In the German state of Bavaria, a new law has ordered crosses decorate the entrance of every state building; however, the reason why, and the implications it could have for the United States, will be troubling to many evangelicals.
Like much of the Western world, Bavaria has seen a surge of support for far-right, aggressively-nationalistic, anti-Muslim, anti-immigration political groups. A recent New York Times report suggests that the law was passed by Bavaria’s more centrist conservative premier as a way of strengthening their voting base by showing their commitment to more “traditional” Bavarian culture as more and more refugees enter Germany.
“This is about culture, not religion,” Christian Moser, mayor of the small Bavarian town of Deggendorf, told the Times. “The cross is not a sign of religion.”
This statement is obviously disturbing to a Christian world that sees the cross as not only religious but the lynchpin symbol of the Christian faith. And a recent Pew Forum survey suggests this co-opting of Christianity to hold onto the patriotism/nationalism of its base is not isolated in Germany. The 2017 report, which surveyed Western Europeans from 15 countries, found that “non-practicing” Christians—in this case defined as Christians who do not attend church—outnumber both practicing Christians and the non-religious in every country except Italy—where practicing and non-practicing Christians are equal—and the Netherlands and Norway—where non-religious were the largest groups.
The survey found that non-practicing Christians have a fond sentiment toward religious institutions and are raising their children in their religious faith; however, the survey also found this group to express more nationalistic and anti-Muslim views, while being largely indifferent to traditional Christian teachings on issues of sexual morality, sexual identity or abortion. It’s easy in this to see an echo of Bavaria, where the cross functions as a cultural identifier, not as a reminder of a God who sent his Son to atone for our sins and who invites us into the lifestyle of the cross.
Cultural Christianity in America
It’s also easy to see the seeds of this ideology in America. A recent Pew survey found white evangelical Protestants were the most likely group to say the United States had no responsibility to accept refugees, and a strong immigration policy was arguably the tentpole policy of President Trump’s presidential campaign, where white evangelicals voted for him by an overwhelming majority. It’s hard to discuss this without creating a maelstrom of controversy, and there were many reasons for the evangelical support of Trump not connected to immigration. There are also many valid conversations to have about what immigration should look like in our country. Those conversations fall outside the scope of this article.
Rather, it’s worth considering where the connection between Christianity and politics is heading. The white nationalist rally in Charlottesville combined with the resurgent voice of the alt-right are obviously concerning to followers of Jesus committed to Paul’s preaching that in Christ there are to be no divisions between ethnicity, gender, race or social status. And for years now the church has been concerned about the declining numbers of religious participation in our country.
It would seem then that America is primed in its near future to find what happened in Bavaria happening here, where the cross is no longer a symbol of spiritual renewal and where Christianity is fully co-opted as a politically expedient tool. And it’s worth asking how the church can proactively use the cross to point toward Jesus, instead of using it to adorn a politician’s wall.