I was a Christian nationalist

Now I resist an ideology that’s as bad for the church as for the country

The Christian fish symbol originated in the first century, when Christians made an acrostic from ichthys, the Greek word for fish: Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter — Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. — Illustration by Hannah Gerig Meyer/AW The Christian fish symbol originated in the first century, when Christians made an acrostic from ichthys, the Greek word for fish: Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter — Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. — Illustration by Hannah Gerig Meyer/AW

Reading sociologist Andrew L. Whitehead’s new book, American Idolatry, I had the distinct feeling of being back at my childhood church.

Whitehead and I met during our freshman year of high school in the youth group of a large rural evangelical church in northern Indiana. This is the church where we learned to love and follow Jesus. Where we learned to read the Bible. Where we found Christian community and made lifelong friendships, including with each other.

And it is where we were unwittingly formed into ambassadors of (white) Christian nationalism.

The fusion of our faith with conservative Christian politics went virtually unquestioned. To be a Christian seemed to naturally entail advocating for conservative Christian values to guide American society. We would play together in the youth group praise band on Wednesday nights and show up for See You at the Pole at our public schools on a Wednesday morning in September to pray for our nation to promote our values.

But as conservative evangelical Christianity rose to political ascendancy during the George W. Bush administration — and as we gained some distance from our childhood church while off in college and graduate school — we began to see the fruits of this fusion of conservative Christianity with American politics.

What we saw was as bad for the church as for American society.

Those who taught us “God so loved the world” were some of the most vocal proponents of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and of the harsh immigration policies. Those who taught us to follow the Golden Rule became outspoken advocates for displaying the Ten Commandments in public spaces and denying religious minorities the same religious freedoms they enjoyed. Those who taught us the Great Commission made it their mission to fight the “gay agenda” and the “godless liberals” in Hollywood.

This disparity between the loving evangelical faith we were taught and the power-hungry, fear-based, violence-endorsing Christian politics we were experiencing led us to look elsewhere to make sense of our faith. By encountering books like Greg Boyd’s Myth of a Christian Nation and John D. Roth’s Choosing Against War, we found a way to begin disentangling our faith from Christian nationalism.

Our paths crossed again in 2011 in Waco, Texas, where Whitehead was finishing his doctorate in sociology of religion at Baylor and I was beginning mine in theology and ethics. Little did we know that our training was preparing us for resistance to the rise of Christian nationalism that would come to fruition in the presidency of Donald Trump six years later.

For me, resistance took the form of returning to Indiana to take a pastorate at a small Anabaptist church in a low-income neighborhood, beginning my tenure just 19 days before Trump’s inauguration. For Whitehead, resistance took the form of his groundbreaking 2020 book with fellow sociologist Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God.

In American Idolatry, Whitehead draws on this earlier book and dozens of studies to offer a definition of Christian nationalism as “a cultural framework asserting that all civic life in the United States should be organized according to a particular form of conservative Christianity.”

He observes that it “brings with it a host of cultural assumptions, particularly a moral traditionalism predicated on maintaining social hierarchies, a comfort with (the ‘right kind’ of) authoritarian social control that includes the threat and use of violence, and a desire for strict ethno-racial boundaries designating who can fully participate in American civic life.”

In short, Christian nationalism is “wholly obsessed with power,” “intimately intertwined with fear” and “completely comfortable with, and at times demands, the use of violence.”

When picturing Christian nationalism in action, we might think of the extremists who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, holding signs that read “Jesus is my savior, Trump is my president” or “Proud American Christian.” While this might lead us to imagine Christian nationalism as a fringe segment of U.S. society and Christian congregations, Whitehead notes that “close to two-thirds of white American Christians are at least favorable toward Christian nationalism, and that number increases to over 75% if we look solely at white evangelicals.”

Christian nationalism affects many of our churches today, even in the Anabaptist tradition.

Andrew L. Whitehead, left, and David C. Cramer hold each other’s books: Cramer’s A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence and Whitehead’s American Idolatry. — David Cramer
Andrew L. Whitehead, left, and David C. Cramer hold each other’s books: Cramer’s A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence and Whitehead’s American Idolatry. — David Cramer

In Taking America Back for God, Whitehead and Perry describe four orientations toward Christian nationalism in the United States: ambassadors (19.8% of the population), accommodators (32.1%), resisters (26.6%) and rejecters (21.5%).

Ambassadors are the outspoken believers of Christian nationalism. They are not only the ones who stormed the Capitol but also those like my next-door neighbor who fly “Make America Great Again” flags. Roughly one-fifth of the population, they are not a fringe segment but also not as dominant as it sometimes seems.

About the same percentage of the U.S. population rejects Christian nationalism entirely. While three-fifths of rejecters are nonreligious, rejecters can be found across the theological and political spectrum, even among conservative evangelicals. This shows that Christian nationalism is not synonymous with conservative evangelical Christianity, and those who resist it don’t necessarily do so out of an anti- religious, liberal or progressive bias.

Yet, Christian nationalism has come to dominate the Republican Party at nearly all levels of government. This means resistance to Christian nationalism will often mean resisting one of the two major political parties in the United States.

Anabaptists who try to navigate a political “third way” may be tempted to resist resisting Christian nationalism for fear of appearing partisan. But this leads to the third category Whitehead and Perry describe: accommodators.

Accommodators make up roughly one-third of the U.S. population. They don’t embrace Christian nationalism, but neither do they reject it. They try to maintain a neutral stance, sympathizing with both Christian nationalists and those who reject it. Sometimes they might oppose rejecters for being too “partisan” and “divisive,” not realizing that ambassadors are out not to build bridges but walls, in some cases literally.

In American Idolatry, Whitehead offers suggestions for how to move from being accommodators to resisters, who make up about one-quarter of the U.S. population. Resistance doesn’t necessarily mean confrontation with ambassadors. Instead, it often involves leveraging political power on behalf of those who are left out of the Christian nationalist’s vision of America.

Whitehead tells stories of those who defend the religious liberties of all Americans, who advocate for a pluralistic democratic society, who seek to overcome violence in its many forms, who seek to reckon with the U.S. legacy of racism and white supremacy and who show neighborly love to refugees and immigrants.

To Whitehead’s and Perry’s categories, I would add a fifth: repenters. These are people who, like me, spent much of their life as ambassadors or accommodators of Christian nationalism but who now resist or reject it.

As one example of what I would consider repenters, Whitehead describes Shalom Community Church in Ann Arbor, Mich. After learning about Mennonites’ failure to live up to commitments to racial and economic justice during the civil rights movement, Shalom initiated a project called “A Reparative Act” in which they committed $30,000 to give to a group of people of color with no strings attached. Ultimately, they raised over $100,000 for this fund.

After learning about this act of repentance and repair, my family donated to the fund. When I went to the list of donors on Shalom’s website, I found my name listed immediately under a familiar one: Andrew Whitehead, Zionsville, Ind.

David C. Cramer is pastor of Keller Park Church, a Mennonite Church USA congregation in South Bend, Ind., and managing editor at the Institute of Mennonite Studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.

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