Jan. 6 should go down in history as a day of reckoning not simply for our current political leadership, but also for the church in America.
The things that need to be reckoned with by the nation and the church were reflected in the flags that were waived by the insurgents as they overtook the Capitol building, attempting to stop the certification of our recent presidential election.
These flags read “Trump: Make America Great Again,” the Confederate flag and flags emblazoned with the words “Jesus 2020” and “Proud Christian American.”
Each represents something our nation and the church in America has struggled with for several years: our uneasy acceptance and recognition of American patriotism as a cardinal virtue, the challenges inherent in our worship of a cult of personality and the church’s acceptance of Christian nationalism.
Since Trump’s ascension to the presidency, our nation has seen a steady increase in activity by militant nativist groups, such as the Proud Boys, who cover themselves and their actions in the American flag. Groups such as these state that their desire is to protect the history of America, restore it to its prior glory and to make America great again.
They do not agree with how our nation has become more diverse or how it seeks to cooperate with other nations to improve our world. They believe that these actions are unpatriotic and that our nation’s first concern should be to keep America for Americans.
Although evangelicalism has not gone to the extreme lengths that certain militant groups have, multiple leaders within the evangelical church use similar language. Instead of saying, “America First,” they say, “America is God’s chosen nation.”
After Trump won the presidential election, evangelical leaders even went so far as to say that it was an act of God that would set America back on the right path spiritually. Instead of setting our nation on a proper spiritual path, our nation just experienced one of its darkest days.
The actions of the mob, which were akin to those of the Confederate Army led by General Jubal Early as they attempted to storm the capital during the Civil War in July 1864, were rooted in a disfigured form of patriotism that is based on the fear that accompanies the loss of power and influence.
Trump and many of his supporters regularly expressed this fear during Obama’s presidency through phrases like, “This is no longer my America” and “The America I loved is gone.”
This language was regularly parroted in evangelical congregations by leaders, such as Al Mohler, Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr. and Robert Jeffress. These leaders regularly taught that Trump was God’s chosen agent for change and if you did not follow Trump, then you were not a biblical Christian.
Our nation, and the church, also fell victim to the cult of personality, which is defined as “a regime or a political figure us[ing] media, lies, spectacles, speeches, patriotism and even the arts and demonstrations for one to create the perfect image of a leader.”
Trump, whose prior claim to fame was being a celebrity real estate developer and television personality, was elected in part based on his celebrity status, charismatic personality, brash words and willingness to be politically incorrect. He was not elected on his experience or ability as a political leader.
He was elected, in part, out of a fear that America had become too liberal and was straying from its Christian roots. What does this say about our values and what we desire in public leadership?
Ultimately, I think Trump’s presidency and the actions of those who vehemently follow his rhetoric affirm the American church’s ongoing belief in Christian nationalism, which “draws its roots from ‘Old Testament’ parallels between America and Israel, who was commanded to maintain cultural and blood purity, often through war, conquest and separatism,” according to Andrew L. Whitehead, Samuel L. Perry and Joseph O. Baker.
Due to this blind adherence, the church in America is at a point of reckoning about our beliefs related to power, God’s desires for the entire world to be blessed and not just America, and whether we are willing to embrace the entirety of God’s word and not just passages that espouse the evils of abortion or sexuality.
Unfortunately, I think we have forgotten that God is not concerned simply about single-issue politics.
A pastor, author and educator living in St. Louis, Missouri, he is the author of several books, including The Gospel According to Broadway and Taking Apart Bootstrap Theology: Gospel of Generosity and Justice.