The Solution to Christian Nationalism? Better Theology

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By Thomas K. Johnson, originally published on Religion Unplugged 

The Capitol riot of Jan. 6 has both added urgency to and reshaped the discourse on how to heal our deep national divisions. Now, along with white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, Trump and Antifa, fingers are being pointed at “Christian nationalism.”

That concept is not clearly defined. But since President Trump’s defeat in the November election, it has certainly been rearing its head—most notably in the “Jericho marches” on Washington, D.C.

The best one-line definition of Christian nationalism I have seen is “the identification of a nation-state, race or political party and its candidates with the Christian faith or church in such a way that the two identities are equated.” The adherents of Christian nationalism seem to believe that they have a special connection to God, that America has a special role in God’s plan and that they and their allies (particularly Donald Trump) should be running the country.

Many of them, as David French has documented, have based their sense of urgency on a belief that Democratic control of the federal government will mean the end of America as we know it. Some—especially those who prophesied a Trump reelection—have maintained hope that God would somehow miraculously reverse the results between Election Day and Inauguration Day.

The vast majority of evangelical and other politically conservative Christians have responded in much calmer fashion, reminding their followers that God still knows what he is doing and encouraging them to be good citizens under a Biden administration. Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress, one of the most prominent evangelical Trump backers, is a good example.

But others have been unwilling to abandon their cherished hope in the face of reality. Instead, they have latched onto anything available to reassure them that their perception of God’s will—in this case, their conviction that God would keep Trump in the White House—was not mistaken. Some have even chosen to try to help bring that result to pass—attending “Save America” rallies or even storming the Capitol.

As a theologian for the world’s largest evangelical organization, I feel an obligation to offer a better way forward for Christians, so that they can contribute toward our nation’s healing, guide their confused and worried neighbors away from the excesses of Christian nationalism and represent Christianity in a more positive fashion that furthers the common good.

What I offer is hardly original. It starts with Jesus and the apostle Paul.

According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus encouraged people to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” In that statement, Jesus distinguished between two realms: the kingdom of God, to which his followers owe their ultimate allegiance, and human kingdoms, to which we owe obedience unless their requirements are in direct conflict with our allegiance to God.

This distinction is reinforced in two other New Testament passages: Romans 13, where Paul describes governing authorities as established by God, and 1 Peter 2.

Throughout history, the Christian church has generally recognized this distinction. There have been glaring exceptions, such as the Inquisition, the religious wars in Europe after the Protestant Reformation and Roger Williams getting expelled from Puritan Massachusetts for promoting religious freedom. But usually, Christians have recognized that the church and the state should function in quite different ways.

The church has authority over believers, but the state serves and has authority over everyone. The church addresses divine matters, but the state deals with public order and temporal affairs. To be members of the church, people must agree to obey God and the Bible; in the realm of the state, all people have equal rights regardless of their religious beliefs.

How does this distinction guide Christians in their involvement with the state? The answer is, in several ways, all of which contradict the dangerous impulses currently associated with Christian nationalism.

First, because the state must serve everyone, Christians should never seek to have the government privilege one religious group over another. The state must serve adherents of other religions (or of none) as full stakeholders in America.

Second, we must recognize what theologians call common grace—the fact that God gives good ideas to all people, not only Christians. Just as Christian dentists are not always better than non-Christian dentists, so Christians—or the people whom Christians select—will not necessarily govern better than others.

Many Americans today are dealing with buyer’s remorse because they supported leaders based on ideology to the exclusion of character, integrity and basic competence. I do not disrespect those who believed, prior to Nov. 3, that of the only two viable choices, Donald Trump was the better option on balance. But what we have seen since Nov. 3 should cause all of us, especially Christians, to reexamine our evaluation criteria.

Third, our advocacy in the public square should not pretend everyone believes the Bible, and it is inappropriate to use politics to impose such a pretense on our neighbors. Instead, we must appeal to them on the basis of principles that apply to everyone—what we call the natural moral law.

All people regularly appeal to the natural moral law, even if they do not realize it. When protesters say that “Black lives matter,” they are not saying, “Black lives matter to me, but it’s okay if they don’t matter to you.” Rather, they probably mean, “We all know that Black people are of equal value to other people and we want our government to recognize this.” In other words, they are appealing to a universal standard that everyone understands and can be asked to follow.

Many of our most intense debates involve areas where we disagree on what the moral law says. We all agree that enslaving or murdering people is wrong, and that people should be prevented from doing these things, by force if necessary. We may disagree as to whether abortion should be classified as murder. But if we think that others have a deficient understanding of the moral law, we must engage with them through persuasion and democratic processes, not threats or violence.

When we emphasize these three points—serving all people equally, common grace and the natural moral law—our advocacy is characterized by humility, mutual respect, and greater openness to discussion, rather than by triumphalist claims to moral superiority.

If our churches will differentiate properly between the realms of church and state as I have outlined, using the appropriate form of reason for each, they will make an invaluable contribution toward restoring our nation and healing many individual souls.

Thomas K. Johnson is senior theological advisor to the World Evangelical Alliance, which represents and connects 600 million Christians in 134 countries. He has published extensively on issues of ethics and human rights. The views expressed represent the author, not necessarily any organization.