After my sophomore year of college, I lived at home with my parents at their lovely 3 acre homestead in Big Rapids, Michigan. Big Rapids, or BR as we came to know it, is a university town in West Central Michigan, an energetic little corner of the world surrounded by thousands of acres of rolling farmland and deep woods. The city itself sits on the Muskegon River, the second longest river in Michigan and arguably the most beautiful, though the Pere Marquette and Au Sable rivers are also lovely.
During that college summer back in Big Rapids, I worked as a youth ministry intern at the church I had grown up in, a larger evangelical church filled with people who changed the course of my life.
Indeed, my early years in church shaped me dramatically. I’ve even written letters to many of the people who left an indelible mark on me, had conversations with those who formed my sense of identity and my spirituality.
In church I learned about Jesus of Nazareth, an ancient Jewish man who made his way into human history as a person, yet also as the Son of God. Not everything, but almost everything I experienced in church was positive for me: from the friends I got to know to the places I traveled for service projects to my participation in various levels of leadership, even as a young person.
I also got to know people deeply. I asked a lot of questions. One summer evening after a youth event we had planned [was it tubing on the river?] I remember chatting with a couple, we’ll call them Harding and Justine. As we sat outside by a campfire in the breezy yet comfortably humid air, we watched the mighty Muskegon river flow by. As we chatted, 4th of July plans came up, and I recall asking Justine a theological question:
Justine, I said, if it came down to a choice between following Jesus and submitting to an American ideal that compromised your faith commitments, what would you choose?
My question was hypothetical, of course, but it arose in the natural flow of conversation. Whatever it was that prompted me to ask, it came from that conversational context, not from thin air. Justine was a spiritual mentor of sorts, and had taught me a lot about what discipleship means, and I sought her wisdom.
Her answer has taught me a lot about the culture of Christian Nationalism. Staring into the fire, then back at me, she responded swiftly:
Ben, she said with conviction and energy, to me, following Jesus and being an American are one in the same. We are a Christian nation, so I don’t ever have to choose between one or the other, and I don’t think I ever will.
I left it at that. I probably grunted something along the lines of huh. Internally I was a bit stunned. How could it be that your faith would never come into conflict – or at least come to bear – on your citizenship in a nation state?
Ironically, there were many in my church fighting the so-called culture war, talking about everything from dismantling Roe v. Wade to electing George Bush, and everything in-between from gay marriage to post-9/11 wars in the Middle East. There was a clear sense of political identity in my church, and few democrats could be found. And the ones who stuck it out were pretty quiet.
So from that angle, there was the irony of a “Christian nation” holding up the value of abortion rights. But a nation’s morality isn’t exclusive to a 1973 Supreme Court decision. It’s far deeper than that. How about chattel slavery that ended just over 150 years ago? Jim Crow? Lynchings? Displacement and genocide of indigenous people? Structural racism, redlining in our cities, sundown towns that didn’t allow black folks after dusk? These actions are not compatible with a Christian nation narrative.
But Justine genuinely believed America is a shining city on a hill that offers a fine example to the watching world. Overlooking the egregious national sins, America was – overall, I guess? – good. That was the narrative.
A quick google search of Christian Nationalism will yield far more imagery than my neighborhood snapshot, so if you’ve got the stomach for it, go check it out.
We could, perhaps, have a conversation about the many good things America and Americans have done. That could perhaps be helpful, but not necessary here. America has produced a whole lot of incredible people; that goes without saying. A list of faces, black, white, and brown, is scrolling through my mind’s eye – and likely yours too. It’s not my aim to paint America as all bad, only to suggest that if we do think of ourselves as a Christian nation, we have a lot of sin to repent from. This is why any Christian should rethink the concept.
To broadly characterize America as a Christian nation is an astronomical leap [think back to slavery, genocide, racism, unjust wars, etc]. I’ll leave it to the academics to do that demographic classification, but on the anecdotal level, it strikes me that there’s a generational gap between those who grew up primarily in the 20th century and those who came into the scene later – perhaps starting with the postwar years and continuing into the present.
Justine was part of that older generation. That generation had celebrated as America did its difficult work in Europe supporting the Allies and helping defeat Hitler. They had seen suburbs spring up and schools flourish as the American economy roared into full gear in the 1950s. They had seen church participation soar, and communities flourish. Or, at least, they saw some communities flourish. After WWII, it wasn’t really until the 1960s that Americans began to struggle on a broad level with our national sins. The Civil Rights movement, coupled with Vietnam’s trauma and a host of other factors, forced Americans to grapple with our morality.
Of course Justine and her generation saw all the abundance from a position of privilege: they were white. If one does their homework on race in this country, it’s easy to see how the majority of black and indigenous folks as well as other minority groups simply missed out on much of this, even to this day. [Do some further reading on your own if you disagree, and perhaps we can talk about it.] I will leave that sociological work to the academics, but I’ve learned enough to see that as someone racialized as white, I’ve had some serious advantages.
On race, I’ll add this: I don’t love being classified as white any more than the next white person. Feels like I lose my other identities and get swallowed up in a big boring cloud of other people I don’t relate to. But it’s real. It was a trade our European ancestors made to differentiate between slave and free: all persons from most of Europe with a lighter complexion came to be known as white, even my darker Eastern European ancestors on my dad’s side who immigrated three generations back. That was codified into law [more on that here]. And for the most part, those Europeans surrendered their former cultural identity for a newfound racialized identity as white and American. And white was, in the American system, racially superior. [Hence that little term white supremacy].
In my own spiritual vantage point, all people – black, white, brown – are made in God’s image. This should go without saying for every Christian in every place. For American Christians, we experience uniquely American problems – our own national sins and tilted systems. Racism in all its ugly forms – structural, systemic, managerial, personal – haunts us here in America, and its insidious effects gave Justine and me and white folks in general a whole lot of privilege.
Lots of white folks see the ugliness of racism, and understand it to some degree on a cognitive level. We recognize that we cannot experience the kind of racism our black and indigenous friends, and of course many Asian Americans and other people of color have felt. But we can read, listen, learn, grow, and advocate. And at the least, we can recognize people of color often have a very different experience in America. White Christians in particular, if we want to follow our Jesus who sought to free the prisoners and set the oppressed free, should perhaps consider what that looks like today [Luke 4:18-19; Isaiah 61:1-2, 58:6].
Back to the summer evening conversation with Justine by the river.
As surprised as I was to hear the sentiment that American ideals and Christian ideals always meshed together for Justine, something about her response resonated with how many, many people in my area viewed their faith. It was strange, but it made sense in my context. They seemed to see themselves as Christian Americans, not American Christians; the Christian part modified the truer identity: American.
America first is the vantage point, and faith fits in fine with that message: Let’s make America great again! Vote with your feet! Love it or leave it! We stand for the flag; we kneel for the cross!
Of course this may be gross caricature of what conservative voices stand for overall, but there is certainly some truth in these brief political statements. I do know some incredibly thoughtful conservatives, and I value our many conversations even if we don’t always see from the same angle. And yet, Trump politics have poisoned the waters ever since 2016, so sadly polarization has increased dramatically.
And Christian Nationalism persists, now bolstered with Trump’s embrace of his religious supporters. People are writing more books on it, including a woman at my church. Kristen’s book, Jesus and John Wayne, is an outstanding historical sketch of how we have ended up with Jesus is my Savior Trump is my President t-shirts.
There’s a difference between having a deep appreciation for one’s place of birth and aligning it wholesale with one’s faith identity. There’s being grateful on the one hand, and idolatry on the other hand. Justine seems to have a real appreciation for her experience in America, and there are some aspects of that which strike me as good: she’s grateful and feels part of a larger community that she sees as doing good [now, as I’ve mentioned, there are a host of problems with that].
Wherever it is we come from, we are not called to hate our country. But Christians are called to a kingdom not of this world – an allegiance to Christ and his kingdom.
Getting deeper into theology, the Jewish Scriptures, which we Christians also see as foundational to our religious identity, contain a list of ten commandments. After a reminder that God is the One who brought the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery, the first command reads like this: you shall have no other gods before me [Exodus 20:3, NRSV].
The second is similar: You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them [Exodus 20:4-5a].
First God gave Moses a short, simple command. But the second command enriches and makes the first a bit more explicit, explicating the dire importance of centering YHWH, the God of Israel, as their exclusive deity.
Biblically speaking – a way of speaking most Evangelicals appreciate – we are to worship God alone. You can’t split your worship two ways, to God and country, just like you can’t serve both God and money [Matthew 6:24]. But in our religious circles ancient and modern, idols spring up that distract us from God. On a personal level, I deal with the same challenge. I get distracted. So I’m not criticizing as a hypocrite; I admit I have my foibles and a host of inconsistencies. But as one who has experienced the embodied practices of Christian Nationalism, I’ve seen it for what it is. I’ve written on gun culture too, a close parallel to Christian Nationalism with roots in the same soil.
Perhaps future believers will call me/us out for my/our own idols, or for ways in which in which I/we have clearly strayed from the teachings of Jesus. Right now, I am calling things as I see them. And there’s a whole lot of devotion to country that gets in the way of devotion to Jesus.
I write not to simply critique nor to write a history. That has already been done. I write in hopes that slowly [or quickly?] Evangelicals might detangle nationalism from an otherwise beautiful Jesus-centered spirituality.
With God, all things are possible, according to Jesus. So I’m hopeful. I know so many Christians who are noticing the nationalism problem and properly categorizing it as an idol – or perhaps we could call it syncretism. So may the books and conversations help reveal the goodness of our Christ; and may we recognize nationalism as a departure from genuine, radical faith that puts Jesus at the center – not Jesus and anything or anyone else.
I’ll close with the words of Jesus*. The same Jesus, by the way, who I first got to know through some folks who really, really loved America, but who also helped me follow him, who helped me listen to the Holy Spirit and turn my life fully over to God. My own story is, like any other Christian’s story, a testament to God and the work of the Spirit Christ unleashed in the world. Despite some idols, Jesus showed up and changed my life, and he keeps doing it all the time.
Now, those piercing words:
Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him. Mark 12:17
*For the closing words from Jesus, I chose the ESV translation, a current favorite among American Evangelical Christians.