The Fallacy of Christian Nationalism

The Fallacy of Christian Nationalism June 7, 2020

by Christina Littlefield

Some of you may have considered me harsh recently in calling out a specific person who has been promoting Christian nationalist propaganda in at least two Thousand Oaks churches over the last 17 months. She defriended me.

Please know I tried civil pathways, and have let calls to civility and to church unity silence me for the last year. After the national scene in Lafayette Park, my conscience will no longer allow me to remain silent.
Please also know that I’ve been studying this for 18 years. My Ph.D. is in church history. I’ve done extensive work on ideas of chosenness, American exceptionalism, and civil religion. So I want to share a little bit why I think Christian nationalism is dangerous and unbiblical and why we should all guard against it.

First off, nationalism. Nationalism should not be equated with being patriotic. Nationalism is an ideology that puts loyalty to the nation above all else. National interest is placed first over shared global concerns. That’s idolatry for Christians and poisons the Gospel. God’s kingdom is international. Christian nationalists believe God granted them the United States and gave them dominion over it. They believe Christians originally controlled the nation and should control it again, that Christians should “take back” the nation. This is a false narrative based on lies and half-truths — the truth is America has always been uniquely secular and uniquely religious, and we’ve always had incredible religious diversity.

Christian nationalists believe wholeheartedly in their own supremacy as Christians and the supremacy of the United States among nations. They are willfully blind to how frightening that sounds to non-Christians based on the nation’s historical treatment of religious minorities and blind to their own historical roots in white supremacy. They don’t care how that sounds to Christians in other nations, who read it as saying God blessed America and cursed everywhere else.

Christian nationalists further have a whitewashed view of U.S. history that views the nation as innocent and always on the side of the good. They are the benevolent leaders, the only ones who can save the nation. They also believe Protestant Christians — who historically have dominated the nation — are now a persecuted people, whose religious freedoms must be protected. This sense of persecution has only magnified as the Protestant share of the nation has shrunk, though they still represent 45% of all Americans, according to Pew data. White Protestants are still the most privileged group in America.
The chief leader behind this effort to whitewash American history is David Barton. He and Rick Green are the men behind Constitution Alive! — the edutainment material that’s being used in Thousand Oaks to radicalize people to Christian nationalism. It purports to tell the biblical foundation of the American nation and its founding document.

Christian church historians and theologians (Mark Noll, George Marsden, Nathan Hatch, John Wilsey, John Fea, Thomas Kidd, Gregg Frazer, Stanley Hauerwas, Richard Hughes — to name a few) have repeatedly challenged Christian nationalists’ false narrative. Many have directly critiqued Barton, who has no history education, for cherry-picking some material, taking other material out of context, and falsifying other material to present his view of America as a Christian nation.

To give you one example of how blatantly false Barton’s material can be, in 2012 scholars found so many problematic errors in his bestselling book on Thomas Jefferson that publisher Thomas Nelson pulled it off the shelves. To give another, I had a church member come out of this class claiming the signers of the Constitution all included their religious denomination next to their signatures. Google an image of the signature page. It just lists what state they are from.

Beyond promoting false information, Barton ignores all evidence that illustrates the secular roots of the nation, erasing all complexity. He also erases America’s collective sins. Southern Poverty Law Center has an entry on Barton for his efforts to remove Martin Luther King, Jr and Cesar Chavez from history books in Texas, because, as he told Washington Monthy, “only majorities can expand political rights.” SPLC also cites his words and actions against immigrants, Muslims, and the LGBTQ+ community. Barton is a right-wing propagandist.

It’s important to note that most Christians who encounter Christian nationalist ideology don’t recognize it as such, for them it sounds benign, even beneficial — for instance the ideal that the nation should follow biblical values. But Christian nationalists don’t just want to spread the Gospel, they want to force their narrow views on all. As the leader of the group Wallbuilders, Barton’s end goal is to tear down all separation between church and state. They’ve launched a coordinated copy and paste legislative campaign across the country to get legislation passed that promotes America as a Christian nation.

Christian nationalists often confuse civil religion for their revealed religion. They are consumed into the nationalist culture and they lose their own prophetic critique. By this I mean they lose the critical distance necessary to evaluate any public policy against the demands of their faith. This is often a messy, imperfect process. Christians are diverse politically because we all are guilty of interpreting faith demands through specific lenses and because the Bible doesn’t have solutions for every public policy initiative. Faithful Christians can agree on the core principles and still advocate for different policies. Rule of thumb: If you deny someone is a Christian because they aren’t in your political party, you may be confusing faith and party. But Christian nationalists tend to exclusively promote right-wing politics — many of which are in direct contradiction to core faith demands, and they can’t see the difference.

Christian nationalists like Barton, Robert Jeffress, Franklin Graham, and Paula White readily endorse President Trump because they see him as fighting for their religious liberty, they believe God has ordained him to work for them. So they either stay silent when he violates clear biblical principles or attempt to justify his behavior. Trump has promoted Christian nationalist “take back” the nation talk, which has become a “dog whistle” for white nationalists and other extremists who want to restore full majority rule. These ideas have consequences and do real harm to the Christian witness. Christian nationalism has caused at least three members of my family to decide they want nothing to do with Christianity.

Biblically, Christian nationalists are violating multiple commandments. They are placing the nation before God. They are making false idols of the Constitution. They are misusing God’s name. They are committing adultery by choosing party politics over biblical mandates. They are coveting their neighbor’s freedom. They are stealing the liberties of others to promote their own. They are bearing false witness.
Let us tell the truth. Let us learn the real history. I believe that if Christians really want to root out racism, we must also root out nationalism and regain our prophetic critique, placing love of God and love of neighbor higher than nation or political party.

About Christina Littlefield
Dr. Christina Littlefield is an associate professor with a dual appointment in religion and journalism at Pepperdine University. Specializing in church history, journalism history, sociology of religion and theology, and ethics, Littlefield's interdisciplinary work looks at the intersection of religion, politics, media, and culture. You can read more about the author here.

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