Christian Identity Politics, Part 1
Christian nationalism is the subject of this week’s TBL.
This edition of TBL is a long one with a ton of links and lots of embedded video. I encourage you to check them all out. I wanted, to the extent possible, to let you see for yourselves the Christian nationalists at work. Some email services will likely truncate this TBL because it is so “thick.” If that happens, or if you’d prefer, you can read it here. If it is clipped, you can also click on “View entire message” and you’ll be able to view the entire post in your email app.
You might want to grab a cup of coffee, or perhaps a stiff drink, and settle in. We’re going to be here a while (I hope). Please stick with it. And me.
And come back next week for Part 2.
What’s Going On
The Trump political formula has been clear and straightforward all along: a nationalist turn in foreign policy (isolationism and anti-immigration), a populist/leftist pivot on economics (more and bigger government and the spending that goes with it), and a vigorous resistance to woke extremism in the culture. That said, while the Trumpists are clear about what’s wrong, what must be stopped, and who they blame for it, they have no coherent plan or ability to get anything done about it.
We need a massive and “beautiful” wall to keep those horrible brown people out but can’t get one built and – duh! – can’t get Mexico to pay for it. They don’t even seem to understand what tariffs are, how they work, and why they are so inflationary. They seem to think the way to oppose elites and elitism is to run the worst possible candidates for public office.
To be fair, Trumpists do point to important and previously suppressed issues: the costs of what are essentially open borders; elite abuses of power; the catastrophic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the loss of collective meaning in a postmodern world; the inopportune Western complacency toward China and Russia; the costs of free trade, especially on the American working class; the toxic racism of “antiracism;” and more.
Still, they have been unable to turn these essentially negative insights into positive policy, much less effective governing. Neither have they been able to frame their message to inspire and unite more than the base. It is no accident that they barely try to defend the polarizing madness of Trump (justifications and excuses only) yet would not have any influence without him.
The closest they have are the Claremonsters who want to return to religious authoritarianism to govern an increasingly secular society.
It is at this point that the Christian nationalists enter the chat.
In Iowa, in January 2016, Donald Trump said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?” That same day, during that same speech, he also promised, “Christianity will have power.”
Conventional wisdom has claimed that, in 2016, Evangelicals “held their noses” and voted for Mr. Trump. That’s wrong. Evangelicals did not support Trump despite who he is; they supported him because of who he is, and because of who they are.
Today, Christian nationalism looks, sounds, and smells like this…
…and sometimes this, …
The plan looks like this.
Christian nationalism is a trend that demands further investigation. It is the subject of this week’s TBL.
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Thanks for reading.
Christian Identity Politics
Christian nationalism’s adherents are easy to demonize and caricature as young, restless, Reformed, bitter, bearded, rural, hipster, larper culture warriors with a brand-spanking-new, paid-for Twitter checkmark, eager for a return to 16th Century Geneva yet furious that so few want to tag along, preaching loudly to each other and at the world.
That said, few – whether adherents, critics, proponents, or sympathizers – can agree on what exactly Christian nationalism is.
On one hand, its essence is said to be standard-fare Christian patriotism or a vague statement that we’re a nation with an obligation to follow Jesus.
In Federalist 2, for example, John Jay (who would become the first Chief Justice of the United States) described America as he saw it at its founding.
“With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people – a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.”
On the other hand, Christian nationalism is also (and often rightly) seen as a Christianized American Taliban or the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.
A recent study conducted by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism revealed a December 2021 Telegram post from St. Louis Proud Boys President Mike Lasater that read as follows.
“Our time is not up; it is the jewish hegemony whose days our [sic] numbered. This is a Christian nation; jews may be citizens of this country, but they are guests of our nation, and they should remember that.”
That’s more than a little terrifying … and entirely evil.
To oversimplify, there are two broad camps of Christian conservatives. Each is sometimes criticized as Christian nationalism. One suggests that Christianity should influence the nation and its laws. The other demands that the nation and its government should actually identify as Christian.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with influence.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Michael Gerson, a real-deal conservative Christian man who died all too young this week at 58. “It is a real mistake to try to secularize American political discourse,” Mr. Gerson told NPR in 2006. “It removes one of the primary sources of visions of justice in American history.” In his view (and mine, echoing Jonathan Last), the problem isn’t too much Christianity in politics; it’s too much politics in Christianity. As he told PBS in 2007, we need “a conservatism of the common good that argues that we need to orient our policies towards people that might not even vote for us.”
I’m all for that. You should be, too. We need more of the good stuff and less – much less – of the metastasized mass that has been public Evangelicalism for far too long.
Identity is another matter altogether.
The line of demarcation — fuzzy at best — is religious establishment. Christians, like the proponents of all faiths or no faith, are and should be free to advocate for their favored ideas, candidates, and policies. But we are not free to promote Christianity by government mandate.
For the last 500 years or so, pretty much since Martin Luther nailed his theses to that Wittenberg door, most basic Protestant political philosophy has argued that the state should promote “true” religion. The American Founders thought otherwise … and I stand with them.
Christian nationalism’s adherents are also easy to dismiss.
When confronted with unmarried women voting Democrat last week by a 37 percent margin, with growing numbers of unmarrieds, Christian nationalists started a voter suppression hashtag #RepealThe19th. Lots of Christian nationalists think the 19th Amendment was a bad idea (more here).
Christian nationalists seem genuinely puzzled that women might not wish to fulfill their natural, God-given role, remaining barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen, …
…or that they might not see themselves as part of a “gynocracy” (the video below is particularly good — note especially the “classic” version of the flag).
…of being un-American, …
…or of being anti-American.
They think we’re doomed.
And they don’t hide who or what they are.
Not even a little.
Nothing is more important to these guys – and they’re essentially all guys – than (in ascending order) being right, telling you that you’re wrong, “proving” that they’re right, and imagining your punishment for being wrong.
These are manly men, y’see.
They aren’t really all that tough, though. They sound like people who saw the populist movement rising and decided that they could get in on the action and get to a place where they’d be the ones in charge. They aren’t able to convince much of anybody that their “muscular” version of Christianity is true so they aim to enforce it via the power of the state. They look like bargain-basement, would-be intellectuals trying to bully those who, to this point, have refused to take them seriously.
And they’re happy to use the Proud Boys to get there (although it isn’t clear who is using whom).
All that said, and despite the snark, I’m going to try to bend over backwards to consider Christian nationalism seriously, fairly, and on its own terms. I doubt many will be pleased, but I’m still going to try.
Wish me luck.
Nationalism has a dreadful reputation in America – one that is well-earned.
Prior to World War II, nationalism was a major force in American politics. It featured identification with the United States and support for its interests (“America First”), especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations. It sought to build and maintain a single national identity, based on a combination of shared social characteristics and belief in a shared singular history, and to promote national unity and solidarity.
This nationalism sought to preserve and foster what it saw as America’s traditional culture. Thus, its go-to themes were (and are) isolationism…
…and opposition to immigration.
In 1939, Charles Lindbergh, who became a prominent member of the America First Committee, wrote for Reader’s Digest that Americans “can have peace and security only so long as we band together to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood, only so long as we guard ourselves against attack by foreign armies and dilution by foreign races.”
“A few Jews add strength and character to a country, but too many create chaos,” Lindbergh wrote in a 1939 diary entry. “And we are getting too many.”
Pressure from America First and other like-minded isolationist people and groups fought hard against any support for England, France, and other countries (later Allies) opposing Nazi Germany. They were successful until after Germany invaded Poland.
American nationalists also successfully limited immigration dramatically and, to the extent immigration was permitted, overwhelmingly favored northern Europeans. They prevented war refugees – and especially Jewish refugees – from obtaining asylum in America. For example, the German liner St. Louis arrived in America in 1939 with 937 mostly Jewish passengers fleeing Hitler. The ship was not allowed to dock. It was sent, fully loaded, back to Europe; 254 of its passengers died in the Holocaust.
After the war and after the full extent of the Holocaust became known, nationalism became a spent force, mostly limited to cranks and fools.
It’s no wonder the “post-war consensus” rejected it so utterly. But America has always had an underbelly of isolationism and opposition to immigration. Donald Trump channeled it beginning in 2015.
The record of Christian nationalism’s “achievements” isn’t much better.
Servetus was burned at the stake in Geneva for heresy on October 27, 1553. The Calvinists and the Catholics alike – Christian nationalists all – wanted him dead. The Calvinists got to him first.
Christian nationalists love to quote their Reformed ancestors saying what they think is “based” stuff (examples below), only for the full story to be … not quite what they thought.
Ward wrote that “against toleration” of … other Protestants.
Cranmer was quite the Christian nationalist. He helped concoct “royal supremacy” for Henry VIII and was accused of heresy by the other Christian nationalist faction at the time. He recanted, but Bloody Mary wanted him dead, anyway, so he recanted his recantation and suffered the flames.
The crisis of England’s Christian nationalism (not called that, obviously) caused dissenters as different as Shakespeare and the American Founders to question the legitimacy of monarchy.
In 1644, the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law against Baptists, calling them “incendiaries of commonwealths” and “troublers" of churches. Anyone who opposed the baptizing of infants was subject to banishment. “Papists” were anathema and banned along with other non-Puritans. Laws discriminated against Catholics in matters of property and voting. Quakers were hanged.
“For the things they said — words whispered, grumbles muttered, prayers offered, curses shouted — dissenters, blasphemers, and nonconformists in seventeenth-century New England faced censure, arrest, flogging, the pillory, disenfranchisement, exile, and even execution. Quakers might have their ears cut off. For holding toxic opinions, one blasphemer was sentenced to have the letter B ‘cutt out of ridd cloth & sowed to her vper garment on her right arme’” [from here].
That’s Christian nationalism at work.
It isn’t hard to see how that view is xenophobic, racist, and exclusionary. I am not exaggerating when I say my Jewish friends are terrified of Christian nationalism. They are not alone.
Despite the dreadful history, today’s Christian nationalists have doubled down on the moniker, thinking they can redeem it. As if.
Christian nationalists further focus on America’s alleged status as a “Christian nation.” It’s a dubious claim. Christian nationalists are nostalgic for a past that never was.
Demographically speaking, America was largely a Christian nation at the time of its founding and has been ever since. As of 2020, 42 percent of Americans were Protestant, 21 percent Catholic, and 0.5 percent Orthodox. However, it is a rather different proposition to claim that the founders established the new American government as a “Christian nation.” Clearly, they did not.
The U.S. Constitution does nothing of the sort. Not remotely.
Moreover, in 1791, in the Treaty of Tripoli, the United States declared, “[t]he government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”
In February 1863, during the Civil War, a coalition of eleven Protestant denominations from seven northern states gathered to discuss the state of the nation. Seeing the Civil War as God's punishment for the omission of God from the Constitution, they discussed a proposed amendment to alter the wording of the Preamble to acknowledge God.
This and related attempts did not achieve a Congressional vote until 1874. Such proposals were considered by Congress in 1874, 1895, 1896, 1910, 1947, 1949, 1951, 1953, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1959, 1961, 1963, 1965, 1967, and 1969. None passed.
The genius of the American Framers is they – often through hard experience and unlike much of the “historic Christian consensus” – recognized the power and consequences of sin on politics and government. Most powerfully, they recognized their own depravity. Thus came representative Democracy, ordered liberty, limited government, and the Bill of Rights, including the separation of church and state.
America sought protection from tyranny and the Constitution provided it.
Christian nationalists also (wrongly) assume the national culture to be preserved is static. Even if America somehow were once a Christian nation, it no longer is. They concede as much when they seek to establish “mere Christendom” rather than the specific flavors of Christianity established in the Colonies.
Christian nationalists are furious that they aren’t in charge and their response centers not on persuasion but on their (utterly human) authoritarian impulse. Among America’s chief virtues once were self-reliance, open debate, and the freedom to disagree, perhaps loudly. Today, as in Puritan New England, the dominant American political culture (which includes Christian nationalists) is intent on building churches – both sacred and secular – of conformity, whose chief means of worship is destroying heretics.
Christian nationalism has much in common with Islamic fundamentalism but with different source material. And without the burkas. Yet.
Pluralism – liberal democracy – is the best way we’ve yet conceived to preserve a nation that spans huge swaths of territory and includes every faith, ethnicity, and viewpoint.
And I don't relish a return to a time when Calvinists drowned anabaptists, or Puritans jailed Quakers. Maybe I'm just not nostalgic enough.
Because Christian nationalists are so easy to demonize and dismiss, it’s easy to doubt Christian nationalism’s plausibility in 21st Century America. It hardly seems likely that Christian nationalism will take hold any time soon. However, almost a decade ago, Rod Dreher came up with what he called The Law of Merited Impossibility. The idea is that people will tell you a thing can never happen and that you’re crazy to worry about it — right up until they tell you that this very same thing is inevitable. Anyone who has considered the Son of Laughter, Ruth, or Elijah and the prophets of Baal has imagined the impossible made possible. Nassim Taleb gets to roughly the same place by other means.
Moreover, although I doubt the numbers below will hold when respondents learn what they’re assenting to, a surprising number of people ascribe to Christian nationalist ideals.
According to a recent Pew survey, 18 percent of Americans believe that the U.S. Constitution was “inspired by God [and] reflects God’s vision for America.” Slightly fewer say that the federal government should declare the U.S. a Christian nation. And three in 10 believe that public school teachers should be allowed to lead students in Christian prayers. These survey results suggest that about two of every 10 Americans are sympathetic to Christian nationalist messaging.
In a separate national survey, “[r]oughly 25 percent of American adults (representing more than 50 million people) said the [Christian nationalist] label described them either ‘very well’ (11%) or ‘somewhat well’ (14%). Among Republicans, that number rose to 45 percent, with more than 20 percent saying it described them ‘very well.’”
Those are significant numbers, numbers worth taking seriously.
It’s only fair that I state my own position clearly. Here’s where I stand.
I am a Christian, a patriot, and a conservative (theologically and politically). I believe the government of the United States should act in the best interests of its citizens. I favor Christians – like all Americans – actively engaging in the public square and advocating for their favored ideas and policies, irrespective of source. I insist upon the free exercise of religion and freedom of conscience. However, when Christians hold positions based upon their faith commitments, and if they desire governmental action consistent therewith, they must make universal rather than sectarian arguments in their favor.
I reject the idea that America is in a unique national covenant with God. I am highly skeptical of state steps to promote a Christian culture, Christmas being a federal holiday notwithstanding. I favor diversity over cultural homogeneity. Unity does not require identity. I unequivocally oppose the idea that America is a Christian nation, and that Christians and Christianity should have favored status herein.
I want state commitments and a public morality influenced by Christianity but driven from the bottom up (rather than the top down) by the genuine, voluntary religious service and the ideals of its people.
Among George Washington’s favorite literary tropes was being able to sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, where none shall make him afraid. Lin-Manuel Miranda used it to frame George Washington’s magnificent Farewell Address in Hamilton.
It is a direct allusion to Micah 4:4 and a longstanding American metaphor for the blessings of liberty — and especially religious liberty — in the New World, including the provision of refuge from oppression by foreign powers. Washington used it in his famous 1790 letter to the Hebrew congregation of Newport (and almost 50 other times — it was his most-used Scriptural phrase).
“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
“…May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
I stand with Washington and against the Christian nationalists.
My practical take on opposing establishment comes from the Gospel: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12). I refuse to limit religious and cultural opponents because I don’t want them to limit me. I don’t advocate for teaching my faith in school because I don’t want my grandchildren taught some other faith … or taught my faith blandly or badly. This view is also rooted in common sense: it’s the principle of reciprocity.
Biblical history plays a role, too. Saul, persecutor of the unorthodox, after meeting Jesus on the Damascus Road, became Paul, persuader of the Gentiles. That’s a powerful transition.
The off-ramp from what ails the United States in 2022 is not revolution (as Stephen Wolfe implies — tune in next week for details). It is … nothing surprising: free enterprise, investment, trade, hard work, thrift, prudence, industry, economy, rule of law, good citizenship, community, faith, family, and, where it cannot be avoided but may be properly limited, democracy.
Adolescents talk about revolution. Adults get to work.
Moreover, Christian nationalism’s insistence upon Christian prominence is weak, whiny, entitled identity politics — privileges based solely upon who one is. Liberal democracy is none of those.
The American experiment was not and is not predicated upon “Enlightenment thinkers push[ing] back against Christendom.” The American experiment is predicated upon protecting the ordered liberty of citizens to exercise “certain inalienable rights” endowed to them by God without governmental interference.
“The spirit that prevails among men of all degrees, all ages, and sexes is the spirit of liberty,” Abigail Adams wrote after the Battles of Lexington and Concord. In the same letter she quoted a bit from The Conspiracy of Kings, a poem by diplomat Joel Barlow. Americans would not “shrink unnerved before a tyrant’s face, but meet this louring insolence with scorn,” she insisted.
Accordingly, we needn’t establish Christianity to stave off ruin. We simply need to reject authoritarians right and left while doing a better job of convincing other citizens – of whatever faith or of no faith – that our favored policies are better than those we don’t like. We need to live out our ideals. Even when we don’t like it. Even when it’s hard.
As always, my crystal ball isn’t any good (yours isn’t, either). But I’m guessing most Christian nationalists, and especially those writing books or doing the podcast thing, don’t realize that if their dreams come to fruition they will be regarded by those who then grab power as something akin to “useful idiots.”
Which brings me to next week’s TBL.
Here’s a teaser for Part 2 next time from some of the TheoBros.
I will be looking at Stephen Wolfe’s book, A Case for Christian Nationalism, in some detail.
Every Christian nationalist claims to have seen the light but, at best, it’s the light of a very distant, long-exploded star. I’ll hope you’ll come back next week for more of the story.
Totally Worth It
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The writer has a deceptively hard job: “To surprise the reader when the identity of the murderer is revealed, yet at the same time to convince him that everything he has previously been told about the murderer is consistent with his being a murderer, is the test of a good detective story.”
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On the one hand. “Well I think if [Republicans] win, I should get all the credit, and if they lose, I should not be blamed at all,” Donald Trump said on election day. “We had tremendous success. Why would anything change?” he said the next day.
On the other hand. “Nothing,” Joe Biden said, when asked what he will do differently as president.
The TBL Spotify playlist, made up of the songs featured here, now includes more than 240 songs and about 17 hours of great music. I urge you to listen in, sing along, and turn up the volume.
Amazing Grace is our culture’s most famous hymn. By a mile. This incredible solo guitar rendition is this week’s benediction.
Thanks for reading.
Issue 130 (November 18, 2022)
Christian nationalists routinely claim that established religions at the state level when the U.S. Constitution was ratified demonstrate that favoring Christianity — of whatever flavor — doesn’t violate its terms. However, the passage of the 14th Amendment incorporated the First Amendment’s protections and made them applicable to the states.