The Heresy of Christian Nationalism : Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
We have all too often tried to become economic and political theorists, when the time we are living through cries out for theologians. Theology, by the way, is to “speak about God”. It is not to speak about God being on your side of an economic or political argument. Indeed, once you bring God in (on your side, of course) the discussion is over. I can either accept that God is on your side, or I can reject the proposition. If I accept that God is on your side, I must either whole-heartedly embrace your argument or, by rejecting it find myself rebelling against God. In either case, I think we need to recognize that such discussions or arguments have little to do with theology, and a great deal to do with posturing. Moreover, they effectively end any real discussion or even the possibility of a theological perspective. I remember early in a pastoral counseling class being told that as soon as a person says, “God told me…” or, “The Spirit led me…” the counseling session is effectively over. It’s over because to question subsequent actions is, in the mind of the person being counseled, to question or doubt God. Even if you continue talking, the real discussion has already ended. The lines have already been drawn.
Speaking for myself, it is for this reason that I have to reject Christian nationalism in all of its forms and varieties, regardless of whether its messaging comes from a mega-church pulpit or from the current occupant of the White House. The reason why I have to reject it is that it is not a theological position, but wholly political and, in most cases, excessively partisan. At its core is a syncretic amalgam of Church and State that is wholly at variance with the Christian tradition, but that uses “God” as the ultimate justification for actions and attitudes. It is not a “theology”. It is an ending of the discussion that is every bit as real as the person sitting in that pastoral counseling session who says, “God told me…”
Now, I love my country and I honor it’s many institutions. Yet, I’ve lived, worked and paid taxes in other countries which have also elicited my admiration and respect. America is unique in many ways, yet the same could be said of other nations. (That being said, living overseas does give one a perspective on the good, bad and challenges of American society.) There may even be some truth to the idea of “American exceptionalism”. Yet, with that exceptionalism we must also account for racism, poverty, and the other social maladies that have been with us for most of our history. Yet, Christian nationalism adds to “American exceptionalism” by pronouncing us to be a “Christian nation” that is the exceptional recipient of God’s love and blessings. Close to heresy on its face, it is also a foolish and blinkered proposition.
“God so loved the world…” That is the most basic statement of theology that, in my opinion, one can find in the pages of the New Testament. Like an old comedy routine, however, we feel some instinctive need to say, “Dad liked me best”. The full missionary impetus of the Church, however, through the centuries was centered on the proposition that, “God so loved the world…”. Before nation states had even come into being, Christian communities arose in the empires, kingdoms and tribes of late antiquity. When Rome fell to the Goths and Vandals, Augustine reminded his reader that, “here we have no continuing city, but we wait for one whose builder and maker is God”. In The City of God he warned against the identification of the Church with the political machinations of the “City of Man”. Even those who served in governing were warned to remember the transitory nature of secular politics. They were to serve justice, but to do so as pilgrims whose citizenship was in the heavenly city.
The Church and our tradition of theological and moral teaching over the course of 2000 years belies the whole concept of Christian nationalism, indeed, even of the oft heard trope of “God and Country” with its implied equivalency. We are in danger as American Christians of abandoning a theological construct of the Church, of Salvation and of Mission, for a “pot of lentils” in the form of secular politics. While that “pot of lentils” may feed us and our anger for the moment, we risk losing our inheritance.