In a chaotic and often incoherent presidential debate this week, one moment stood out.
When asked by moderator Chris Wallace if he would condemn white supremacists and militia groups, President Donald Trump hemmed and hawed and ultimately said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”
The president distanced himself from his own statement the following day, claiming not to know who the Proud Boys were.
But the Proud Boys, a far-right group that has been labeled as a hate group for its misogynistic, white supremacist, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim views, seized upon this directive immediately. They took the president’s words not as an order to defer to police, but rather as a command to be at the ready.
Furthermore, the president’s statement follows his pattern of equivocating on white supremacy and the violence inspired by it.
After deadly confrontations in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, when white nationalist groups marched through the streets brandishing swastikas and chanting “Jews will not replace us,” the president pivoted attention, asserting there were “very fine people on both sides.”
The president’s failure to forcefully condemn violent white supremacists when pressed should be deeply troubling to all Americans, including people of faith.
While we as a country are reckoning with systemic racism, Christians are facing our own complicity in racial injustice – from slavery to segregation to police brutality and mass incarceration.
Though the president’s message is muddled at best, we must be clear: There is no room in our country for hate or violence inspired by racism and white supremacy.
But denouncing violent white nationalism is not enough. We must explore its root causes, including Christian nationalism.
Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, authors of the recent book, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, define Christian nationalism as “a cultural framework that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life.”
They are distinguishing their faith from the “Christian” in Christian nationalism, which is more about nativism, white supremacy and authoritarianism than religion, according to research conducted by Perry and Whitehead.
Signers of the Christians Against Christian Nationalism statement affirm, among other principles, that “patriotism does not require us to minimize our religious convictions.”
We can love our country and still question our history and our political leaders, particularly when we feel called to do so by our faith.
With regard to history, we must examine the mythological founding of the United States as a “Christian nation.”
The U.S. Constitution makes clear that the country wasn’t founded for Christians or to prefer Christians. Instead, it created a system of government that would remain neutral when it comes to faith and its practice.
Christian nationalism casts our nation’s founding in a providential light, suggesting an exceptionalism to a country blessed with divine favor. This nationalist ideology comes into conflict with our religious values.
How do we reconcile God’s special blessing on a country that was founded on slavery with our religious values that call us to see every human as a child of God and to love our neighbors as ourselves?
Glorifying our past also works to denigrate and exclude those who were not in power at the time of the country’s founding – essentially, everyone except property-owning white males.
Turning a blind eye to the sins of our past can hinder living into our Christian values of full equality and freedom in Christ, as Paul wrote to the Galatians. Truth telling need not threaten us; indeed, Scripture tells us it makes us free.
Taking an honest look at history need not threaten our patriotism; instead, understanding history can strengthen our love of country as we work to fulfill our national ideals of “liberty and justice for all.”
Nationalism can also lead to idolatry as we confuse political and religious authority. In a recent speech announcing a new “national commission to promote patriot education,” the president identified the goal of the project: “Our youth will be taught to love America with all of their heart and all of their soul.”
As Christians, we follow a higher commandment to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind.
We can love both God and country, but when conflicts come between the two, we must be clear about our priorities and hierarchy of allegiances.
Violent white nationalism is a growing force in modern day America, and the president’s statements at this week’s debate only bolstered this hateful movement.
The statements should also bolster our commitment to root out white supremacy. All Americans should be clear about their condemnation of white nationalist violence.
I believe that Christians have a special obligation at this time to understand and question the assumptions of Christian nationalism as we work to dismantle white supremacy and seek to love God and love our neighbor.
Executive director of BJC and the co-host of the “Respecting Religion” podcast series.