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I Samuel 8.4-22

John 19.8-11a

Christian Nationalism is Neither

Third Sunday after Easter

As it turns out, when Ann Skaagen asked last week for prayers for our nation, and referenced the rise of Christian Nationalism, she was, whether she knew it or not, giving voice to others who share her concern.  After church, a couple of you buttonholed me at coffee hour and offered your own take on the ways certain expressions of the church are cloaking themselves in the flag, blurring the lines between church and state.  It was then I realized it is finally time to gather some of the amorphous and admittedly random thoughts I’ve been having about this growing trend in American Christianity and hold them up to the light of day.  So this morning’s sermon is a loose collection of wonderings and wandering ideas, and for me, the first and best place to begin is always the Bible.

The story Pat and I read from I Samuel is a pivotal moment in Israel’s history.  For generations the Hebrew people had been led by charismatic leaders like Moses and Miriam and Aaron and Joshua and Samuel.  I say charismatic because they were leaders who arose naturally from the midst of the people, ruled for a while, and then gave way to another.  But as Israel grew and matured, the people looked around and saw neighboring cultures and nations and grew jealous.  They saw kings and regents, great armies and officers and soldiers, and even though Israel had bested many of them in battle, they longed to be like other nations.  In short, they desired a King to rule over them, as the charismatic leaders of earlier days had lost their luster. 

We heard the exchange this morning.  The elders of Israel went to Samuel, who was a prophet of sorts, and demanded, “Appoint for us a king to govern over us.”  It was a rejection of their current style of leadership which had for generations been appointed and anointed by God.  Samuel understood these elders really did not know what they were asking for, so he tried to spell it out for them.  Their sons would be drafted into the military, their property would be taxed, their harvests would be appropriated, their flocks commandeered and the people themselves would become wards of the state.  Is this really what you want, Samuel asked them?  But they refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No!  But we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”  And they got their way, and Israel went from being a people organized by the principles of faith to a nation governed by a monarchy. 

I cannot help but think of this story when I look across the religious landscape and witness those elements of Christianity that want to weave the dynamics of faith into the fabric of nationhood, to coopt the powers of government to benefit one particular way of looking at Jesus, in a manner that leaves both church and state inextricably entwined and entangled.  Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, two prominent sociologists, have studied the broad outlines of Christian Nationalism and deduced a half dozen broad characteristics of the movement.  Among them are the desire for government to declare the United States a Christian nation, the reinstatement of prayer in public schools, the official privileging of Christianity, but also, and this seems more than a little contradictory to me, the clear separation of church and state.  But apparently only their church, because the privileging of Christianity would leave the door open for the marginalization of non-Christians, including our Jewish, Muslim, and atheist and agnostic brothers and sisters.

This is not the only irony though.  As Kalefa Sanneh wrote in the New Yorker last year, the growth of Christian Nationalism has taken place in the context of the decline of religious observance in the US.  Sanneh writes,

“In 1999, Gallup found that seventy percent of Americans belonged to a church, a synagogue, or a mosque.  In 2020, the number was forty-seven percent; for the first time in nearly a hundred years of polling, worshippers were the minority.  This changing environment helps explain the militance that is one of the defining features of Christian Nationalism.  It is a minority movement, espousing a claim that might not have seemed terribly controversial a few decades ago, that America is, and should remain, a Christian nation.”

This would come as rather a surprise to the nation’s founders.  As we’ve noted before, folks like Thomas Jefferson, both Adamses and the other authors of the Constitution and Bill of Rights were not Christian as much as they were deist, believing in a God who is good and expects good of us, but at no time did they believe that one particular form of religion should be the official religion of the government, and took pains to draw a bright line between the two.

But I think the writer is on to something when he observes that the decline of church participation has led certain subsets of the church into a circle-the-wagons mentality where the byword is survival at any cost, including the cost of an exclusionary Christianity.  Where the church in Jesus’ day was defined by those who are welcomed within, this branch of the church defines itself by those who are fenced out.

Now I recognize I am preaching to the choir this morning.  I am not the least bit worried that any of you is going to go off and disenfranchise our non-Christian neighbors and friends from the public square.  And I’d be surprised if anyone here takes strong objection to the contours of this morning’s sermon.   None of us here needs to be instructed that the Jesus of the Bible is one who brings people together, who builds understanding and builds community, who draws people to God with the powers of love and mercy and whose only adversaries seem to be the most legalistic of religious leaders, the Pharisees.  And there is more than a little Pharisaism among Christian Nationalists who are so focused on their own rules and the sanctity of their own souls that they miss the larger imperatives of Jesus, imperatives of love and justice and grace and mercy.  Or, as Jesus himself said,

“Woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others. Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honor in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the market-places. Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it.”

So no, I’m not worried about any of our congregation falling prey to the auto-idolatry of Christian Nationalism.  But this morning I want to name the idolatry for what it is, a narrow and inwardly-focused imitation of Christianity that makes its adherents feel good about themselves and gives them cover for their judgement and shaming of those unlike them.  But there is a danger in it for the rest of us, because, as we’ve said before, it is the loudest voices that garner the most attention, and pretty soon you and I are painted with the same broad brush with which the rest of society colors Christian Nationalism.  So it is important that we stand apart, far apart, from a pseudo-church that wants to be more like the secular authority, that wants their king to come from the seat of government so that their own particular brand of church becomes the law of the land.

Christianity Today is a monthly journal that for years has been associated with an evangelical, somewhat conservative expression of Christianity.  So imagine my surprise when I read, not too long ago, that the magazine has taken a hard stand against Christian Nationalism, and I think better than many, it has managed to call the movement out for what it is.  So these words are not mine, they come from the editors of Christianity Today:  “[Christian Nationalism] is born of the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that government should take steps to ensure it remains that way.”  “[Christian Nationalism] is born of the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that government should take steps to ensure it remains that way.”   So much for Emma Lazarus’ words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tost, to me.”

This is why, at the end of the day, I would say that Christian Nationalism is neither Christian, because it lacks any awareness of those poor and wretched Jesus came to love and to save; nor is it Nationalism, as a nation is defined by its citizens, citizens of every stripe and color and belief and practice tossed into the great melting-pot where our differences become blurred by our shared and common citizenship.  And so I would say to our good friend Ann, Yes, we will continue to pray, and pray fervently, for our nation and our church and for every one of our sisters and our brothers and our neighbors no matter how they live their lives or what they happen to believe.  It is a prayer that bears repeating.

 

 

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