Since Jan. 6, the term “Christian nationalism” has been heard more often. My understanding is that the term reflects a belief that America is defined by Christianity and therefore Christianity deserves privileged consideration. When the Capitol was stormed that day, Bibles and crosses were intermingled with swastikas and Camp Auschwitz hoodies. As a religious leader, I find the combination deeply troubling. I’m sure many of my Christian colleagues feel the same — as do religious leaders of other faiths. When religion and violence align, trouble is brewing.
Christians against Christian Nationalism, an organization that touts more than 22,000 members, stated: “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. Today, we are concerned about a persistent threat to both our religious communities and our democracy — Christian nationalism.”
Jeffrey Scholes, Ph.D. is an associate professor of religious studies in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and director of the Center for Religious Diversity and Public Life. I asked him what the rise in Christian nationalism in the United States means for the religion — and our country.
As you say, scenes from the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol have undoubtedly pulled more attention to and generated concern over what is called “Christian nationalism.” There were flags reading “Jesus Saves 2020” and “Jesus Is My Savior: Trump Is My President.” Crosses and Bibles were held up throughout and a prayer was led by the “QAnon Shaman” on the Senate floor that contained the line, “Thank you for filling this chamber with patriots that love you and that love Christ.” It may be tempting for some to interpret these actors as fervent Christians who love their country or as patriots who happen to be Christian. Or, on the other side, it may be comforting to think that Christian nationalism is new, and therefore will disappear soon. But Christian nationalism is more complex, both historically and in its makeup. Its depth owes itself not to the two millennia of Christianity nor to the 250 years of the United States, but more precisely to the over 400 years of white supremacy practiced on our soil. White supremacy has proven to be the most powerful (and destructive) ideology in American history.
The sinking feeling among many white citizens that their ownership is fading (it isn’t) is mitigated by slogans like “Make America Great Again” and the belief that the United States is a Christian (read: white) nation. That Christian nationalists were among the insurrectionists in January constitutes a desperate attempt to overturn an election that, in their minds, could stave off this supposed encroaching loss of power. Enlist Jesus into your ranks and the movement gains divine sanction.
By hitching their wagon carrying all of their nativist, patriarchal and militarist ideologies to the horse of Jesus Christ in whose name the nation can be restored, Christian nationalists are willing to die for the cause. Indeed, the decoupling of Christianity from nationalism will prove to be a difficult task, but one that is necessary for both American Christianity and our nation.
— Ahriana Platten is founder-executive director of In Good Faith, leads Unity Spiritual Center and speaks around the country on the topics of interfaith and intercultural understanding.
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