When Rocky Balboa defeated the juiced Russian monster, Ivan Drago, on his home turf, my young heart was stirred. Vengeance for Apollo! And when he drew a standing ovation from the entire Politburo with his “everybody can change” speech, I shed tears. Red, white and blue tears. Take that, Soviets! Now, years later, it turns out that it’s me who has changed — and so have a lot of people who grew up just the way I did. We’re Christians who are working our way out of so-called ‘Christian nationalism’.
So Rocky was right: everybody can change. But how many will? For Christianity’s sake, I say, the more the better.
Christian Nationalism ≠ Christianity
In many ways, it’s difficult to separate Christian nationalism in America from American exceptionalism and even white nationalism. They’re all characterised by a belief in the cultural superiority of America, favouring forceful leaders, a strong military, aggressive stances on foreign affairs, and hardline immigration policies. Proponents of Christian nationalism1, though, are also convinced that America always was and should always be a Christian nation — and summarily reject any and all evidence to the contrary. They insist that if the country embraces (their version of) Christian morality and legislates along (predominantly Old Testament) biblical lines, God will restore, bless and prosper the nation. Unsurprisingly, this group embraces any political policies that privilege Christianity in public spaces like government, the courts and education.
And recently we’ve all seen how ugly it can get, with hordes of Christian nationalists becoming devoted acolytes of a personality cult, and often the purveyors of outlandish conspiracy theories. So powerful for so long has Christian nationalism been that many outside (and inside) observers assume that Christian nationalism is Christianity.
I couldn’t disagree more. Christians are meant to imitate Christ, and Jesus routinely subverted nationalist hopes and fears. He refused to play along with populist expectations of his ministry, or with their anti-foreigner sentiments. The hard-core nationalists of his day (the Pharisees) despised Jesus for his lax attitude toward key ethnic markers — the Sabbath, purity practices and food rules. But Jesus stood very much in Israel’s prophetic tradition, which regularly and strongly critiqued the state for its idolatry, its greed, and its oppression of the poor and the foreigner (cf. Ezek. 18; Jer. 22; Amos 2:6-10; Micah 3). Whatever else we might say about Jesus, we can be sure he was no nationalist.
Playing the ‘Old Testament’ Card
That’s probably why Christian nationalists don’t have much use for Jesus. You’ll notice they rarely quote him or even reference him beyond the obligatory ‘Jesus saves!’ platitudes. Instead, they turn to the pro-conquest and pro-monarchy writings of the Hebrew scriptures to justify their position. They even use Old Testament passages to countermand Jesus’ teachings without blinking at the irony of doing so.
For instance, Christian nationalists love verses like this:
“ …if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”2 Chronicles 7:13
That verse’s context narrates King Solomon’s dedication of the Temple of YHWH (c. 977 B.C.E.). The Ark of the Covenant is brought in and the presence of YHWH descends upon the Temple. Sacrifices are made, the building is consecrated, prayers are offered. Then YHWH acknowledges Solomon’s prayer and gives the above guidance to follow in case of drought or a plague of locusts. What does any of this have to do with the modern American nation-state? Not a thing. But then, the fact that the United States isn’t ‘a people called by God’s name’ doesn’t seem to register with proponents of Christian nationalism.2
Christians, on the other hand, are a people called by a name — the name of Jesus — called to stand apart from the projects and objectives of the nations of the world, and to line up with the way of the cross.
‘If You Leave Me Now…’
Yet it’s hard for adherents to abandon Christian nationalism for the way of Jesus, partly because it’s so alluring. All forms of idolatry are. To join with the crowd in its passions and motivations is to feel a sense of connection and belonging. On the flip side, resisting the will of the crowd and cutting against its grain brings with it the sobering feeling of ostracisation. To wear the labels ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘un-American’ is to be guilty of the nation’s worst sins.
And we should remember that a great number of evangelical Christians in the United States have never known any other kind of ‘Christianity’ than one allied to the state or to right-wing politics. Most have had little to no interaction with Christians like Mennonites, Anabaptists or Quakers, who have always held nationalism at bay in their communities. Those traditions may be the exception today, but their anti-nationalist stance used to be the rule. Disciples of Jesus in the first two and a half centuries refused to ally themselves with the will or the might of Rome. They neither participated in state-sponsored civic religion, nor served as soldiers. Enter Constantine the Great (272-337 B.C.E.), who privileged the Christian faith (after using one of its symbols as a talisman), and before long, Christians scrambled to fall into line with this new ‘Christian’ regime. Now, being ‘Christian’ was essential to move up the ranks of Roman society. The marriage between Christianity and the nation-state became the accepted reality, and so it has remained, in one form or another, into the present day.
So it’s no wonder that, for Christian nationalists, it’s impossible to envision a world where the cross and the American flag aren’t irrevocably intertwined. But that doesn’t make it right, or noble, or good.
Can we return to the most primitive Christianity, to become again ‘followers of the Way’? Can we return to the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, a way which wants no part of nationalist agendas? Indeed, many of us are trying. If you’ve been questioning the alliance of Christianity and the American state — if you’ve been pondering an alternative ‘way’ — be encouraged. Know that you are not alone. There are more of us than you think.
And hopefully there will be many more to come. Because Rocky was right: everybody can change.
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1 ‘Christian nationalism’ is a term academics and writers use to describe this set of ideas. In other words, Christian nationalists don’t call themselves ‘Christian nationalists’. They’re more likely to call themselves ‘Christians’ and ‘patriots’. Not necessarily in that order.
2 Of course, Christian nationalists believe that America can embody the ‘chosen’ texts of the Old Testament and that God has specially anointed the United States to spread the good news of capitalism and democracy across the world (an idea known as ‘Manifest Destiny‘ that has a hard time dying). The evidence seems to be the relative prosperity of the country — as though being rich was a sign of God’s favour.