The Christian Nationalist Temptation
Nationalism is one of those terms that’s just about impossible to define in any satisfactory way. Nearly any attempt to set its parameters will either lump in those who reject the label or dissatisfy those who embrace it.
Not surprisingly, the meaning of Christian nationalism is just as slippery, if not more. In the July/August issue of CT, Matthew Lee Anderson analyzes three books looking at this phenomenon from different angles: Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, by sociologists Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry; The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, by journalist Katherine Stewart; and American Blindspot: Race, Class, Religion, and the Trump Presidency, by religion scholar Gerardo Marti.
As Anderson makes clear, these books aren’t always charitable or accurate in how they depict conservative Christian political attitudes. And yet, when read with a critical eye, they yield insights worth pondering about a worldview and a mindset that tempts some white evangelicals.
“How, in the end,” Anderson asks, “should evangelicals receive books like these? It’s a complicated question, not least because evangelicals have a complicated relationship with Christian nationalism as these authors portray it.
“Many evangelicals—on both sides of the Trump divide—will recognize themselves in at least some of this portrait, even if they distance themselves from its ugliest tendencies. It’s possible, after all, to hold conventional patriotic attachments without deifying the flag; to acknowledge a Judeo-Christian influence on the founding of America without treating the Constitution as divinely inspired; to fortify religious liberty without excluding non-Christians from its blessings; and to sympathize with white-working-class struggles without demonizing immigrants or members of other races. Yet the arguments and evidence these books compile cannot be waved away merely by asserting that white evangelicals are free from the problems they depict.
“These books do not hold a mirror up to conservative Christians; they refract the movement through a biased set of lenses. Yet they can still be read with caution, charity, and humility. If nothing else, they expose blind spots (to invoke Marti’s book title) that lurk within certain white evangelical communities. Listening attentively helps us recognize and untether ourselves from ideologies that are fundamentally incompatible with the gospel. It also signals a willingness to give our critics a fair hearing, even when they are ungenerous.
“In the end, life within a deliberative democracy means we are stuck listening to each other—and, in the best cases, learning from each other as well. If we want to convince skeptics we can play by democracy’s rules while holding fast to Christian truth claims in the public square, then listening is where we must begin.”