The Difference Between Christian Evangelicalism and Religious Nationalism
Why it’s important to stop confusing the two.
The Christian Evangelical movement in the United States has become a powerful influence on American politics, culture, and media during the past four decades. The earliest proponents of the “Moral Majority” were unabashed and unashamed of their efforts to turn their large and loyal following into a powerful voting bloc. Among these leaders were Jerry Falwell, Sr. and Paul Weyrich, who made no secret of their desire to leverage the power of their numbers into a seat at the political table.
That seat was gladly granted as it became apparent that the “religious” right could move an electorate — and an election — for or against a candidate. And it wasn’t just for those two. Over the years, seats at the highest levels of civic and political life have been granted to countless others, including James Dobson, Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, Kenneth Copeland, Mike Huckabee and Paula White.
The Covid-19 pandemic has given rise to the adage that, when you mix politics with science you get politics. The same can be said of religion; when the two mix, politics is strengthened, religion is weakened. America is now at the point where it largely uses the term “evangelical” to mean a political party (or subset of one) versus a religious tradition (or subset of one). Sadly, this is not an inaccurate characterization.
What was once a proud symbol of a sincere body of believers (evangelical Christians) has become nothing more than a pitiful pseudonym for a group of would-be standard bearers (religious nationalists).
The National Association of Evangelicals identifies four characteristics that define an evangelical Christian:
1. The belief that a person must be “born-again”
2. A strong commitment to evangelism (soul-winning)
3. Obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
4. Salvation through Christ alone.
Accepting this standard, any Christian can be an evangelical Christian, without regard to affiliation with any or no Christian denomination, teachings of a specific church, or race and nationality. Though evangelicalism is largely associated with protestantism, Christian Catholics who believe in these four statements are also evangelical Christians.
It is crucial to note that when the media or others commentators speak of “evangelicals” or “evangelical Christians,” they are almost always referring to people who self-identify as evangelicals. These individuals may or may not be evangelicals or frankly may or may not even be Christians. Whether or not someone is an evangelical is predicated on a belief in the four statements above — not whether or not someone calls him/herself an evangelical.
As an example, someone may self-identify as a lawyer. However that person is not a lawyer if s/he has not:
1. Attended law school
2. Received legal training
3. Passed the bar
4. Earned a law license.
Simply putting “esquire” behind one’s own name does not make that person a lawyer. By the same token, putting evangelical Christian behind one’s own name does not make that person an evangelical.
In the United States, what is often called Christian evangelicalism in word is nothing more than religious nationalism in deed. Religious nationalism is best explained in a statement released by the group, Christians Against Christian Nationalism:
Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian. It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation.
The statement (rightly) claims that nationalism implies that “to be a good American, one must be Christian.” Nationalism goes further than that; it also implies that to be a good Christian, one must be a “good American.” As noted, this confluence harms both the Christian faith and American democratic principles which include freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion.
Additionally, the group and the statement refer to “Christian nationalism” rather than religious nationalism. This is a common characterization, but a dangerous one. Nationalism is a religion, by nearly any definition. However the word Christian literally means based on or conforming with Christianity. Nationalism in no way meets this definition. In fact, many of the beliefs held and espoused by religious nationalists are in direct contradiction to the teachings of the Christian scriptures. Consider these points of contention:
Religious nationalists believe that America is superior to other nations, Whites are superior to non-Whites, and men are superior to women.
The scripture teaches that for those who are Christians (in Christ), man-made hierarchical distinctions become moot and are not appropriate for sorting and ranking the worth and status of people. This includes race, nationality, gender, previous religious beliefs, servitude status, and education status.
There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28*
After all, is God the God of the Jews only? Isn’t he also the God of the Gentiles? Of course he is. Romans 3:29
In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. Colossians 3:11
The idea that American, White men are superior to other people is antithetical to repeated statements in the scriptures. Beyond that, it would likely seem quite bizarre to writers of scripture who were not American, White men and had no knowledge or concept of such a group of individuals.
Religious nationalists believe that voting is a sacred right (for some) and responsibility. They believe the only “righteous” voting position is the anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage position.
The scripture teaches that there are civic practices that have sacred import. Voting is not one of them. The word sacred means religious rather than secular. The two most notable civic practices that receive considerable attention in scripture are paying taxes and presenting oneself for being counted in the census.
…Jesus said, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God…” Mark 12:17
Give to everyone what you owe them: Pay your taxes and government fees to those who collect them, and give respect and honor to those who are in authority. Romans 13:7
Take a census of the entire Israelite community by their clans and their fathers’ families, counting the names of every male one by one. Numbers 1:2 CSB
At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. Luke 2:1
Interestingly, the scriptures record no such mandate for voting. Voting may rightly be perceived as a civic duty for eligible Americans. There is no basis in the scripture to call it a sacred duty. Logically, if the bible does not uphold voting as a sacred act, then it does not uphold voting for a certain issue, political party, or candidate as a sacred (or sinful) act.
Religious leaders are free to encourage their followers to vote a certain way and their followers are certainly free to heed their advice. However, any effort to tie the act of voting or the choices made when voting to Christian teachings is simply wrong and not backed up by the scriptures.
Religious nationalists believe in the concepts of “God and Country” or “Faith and the Flag.”
The scripture teaches that adhering to these concepts is idolatry. The word idolatry means extreme admiration, love, or reverence for something or someone.
American Christians have the luxury of conflating religious faith with love of country because America is a good country. It is not a perfect country, but it is a good country. Mostly, Americans of all faith traditions are allowed to worship freely without undue government influence. There are no government mandates that — for instance — churches observe Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day or President’s Day. Individual churches and denominations are left to decide how much or how little America itself is celebrated within the church setting.
While the scriptures reject nationalism, they do not reject patriotism. Patriotism is defined as love and devotion to one’s country. There is nothing in Christian evangelicalism that rejects that jolt of pride every few years at Olympics time or the rush of emotions one feels when the National Anthem is played or the sense of solidarity with our brothers and sisters across the country when they are devastated by natural disasters. National belonging and devotion and joy are good and healthy.
However, according to the scriptures, a Christian’s highest loyalty should always be to God and Christ. If ever a Christian has to choose between loyalty to God and Christ or loyalty to his/her country, the choice should always be God and Christ. This is relatively easy to do in America. It becomes a matter of life and death for Christians in other nations around the world.
You must not have any other god but me. You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods…Exodus 20:3–5
But Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. Acts 5:29
Religious nationalists believe in the use of “righteous violence” to protect their way of life. “God and Guns” is a common mantra of religious nationalists.
The scripture teaches that Christians should strive to live in peace with everyone. Christians should seek opportunities to turn violent or contentious situations into peaceful ones.
Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. Romans 12:18
God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. Matthew 5:9
Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. Ephesians 4:2
Religious nationalists believe power is their birthright. When their power is encroached upon, they consider it a theft or usurpation of what “naturally” belongs to them. They will stop at nothing to retain or restore their own power.
The scripture teaches that power is given by the Spirit and is given to all Christians who diligently seek it, without regard to race, gender, nationality, or immigration status. Further, Christians do not seek to amass earthly (political) power; rather they speak truth to power, regardless of the potentially deadly consequences.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere — in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8
Then he said to me, “This is what the LORD says to Zerubbabel: It is not by force nor by strength, but by my Spirit,” says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies. Zechariah 4:6
‘In the last days,’ God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all people…” Acts 2:17
For Herod had arrested and imprisoned John as a favor to his wife Herodias (the former wife of Herod’s brother Philip). John had been telling Herod, “It is against God’s law for you to marry her.” So John was beheaded in the prison. Matthew 14:3–4;10
“You stubborn people! You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? That’s what your ancestors did, and so do you!” The Jewish leaders were infuriated by Stephen’s accusation, and they shook their fists at him in rage. As they stoned him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Acts 7:51;54;59
Religious nationalists despise foreigners, immigrants, minorities, and those who are in need. They believe that these groups are to blame for any problems American, White men have.
The scripture teaches that Christians should welcome foreigners and strangers. The scripture also teaches that Christians should be kind to the poor and those in need and help them all that they possibly can — out of a heart of gratitude for all the help Christ has given them. In fact, the scripture states that Christians will be evaluated based on their treatment of strangers, the poor, and those in need.
You will regard the alien who resides with you as the native-born among you. You are to love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God. Leviticus 19:34 CSB
‘Cursed is anyone who denies justice to foreigners, orphans, or widows.’ And all the people will reply, ‘Amen.’ Deuteronomy 27:19
If you help the poor, you are lending to the Lord — and he will repay you! Proverbs 19:17
11 For there will never cease to be poor people in the land; that is why I am commanding you, ‘Open your hand willingly to your poor and needy brother in your land.’ Deuteronomy 15:11
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’ “Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 “And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’ Matthew 25:34–40
Rather than welcoming new Americans or seeking to help the poor or the stranger, religious nationalists attack and blame them for their problems. Religious nationalists make exceptions for White, male immigrants who assimilate into and quickly adopt their way of life. They also make exceptions for poor White people, excusing the inconsistency by asserting that the actions of foreigners, immigrants, minorities, and those in need are the reason there are poor White people.
Religious nationalists fail to adopt or uphold many of the key tenets of Christian evangelism. Instead, they have made love of civic engagement, political power, and national pride their religion — complete with sacred texts, symbols, images, and practices. Few, if any of these, can be found in the Christian scriptures. Many of their attitudes and beliefs are antithetical with what the scripture teaches and what Christ himself espoused during His time on earth.
When the media and other commentators speak of self-identified evangelical Christians who are really just religious nationalists and then go on to report their words and actions that contradict Christian teaching, it harms the work of evangelism, which is simply the act of convincing more people to become evangelical Christians. It is also deeply hurtful and profoundly offensive to genuine evangelicals who try — imperfectly, for sure — to live up to the four characteristics of Christian evangelism in word and in deed.
*All scripture references are New Living Translation unless otherwise noted.
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