Confronting Christian Nationalism

Christian nationalism has deep roots in the United States. It combines the Christian faith with expressions of reactionary politics and populism. While the aims are not always clear, Christian heterosexuals, white men, and traditional patriarchal families form a national model for righteousness. Others outside this righteous circle are derided and made objects of violence.

To understand the world, Christian nationalism employs the deceptive principle of complementarity in which, according to the Bible, males and females are meant to support each other. God created women (Eve) as the complement of men (Adam) but who occupy a subordinate position. Since complementarity is clearly defined on male terms, women cannot be equal. A primary biblical reference is Ephesians 5:22: “Wives be subject to your husbands as to the Lord.” Complementarians use this passage to state that a man is the lord (master) of a household and his power subordinates (enslaves) a woman. Moderate Evangelicals attribute Ephesians to Paul and try to “save” this passage by indicating that it addresses women, whereas non-Christian household codes address only men. The author of Ephesians, though, is certainly not Paul but someone writing in Paul’s name, and the purpose of the address is to make women subject, that is, to enslave them. The language used to subjugate women under men is drawn from the language used to subjugate slaves under masters. It is the language of ownership, but most English translations conveniently hide this fact.

While liberal evangelicals reject complementary theology in favor of equality, they are often drowned out by the noise of their Christian nationalist compatriots. Many evangelicals use complementary theology to divide settler and indigenous populations, Whites and Blacks, rich and poor, religious and secular, Christians and all others, and so forth. We get the point. The second term identifies the subordinate group that occupies an inferior but supportive role in the relationship. In complementary theology, God establishes everyone’s place in the social order. 

Complementary theology becomes dangerous in the political realm when someone steps out of line in the social hierarchy or dares to promote equality. Christian nationalists consider such uncooperative advocates to be enemies of the state. With such a narrow standard of judgment, enemies rapidly multiply to include the free press, university professors, high school teachers, anyone not heterosexual, liberals of all stripes, feminists, and the current president of the United States. Complementarity as a principle for organizing society makes democracy difficult. Citizens cannot really be equal, only conforming, inside a patriarchal worldview. The Bible is the final authority for the worldview, but how can the Constitution be the supreme law when all authority belongs to the Bible?

The extreme focus on the Bible reduces cultural questions to confessional questions, to what sort of God do you believe in? Accordingly, in evangelical circles, a “strong man” theology inevitably rises to the fore. A “strong man” need not be personally righteous or even orange, but he must be powerful enough to fulfill God’s righteous plan. Evangelicals flock to Trump not because he is a great example of a Christian but because for them he is God’s hand-picked champion. They point to the Old Testament example of God appointing the Persian King Cyrus as messiah (Isaiah 45:1). Within the evangelical experience, to see God carrying out the end-time is exciting. Now God is acting, and Jesus is soon returning, to put the world back into its right order—“just the way we like it.”

Hidden behind the biblical language of complementary theology is the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and the ideology of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is the world of free trade, no taxes, corporate wealth, and laissez-faire capitalism. In the name of Christianity but with the spirit of neoliberalism, Reagan attacked the social democratic institutions built by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. To Reagan and his supporters, the New Deal policies of Roosevelt constituted government overreach. Making America great again, which was originally Reagan’s slogan, meant making America the exclusive domain of private enterprise and the rich. To accomplish this task, Roosevelt’s idea of social democracy had to be dismantled.

Roosevelt supported the right to unionize, established a homeowner loan program, created social security, made investments in national infrastructure, and protected valuable natural habitats. The list of Roosevelt’s accomplishments is long, but they actually made America great and had the effect of leveling society. After WWII, many western allies followed suit with the assistance of the Marshall Plan, so that ironically most western nations are now “greater than” America in terms of quality of life, education, health care, and other items on Roosevelt’s list.

A 2023 BuzzFeed article recorded things Americans traveling or studying in Europe miss when they return home. Their responses suggest that what they miss are the legacies of Roosevelt’s America that still live on in Europe. Here is a short list: 1) universal healthcare, 2) public transportation, 3) fresh local food, 4) walkable cities, 5) guaranteed four weeks of vacation, 6) slower pace of life, 7) affordable universities, 8) public spaces. The UN 2022 International Human Development Index ranked the United States twenty-first and Canada fifteenth among world nations. The top ten, except for Hong Kong and Australia, were all European countries. Of the top twenty, thirteen were European nations.

Christian nationalism appeals to the authority of the Bible to protect vested economic interests and deflect attention from the ways in which neoliberal economic ideologies attack the common good. Democratic institutions, though weakened by the neoliberal economic assault, remained strong enough to carry us through the pandemic. But how long will it be before the loss of social democracy will destroy our sense of the common good? Our extreme fragmentation as society is a direct result of the neoliberal economic assault. How sad that the clarion call of a Christian movement is damnation, not salvation!

Christian nationalism’s tactics create division, which in turn leads to violence, but buried deep in Christianity’s memory is a Jesus movement’s proclamation of no male or female, slave or free, Jew or gentile, us or them. Secular social democracy is closer to the spirit of early Jesus movements than Christian nationalism, which sounds suspiciously like Pax Romana.

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