The morning of January 6th I woke up - not yet aware of any of the news of the day - assuming there would be some push to disrupt the election – which really was already a horrible thing to think – but I didn’t have any idea what was brewing in D.C.
Later that day, when the angry mob rioted in the Capitol, murdered people, and called for the death of Pence, Pelosi and others, I was glued to Twitter and the news like everyone else. I was also working on my syllabus for my class I teach every other spring semester: Contextual Thea/ologies. My favorite class I teach by a long shot. As I was preparing my syllabus on one half of my computer screen, and following the news on the other, it struck me that I wanted to be able to explain what was taking place in the Capitol theologically.
Could theology make sense of what we saw on Jan 6th and how we got here?
Those are the questions I’ve been working since then, but in reality, I realize that these questions underly a lot of my work around understanding “the religion of empire” and what it means to stand in resistance to that.
As I have written about in the past, the Poor People’s Campaign talks about the 5 interlocking evils
(of empire), the 5th one being “The Distorted Moral Narrative of Christian Nationalism.”
The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival aims to shift the distorted moral narrative, often promoted by religious extremists, from a focus on narrow issues like prayer in school, abortion, and gun rights to a focus on how our society treats the poor, those on the margins, the least of these, LGBTQ folks, workers, immigrants, the disabled and the sick; to how we institutionalize equality and equal representation under the law; and how we realize the desire for peace, love and harmony within and among nations…
“…For too long the accepted moral narrative in America has blamed poor people for their poverty (scapegoating), pitted people against each other (united in us vs them), separated systemic racism from poverty and ecology and the war economy, and spread the lie of scarcity: the idea that there is not enough to go around. And we have inherited a language that is too timid and puny for the crisis we face.” -The Souls of Poor Folks
What is Christian Nationalism?
- loyalty and devotion to a nation
- especially : a sense of national consciousness (see CONSCIOUSNESS sense 1c) exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups
To give you some perspective people like Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Paula White, and Rush Limbaugh (who was a key thought leader for the Religious Right
died on Wednesday), are chief among white Christian Nationalists. Limbaugh had an audience of 20 million listeners in 2020 and helping spread this distorted narrative, but these people are certainly not alone.
Next week, I will share what I see are core characteristics of white Christian Nationalism, but for now I want to suggest that it is wrapped up in the "will to power wrapped up in the willingness to use signs, symbols, and language of the Christian tradition and God to gain and maintain power and wealth for certain individuals and the nation described narrowly over and against outsiders.” That is a working definition anyways.
White Christian Nationalism is a more specific way of talking about one of the key aspects of “the religion of empire” in America today, especially as it is encouraged by white Christians. It might be thought of as the umbrella term under which all other aspects of the religion of empire coalesce.
Threads of Christian Nationalism
For our part today, I wanted to ask you what you see as the origins of Christian Nationalism and threads throughout history? Reply below. I’d love to hear and see connections that you make. For now, let me draw out a few threads to start the conversation. Let me know if you agree with this perspective.
If my definition is close to accurate than these are some of the threads I see in history.
A few places in the Hebrew Bible:
- The second Genesis story of Adam and Eve’s move towards the tree of knowledge – wanting to have the knowledge that God had and thus wanting to be like God was the first mythological grab at power.
- The Tower of Babel was an attempt at empire building in the name of gaining the power to be like God.
- This will to power in the form of God-infused-empire-building runs through the texts like Joshua, David and Solomon, I and II Kings, etc.
A few places in the New Testament:
- We see in the Gospels Jesus working against political and religious leaders who have become cozy - read complicit - with the Roman Empire at the expense of their own people.
- John and James argue about who gets to be at the “right hand” signaling a misunderstanding Jesus’ critique of power.
- Judas’ own willingness to try and force a violent revolution by leaking Jesus’ whereabouts for a little payout.
- Jesus’ statement “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” and Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 13, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities,” have both been interpreted – falsely in my opinion – as, at best, equivocations with empire, and at worst actually underwriting it.
- Many passages misused from the book of Revelation
Passages taken out of context like these above have been used to justify a God of violence and judgement while placing cracks within the Christian imagination to compromise its ethics in the face of empire.
This thread continues with the obvious turn towards Constantinianism in the 300s. The Emperor Constantatine’s conversion to Christianity is a paradigm shift that allows for a religion oriented around those whose “backs were against the wall” to become abstracted and spiritual and rooted in maintaining power through violence.
As Christendom developed over the years all the ingredients needed for that special brew of evil we see in Christian Nationalism today. Christendom believes that:
“…Western civilization is Christian. Within this Christian civilization, the state and the church have different roles to play, but, since membership in both is coterminous, both can be seen as aspects of one unified reality - Christendom” (Craig Carter
Other points along the path towards today’s Christian Nationalism include the crusades, the church and state of middle-ages, the doctrine of discovery, church sanctioned colonialism, full-on Chattel Slavery, and the genocide of indigenous people in this country in the name of “manifest destiny.” The Civil War was propped up by those preachers and theologians who used the Bible to justify the war to keep people enslaved (See Mark Noll’s, The Civil War as Theological Crisis
). Then you have the lost cause, the more than 3,000 lynchings of black people in this country by white Christians often done in a liturgical stance that mirrored Christian worship, the white church’s resistance to the Civil Rights, Black Panthers, and Black Lives Matter. Not least of which was the rise of the Moral Majority and the Christian Right gaining political power largely on the basis of single-issue morality (which were meant to cover over segregationist policies and practices
). This is what has led to rise and power of Christian Nationalism in the United States and ultimately led to the election of Donald Trump the storming of the capitol by people carrying crosses, holding prayer meetings, and demanding to kill politicians in the name of God.
I am not trying to say all of these - especially the earlier ones - are exactly like the latter ones. They are not but I do see instances in which God and Nation get intertwined in the will to gain and maintain power for some at the expense of others throughout human history. When God is used to justify empire we always have problems: Christian Nationalism is just its most potent form in the US.
To frame things this way is to also recognize that there are threads of resistance alongside this. From Moses and the Hebrew Prophets to the early church, to monastic movement, the Radical Reformation, etc. so long as the religion of empire has existed there have been communities of resistance. Let us not lose sight of that and draw on them for wisdom and resources.
Therefore, we see that this is a struggle that has been happening throughout human history, and thus reading the biblical texts as being about resistance to empire and God’s siding with the poor and the oppressed remains a relevant guide in our struggle today.