Christian Nationalism, an increasingly common term, is identified with politicians like Marjorie Taylor-Greene, Lauren Boebert, and Ted Cruz, as well as clergy like the pastor of Dallas’ First Baptist Church, Robert Jeffress, who preached at a service for Donald Trump’s inauguration. Jeffress recently said, “If ‘Christian nationalist’ means believing that we ought to use elections to help return our country to its Christian foundation. If that’s Christian nationalism, count me in.”
Early last summer, U.S. House Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., posted videos calling herself a “Christian nationalist” and calling on Republicans to become the “party of Christian nationalism.” She sold T-shirts saying Proud Christian Nationalist.
“Christian Nationalists” argue, with Jeffress, that the movement seeks a return to nation’s “Christian” foundations. Donald Trump appealed to this sentiment when as a candidate in 2016 he frequently said, “You’ll be able to say ‘Merry Christmas’ again.” Christian Nationalists view themselves as having lost their place of cultural dominance in America, and even as persecuted for their faith in contemporary American culture. Like much of the MAGA movement, Christian Nationalists appeal to a sense of cultural grievance and lost entitlement.
But the fusion of Christianity with the state, which has a long history, is where other Christians argue their faith began to lose its way. Instead of converting the powerful, such a fusion often converted, or subverted, the church. For its first 400 years Christianity was not supported by the Roman powers that be. It was a counter-cultural movement, often under assault by state power. It wasn’t until the Roman Emperor Constantine, in an attempt to unify the declining empire, converted to Christianity in the 4th century and declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, that Christianity enjoyed state support.
Today’s Christian Nationalists seem not to know their history or even their Bible. It was the state, allied with established religion, that put Jesus to death on a cross. The state establishment of Christianity has often been its death knell. Of course, in the United States Christianity was not legally established. The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees people the freedom to practice whatever religion they see fit, without any one faith being privileged.
Still, it is arguable that during much of American history and culture, Christianity enjoyed a de-facto cultural establishment. It is probably this status for which today’s Christian Nationalists hanker — a society in which they and their faith enjoyed a privileged place. But even such a de-facto establishment is not something for which Christians should wish, as it tends to become coercive.
Journalist, evangelical Christian and never-Trumper, David French, related a recent story which illustrates this. French’s wife Nancy was a story-teller on the program, The Moth, at Moth’s Main Stage at Alice Tully Hall in New York City. “Nancy,” wrote French, ”was amazing,” but it was the last of the five story-tellers who moved French to tears. That person was an elderly black woman named Sybil Jordan Hampton.
Hampton “was one of the first black students to go back to Little Rock Central High School after the famous Little Rock Nine first integrated the school in 1957. Schools were shut down for a year afterwards because of violent racist protests. In 1959 they reopened and Sybil was the only black child in the 10th grade.
“Her story,” continues French, “was harrowing. The first day of school, national guardsmen lined the steps to protect her life. No white student would speak to her. They’d cluster at the edges of the hallway to even avoid getting close to her. But stony silence was the best-case scenario. When students spoke to her they’d often hiss the N-word.
“The only time she really spoke, she said, was when it was her turn to read the Bible in the morning. She’d always read the same words from Psalm 121: ‘I lift up my eyes toward the mountains. Where will my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.’
French went on to note a painful irony. “Christianity was so well accepted in the halls of power that the government mandated Scripture readings in public school. But here was a young Christian girl facing an avalanche of hatred in the heart of the Bible Belt, and the atmosphere of intimidation was so pervasive that no white students felt comfortable even being kind to her.” (emphasis added).
The point here is the dominant cultural values of a segregated and Jim Crow South subverted Christianity, not the other way around. This is the danger to any religious faith when mandated by state or society, whether legally or in its de-facto form. It becomes coercive. It becomes something you must accept or risk being an outcast. But it was the “outcast” Sybil Jordan Hampton who was the more authentic Christian. She was the one who followed and witnessed to another outcast, Jesus himself.
The pattern in Nazi Germany was similar. The largest part of the Christian Church there capitulated to the state, to Hitler. It was a small minority of Christians who risked arrest, imprisonment and death to oppose Hitler.
The “Christian Nationalism” that its advocates which to restore, a legally-mandated fusion of state and culture with the church, is — history teaches — a threat to authentic Christianity and Christian conscience which is at its best when it is in the minority and when it does not have access to the state’s coercive powers.
Should we wish Christian values like the pursuit of justice and kindness, mercy, and generosity to characterize our culture? Sure. Should we seek to accomplish that by coercion? That is a contradiction in terms.