If the Separation of Church and State is Christian, Isn’t Support for Separation of Church and State Christian Nationalism?

If the Separation of Church and State is Christian, Isn’t Support for Separation of Church and State Christian Nationalism? August 8, 2019

Does Christian nationalism come in only one flavor? According to the signers of Christians Against Christian Nationalism, Christian nationalism happens when it reinforces “white supremacy” and “racial subjugation.” That is a detail, the basic flaw of Christian nationalism is merging Christian and American identities.

If that’s the case, if you want to distinguish national from religious identity, then why affirm American political norms through Christian identity? Try this:

As Christians, our faith teaches us everyone is created in God’s image and commands us to love one another. As Americans, we value our system of government and the good that can be accomplished in our constitutional democracy.

What is a Nigerian to do since the statement is written for Americans? And what about Jews? Can they sign the statement since it is written for Christians? Such overlap of American and Christian identities sure suggests the general problem of Christian nationalism.

The merging of Christian and American identities becomes even more prominent when these Christian list the principles of liberal society in the United States:

As Christians, we are bound to Christ, not by citizenship, but by faith. We believe that:

People of all faiths and none have the right and responsibility to engage constructively in the public square.

Patriotism does not require us to minimize our religious convictions.

One’s religious affiliation, or lack thereof, should be irrelevant to one’s standing in the civic community.

Government should not prefer one religion over another or religion over nonreligion.

Religious instruction is best left to our houses of worship, other religious institutions and families.

America’s historic commitment to religious pluralism enables faith communities to live in civic harmony with one another without sacrificing our theological convictions.

Conflating religious authority with political authority is idolatrous and often leads to oppression of minority and other marginalized groups as well as the spiritual impoverishment of religion.

We must stand up to and speak out against Christian nationalism, especially when it inspires acts of violence and intimidation—including vandalism, bomb threats, arson, hate crimes, and attacks on houses of worship—against religious communities at home and abroad.

Notice, these basic contentions about American polity, none of them exclusively Christian, come as Christian profession. I see nothing wrong with these convictions informing the American polity and have often defended them over against Christians who want to integrate faith and politics or faith and learning. What I don’t understand is an appeal to Christians as if I need to affirm them as a Christian the way that believers affirm the Nicene Creed or the way Presbyterian officers subscribe the Westminster Confession.

I also don’t see these political principles taught in the Bible. Old Testament Israel was hardly known for privatizing religion or welcoming all faiths (see the Ten Commandments, hello!). Meanwhile, the message of the New Testament is either that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world (so not the U.S.) or that Jesus’ kingdom darn well better not be the Roman Empire. But what that kingdom is politically is a mystery. Christianity has the capacity to work around or with all sorts of political systems.

So how exactly is a Christian affirmation of America’s liberal political order and diversity, in the name of Christ, somehow a rejection of Christian nationalism? I see that it is a Christian stand against a President that arguably makes the least claims to Christian America of any POTUS since Thomas Jefferson. But it is an expression of nationalism that is just as colored by Christianity as anything Jerry Falwell the elder proposed.

When some explain their reasons for signing the statement, the distinction between Christianity and America does not become much clearer. Here‘s one example:

The most extreme Christian nationalists create political platforms focused on restoring, renewing, and reclaiming America in such a way that privileges evangelical Christianity. Many of these extreme Christian nationalists may also be described as “dominionists” because they want to take “dominion” over government, culture, economic life, religion, the family, education, and the family. Christian nationalists of all varieties are marked by their unwillingness or failure to articulate a vision of American life defined by pluralism.

Since the statement against Christian nationalism comes as the product of Christians, it also privileges Christianity.

As a political movement, Christian nationalism is defined by a fear that America’s Christian identity is eroding, a belief that the pursuit of political power is the way to “win back” America, and a nostalgia for a Christian nation that probably never existed in the first place.

The statement against Christian nationalism is also defined by a fear that America is departing from the right kind of Christianity.

It is Christian nationalism for progressively inclined Americans.

Here’s another example that traces the statement to its denominational origins — yes, not just general evangelicalism but a particular brand of Protestantism:

It’s telling that Christians Against Christian Nationalism not only started with the Baptist Joint Committee, but that almost half the statement’s original endorsers are Baptist. (And no small share of the thousands of subsequent signers.) “As a Baptist Christian,” Tyler explained early in the podcast, “I’ve been particularly troubled by the way that Christian nationalism distorts Christianity. I see it as a limitation of my faith, trying to put Christianity into a box labeled American patriotism.” Cooperative Baptist leader Paul Baxley warned of the negative impact of a Christian nationalist witness on the global mission efforts so central to Baptist identity, and quoted Catholic theologian Emmanuel Katongle’s warning against letting “the blood of tribalism [run] deeper than the water of baptism.”

I know that there are continuing tensions between the SBC/ERLC and BJC over abortion, same-sex marriage, and other issues. (Though I’d note that the Baptist Joint Committee continues to have the support of evangelical Baptist groups like Converge and the North American Baptists.) But it’s unfortunate that those organizations haven’t made this one of their rare moments of renewed partnership. It would have been a wonderful way for the leaders of the country’s largest Protestant denomination to join their Baptist cousins in reaffirming crucial elements of their shared history — in opposition to the Christian nationalism espoused by prominent Southern Baptist pastors like Trump apologist Robert Jeffress.

Oh great. A statement that is designed to promote Christian missions and evangelism. A statement of shared Baptist identity. As I asked, how is a Jewish or Muslim-American supposed to see this statement as an improvement over bad Christian nationalism? I know the answer — the way “Jesus” was the go to response in Sunday school — is Donald Trump. This is a way to be Christian, patriotic, and oppose Trump.

But it is hardly secular or proposing a common ground. It is not the ACLU or the platform of Democrats. It proposes, the way white American Protestants always have, a common ground on Protestant terms. That’s Christian nationalism.

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