(Un)Civil Religion: Christian Nationalism
What is “Christian Nationalism” and how is it operating to support Donald Trump? Think Progress has an illuminating history, and an effort to explain the continued devotion of many Evangelical Christian pastors to Trump and his Presidency.
It is notable that, in response to Trump’s moral equivocations following Charlottesville, when business executives resigned en masse from the administration’s advisory panels, only one minister followed their lead.
Others have actively defended those equivocations.
Jerry Falwell, Jr. tweeted his “pride” in the President:
Falwell’s relationship with Trump, and his inability to see anything “unChristian” about the President’s behavior, led some graduates of Liberty University, which Falwell heads, to return their diplomas.
Chris Gaumer, a former Student Government Association president and 2006 graduate, said it was a simple decision.
“I’m sending my diploma back because the president of the United States is defending Nazis and white supremacists,” Gaumer said. “And in defending the president’s comments, Jerry Falwell Jr. is making himself and, it seems to me, the university he represents, complicit.”
The Think Progress article quotes liberally from Sam Haselby, author of The Origins of American Religious Nationalism. Haselby identifies three elements of our national history that give rise to Christian Nationalism: Reverence for the country’s founders; persistence of the “Jeremiad” narrative, defined as the insistence of activists (left and right) that their cause is consistent with the spirit of America’s founding; and the “undeniable prevalence of religious rhetoric or ‘God talk’ in political spaces, no matter which party is in power.”
But few groups indulge in this tradition more fervently than today’s Christian nationalists, whose repeated (and disputed) calls for America to be “restored” as a “Christian nation” mixes all three of Haselby’s elements. When leaders such as Franklin Graham say God has blessed America more than any other nation on earth, they often mean it in a very specific way: Namely, that America is somehow special to God, and has been since its founding, when it supposedlywas “built on Christian principles.”
Haselby points out that today’s Christian Nationalists use these elements very differently than their predecessors. Modern Christian nationalism—characterized by antipathy towards science, so-called “secular” institutions, and government overreach—would have confused and repelled their 18th- and 19th-century forbears.
America’s current version of Christian Nationalism bears an unsettling resemblance to the German version that enabled the rise of Hitler:
The result was broad support for Hitler’s rise to power among German Christians and their leaders, some of whom took their devotion to an extreme. Hitler’s numerous flaws were often explained away or, in some cases, replaced with complete fabrications about his faith.
Interweaving authoritarianism with American-style Christian nationalism isn’t just theoretical: it’s happened before.
“There was a widespread belief in Germany among Christians that Hitler kept a copy of the New Testament in his breast pocket, and he read from it every day—which was completely false,” Ericksen said. “[Hitler] was happy to nurture or not confront those kind of misconceptions, because he wanted that kind of Christian support. And the Christians were so willing to bend over backwards — they accepted or in some ways maybe even invented explanations of how he could be a real Christian leader.”
By the time his power crescendoed, the difference between the Hitler and religious leaders was almost nonexistent. The most extreme form of Christian nationalism had taken hold.
The article is lengthy, but well worth a read in its entirety.
It has been said that although history doesn’t repeat itself, it does rhyme. Fortunately, America’s Christian Nationalists are a decided minority within the faith community; we can take comfort in the significant numbers of American religious leaders who have forcefully rejected Trump’s endorsements of racism and various bigotries.
But we also need to learn from history, and recognize the threat posed by those who are willing to twist and deform their theologies in the service of cultural dominance.