What is Christian nationalism, and why is it dangerous?

Christian nationalism seeks to impose a particular understanding of Christianity and a particular version of American history on the policies, laws and practices of our nation.

The two become united in way that gives privilege to certain Americans while harming those not considered American or Christian enough by said policies, laws and practices.

Why is Christian nationalism dangerous? Why was the Inquisition dangerous? Why were the Salem witch trials dangerous? Why was the Holocaust dangerous?

Christian nationalism endangers our life together for all the same reasons.

One of the chief dangers of Christian nationalism lies in the way it identifies those who are a threat to its idealized vision of America’s past and its insistence on a present that grants it the privileges to which it assumes entitlement. All that matters is what happens to “true Americans.”

Christian nationalism ignores those who have been excluded, persecuted, enslaved, forced to migrate and denied the vote. In doing so, Christian nationalism has looked at and treated whole groups of people as something other than human beings created in the image of God and endowed with certain inalienable rights.

Throughout the history of our country, there have always been those who were perceived by nationalists as “the other,” and this “othering” of some Americans by Christian nationalists is ongoing.

In Ohio, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health case that overturned Roe v. Wade, an Ohio state law went into effect making abortion illegal for anyone who has been pregnant for six weeks or longer.

A 10-year-old rape victim, six weeks and 3 days pregnant, could not access the care she needed and that her parents sought for her in her home state. She was not deemed American enough to decide what care she needed or to access that care in her home state.

The most frightening example of the danger of Christian nationalism has been brought to light by the January 6 committee hearings. On that day, the target of Christian nationalists was not a law, a practice or a policy, but the makers of laws and policy. The ones deemed not American enough were elected representatives.

These are just a few examples of how Christian nationalism endangers U.S. democracy.

While these dangers are real and grave, I am even more concerned about the danger Christian nationalism poses to Christian faith.

It is painful to see the misuse and abuse of our sacred scriptures and practices erode the message at the heart of those scriptures and undermine the foundation of those practices.

Jesus is asked a question in Matthew 22 about paying taxes to the emperor of Rome by some Pharisees who likely did not think it was lawful or right for them to be paying taxes to the government that had invaded their country.

If Jesus agreed with them, then they might report him to the Roman authorities and get him arrested for starting a rebellion. If he disagreed, then he loses his crowd.

Jesus subverts the trap they set for him by asking whose image is on the coin, and then tells them to give to Caesar that which bears Caesar’s image and to give to God that which bears God’s image.

In other words, give your coins to the governing authorities, but give yourselves, created in the image of God, to the divine. It is in that freedom of choice that we are truly able to experience and discover the mystery and wonder of being connected to God.

Our participation in this thing that God is doing in Christ, our participation in Christianity must be voluntary. It cannot be produced by government edict or social custom.

If our participation in it is anything other than voluntary, then what we are participating in is something other than the movement that God started in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

God longs for an intimate, loving relationship with everyone, but God does not force God’s self on us. God yearns and longs, whispers and prods, God invites and calls us, again and again.

God waits for us to realize we’re free – “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). Free from any religious system, spiritual path or destructive ideology that would have us look at ourselves and others as anything other than human beings beloved by God.

When the government acts to impose the practices of our faith on our fellow citizens in an involuntary way, as the U.S. Supreme Court has done in at least three cases during this recent session, the government does harm to the cause of Christ and abuses the heart of our religion.

Christianity that is not freely chosen is not Christianity.

Every emperor since Constantine has offered some privilege to the church. And with every acceptance of such privilege, the church became less the company of the faithful called by God and more of an appendage of the empire, a tool to serve the aims and aspirations of the state.

Our resistance to any movement or ideology that tries to make the Christian religion about something other than loving God and loving others is vital to our growth and development as followers of Christ – both as individuals and as congregations.

When people call themselves Christians and use the Jesus story to exclude, we have to say no.

When people call themselves Christians and use the Jesus story to deny the human dignity of some of us, we have to say no.

When people call themselves Christians and use the Jesus story to threaten the lives of those who do not meet their criteria for being American enough, we have to say no.

We have to say no to all of that because with Jesus there’s only one thing: people to be loved, neighbors to be loved, enemies to be loved.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted (and shortened) from a sermon Sunday-Winters preached at Greensboro United Church of Christ on July 3rd, 2022. The full text of the sermon is available here. A video recording is available here.

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