Fighting the idolatry of Christian nationalism

Our love of neighbor includes a commitment to protect their rights of citizenship and belonging as equal to ours, regardless of what religion we practice or whether we are religious at all.

by | Jun 22, 2022

I write to you with a heavy heart. Our country has recently endured many horrific mass shootings — the most deadly at the Tops Supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Within a span of 10 days in May, 19 children and 12 adults were murdered in these two violent attacks.

In the midst of our mourning, these tragic events have spurred calls for change when it comes to gun laws and policy. They also make plain the urgency of our collective fight against Christian nationalism. The shooter in Buffalo spouted not just racist ideology but Christian nationalist ideas as well. According to survey data, adherence to Christian nationalism is strongly correlated with opposition to changing gun laws. A common refrain in these debates is a need to protect our “God-given Second Amendment rights.” Indeed, the day after the Uvalde shooting, Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas, said, “The United States of America has always had guns. It’s our history. We were built on the Judeo-Christian foundation and with guns.”

Just two days after the shooting in Buffalo, I spoke with sociologists Samuel Perry and Philip Gorski for an educational program for Christians Against Christian Nationalism. They explained that the killer clung to what they call “the Holy Trinity of white Christian nationalism” — freedom, order and violence. What is obviously missing from this trinity is love — the centerpiece of the Christian life. When love is absent, hate moves in, and it festers and kills.

There are many barriers to love that the world puts up, including prejudice, racism, discrimination, violence and inequality. A common denominator to all of these is named in the Ten Commandments with the admonition against idolatry. In her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris writes, “Idolatry makes love impossible.” Quite literally, our society’s idolatry of guns is killing our loved ones.

We also can recognize the false idols that detract from the love of God, neighbor and self, leading to utter ruin. These idols include nation and ethnicity. Sometimes our idols can look like religion itself, but instead it is our faith masquerading in the ideology of white Christian nationalism — a cultural framework that distorts our religion into an ethno-national identity. It morphs God’s love into an ideology that subjugates our neighbors, creates an “us” versus “them” narrative, and can even threaten their lives.

We saw Christian nationalism turn deadly on January 6, 2021. This month, I submitted testimony on behalf of a number of Christian leaders to the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. We understand that to criticize Christian nationalism is not anti-Christian. Indeed, it is our commitment to Christian values — like love — that leads us to work to dismantle Christian nationalism.

Our love of neighbor includes a commitment to protect their rights of citizenship and belonging as equal to ours, regardless of what religion we practice or whether we are religious at all. Our love of God reminds us of Jesus’ command to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s and not to confuse political leadership with religious authority.

Love of God and neighbor provides both the impetus and the tools to advocate in response to urgent threats. Recommitting to speak up for the foundational values of religious freedom for all provides the kind of Christian witness that our world so urgently needs.

This kind of advocacy will stand in stark contrast to others who will call for government-led prayer and other official religious observance. In a press conference after the Uvalde school shooting, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said, “In these other shootings — Sutherland Springs, El Paso, Odessa, Santa Fe — it’s God that brings a community together. It’s God that heals a community. If we don’t turn back as a nation to understanding what we were founded upon and what we were taught by our parents and what we believe in, then these situations will only get worse.”

Repeating mantras that tie God and country like this will only exacerbate the problems that we face. In the wake of tragedy and trauma, it is time to recommit to love of neighbor and stand firmly against Christian nationalism. Our lives and our children’s lives are at stake.

Amanda Tyler is executive director of BJC. Follow her on Twitter: @AmandaTylerBJC.

This column first appeared in the summer 2022 edition of Report from the Capital. You can download it as a PDF or read a digital flip-through edition.