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Today, especially in the wake of the events of Jan 6 in our nation’s capital and the aftermath, there have been many thoughtful things written about the dangers of Christian nationalism. One writer said: “The split we are seeing is not theological or philosophical. It’s a division between those who have become detached from reality and those who, however right wing, are still in the real world.” I disagree. I believe that the problem is theological, and the healing can only happen when we deal with the underlying spiritual issues at work here. Bad theology (another name for heresy) blinds us to the underlying spiritual truths.
I want to begin with the 18th century: Specifically the revivals and evangelistic campaigns of Finney and Moody. The pattern at that time was revival of the church then evangelism of the community. Revival was not about changing the culture or the community; it was about changing the heart of the church. The life-transforming work of the Holy Spirit can be stifled by unconfessed sin which hardens the heart. The challenge of unconfessed sin is that it is often deeply hidden in our hearts – or to use modern language, it rests within our subconscious. It is something repressed so that we, perhaps, have a vague sense of something wrong, but in our everyday life it cannot be fully grasped or acknowledged. The revival of the church happens when we individually and corporately search the depth of our souls. It comes with the deep conviction that we are sinners in need of grace. That humility at the feet of the Cross gives us the power to break through the normal human defenses that hid our own sin from our self. It is with the spiritual renewal that comes from revival that the church is then empowered to witness the Gospel of Christ to the surrounding community. The power of the gospel comes out of human brokenness – a brokenness that has experienced the power of grace.
The theological error of Christian nationalism is that it reverses the process and confuses revival with evangelism. The narrative of Christian nationalism is that the nation needs a revival and that revival can only happen when more people become Christians. The sin-focus is not on unconfessed sin within the church, but on the moral failings in the society. The believer comes not broken but empowered, having the answer to society’s problems and using power to bring about moral reform. This error is especially dangerous because it blinds us to our own failings. We never get to the place of soul searching and confession of sin. It replaces the truth of our own brokenness with the lie that Christians are powerful. It then closes off the most important truth of the gospel: our own need for grace. Thus falsely empowered, we use our sin-warped power – in the name of Jesus – in inflict more damage. In this way, Christian nationalism transforms itself into a political ideology and becomes the enemy of true evangelism.
Should we engage society?
In my last blog post I talked about the theological error of Christian nationalism, and its danger to Christianity because it undermines evangelism and attempts social reform through the use of power. Having stated what I think is wrong, I feel the need to suggest a way forward. The next couple of blogs will address that.
First, should Christians be concerned with social reform? If you look at our history, we discover that modern Evangelicals defined themselves as the socially engaged version of conservative Protestantism as they separated from fundamentalism after World War II. Perhaps the most important work at that time was Carl F.H. Henry’s “The Uneasy Conscious of Modern Fundamentalism.” Evangelicals had become alienated from the social reform movement at the beginning of the 20th Century, and Henry made the case for them to become engaged in society and promote reforms that make for just society. Christianity, Henry argued, has a public face and does not live in an isolated corner of the world. For Henry, Christianity had a message that addressed not just problem of personal sin, but also addressed the social problems of the 20th century.
In many respects, the phenomenon of Christian nationalism can be seen as a way of addressing Henry’s concern. However, Christian nationalism also grows out of a kind of cultural religion that has been with the country since before its founding. The Pilgrims were intentional about founding a commonwealth built on Christian principles. Throughout our history, religion and politics have mixed. I am old enough to remember when there were Public Service Announcements on television encouraging people to “attend the church or synagogue of your choice.” One of my favorite tellings of this tale is Richard Niebuhr’s “The Kingdom of God in America.” This cultural American Christianity became, in Niebuhr’s famous conclusion: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” This was liberal cultural religion.
Liberal cultural Christianity ended with a whimper in the 1960s as events overwhelmed the “kum-ba-yah” narrative. Evangelical Christianity, which was on the rise in the last half of the 20th century, attempted to take up the challenge of social engagement. Some of the results, such as Prison Fellowship and World Vision, have had a remarkable impact on society. However, so much of the current cultural engagement has devolved into Christian nationalism. To attempt to answer how this happened would take much more than can be covered in a blog. However, in my next blog, I want to suggest some ways out of the swamp of nationalism.
In my previous post, I said that I would talk about next steps to restore a Christ-centered orthodoxy to Evangelical Christianity and rid us of the scourge of Christian nationalism. This is the first step – we must confront the loss of truth.
In Ephesians, Paul admonishes us to speak the truth in love. This has two parts: 1) a commitment to truth, and 2) a commitment to love. Following this guide, I want to say that I love Evangelicals. They are my brothers and sisters, and I greatly desire that the truth of the Gospel is lived out in their lives and in their witness to the world. In believe, in fact, that the vast majority of Evangelicals are loving people. They care deeply about the people in their lives and will go out of their way to both minister to needs and share the message of Christ.
However, no matter how loving they are in their personal relationships, when it comes to their witness to the world, love dies. Not for all, but for many. Instead, paranoia and a victim mentality gives them permission to become very hateful in their witness. This paranoia comes not from the Bible or a spirit-filled life, but from sociological conditions of which they are often unaware.
A friend shared a quote from Bible scholar Earl F. Palmer. It was written many years ago, but it bears repeating because it fits so well with today’s situation:
“Persons who most often are entrapped by cultic movements are individuals who were programmed for the entrapment in pre-cultic homes. Perhaps they grew up in a family where the mood at every meal was pessimistic and cynical. The result for such an individual and for the family was the gradual development of low-grade paranoia, adriftness, a feeling of helplessness, a conviction that all people are basically hypocritical, all systems bad or hopeless. Such a person grows up starved for warm relationships and a sense of hope because a human being cannot live on cynicism and pessimism. If such a person does not find true food, then false foods will find a welcome in his or her life.”
Low grade paranoia describes well this situation in so many Evangelical households. Distrust of government, of social systems, a feeling that everything is corrupt: these all leave the believer in a state of helplessness. Our family and our community are alone on an island surrounded by enemies who are out to get us. The cult movement gives comforting answers in the form a powerful individual who both validates the fears and offers solutions that require unquestioning loyalty on the part of the follower.
The clearest proof that Evangelicals have fallen into this cult-like state is the Lie. By every objective measure, Donald Trump lost both the popular vote and the electoral college. Republican officials in Georgia and Arizona confirmed this even though their interest lay in the opposite result. William Barr, the attorney general who was so eager to turn the Justice Department into the president’s personal attorneys, never the less was not able to find any objective evidence of election fraud. The President’s own White House Counsel spent weeks tracking down each and every claim. They all hit a dead end. Everything, from midnight camera recordings to ballots in a dumpster, was seriously looked into. Nothing. Not a cover up by the President’s enemies, but an earnest effort by his allies.
The power of a cult leader is that he can demand that his followers confirm their loyalty by denying reality. This is what is happening now. It is the surest proof that the disease infecting so many Evangelicals is serious. The Lie and the willingness to engage in either active violence or passive support of efforts to undermine democracy are the result.
There is a way out. It requires a step of faith and a willingness to allow God to be in charge of our fears. And most of all, it involves letting go of the Lie. If we are willing to let go of the Lie, we have broken one of the powerful strongholds that the cult strongman has over us – namely the subservience of truth to loyalty. When we let go of it, we can look back and see the ugliness that the Lie with its demand for unquestioning loyalty has left behind. Then, we can truly say that the truth has set us free.
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