Breathing the Air of Christian Nationalism - Word&Way

Breathing the Air of Christian Nationalism

Last week, CBS News released a documentary that includes me as one of the voices about Christian Nationalism. The film provides a variety of perspectives, from evangelist Franklin Graham and a White pastor of a “patriot church” in Tennessee that celebrates America and Donald Trump on one side, to historian John Fea and a Black Baptist pastor in New York who both talk about how the U.S. wasn’t founded as a “Christian nation” on the other side.

In the film, I’m one of those voices against Christian Nationalism and the myth of the U.S. as a Christian nation. So, a couple people have noted the irony that during the interview segments as I sit the sanctuary of my church there is an American flag on stage behind me.

I laugh at the jabs. Then I note I actually pointed that out during the interview. I spent hours with CBS News that day back in December with the understanding that just a few minutes would make the cut. Though I hadn’t planned to mention the flag, after the interview I expected that moment to show up.

“I think Christian Nationalism is at some level much more involved and embedded in our churches than I used to want to admit,” I say in the film. “I think that it’s hard growing up in a White Christian church not to breathe the air of Christian Nationalism.”

It may have been around that time during filming that I pointed at the American flag over my shoulder to note that right there in my church and so many others we have this nationalistic message being preached. And I mentioned that we put it in what the U.S. Flag Code calls “the position of superior prominence” and thus as more worthy of allegiance than the Christian flag in the lesser position on the other side of the stage.

So, while I found the CBS News documentary fantastic and I am pleased to be included, I was initially surprised that moment didn’t make it. But upon more reflection, I realized it would mess up the narrative.

The film portrays Christian Nationalists on one side and those opposed to Christian Nationalism on the other. And this is an important debate with significant implications — as the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, which occurred after the filming for this documentary, should remind us.

Pointing out the flag behind me muddles the narrative. What if instead of just seeing Christian Nationalists over at a “patriot church,” this theology is instead embedded in many — if not most — of our churches? What if Christian Nationalism is growing up like tares sowed into the field along with the wheat?

If that’s the case, our work in combatting this heresy is harder — and more important. If we’re just trying to stop the influence of radical sects like the “patriot church,” then we have an easy caricature to hold up and demonize. But if Christian Nationalism lives in most White evangelical sanctuaries and is cast not as Christian Nationalism but as Christianity, then the necessary task is one of reformation.

Will Campbell warned us decades ago that the most dangerous heresy was the racist who, “in the name of faith, defends the doctrine of White Supremacy.”

“In the name of God, he denies our responsibility to our neighbors if they happen to be beyond our own man-made boundaries, or have skin of a different color. In the name of God, he denies the love and mercy and justice of God,” Campbell added about this heresy. “And herein lies the duty of the church.”

That duty remains. But if we think the problem is just some fringe churches waving Trump flags then we’re missing the demands of this moment. Christian Nationalism rests easily in many of our sanctuaries from the flags to the hymnals to the sermons.

And if we don’t realize it’s heresy, then we might just confess it as our own faith. As Campbell added, “How much that is alien to the spirit of this Christ can we put into the church and still have the church at all?”

How much, indeed, I wonder as I look over my shoulder and take a breath.