Review & Giveaway: American Idolatry - Word&Way

Review & Giveaway: American Idolatry

Like a doctor who knows what medicine a patient needs, I am fond of prescribing books to friends or church members wrestling with big questions or difficult circumstances. Rarely am I an expert qualified to address their concern, but the right book connects them with someone who can speak with authority or who has already walked down the path they trod.

Andrew Whitehead’s American Idolatry: How Christian Nationalism Betrays the Gospel and Threatens the Church will be high on my recommendation list. It’s the place where Christians in the United States looking to faithfully reflect on and respond to Christian Nationalism should begin.

The conversation about this ideology that seeks to combine particular, narrow understandings of Christian and American identities to advance a retrograde social order feels bifurcated. There’s a group of scholars who study the phenomenon using the tools of social science and other academic disciplines. And there’s a debate among Christians as to its dangers, realities, and consequences for their faith. The latter may draw on the findings of the former, but the two realms of discussion often remain separate and distinct.

Whitehead’s book is a major bridge spanning that gap. A leading expert on Christian Nationalism, he takes a risk by taking off the dispassionate hat worn by many scholars to share his own story of faith and why he’s so alarmed about the dangers Christian Nationalism poses to those who seek to follow Jesus.

“Both parts of my identity [as a follower of Christ and a sociologist] compel me to seek after and to stand for truth, no matter what,” he explained in the book. “Both parts of my identity have led me to the same conclusion: Christian Nationalism betrays the gospel and is a threat to the Christian church in the United States.”

Whitehead unmasks “three idols of Christian Nationalism” that, among other things, “perpetuate racism and xenophobia.” Drawing on what we know about those who demonstrate strong support of this ideology, we can see its pernicious connection to these evils that conflict with the basic message of the gospel.

Power, which involves achieving your goals despite opposition from others, is the first idol. Christian Nationalism seeks power because, in Whitehead’s words, its final goal “rests in safeguarding a space where White, culturally and religiously conservative, natural-born citizens occupy the unquestioned center of the culture and enjoy privileged access to interpersonal, organizational, and institutional control.”

Power is the means to the end of imposing a particular social order. In a country where demographics are rapidly changing, associations between Christian Nationalist beliefs and support for voting restrictions demonstrate the desire to limit who has the power to influence the direction of the country. Rather than using power to serve others and protect the dignity of all, Christian Nationalism sees it as a tool to force others to abide by its restrictive desires for society.

Part of the pro-Trump crowd outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Tyler Merbler/Creative Commons)

The second idol is fear. By making people feel like they are constantly under threat from the racial, immigrant, or non-Christian “other,” Christian Nationalism provokes people to act in ways that are decidedly unlike Jesus. Instead of trusting scripture’s words to “fear not,” this cultural framework seeks danger lurking in any deviation away from a world where straight, White men run the show. Instead of stirring hope and compassion, it feeds despair and incites us to cruelty.

Finally, Whitehead calls out the idolatry of violence. While Jesus may be the Prince of Peace, Christian Nationalism makes it much easier to condone violence. There’s a certain logic to it: if you believe society is disintegrating, then violence becomes necessary for restoring order. Of course, the history of Christians and the rationalization of violence is an ugly one. It reveals humans are much more convicted about obtaining and preserving power than actually being peacemakers.

Collectively, these idols indicate a much larger problem. Committing your life to following Jesus and serving God’s ways should lead Christians into a distinctive set of practices that challenge the dominant ethos of our culture. Christian Nationalism leads would-be followers of Jesus in the opposite direction, while grossly misrepresenting Christianity to everyone else. It preaches a false message that undermines the work of discipleship and the Church’s witness to the world.

As Whitehead aptly put it, “[Christian Nationalism] creates disciples who are more concerned with ensuring they control the center of the culture than standing with those on the margins. Instead of advocating being counted among the lowly, Christian Nationalism requires stepping on the lowly in order to be counted.”

This ideology is a disease that’s harming both church and society. In combining his personal story, scholarly expertise, and theological convictions, Whitehead’s American Idolatry promises to be part of the cure to the Christian Nationalism that ails us. We should all take the medicine it offers to us.

You can get another dose of Whitehead’s prescription in a recent interview with him on our podcast Dangerous Dogma.

He has graciously agreed to provide an autographed copy of his new book to a paid subscriber of A Public Witness. To be eligible, please upgrade now to a paid subscription and you might find a signed copy of American Idolatry landing in your mailbox.

As a public witness,

Beau Underwood

A Public Witness is a reader-supported publication of Word&Way. To receive new posts and support our journalism ministry, subscribe today.