Christian Nationalism and Civic Religion

I am not one of “those” Christians.  I do not want to be associated with a racist, patriarchal institution that spouts a theology of white supremacy and exclusivism.  However, I am a Christian, a follower of Jesus, and an ordained pastor in The United Methodist Church (UMC). 

Christian nationalism is a blending of Christian and American identities. The teachings of the Bible and the words of our constitution get mixed together, and for some Christian nationalists, being an American and a Christian cannot be separated. However, being an American does not necessarily equal being a Christian.  Being a patriot requires loyalty to the Constitution and country, but not to a particular faith.  Many Christian nationalists believe they have God-given rights.  Many who would not consider themselves Christian nationalists, believe the 4th of July, Memorial Day, Veterans Day should be amplified in church services.  Cultural holidays like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day get mixed in as well.  We sing “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world,” but then “God Bless America” with a vigor of ownership.  Christianity is not limited to one country.  It is global.  Somehow many believe that America is better than other countries because God deemed it so.  We have whitewashed Jesus to look like someone of European descent rather than the Middle Eastern Jewish man he was. 

You can read more about Christian nationalism in this article from Relevant magazine. https://www.relevantmagazine.com/magazine/under-god-the-rise-of-christian-nationalism/

I am an American Christian, but I am not a Christian nationalist.  I am a patriot, loyal to my country, but also not afraid to critique it. Our current political division, with all the name-calling, inability to work together, and lack of civil discourse troubles me, both as a patriot and as a follower of Jesus.

Our country’s forefathers specifically did not make The United States of America a Christian nation.  Religious freedom is in the Bill of Rights.  The first Amendment begins,  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” 

Separation of church and state means no religious leader should use their pulpit to tell their congregations how to vote.  It is certainly acceptable to encourage people to exercise their civic duty to vote, but endorsing a particular candidate or political party is not.  I admit that it can be tricky as a pastor.  I am guessing that many think they know how I voted.  I have been more willing to join political conversations as I age.  However, I would never tell someone what to think or how to vote.  Nor will I have political yard signs, or work for a particular candidate.  Because I live in Minnesota where we caucus, I do not even feel comfortable participating in that process because publicly identifying with a candidate seems wrong as a pastor.  However, I know many of my colleagues are able to manage their private politics and public pulpit differently. 

One of the beautiful things about our country is that we do not have to all think alike.  We also should not condemn each other for thinking differently.  Democracy and our election process does mean there are winners and losers.  However, it also provides opportunity to come together to do the work of the people.  All people, not just PACS and the 1%.  Admittedly, I have lost a lot of faith in politicians who seem to be able to be bought and sold, rather than putting the best interests of their constituents first.  I am weary of people who would rather be right than willing to do the right thing.  The divisiveness makes me sad and angry.

Why do we as humans naturally divide into us and them?  We need to unite against a common threat, it seems, instead of uniting as citizens of our country.  America has always been a melting pot.  Now we debate immigration policy as a partisan issue. 

I am a Jesus-follower.  I would prefer to identify myself in that way so that I am not identified with the Christians who stormed the Capitol.  I do not want to be identified with those who claim to be pro-life but who built gallows to kill those who did not agree with them or do their bidding.  Thank God for being in charge of Christianity!  I pray that God will help us get out of the mess civil religion and Christian nationalism have caused. 

You can read more about how Christianity was on display on January 6, 2021 here: https://apnews.com/article/christianity-capitol-riot-6f13ef0030ad7b5a6f37a1e3b7b4c898

Civil religion is “a public profession of faith that aims to inculcate political values and that prescribes dogma, rites, and rituals for citizens of a particular country.”  https://www.britannica.com/topic/civil-religion. We watched it play out in the Inauguration.  I enjoyed the pomp and circumstance, the music, and especially the poetry.  I also watched the prayer service online the next day.  It was interfaith, but mostly Christian.  President Biden is Catholic, and he had a priest deliver the Invocation at the Inauguration.  During his own address, POTUS asked the audience to join him in a prayer.  Though I enjoyed both the Inauguration and the prayer service, afterward I felt a little uneasy.  Just as I was uncomfortable with Christian nationalists, I was also uncomfortable with the use of Christianity amid the civic ritual.

I am a product of mainstream Protestantism, specifically UMC, which became that iteration in 1968, and has been declining ever since.  My denomination is global, and therefore not a national religion.  My alma mater was a Protestant liberal arts college, specifically PCUSA.  I attended a Southern liberal Divinity School for seminary, that was no longer affiliated with any specific denomination.  My faith informs my politics, and I would be naïve if I didn’t admit that my politics inform my faith.  Politics encourages me to think of things that I might never think about in my private life.  I am grateful for the UMC’s Book of Discipline that has guidelines for what the denomination believes in its Social Principles, that I can go to for not only my personal beliefs, but also to help congregation members who may have questions or struggles.  I was taught to be a critical thinker, and to figure out for myself what I believe. In my tradition, we use the Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Scripture, Reason (my own mind and that of other theologians and leaders), Tradition (the Book of Discipline, church history), and Experience (prayer, and my own life). https://www.umc.org/en/content/glossary-wesleyan-quadrilateral-the

Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” (Common English Bible)  He also taught the Greatest Commandment “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being and with all your mind. 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself40 All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” Matthew 22:37-40.

The way we as Christians treat our neighbors is not a good witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We are not loving in American right now.  There are those who are fearful of the new Administration.  There is much cynicism.  There is much discrimination, and white supremacy needs to be dismantled.  I hope that we will denounce all forms of white supremacy, systemic racism, injustice, by remaining engaged instead of silent.  I hope that those of us who follow Jesus will work at loving our neighbor, ALL neighbors.  I hope that we will put aside our partisan differences to work together “to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8.

May we live out our faith and demonstrate love of country without conflating the two.  I realize that some of you may disagree with me. I welcome civil discourse in the comments. I also realize that by taking a side against Christian nationalism, some people will feel attacked. That is not my intention. I am sharing my personal beliefs and concerns. Though I feel strongly, I am humble enough to admit that I may not always be right.

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