The Church Has Been Grappling With Christianity and Nationalism for a While
The collective concern we are seeing over Christian nationalism is not a new conversation, although the conversation has certainly gained momentum over the last four-plus years of President Trump’s presidency and the campaign season leading up to it. In other words, while Christian nationalism didn’t start with Trump, it has been thrust into the spotlight during his time in office due to the fact that some evangelical leaders who support him would most likely be found by researchers to identify with at least some aspects of Christian nationalism.
For instance, Trump supporter and pastor Greg Locke of Global Vision Bible Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, joined a group of other leaders for a pro-Trump rally in Washington D.C. on January 6th. Locke has said that America’s very existence is indebted to preachers and other Christians who built it “on the foundational principles of the Bible”:
There would be no America without these men of God that stood on a bold platform and said look, this is what the Bible says. Take it or leave it. And America was built on the foundational principles of the Bible and it was birthed out of a revival meeting…You’ve got the black robe preachers, all these preachers, all these men of God that were willing to stand up. But now we have a bunch of cowards that just sit around…
While Locke believes Christians are in a spiritual battle with the “left,” he has also said “If the left’s not careful, they’re going to poke the bear one too many times and we’re going to be in a literal war. I mean they’re bringing us to the brink of a civil war in this nation.” Locke made these comments just days before the November 3, 2020 election.
The reason Locke supports Trump so vehemently is because the pastor believes the president is helping evangelical Christians gain back some of the ground he believes they’ve lost:
This man’s given us a voice. He’s given us a platform. He is a friend of Israel; he is a friend of evangelical Christianity; a friend of the church. He is the most Christ-centered if you will, although he tweets some very brash things at times. I mean, we’re talking about a man that is giving us an opportunity to continue to preach the values of the Bible.
Leaders Raise the Alarm With Statement
The whole conversation about Christian Nationalism and some Christians’ concern with it was highlighted in July 2019 when a group of Christian leaders released a statement disparaging a trend toward nationalism they perceived in the American church. Endorsers of the Christians Against Christian Nationalism statement include Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopalian Church, Tony Campolo of the Red Letter Christian Movement, and Jim Wallace of Sojourners.
Framers of the statement say the trend toward nationalism is not only dangerous for Christianity, but also democracy. They write that Christian nationalism “often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation.”
Even before this statement, however, some Christian leaders have warned about conflating patriotism with allegiance to Christ. Every 4th of July, for instance, American pastors grapple with the question of how to construct a worship service to a holy God who does not belong to any one tribe or nation while also acknowledging what the day asks us to remember and be thankful for in the United States. Many opinions have been written on whether or not we should include American flags in our sanctuaries, for instance.
For some leaders, however, there is nothing to grapple with. They believe the United States has a mandate to help usher in God’s Kingdom on earth. In their minds, it’s only natural and good to acknowledge this mandate in a worship service. To them, this is simply a matter of patriotism—not Christian nationalism. Additionally, these leaders believe that as a nation chosen to aid God in establishing His Kingdom, it’s imperative that they do things like elect politicians who share these views and push for legislation in line with what they believe are biblical principles (IE: the push to ban abortions or outlaw same-sex marriage). If Christians don’t do these things, they reason, we will fall short of what God has called us to and potentially devolve into unbelief.
This sentiment was expressed over and over again as leaders admonished followers to vote for President Trump last year. Franklin Graham, the president of Samaritan’s Purse, wrote that the stakes were high for this election. So high, in fact, that he implied Christians could start to lose some of their religious liberty under anyone besides Trump. “Christians need to understand that the opportunities for reinforcing religious liberty that we have enjoyed under President Trump aren’t guaranteed to continue. Virtually the entire field of presidential challengers is openly hostile to Biblical values,” Graham wrote in December 2019.
Televangelist and fervent Trump supporter Kenneth Copeland famously said in 2016 that those who don’t vote for Trump would be responsible for every baby aborted going forward. John MacArthur of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, Calif. told President Trump before the 2020 election that “any real, true believer is going to be on your side in this election.”
It is these kinds of scare tactics and arguments that seem to coincide with Christian nationalist beliefs.
The conversation about Christian nationalism didn’t start with Trump and it likely won’t go away as he prepares to leave the White House, either. Historically, Christian leaders have felt the need to “right the ship” of our theological teaching as they perceive us going off course from God’s teachings. The case of Christian nationalism appears to be bringing us to another point in our history where a course correction is needed.