Discussing Christian nationalism — carefully

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Key points:

 • The Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol building in Washington helped spur a new entry in the Courageous Conversations series.

 • The Christian nationalist resource by Discipleship Ministries outlines a format to help promote civil discussion of the topic.

 • Putting a government on par with God is idolatry, said Joerg Rieger, Cal Turner Chancellor’s Chair of Wesleyan Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

The violent attack on the U.S. Capitol building by loyalists to President Trump determined to stop the certification of Joe Biden as president brought forth feelings of shock, sadness, fear — and support from some who identify as Christian nationalists.

For the Rev. Scott Hughes, executive director of congregational vitality and intentional discipleship at Discipleship Ministries, the event influenced a new entry for the Courageous Conversations series — a Discipleship Ministries effort that seeks to encourage United Methodists to have conversations about difficult topics.

“This resource is not the official United Methodist Church stance on the subject,” Hughes said. “But I do think that churches need to be in conversation about Christian nationalism.”

Testifying on July 27 to the congressional committee investigating the insurrection, District of Columbia police officer Daniel Hodges said the rioters “perceived themselves to be Christians.”

“I saw the Christian flag directly to my front,” Hodges said. “Another read, ‘Jesus is my savior, Trump is my president.’”

Hughes said he remembers getting texts on Jan. 6 from family asking if he was watching the news. “There was even some uncertainty of whether the violence would spill over to local and state levels … and the surprise that something like that happened (at all).”

The new resource on Christian nationalism is meant to assist United Methodists to talk about the issue. It provides a format that includes how to set up the room, structure the conversation and keep things civil.

According to the National Council of Churches, Christian nationalists believe:

  • The U.S. was founded as a Christian nation;

  • America is exceptional. God has given the U.S. blessings and privileges not available to people in other countries, and the nation must remain Christian in order for those blessings to continue;

  • Only Christians are the proper custodians of this nation’s heritage;

  • Christianity (or a particular form of Christianity) should have privileged status in the U.S., particularly in matters of law and political policy;

  • Even when their presence is tolerated, people who practice other religions or none at all cannot be fully American. They are not welcomed, their voices are discounted and they are not to be trusted with political and cultural leadership;

  • Christians in general and some Christians in particular should enjoy a level of legal protection not granted to those who practice other religions; and

  • Christians have been made to suffer unjustly, leaving them no alternative but to respond with revolutionary zeal to preserve the U.S. as a Christian nation.

“Christian nationalism becomes a theological problem when Christians put the nation at the same level as God,” said Joerg Rieger, theology professor and Cal Turner Chancellor’s Chair of Wesleyan Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee.

“In other words, it’s a form of idolatry, or Christians ultimately are confused about what they’re worshipping. … That includes a certain defensiveness where people feel like whatever the nation does is absolutely justified and right.”

A helpful comparison is Sharia law, Hughes said.

“In Muslim countries, there’s no one understanding of (Sharia law) either,” he said. “Just as Christianity is diverse. … Which tradition or denomination would get to determine what a Christian nation looks like?”

The idea of a “Christian nation raises all sorts of questions that are problematic,” he said.

The U.S. government has been sharply criticized by Methodists through the years, even as patriotism has been generally supported.

Courageous Conversations

Learn more about the Courageous Conversation about Christian Nationalism resource and download a PDF.

For more on the Discipleship Ministries’ Courageous Conversations series, you may visit their website.

In 1876 during the centennial celebration of the founding of the U.S., the Rev. W.C. Smith offered praise for the nation, but leavened it with criticism.

“(Smith) told his large audience that the hand of the Lord was no more manifest in the history of the children of Israel during the first hundred years in Palestine ‘than in the history of this nation since the fourth day of July, 1776,’” wrote historian Homer L. Calkin in “The Methodists and the Centennial of 1876.”

“He went on to say that the American government had made some mistakes — ‘grievous sins.’ One was slavery, which had been overthrown in the late war, ‘but though the body of slavery is dead, its spirit is alive.’”

In a 1976 essay titled “America the Confusing Colossus,” the Rev. Eugene Smith, a Methodist pastor and church leader, hailed the might of the U.S. but also criticized the nation for the Vietnam War and racial inequities.

“The Vietnam War has destroyed the trust of many in the moral qualities of the United States,” Smith wrote. “The social conflict in the U.S. seems more and more to be signs of a moral sickness.”

Romans 13 is one of several Bible verses that appears to support nationalism. In the epistle, the apostle Paul writes, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. … Whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”

Rieger said: “That was a favorite passage also in Nazi Germany because it basically argues there’s no authority and there’s no government that's not put there by God.”

Did this Bible verse apply to Nazi Germany, or other repressive governments in world history? Does it apply to North Korea today?

“This is where it gets really complicated,” Rieger said. “Because people always apply Romans 13 for themselves, in their own government.”

It’s unwise for the populace or government of any nation to claim they’ve got the market cornered when it comes to God. It’s easy to prove otherwise, Rieger said.

“You don’t have an option to ignore the poor,” he said. “You don't have an option to say that God is on the side of the rich and the well-to-do, or God is on the side of the powerful, which is a fairly common philosophy. A lot of people assume that might makes right.”

Patriotism is fine as long as it doesn’t lead to a feeling of superiority or suspicion of others, Hughes said.

“I think there can be a healthy patriotism. I think we can have a sense of pride when our country has done the right things and matched our values,” Hughes said. “I think that can include the ability to protest. That can also be a healthy demonstration of patriotism.”

Patterson is a UM News reporter in Nashville, Tennessee. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or [email protected] To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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