An Early Taste of Christian Nationalism

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.

An example of the conflation of American power and Christian symbols: Christian Nationalism. Note the red/white/blue cross underneath the flag. The Dixon for Governor political sign covers it, but it reads hate at the foot of the crosses. This house is about 8 blocks from where I live in southeast Grand Rapids, Michigan. There are other examples around town of similar lawn displays. One, near Burton and Breton, features an American soldier kneeling at the foot of the cross.

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.

An Open Letter to RiverTree Community Church

I still remember the very first contact I had with my RiverTree church family. It was a weekday afternoon, and I was privileged to sit down with our very own Christian Shearer at a Biggby coffee place in Byron Center. At the time, I was engaged to my wife and entirely anxious about the future. Gently, Christian shepherded me through the details of my potential role leading worship and guiding a ministry team. He talked about the potential for continuing to discern my vocation and learning how a small, missional church operates, how relationships matter so deeply and community involvement drives vision. He has consistently supported me at every point of life, as long as I have known him.

Before I knew it, I was hired and we were swept up in our new community. We received so much grace as we transitioned; we must have missed five or six Sundays that first summer alone. Granted, we were engaged, then married; but regardless, we are so thankful for the flexibility we experienced.

photo credit: Naitsirh Nitsu

We cannot say enough about the generosity and grace that mark the community we call RiverTree. Loving God and loving one’s neighbor are not catchphrases; they are the deepest sense of mission and identity, the truest marks of every aspect of the purposes directing this faith community. These spacious concepts, breathed through Scripture, are the signposts for evaluating everything RiverTree pursues.

Our Grove grasped this reality. The Birds and the Sischos walked with Kaile and me over the bulk of our time at RiverTree, encouraging us and respecting us in our journey. Our Grove met us where we were, but gently prodded us forward in love and faith, carefully helping us to humbly yet boldly practice our faith. When we were at our financial low point, our Grove cared for us in a very practical way: they purchased a high efficiency washing machine for cleaning our cloth diapers. Tangible and spiritual needs alike were, at all times, our Grove’s priority.

The whole of the church did, in its own unique way, what our Grove did in its particular way. We have received friendship, encouragement, and grace. Russ Roseman plumbed the majority of our house for a pittance. Mark Kershner and Alan DeBoer have made my job a thousand times easier with their consistent work ethic and careful feedback. Heather Shearer has gladdened my heart with her humor every last time we have interacted. Jesse Byker has been ever-present with humor and willingness to serve. Mark and Janna Hasselbring have extended kindness and grace to both Kaile and me as long as we have known them. Gary Bird and Bruce Rhoades have listened to me and encouraged me. Paula Roseman, Sherry Bird, and Maria Kelly have encouraged and spiritually supported Kaile and me with gentle candor. Candace Carey has faithfully [and often humorously!] led our congregation in worship throughout every season of her life journey. Ken DeHart has given me feedback and grace and honest encouragement at every turn. Amy DeBoer has sung beautifully every time we have led together. Dan Pletcher and CJ have laughed with me and given my heart joy. Dan Vanderlaan Jr has been a friend and support while his father has given me new insights in many areas of life. Chris Lock has worshiped God with me and stepped forward in his faith journey, allthewhile befriending me. Jennifer and Bryan Pickett have been incredible friends both to Kaile and to me. Eli Shearer has been a companion to me and to Silas, always willing to throw his football with me, and his sister Shiloh has done the hard work of caring for Silas in the nursery. Fred DeJung has given me incredible insight and helped guide me in the ordination process. Dan Lehman has been a friend to me, and at times even asked for my perspective on things. I could list many more relationships that have encouraged my heart if space allowed. Each and every person in the RiverTree community has been of great value to me.

Ok, here is a tough piece of this letter. Would you permit me to leave each of you with a small piece of parting insight? Please, please, receive this with affection. Alright. Here goes. For the grand journey of humanity, life experience often proves an excellent teacher. As we gain years, we often gain massive insights. Sometimes we believe, however, that this process is somehow automatic. As middle aged people, we can fall into a belief that we have “more” than those who are younger, that we know better because we are older. My friends, age does not necessarily equal wisdom. Have you learned from someone younger than you recently? Have you met an older person who graciously listens to a child? In all sincerity, there have been times when I have felt personally diminished because I am younger than some. For a church to deeply embrace people of all ages, respect and curiosity must be the glue between generations. In a church that consists of many in the 30s-50s range, remember what it meant to be 13, and remember that you do not yet know what it is like to be 94. And remember that each of us experiences life differently! Telling someone, “you just wait!” is not helpful insight. At every life stage, we have no choice but to wait.

Please receive this insight with grace. Let it sit with you for a while, and please, please, search yourself and ask God if there is truth in my words that relates to you. For many of you, it may be general insight that seems helpful but not to you. For others, it may prick your spirit and lead you to a deeper examination of your attitudes and habits.

All of that said, I really sense that RiverTree will continue to flourish. I can just picture God continuing to do, through RiverTree, what he began to do many years ago. My little insight on a growth point for the community is only my little contribution. Surely there are other ways to grow as a community. But I would be remiss not to affirm the great strengths of RiverTree while also commenting on one blind spot.

During our journey as a community, all of you have seen my flaws, some much more than others! Some of you have been kind enough to provide me with insights on how to serve the church more effectively. If you have been around me enough, you will have noticed the difficulty that administrative details present me. Curating the worshipplanning website and the song database did not come as naturally to me as other dimensions of my role. Even as there have been numerous opportunities to see my weaknesses, you have also [I hope!] seen my strengths. You have seen my passion and drive, my sense of purpose and God-given direction. You have seen my concern for bearing witness to the power of God made evident in Jesus, and my interest in following the leading of the Holy Spirit.

As this season of discernment continues, please know that you are each in our prayers and thoughts, even as we adjust to a completely new area. San Francisco has been kind to us thus far, and we are growing greatly as a family. Our faith is enlarged and our compassion for the lost and the least is also expanding. From our hearts, thank you for everything. We miss all of you and ask God to be close to you in and out of season. In Jesus Christ, grace and peace to each of you.

Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary [#1] [Final Post in Series!]

Theology has teeth.

This is what I’ve learned throughout seminary. Here’s why.

Having graduating seminary, I have continued reading books within the world of theology. But I have also ventured into new territory. Recently I finished Annie Dillard’s classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Before that, I devoured Eric Metaxas’s eponymous 2010 biography of Bonhoeffer.

My college chaplain, Ron Kopiko, always said that we say what we believe but we do what we value. If one is interested in finding someone who genuinely did what they valued, look no further than the unassuming Dietrich Bonhoeffer.


Born early in the 20th century, he grew in wisdom and stature and favor with God and men just as a then-obscure Austrian man grew in hate and anger and favor not with God but with a few nationalistic henchmen. As Adolph Hitler carefully assumed control in a debt-laden and politically compromised Germany, Bonhoeffer pursued his vocation in pastoral ministry and professorship.

Before it dawned on most of the elites in Germany, Bonhoeffer sensed Hitler had the worst of intentions. Wooing over the clergy in Germany who were willing to pay a high tax for a very fragile peace, Hitler did his best to spiritually legitimate his actions by subverting Christian beliefs. Attempting to obscure the reality that Jesus himself was Jewish, the Hitler-subservient Reich Church of Germany tossed out essentially the entire Old Testament. It simply didn’t fit with their current goals of destroying lives and calling on the German people to denigrate and destroy the Jewish people. Jewish theology, to them, had no place in their version of “Christian” practice.

True, many leaders in the church bowed to Hitler’s increasingly uncompromising demands. But there were many brave clergy who said no to Hitler. Risking income, status in the community, and their lives, Bonhoeffer carefully coordinated a resistance plan to Hitler’s grab for spiritual power. He leveraged his influence in various international church councils while petitioning his fellow German believers to practice a bolder faith. Bonhoeffer helped sift out the true disciples, the true Christians whose faith meant coordinate action.

Eventually, Bonhoeffer realized Hitler was politically unstoppable. The way he had managed to leverage nationalistic fervor through propaganda made any kind of resistance futile. Begrudgingly and with great fear for his soul, he became a part of a plan to assassinate Hitler. This was for the sake of the Jews, the disabled, the homosexuals, and all other people groups Hitler sought to exterminate, but it was to him a duty to God.

Bonhoeffer’s beliefs were strong enough that he risked everything–even his standing before God, the way he saw it–to live out his discipleship after Jesus.

There are few people who, like Bonhoeffer, have taken Jesus literally when he said, “take up your cross and follow me[1].” He was imprisoned for several years and eventually hanged on April 9th, 1945. Bonhoeffer’s no to Hitler meant a yes to the call of Jesus Christ.

May we, as Christians living in the 21st century, search for ways to take up our own crosses. Theology is not abstract or distant or irrelevant; at its core, our theology informs how we act in the world. And whether or not we talk about theological things, we say what we believe then do what we value.

Bonhoeffer valued Jesus.

That’s the start. Then comes the taking-up-our-cross part.


[1]Bible, New Testament, Matthew 16:24.

Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary [#6]

Having graduated from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary early this month, this is the next of my seminary reflections. This is the fourth post, and one of the meatier ones.


As broad as the various expressions of Christian faith are, God is broader.

I used to wonder why it was that so many Christian denominations exist. I thought to myself and to others, “are we not divided against ourselves?”

Well, I suppose in some ways there is some division. The church is filled with redeemed rebels, people who God is gently leading toward right living. No doubt, there latent tension between followers of Jesus.

But this is what I learned at my interdenominational seminary: God is really big.

The map below illustrates well the diversity of faith in the United States.

The concept of God’s vastness may sound simple. And in a sense, it is.

The more I have learned about the enormity of our expanding universe and the tiny, intricate complexities of cells and atoms, the more I have begun to understand that God is really, really big. During the earliest days of God making himself known to humanity, people quickly realized this.

Ancient scribes tried their best to record everything they understood about God and write it all down. Have you ever read the Pentateuch? Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are not exactly light reading! There are some literary snags, some difficulties, some overlaps, some confusion to be sure. But at the heart of the Pentateuch we see God’s strong covenant to redeem and restore humankind through a people group, Israel.

Various tribes did their best to respond to God over long periods of time, falling away and coming back. The prophetic class called the people of Israel to repentance, over and over again pleading on God’s behalf and on their behalf to be faithful to their calling. Kings rose and fell, with only a few truly loving and serving God with their whole hearts.

So it is, it seems, within the Christian church.

Over the twenty centuries since Jesus, the Son of God, revealed himself in the Ancient Near East, the church has sought to follow his directives. Evangelism, spiritual formation, and the slow building of the church has ensued since the days of Jesus’s physical presence, and the church leans readily into an eternal future where heaven eventually meets earth. The people who have responded to Jesus seek his grace for forgiveness and also his justice to roll down.

But amidst all of this, people groups have conflated their beliefs with the tenets of Christianity. Sometimes this wasn’t a bad thing at all. Paul, a Jew, and many of the other early Jewish followers of Jesus, continued many of their cultural practices: food laws, circumcision, sacred ritual habits. These things continued, and for the most part it was a question of how to integrate new believers into the church. The church’s conclusion was that newcomers did not have to adopt Jewish practices to follow Jesus. Many Jews held on to their practices, which was totally ok. Surely some slowly let go.

Fast forward to 1095. Western peoples, who had come to understand much of what Christianity meant, conflated their own feudal belief system with the religion of Jesus. The Apostles, who had gotten to know Jesus, would be thoroughly confused to meet European people calling themselves Christians. These Europeans conflated Christian principles of salvation and repentance with their tribalism, their honor culture, and their desire for conquest. To the chagrin of billions of Christians who would follow, this relatively tiny group of warriors and leaders forever caused confusion. But the church reformed and repented.

And so goes history. Just because someone takes up the exterior mantle “Christian” does not mean that person is walking in step with Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and close to God the Father. It means, quite simply, that they call themselves a Christian. The same goes for groups of “Christians.” Scripture teaches that God evaluates the heart [I Samuel 16:7, Jeremiah 17:10, and others]. God perceives the actions of people, and he alone judges.

Because God evaluates the heart, it can sometimes be difficult to know which groups of Christians are genuinely walking in step with Jesus. Jesus himself teaches his people not to judge. The term in Matthew 7:1 is krinete, a Greek term translated accurately as “judge.” Isn’t this the Bible’s most-quoted verse? Isn’t this why so many people say “don’t judge me”? Later in the chapter Jesus says something else. He says that his followers can recognize [epiginosko] people, bad or good, by the deeds they do, the “fruit” they bear. That is not to say Christians should judge [krinete] bad people; instead, we recognize when people are not to be followed.

Thus, the history of Christian faith becomes more complicated!

Richard Foster wrote a book called Streams of Living Water in which he talks about the variety of denominations within the Christian church. Masterfully, he explains the contributions of various worshiping traditions who have done their best to faithfully know, follow, and serve Jesus. But no one group, in my opinion, has arrived. Each group of Christ-followers must journey forward, revealing the largeness of God and imitating the world-transforming Son of God, Jesus.

God is really big. When we read about different groups of people trying to serve God-conservative, liberal, traditional-we are to recognize them by their fruits. Most Christian denominations that come to mind-Baptist, Lutheran, Mennonite, Catholic, Reformed-are examples of groups of people who have done their collective best to be sensitive to the teachings of Jesus and to respond accordingly.

As broad as the various expressions of Christian faith are, God is broader.