as a Christian nation. Outspoken Christian nationalists like Justice Joseph Story joined [Alexis de] Tocqueville in solidifying the Pilgrims and the Puritans as the foundation of religious and political liberty present in antebellum America.”
Kevin Kruse, professor of history at Princeton University, in his book, One Nation Under God (2015), makes the identical accusation against conservatives. George S. Benson, long-time president of Harding University, is heavily criticized for having advanced the cause of “religious nationalism.” The thesis of Kruse’s book is that America was “re-branded” as a “Christian Nation” in the 20th century. The chief culprits for such a plot were the religious professors, conservative politicians, and preachers, including Harding’s National Education Program, headed by Benson.
Fred Schwarz, the Baptist preacher from Australia who began the Christian Anti-Communism Crusade, who worked in the same fields as did Benson’s NEP, is also called out by Kruse for pressing “religious nationalism.” As a matter of fact, the NEP’s model of a nation which is founded upon a “Fundamental Belief in God,” is singled out by Kruse for harsh criticism as being completely erroneous (p. 71).
The Christian Nationalism charge was picked up by Christianity Today in an article by Michael Horton (What Are Evangelicals Afraid of Losing? 8-31-2018). In it he lambasts preachers and professors who are on board with President Trump’s “America First” agenda as, “courting political power and happily” allowing “themselves to be used by it.” “This always happens when the church confuses the kingdom of Christ with the kingdoms of this present age. Jesus came not to jump-start the theocracy in Israel, much less to be the founding father of any other nation.” That which is “at stake” here, according to Horton, is “whether evangelical Christians place their faith more in Caesar and his kingdom than in Christ and his reign.”
Christian Nationalism in the churches of Christ?
From here the idea has been uncritically picked up and repeated in articles by members of the churches of Christ. In a blog entitled, For King, Not Country, Brian Casey (7-8-2020) informs us that “’Christian Nationalism’ is a contradiction in terms. ‘God and country’ is a misleading amalgamation.” “Things get very confused as Christian and national identities are blended indiscriminately and ignorantly. The mixture is so toxic to the Christian life…”
He introduces the article by criticizing with heavy-hand Harding’s George Benson for the mistake of confusing the church and the country. “…he promulgated the false marriage of the Kingdom of God (and the ideal of Harding) with the political machine of the United States. The National Education Program became the center of conservative political activism.” The madness in America today could have been avoided, says Casey, if Benson “not merged” nationalistic ideals” with “Christianity.”
Benson, the tireless missionary to China and president of Harding College, according to Casey even confused evangelism for Christ with “making America safe for democracy.” This is an “ill-blended mindset,” he intones.
Now comes The Christian Chronicle with articles written by Bobby Ross, Jr. (10-30-2020; 1-13-21) which carries the same ill-informed charges of Christian Nationalism against members of the churches of Christ who happen to be conservative Trump supporters. Interviewed in the articles are a number of ministers and church workers. The recent rash of attention on the topic is supposedly because some Trump supporters rioted and broke into the Capitol building on January 6. But that wrong-doing merely highlights a much more sinister sin, per these ministers.
Jeremie Beller, congregational minister of the Wilshire church of Christ in Oklahoma City and adjunct professor at OCU, repeats the Michael Horton charge (Christianity Today) that “Christian nationalism is the intertwining of the Kingdom of God with the kingdoms of men.”
Tanya Smith Brice is the dean of the College of Professional Studies at Bowie State University in Maryland. She gravely warned that Christian Nationalism is a “form of civil religion that places one’s earthly citizenship above one’s obligation as a follower of Christ.” Those who do this “falsely” give to a “nation-state a Messianic identity.” The “nation-state” is seen as the “primary mechanism for ‘saving’ human history.”
Tanya Smith Brice, who is black, now levels the racist charge. “White evangelicals are more likely to support the oppressive class and behaviors of our current federal administration than those who don’t identify as White evangelical.” She then remarks, “Christian nationalism has become inextricably linked with White Supremacy.”
Lee Camp, professor of theology as David Lipscomb University, goes so far as to say that this Christian Nationalism is “idolatry.”
Melvin Otey, former U.S. Justice Department trial lawyer for the Obama Administration and law professor at Faulkner University, says that “People believe that being an American or being a patriot or being a part of a political party is part of their faith. It absolutely is not. That’s what keeps people divided.” He admonishes with words of the apostle Paul, that we are “citizens of heaven.” Says Otey, “we have too many people in the church who aspire to be Christian Republicans, Christian Democrats …Their alliances and their allegiances are not first and foremost to Christ.”
Divided allegiances; white supremacy; confusing the church with Americanism; mistaking missionary activity for Christ for Americanism; idolatry invented in the 20th century—a heavier list of dark sins is hard to be found.
What Shall We Say to These Things?
First, America was founded as a Christian Nation. This is no “re-invention” by later generations, for the Founding generation spoke almost with one voice on this topic. It is noteworthy that celebrated authors such as Kevin Kruse of Princeton, in his One Nation Under God, hardly takes a glance at what the founding generation of Americans actually said. He assumes that in the mid-20th century the entire concept was invented, and he moves forward from there.
When our Founding Fathers referred to this nation, as “Christian Nation,” as did John Jay, one of authors of Federalist Papers, they did not intend that this be understood in the sense that an official church had been established, or that a “Theocracy” was in place, but rather that the principles upon which our republic rests were Christian in origin. Benjamin Morris, a second-generation American, in surveying the mass of material on this topic, summarized:
“Christianity is the principle and all-pervading element, the deepest and most solid foundation, of all our civil institutions. It is the religion of the people—the national religion; but we have neither an established church nor an established religion.”
Some of founders even referred to America as a “Christian Republic.” That generation demonstrated this by the fact that they adorned public buildings with biblical symbols such as Moses crossing Red Sea; or Moses holding tablets of stone carved on the building of the Supreme Court; or that the state papers of the Continental Congress that are filled with Christianity.
One of the formative laws of the United States, listed in the U.S. Code, is the Declaration of Independence. It reads more like a theological statement that a political thesis. Our republic posited that rights come from God and that the single role of government is to protect what God gave us, inclusive of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Republic itself is an outgrowth of Christian principles.
Roger Sherman, from Connecticut, one of the most influential of the founders, having signed not only the Declaration of Independence, but the Articles of Confederation as well as the Constitution. He wrote to Samuel Baldwin in 1790 that “his faith in the new republic was largely because he felt it was founded on Christianity as he understood it.”
Joseph Story, a jurist who served on the Supreme Court during the founding era and wrote the first lengthy Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, commented as follows:
Probably at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, and of the amendment to it now under consideration, the general, if not the universal sentiment was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the state, so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience and the freedom of religious worship. An attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation.
The Supreme Court in numerous cases has referred to this as “A Christian Nation.” Most notable is the 1892 case entitled The Church of the Holy Trinity v. The United States. Here the Court packed its decision with a litany of precedents from American history to establish “this is a religious people, … this is a Christian Nation.”
The First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion …” simply forbade the establishment of an official National Denomination in the sense of a state church supported by federal taxes. Fisher Aimes, who offered the wording of the Amendment, makes clear from his original version that “religion” meant “a single Christian denomination.” This is also how Thomas Jefferson understood the Amendment in his comment upon it in which he used the phrase “separation of church and state.”
Even Justice Anthony Kennedy in 1989 expressed the same.
It was never intended by the Constitution that the government should be prohibited from recognizing religion …The Christian religion was always recognized in the administration of canon law, and so far that the law continues to be the law of the land, the fundamental principles of that religion must continue to be recognized … (County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573).
The charge therefore that our Founders desired “Christian Nationalism” because they spoke of a Christian Nation reveals a fundamental misunderstanding. The modern pretension misfires completely by suggesting that some of our brethren have been guilty of “re-inventing history” when they point to a Christian foundation of America.
Second, the blanket charge that great evangelists of modern times, such as George Benson, somehow confused the kingdom of God, or heavenly reward, with a Christian America is flagrant falsehood. I challenge any of these who make such an outlandish charge to produce one statement from Benson or James D. Bales, who also worked for the National Education Program, or any other prominent evangelist such as Baptist Fred Schwarz, who has made any statement that remotely resembles these accusations.
The truth is, our modern-day professorships completely misunderstand the concept of a Christian Nation. The reason our founders desired to have a nation established on a Christian principles was that it provided—for the first time in modern history—a zone of order established upon the fundamental concepts that God provided us our rights, including life, liberty, and property—that the government was merely an institution designed to protect those rights.
And instead of inventing charges of “Christian Nationalism” against fellow Christians, as if someone somewhere wishes to establish a theocracy where an official State Church would rule, I would like one of these ministers to take in hand to defend how a Christian can in any way subscribe to the Democratic Party platform, that enshrines as a principle the destruction of innocent human life through infanticide and abortion and champions the practice of sodomy in our land. It would be interesting to hear one of these professors defend supporting a political platform that sounds as if had been written by King Herod.
Professor Otey’s rebuke is that Christians are “citizens of heaven.” The logical conclusion to that argument in this context is that one should not be involved at all in anything that partakes of civil government. Yet, he is one who continually calls for “conversations” about “race” in the church. What does “race” have to do with being a citizen of heaven? (Gal. 3:28). Apparently there are things about which he thinks we should be concerned as citizens of the United States as well.
Politics is nothing more than the organizing of human society and its institutions upon certain principles. Why should not Christians desire biblical principles to help regulate conduct at various societal levels? The apostle Paul’s ultimate citizenship was in heaven, but that did not stop him from appealing to his Roman citizenship (Acts 22) and ultimately to Caesar (Acts 25) to prevent miscarriage of justice in civil society.
Earlier Paul had been beaten with rods—unjustly by Romans in the city of Philippi. When the magistrates of the community discovered his Roman citizenship they were fearful and invited him to leave quietly (Acts 16:22ff). The apostle would have none of it. He utilized his Roman citizenship to his own benefit. “They have beaten us in public without trial, men who are Romans, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they sending us away secretly? No indeed! But let them come themselves and bring us out.”
Did Paul do wrong to press his Roman citizenship and fair treatment in Roman society? Should we have remonstrated with him that his “citizenship is in heaven” and not to worry about such matters? Was Paul “blending his Christian and national identities,” in the words of Brian Casey? Was he “conflating” Roman citizenship with being a citizen of heaven?
There is nothing more erroneous about speaking of a Christian Nation than of a Christian Family. What is a Christian family? It is one where biblical principles are implemented. Does that mean it is a perfect family? Is this family absent of sins committed by mother, father, children? No. But the principles there taught we recognize as Christian and refer to it as a Christian family. No one objects by suggesting that the entire family has not been baptized into Christ, or that not every family member is a Christian. But we still recognize what is a Christian family. So also a Christian nation.
More importantly, shall we say that when someone uses the phrase “Christian family” that we have “conflated the concepts of heaven and the family?” Have we laid ourselves open to the charge that we have “confused the Lord’s church with the family?” The answer is obvious. Brother Benson and others who worked with the NEP merely recognized that just as a godly, Christian family is more conducive in which to rear children to love and respect God, so also the nation.
Third, perhaps the most dangerous element revealed of the above critiques of Christian Nationalism is that they are born of Cultural Marxism. Classical Marxism, revealed in The Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, is rooted in atheism. This atheistic creed demands that the sole factor that determines a person is his economic status. A person thinks and moves as he does because of the class into which he is born.
Society is divided between the bourgeois (land-owners, middle-class) and the proletariat (the workers, who do not have property to sell, but only their labor). Between these classes there is an inevitable class struggle. This is the dialectic. People are not considered as individuals, but as part of a class.
The Italian philosopher, Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), built on Marx’s materialistic base and developed the concept of “cultural hegemony” meaning that the dominant ideology of society reflects beliefs and interests of the ruling class. Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D. explains:
Cultural hegemony refers to domination or rule maintained through ideological or cultural means. It is usually achieved through social institutions, which allow those in power to strongly influence the values, norms, ideas, expectations, worldview, and behavior of the rest of society.
Cultural hegemony functions by framing the worldview of the ruling class, and the social and economic structures that embody it, as just, legitimate, and designed for the benefit of all, even though these structures may only benefit the ruling class. This kind of power is distinct from rule by force, as in a military dictatorship, because it allows the ruling class to exercise authority using the “peaceful” means of ideology and culture.
Gramsci would argue that “consent to the rule of the dominant group” in a nation is achieved by the “spread of ideologies—beliefs, assumptions, and values—through social institutions such as schools, churches, courts, …” The dominant values in America—designed solely to maintain power of this class—is white male heterosexual.
To Gramsci’s Marxism the founders were only “a group of white men” constructing a government to protect their own cultural dominance. So also today. Laws in America supposedly reflect whiteness; the proof of this is the fact that minorities comprise the majority of prison populations. The assumption is that white America—the dominant culture– is racist. Hence, Cancel Culture rages in our streets.
Tanya Brice Smith’s blanket charge of sin of White Supremacy among Trump supporters is nothing less than this cultural Marxism. An entire class of people—white males—are guilty. Period. No need for evidence or fact. It just is. White people may insist continually the opposite of these things, but to no avail.
Cultural hegemony also explains why Jim Wallis, the “spiritual advisor” to Barack Obama, lambasted America by saying that “Racism is America’s Original Sin.” Sin attaches to white people because of whiteness. Again, no proof necessary. Whites are guilty. Lamentable as it is, now there are black preachers among us who will sound more like Jim Wallis than the Apostle Paul. Some suggest white people have “racism” in their “DNA.” Again, no proof necessary before a bar of justice. Just assume and blast away. Cultural Marxism.
It is indeed a sad day in America when preachers of the gospel of Christ will be more about beating the drums against an entire culture that has provided the greatest freedom to preach since the days of Adam and Eve. And that a Christian paper would allow these types of blanket Marxist-style charges indicting a large portion of the brotherhood of Christians shows how far we have gone.