Dunwell, Satanic Temple, and Christian Nationalism’s Failing

Dunwell, Satanic Temple, and Christian Nationalism’s Failing December 23, 2023

Iowa state House Representative Jon Dunwell (R) has been on a hero’s journey for the past two weeks. The Representative, who is also an ordained minister in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, has been confronting Christian nationalism after a display was set up earlier this month in the Capitol building.

Dunwell’s stand on X (formerly Twitter), which has generated thousands of comments and over 7 million views, has directly challenged Christian nationalism—the ideology blending white evangelical religious and ethnic norms with U.S. nationalism. In doing so he has shown that Christian nationalism is wrong on two essential fronts. First, it gets democracy wrong. Second, it gets Jesus wrong.

Dunwell X Post image of Satanic Temple display in Iowa Capitol
Dunwell X Post image of Satanic Temple display in Iowa Capitol

The frenzy began when Dunwell stated on December 8 that displays at the Capitol are available to any group—even a satanic temple—as long as they complete the appropriate application process. While the display was described as personally objectionable to him, Dunwell underscored his priority for the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religious expression. The original post, which received 4.5 million views within days, highlights the political and theological failures of Christian nationalism.

Political Failure

Unsurprisingly, a large number of respondents to Rep. Dunwell demanded the display be removed. One influential X account wrote, “And right here is the fundamental flaw with ‘religious liberty for all’ that this country was founded on. When Jesus Christ returns to establish his Divine Theocracy, there will be no religious liberty.”

Such statements line up with what scholars of Christian nationalism have observed for some time now. Sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Sam Perry, for example, measure Christian nationalism with the following survey items (among others) in their book Taking America Back for God:

  • The federal government should enforce a strict separation of church and state
  • The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces

In the Iowa case, opponents of Rep. Dunwell argue the state should blur lines of separation by allowing some religious displays but not others, giving the state power to adjudicate which religions qualify and which do not. Christian nationalists, who tend to agree that religious symbols should be displayed in public places, typically mean only Christiansymbols should be allowed, like nativities and the ten commandments.

While the case of a satanic display may seem extreme, it is reasonable to ask what the difference is between this display and displays by more mainstream religious groups such as ones erected by a Hindu temple or an Islamic mosque. Not all Christian nationalists would oppose these, but anti-democratic Christian nationalists on Rep. Dunwell’s feed have gone so far as to advocate for the “obliteration” of all non-Christian displays.

For his part, Rep. Dunwell has staunchly defended the right of any religious group to erect displays at the Iowa Capitol. “It’s really not that radical,” he said. “I don’t want the government dictating, approving, or regulating religious expression. I would rather have an evil blasphemous display or no display at all than have the state dictate what they think is appropriate.”

Theological Failure

Another failure of Christian nationalism is revealed in flawed theological assumptions; most notably its failure to comprehend the kingdom of God, which Jesus preached on more than any other topic. Christian nationalists often liken America to the historic nation of Israel, believing it possesses a similar special status as a “chosen” nation. Whitehead and Perry measure this view with statements like:

  • The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation
  • The success of the United States is part of God’s plan

Agreement with these claims stems from a misunderstanding of God’s kingdom as similar to nations or kingdoms of the world. If God’s kingdom is a theocratic state like ancient Israel and can be established here in the United States, the reasoning goes that it is theologically justifiable to tear down non-Christian displays (and to jail blasphemers, hold religious tests for public office, and more).

Many detractors reacting to Rep. Dunwell specifically cited biblical texts from the Old Testament about tearing down idols as means of justification. One named the theological heresy flat out: “America has a covenant relationship with God” – and as such is justified in promoting only Christian symbols.

Understanding the Kingdom

Theologian Howard Snyder has written extensively about these matters in his book Models of the Kingdom. There he identifies concrete historical examples of the many ways Christians have conceived of the kingdom in various times and places. His typology classifies perceptions of the kingdom as a series of continuums which contain several key polarities. One such polarity is whether the kingdom of God is found primarily “here” on earth or “out there” in the heavens. Other key polarities ask: Does the kingdom reside within individuals or is it located in society? Is it available in the present or will it come sometime in the future? Is it brought about by human action or only by the action of God?

Potent political ramifications are wrapped up in how any given church or religious movement answers these questions. Christian nationalists, for their part, are likely to view the kingdom of God as something that they can bring about, that is here and now, and is embodied in a combination of a political state and Christianized culture. To these claims, Rep. (and pastor) Dunwell astutely responds:

“I have found myself shocked at what I believe is a misunderstanding of basic Biblical concepts of the Kingdom of Jesus. It is not a physical kingdom defined by boundaries and nationality. It is not the re-creation of the nation of Israel in the United States of America! It is a spiritual kingdom led by Jesus, filled with those who have been transformed by His Spirit’s presence in their lives.”

Strong and Weak Faith

Jesus himself defined the kingdom as something that comes through God’s agency, not our own. While evangelicals often speak of “bringing” or “building” God’s kingdom, Jesus favored verbs like “entering,” “inheriting,” and “receiving” (e.g., Mark 10:15), which are more passive in nature. The kingdom happens as Christ’s followers align themselves with God’s ways.

In that regard, Jesus did not tear down temples or shrines to other gods, nor did the Apostle Paul, his most famous first-century follower. In fact, Paul, who had a larger geographic footprint to his ministry than Jesus (spanning the whole Mediterranean), spent even more time among “pagans” than Jesus himself. He used logic and rhetoric to persuade others of Jesus’ message, not the violence of defacing temples and tearing down idols.

One such record of Paul’s activity in Greece is found in 1 Corinthians 8, and is instructive in the Christian nationalist attacks on Rep. Dunwell naming him “weak,” “gutless,” and “cowardly.” In that text Paul addresses relatively new Christians in the city of Corinth about eating food previously sacrificed to pagan idols.

Astonishingly, Paul teaches that eating such food is fair game: “An idol is nothing at all in the world,” he says. “There is but one God from whom all things come” (v. 4, 6). For those of strong faith, Paul states, the idol is nothing. But he acknowledges there are also those in Corinth with weak faith: “Not everyone possesses this knowledge.” By eating this food, “their conscience is weak and is defiled” (v. 7).

This is exactly the tension playing out in the backlash against Rep. Dunwell’s stand. A weak faith fears the Satanic Temple display, like a Corinthian afraid to eat meat sacrificed to an idol. A weak faith insufficiently absorbs the knowledge of God. Instead, it trembles over powerless idols. A weak faith cannot abide the tension, or—to return to political terms—pluralism. Christian nationalism is a weak faith. It may even be “gutless” and “cowardly.”

From a Spark to a Flame

The initial furor over the Satanic Temple display largely involved Rep. Dunwell interacting with commenters on X as he spoke eloquently of religious freedom and God’s kingdom. Since then, more voices—big ones—have jumped in, particularly after the display was vandalized by Michael Cassidy.

Presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis said, “Satan has no place in our society and should not be recognized as a ‘religion’ by the federal government.” He also promised to help cover Cassidy’s legal defense.

Commentator Tucker Carlson complained that people celebrate as statues of Christians are torn down but protest when a monument to Satan is vandalized.

Lawyer and commentator Rogan O’Handley said, “Satanism is not a religion…and it must be confronted and destroyed.”

TPUSA founder Charlie Kirk applauded Cassidy’s vandalism, saying “If this is Christian nationalism, we need more of it.”

And yet, despite these powerful voices speaking from Rep. Dunwell’s own political sphere, he has remained committed to the U.S. constitution and to a faithful view of the kingdom of God. Most significantly, he has refused to envision the kingdom through the lens of a theocratic state. Rep. Dunwell firmly stated: “We cannot afford to adopt the ways of earthly kingdoms. We are different. We choose not to fight our battles in the same way…As an American I reject the concept of Christian nationalism on constitutional grounds. As a Christian I reject the concept of Christian nationalism on Biblical grounds.”

Indeed, Christian nationalism gets two things wrong: democracy, and Jesus.

Today we welcome a guest contribution from Blake Victor Kent. Kent is Associate Professor of Sociology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA and member of the J29 Coalition: a group of pastors, scholars, and journalists challenging Christian nationalism. He can be found on X @blakevictorkent.

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