The 2020 presidential campaign: a theological observation

Sep 8, 2020

It will probably be at least two more months before we know the winner of the US 2020 presidential election. So far the campaign has broken all historic records with its promotion of polarization, violence, and deceptive rhetoric. So far it is certainly the most chaotic and consequential in USA history. Many observers see it marking an historic turning point in US identity and social behavior. I agree with them; but as an historical theologian I also see a major theological issue underlying the current presidential campaign.

The contemporary reality is that the GOP presidential candidate has successfully tapped into significant white disaffection, racism, and fears that “their” America is disappearing. The contemporary populist movement, with strong use of religious symbol and sentiment, is actually a form of “Christian nationalism,” which is neither Christian nor patriotic.

Fundamentally, Christian nationalism ignores the historical reality that, right from the beginning, America was pluralistically multi-religious: with native American religions, Judaism, Islam, and of course Christianity. The other historical reality, that is so often either unknown or simply ignored, is that the religious and philosophical perspective of the “Founding Fathers” was more Deist than Christian. Deists argued that reason and human experience, rather than religious dogma determine the validity of human beliefs. The 1776 Declaration of Independence is a great and important national document but it is not a Christian inspired document.

Christian nationalism denies and rejects our pluralistic society. It stresses a political ideology that holds that Christians (especially white ones) have the right to rule over everyone else in US society. Christian nationalists, believe that “religious freedom” means the right to impose their beliefs on others. Christian nationalists reject authentic US American history and advocate a narrow revisionist kind of history. They insist that the “Founding fathers” were devout Christians who never intended to create a secular republic. Separation of church and state, according to this revisionist history, is a falsehood perpetrated by God-hating (usually called “leftist”) subversives.

Christian nationalist ideology advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity. It uses and often manipulates scriptural texts to promote its perspective. Vice President Pence did that on Wednesday, August 26th, in his RNC speech from Fort McHenry in Baltimore. Using the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews, Pence dropped the name “Jesus” and in its place substituted “Old Glory” i.e. the American flag. Paraphrasing the text from Hebrews 12:1-2, which states: “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith,” Mr. Pence re-worked the text. “Let’s run the race marked out for us,” Pence said and continued, “Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents. Let’s fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire.”

The “Christianity” of Christian nationalism includes assumptions of nativism and white supremacy, along with divine approval for authoritarian control and militarism, often under the banner of “law and order.” Christian nationalism uses violence and created chaos to enforce its rule. The authentic American democratic social system, however, depends on people’s ability to disagree peacefully and still work together for the common good. Communication, compassion, and collaboration are necessary virtues.

Christian nationalism relies on far-right Protestant as well as far-right Catholic supporters, who are anti-abortion (but not really pro-life) and anti-gay. They are strongly linked to what Mark Lewis Taylor, Professor of Theology and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminar, describes as the US “corporate-warrior elite.”

The Christian nationalist corporate-warrior elite prioritizes the corporate interests of a small percentage of the US population (the wealthy 1% controls 35% of the country’s wealth) and then reinforces those interests with military-type force and surveillance. It is an old concept that President Eisenhower (a Republican remember) warned about in his January 17, 1961 farewell address to the nation. Eisenhower warned citizens about an emerging “military-industrial complex,” that was already beginning to erode democratic rule in the United States.

Today of course, the current US president has installed his corporate friends in government agency after government agency. They are now working with presidential authorization to undermine protections for ordinary people in favor of giveaways and rollbacks for big business. A shipping heiress runs the Department of Transportation. An oil lobbyist runs the Interior Department. A coal lobbyist runs the Environmental Protection Agency. A pharmaceutical executive runs the Department of Health and Human Services. An investment banker runs the Treasury Department. The Defense Department has been led by a who’s who of executives from the largest defense contractors.

Please note: the corporate-warrior elite are strong supporters of far-right, white, Christian nationalism.

Unfortunately most critics of the GOP presidential candidate limit their focus only to issues of his racism, misogyny, and narcissism. All these are worthy points of critique, but they fall short of the bigger issue. The most important issue today, in fact, is not simply critiquing presidential behavior but revitalizing a vigorous prophetic tradition that resists the corporate-warrior elite’s self-promoting and self-protecting narcism, racism, and injustice.

A strong element in that vigorous prophetic mission must be the repudiation of Christian nationalism, because Christian nationalism is a religiously sanctioned vision that defends, affirms, and protects the ruling elites’ nationalist projects. Contemporary Christian nationalism has the strong support of far-right militant groups like Qanon who use the politics of fear to whip up their supporters. Unfortunately the current US president supports them and calls their opponents “Anarchists, Thugs & Agitators.”

Christian nationalism is a corruption of “Christian” and “nation.” It has come to signify something mean-spirited, exclusionary, and oppressive. In theology, this is called blasphemy: a desecration of something sacred. There are strange configurations in today’s Christian nationalism: owning a gun is a right but having health care is a privilege. Anti-abortion is a key value but putting immigrant children in prison camps and cutting off health care and funding for the poor and hungry are also key values. Christian nationalists ignore the Sermon on the Mount and the story of the Good Samaritan.

One further clarification about Christian nationalists. It is neither appropriate nor correct to call them, as often happens, “evangelical Christians,” because that term indeed describes people who are committed to the authentic Jesus Christ. We should call Christian nationalists what they really are: people committed to a fabricated and false “Christianity” which has no link with the divinely inspired man from Nazareth. Their “theology” is based on distorted cultural and political beliefs rather than the Word of God.

In this 2020 election campaign it is essential that we help people distinguish Christian faith from the authoritarian ideology of the Christian nationalist movement. Christianity is a religion. Christian nationalism is a political program. There is nothing sacred about it.

[For further reading, I recommend: Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism by Michelle Goldberg]


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