God and Country?

May 21, 2023
Psalm 68: 1-10, 32-35; I Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

I recently completed a four week online class through Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. It was called Resisting Christian Nationalism with the gospel of peace. Fifty people in the US, Canada, Germany and Australia signed up to participate. (I finally got to try out Moodle, that online study platform that so many students used during the pandemic years.)

My awareness of Christian Nationalism in this country has risen the past few years. There were several times that the readings and lectures that were part of this class took me back to my experience in Charlottesville in August 2017. I am not sure what we witnessed that weekend was widely called Christian Nationalism then. We just called it white supremacists, and neo-nazis, and militia, and men in khakis. But as I learn more about Christian Nationalism, I think often of those events almost 6 years ago. (Though to be clear, the movement began decades earlier in this country.)

Our first task in the class was to define Christian Nationalism and to understand why it’s so often called White Christian Nationalism – even though there are African Americans and Asian Americans and Latines and other people of color that also ascribe to the beliefs. And women. Though this movement is predominantly male led and misogynist, more than 50% of the people involved are women. So let me try to define Christian Nationalism, briefly, for you.

Christian nationalism is the belief that this country was founded on Christian principles, by “Godly men” and should remain a Christian nation. Christian Nationalists read the bible literally, biblical interpretation and fact checking don’t factor in. Many in the movement are dedicated to the purity of the white race. Using violence to gain power and return this nation to its Christian origins is all part of what is necessary.  As with any movement that involves humans there are variations and exceptions. But in general: God, country, power, violence, whiteness – these are woven together tightly in Christian Nationalism. (The written transcript of this sermon will include links if you want more info.)

So how do you know if you are a Christian Nationalist or lean in that direction? There are 5 statements that Robert P Jones and the Public Religion Research Institute present to respondents to determine where people fall on the continuum of Christian Nationalism. (Other researchers ask a similar set of questions.)

  • The U.S. government should declare America a Christian nation.
  • S. laws should be based on Christian values.
  • If the U.S. moves away from our Christian foundations, we will not have a country anymore.
  • Being Christian is an important part of being truly American.
  • God has called Christians to exercise dominion over all areas of American society.

Depending how you respond to and rate these statements you fall into one of four categories. The most ardent are called “ambassadors or adherents.” Less hard core and a larger group are the “accommodators or sympathizers.” There is a sizable group called “resisters or skeptics.” And then there are the “rejectors” of Christian Nationalism.

Different researchers find differing percentages but conservatively at least 10% of Americans are ambassadors, die hard supporters of Christian Nationalism. Combine this group with the sympathizers and you have almost 30% of Americans. 39% are skeptics and 29% of Americans are rejectors of Christian Nationalism.

Does it really matter that 10% of Americans are Christian Nationalists, (many of these White Christian Nationalists) if 70% of Americans are skeptics or rejectors? Ten percent is not all that high. Well, it is worrisome because this group has no qualms about using violence to get what they want. They own guns; they plan and they practice. They see the democratic process as too slow. There don’t have time for things like the unreliable process of voting. They are ready to move quickly to make America the country God wants it to be. They are ready to seize power, whatever it takes. Think about January 6.

When you take into consideration the research of Erica Chenoweth, 10% of the country being committed Christian Nationalists is alarming. Chenoweth’s research shows it only takes 3.5% of a population to challenge or resist non-violently to create a change in government. If non-violence only takes 3.5% to create solid governmental change, what might it mean when 10% of a population is ready and prepared to use violence?

What continues to baffle me is that a very high percentage of the people who are committed to Christian Nationalism call themselves Christian, they go to church regularly. It is not an accident that Christian is part of the description. (Some experts prefer to call these folks Christian Supremacists.) When you read the bible selectively and literally, you begin to see how they understand that God is on their side.

Listen to these two texts, part of the lectionary for today, from Psalm 68 and I Peter. As you listen, imagine that you believe this country is called by God to be a holy nation. Do these biblical texts reinforce your beliefs or discourage you from your commitments?

Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35

68:1 Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee before him. 68:2 As smoke is driven away, so drive them away; as wax melts before the fire, let the wicked perish before God.

 68:3 But let the righteous be joyful; let them exult before God; let them be jubilant with joy. 68:4 Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds–his name is the LORD– be exultant before him.

 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

4:12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.

4:13 But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.

4:14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.

Do you hear what I hear? Life is a battle and God is on our side. We share in the sufferings of Christ. Enemies will flee. Enemies will perish. Praise God, God is with us.

But these are not the complete passages. Listen to the rest of the readings from Psalm 68 and I Peter for today.

Psalm 68

68:5 Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.

68:6 God gives the desolate a home to live in; he leads out the prisoners to prosperity, but the rebellious live in a parched land.

68:7 O God, when you went out before your people, when you marched through the wilderness, Selah

68:8 the earth quaked, the heavens poured down rain at the presence of God, the God of Sinai, at the presence of God, the God of Israel.

68:9 Rain in abundance, O God, you showered abroad; you restored your heritage when it languished;

68:10 your flock found a dwelling in it; in your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy. 68:32 Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth; sing praises to the Lord, Selah

68:33 O rider in the heavens, the ancient heavens; listen, he sends out his voice, his mighty voice. 68:34 Ascribe power to God, whose majesty is over Israel; and whose power is in the skies. 68:35 Awesome is God in his sanctuary, the God of Israel; he gives power and strength to his people. Blessed be God!

 I Peter 5

5:6 Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time.

5:7 Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.

5:8 Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.

5:9 Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.

5:10 And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. 5:11 To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.

These texts seem tricky to me. I can’t say I have preached on them. Commentator J Clinton McCann says that this particular Psalm, 68, is “generally known as the most difficult Psalm to interpret.” New Interpreters Bible, Vol IV, p.944. What I think we can say is that in this Psalm we are given a picture of a God who “fights” not by raping and pillaging but by being “home” to people who are alone. God “fights” by caring for widows and orphans, by freeing prisoners. This God rules by a mighty voice, by the unpredictability of earthquakes and rainstorms.

In the I Peter text people are to “humble themselves under the mighty hand of God.” It sounds like the fight is not for the reader to engage but for God to take up. We are to cast our anxiety on God, stay disciplined and alert, humble ourselves.

Granted we have taken these two biblical texts out of context and they are just a tiny fraction of the bible. Still, reading literally, does either of these texts sound like a mandate from God to violently take the country for Christ? Can you see how it might sound like God is on our side?

Christian Nationalism is preached in churches and at “Re-Awaken America” events all across this country. “Re-Awaken America” rallies are held at large churches, and other venues. The latest event was just last week at the Trump Doral resort in Miami. These rallies include sermons as well as baptisms by immersion in kiddie pools and stock tanks. Amanda Tyler, of Christians Against Christian Nationalism writes about her experience attending the event in Miami last week. She emphasizes that “…for the people attending… this is a type of religious experience. I noticed that, in the excitement to be baptized, for instance, or the response to the music and prayers.”  People are having a religious experience.

 And, Tyler says, there were calls to political violence from the stage or pulpit. “Speakers talked about “spiritual warfare,” that we weren’t meant to be sheep but lions for Jesus. Greg Locke in an incredibly fiery “sermon” talked about the need to use our 2nd Amendment rights if the government won’t respect our 1st Amendment rights (huge applause line; people jumped to their feet and pumped their fists.) (May 20, 2023 funding email)

As brief as my description is this morning, I hope you have a sense of this dangerous trend in Christianity in this country. When a group decides that God is on their side, that their version of Christianity is the. one. way, and that violence is a logical way to achieve their goals – well, this is something that I, as a different kind of Christian, am very troubled by.

But perhaps you are not convinced that this is a problem. You are not alone. Kenneth Woodward, the former religion editor at Newsweek, wrote this week about White Christian Nationalism. He found himself labeled a Christian Nationalist when he took the test. He is clearly not convinced Christian Nationalism is dangerous or perhaps he is confused: in his opinion piece his understanding is that Dr Martin Luther King was a Christian Nationalist.

Or it may be that you are all too aware of this phenomena because people you know and love are part of the movement. It can be very hard to relate and talk with people who are “ambassadors” if you don’t agree with them; it feels like there is no possibility for give and take in a conversation, no matter how much we love them.

While many books and articles are being written that define the contemporary phenomena of Christian Nationalism in this country, there is much less work being done on how to resist Christian Nationalism non-violently. (Drew Strait, the AMBS professor who taught the class, is working on a book to be published in 2024 about how to Resist Christian Nationalism with the Gospel of Peace.)

But why should we resist something that is called Christian? For me, it is because of my faith, my faith that calls me to love my neighbors as myself. As a congregation that is working to be anti-racist, we care about and respect our neighbors who are different races and ethnicities than we are. We care about and respect our neighbors who have uncertain immigration status. We care about and respect our neighbors who are Jewish and Muslim, Hindu and Sikh. The most hard core Christian Nationalists do not love these neighbors, at least their speech and behaviors do not seem loving to me.

As I listened to Drew Strait’s ideas about how to resist Christian Nationalism, I realized that much of how we do church here at Hyattsville Mennonite is resistance behavior.

Our decades long commitment to solidarity with the Queer community is resistance. Our commitment to working with Life After Release and returning citizens is resistance. Serving food and talking with people at the Day Center who live on the edge is resistance. Cooperating with other congregations to stand in solidarity with immigrants through Congregation Action Network is resistance. Helping asylum seekers with temporary housing is resistance. These outreach ministries are all acts of resistance to Christian Nationalism because we are relating and building relationships and integrating all kinds of different people into our lives and faith.

Our approach to how we relate to each other here on Sunday morning is resistance. We do not try to be pure in doctrine or dress, race or ethnicity. We practice that it is okay, actually faithful, to ask questions. We do not believe that only ordained, straight, white, men can preach and bring the gospel. We hear the good news preached by Jubilee clients with developmental and intellectual disabilities. We experience and receive the gospel acted out by our children. We look not only to the bible but also to art and music for the Voice of the Holy. We sing music from a variety of cultures and traditions. We use diverse images and names for God. All of these ways of doing church resist a restrictive, pure, and perfect church and country as envisioned by Christian Nationalism.

Since Christian Nationalism is a Christian movement Dr Strait emphasizes that another way to resist is by telling the whole story of Jesus. As Anabaptists, we intentionally focus on the life and teachings of Jesus. We do not dwell on his last days of torture and death. We do not emphasize that it is his death that saves us, instead we look to how Jesus lived his life, patterning our lives as best we can, on his life. We look for the ways that we see God at work in the world today, reminding ourselves that everyone is created in the image of God, no matter our gender, race, orientation, gender identity, ability, economic status, age, legal status and any of the other categories that get created to separate us from each other.

There is so much more that could be said about Christian Nationalism. I will stop, for now. And remind us that the new congregational mission statement we passed in 2021 calls us to live out our faith in ways that just happen to resist Christian Nationalism.

We are an inclusive Anabaptist community of faith, hope, and love, following Jesus and seeking equity, justice, and peace for ourselves, our communities, and our world. May we live in faith, hope and love, watching and working for the Reign of God to break out in this imperfect and impure world. May the God of Love, lead and guide us.