The following is a transcript from the Raised Catholic podcast. To listen to the podcast, click here.
Today is episode 25: Christian Nationalism
Hi friends. Today I want to explore a bit of a heavier topic that’s been on my heart for several months now. I’m getting into this hard topic precisely because I love our faith and I love the Church and I see the damage that Christian nationalism in America has already wrought, and also the real danger that it poses for the future. So, in today’s episode, we will take a look at it, at where it has led us so far, and at how we can discern when this political philosophy is taking the place of our theology.
First, let’s start with a definition: Christian nationalism is Christianity-affiliated religious nationalism. Christian nationalists can make the focus of their faith the passing of laws or the social constructs that reflect their view of Christianity and its role in political and social life. In America, Christian nationalists blur their experience of faith with their participation in and love for their country. And there is lots of evidence that Christian nationalism has taken hold in our churches and faith lives. This can look like rosary beads in which Jesus hangs on an American flag cross and the beads each feature an American state abbreviation and the beads hinge on the face of Mary over a metal cutout shape of the map of America. This is a perversion of that beautiful prayer and it’s also a very real product that is being sold right now on EWTN. It can look like a Bible that features the American constitution in its very pages and also, the lyrics of Lee Greenwood’s ‘God Bless the USA’ alongside the ancient holy books. This is also a very real product that American Christians are currently buying. Taken to its extreme, Christian nationalism can look like what we all witnessed in our nation’s capital on January 6th of this year. I remember coming home from the dentist’s office that day and looking at my tv in horror at what was happening in real time. Anger, violence, loud and vocal threats of harm to law enforcement and to representatives of our government, vandalism, destruction, and theft of public property – all in front of our very eyes and also there heavily represented in the signage and flags and banners that the people there carried: the words ‘Jesus Saves’ next to the banners of a political figure. Large wooden crosses among the actual gallows that were erected that day. ‘In God We Trust’ signs alongside Qanon conspiracy theory signs. It was clear to most of us on that day that in the Christian Church in America, something had gone very, very wrong.
In fact, if you had dropped onto this planet somewhere in America in the past several years and learned about what it means to be Christian or Catholic-Christian strictly from what you saw from some vocal national church leaders and from Church-aligned national media, you might draw some conclusions about the nature and purpose of Christianity and the Church that are so far removed from the life of Jesus, the Catechism or the Bible that it should shake us to the very core. Yet many of us seem entirely unfazed to this day.
Someone who’d never experienced their faith before these last years might look on all they saw and heard, and easily believe that Jesus is American, white, patriotic, and a Republican. They might think He came to Earth to bring an end to abortion and gay marriage, to provide low taxes for the wealthy, second amendment protections, and a consolidation of power at the highest levels.
If someone had never experienced Jesus through the Holy Spirit, or an encounter with the Scriptures or the Sacraments, or the kindness and charity of some of His friends, if they’d never heard the relatively quieter voices that are doing the hard work of reminding people who Jesus really is according to the Gospels, well, they might think the ‘Jesus Saves’ signs they saw at that horrific attack on the capital were about Jesus saving the election for a political figure, or about saving a particular idea of America, and they’d be right because that is what those signs were made for, which, in and of itself is tragic, sad and shameful. Because what if you didn’t know that the thing Jesus actually came to save was souls; yours, mine and theirs. What if you didn’t know how humble Jesus really is, how self-sacrificial, how loving and kind, and what if you might never get to know the real Jesus because this perversion of Christianity was the loudest image of the Church you ever saw in your lifetime.
Maybe someone watched when an American Catholic priest actually used an exorcism rite in order to sway the election back into the losing candidate’s favor and maybe now they believe that’s the purpose of a religious ritual. Maybe they heard the many American priests and bishops who loudly wrote, spoke and prayed for that very thing – the political miracle they all longed for while largely ignoring the material and spiritual needs of their flocks during a pandemic and a time of real racial injustice, and now they believe that any twisted road the Church takes in order to accomplish a stated political goal is somehow absent of accountability and is acceptable as a means to what they think is a ‘higher’ end. How would someone on the outside who’s looking for Jesus honestly engage with our Church after all of that?
When I saw the ‘Jesus Saves’ signs at that criminal attack on the Capital, it made my stomach turn, because though I see how these people have been manipulated, and I have confidence in my own rooted faith, I know that for generations of people who have struggled with the Church or who don’t know the beauty that can come from a faith practice, the damage of these extreme voices was like a sledgehammer to the institutional Church they professed to love. And more dangerously, these forces of darkness continue to make it nearly impossible for scores of people to ever return, to trust or seek God through the Church because they continue to see the hate, the hypocrisy, and the disordered priorities, but they do not see God. There’s little here to attract people from the outside or to bring them in, none of what the Apostle Paul called the fragrance of Christ. And all of this in the time that we are thinking about the Great Commission in our Gospel reading. So how do we recover from this chasm of Christian nationalism? How do we find our way now?
When my kids saw examples of ‘faith people’ doing unflattering or hypocritical things in the name of the Church while they were growing up, I would tell them “that’s not the kind of Catholics we are.” I’d talk about the Jesus of the Gospels, the one who healed and forgave, the one who spoke respectfully to women and children, the one who told His followers to lay down their weapons, who brought in a wide array of people into the family of God. I’d point them toward modern-day people of faith who were serving the needy, who emphasized care for our brothers and sisters as a way to live out the Gospel that we profess. I’d tell them we’re the kind of Christians who love and serve, and not the kind who exclude, or at least we try not to be.
But what of the people who need God now, today, in this country that is still so troubled? As the country and the world saw a Confederate flag next to a ‘Jesus Saves’ sign next to a large wooden cross next to a hangman’s noose on a beam at the U.S. Capital, these symbols somehow blended into one hideous narrative for so many people. Some will find all of those symbols synonymous, part of a shared language of ‘Christianity’ and they’ll wonder who would ever want any part of this hateful group of people who have made God into their own ugly image? Who would want any part of that heretical caricature of God? I wouldn’t and I don’t.
So as a Church or just as a faithful person, what do we do? How can we separate American nationalism from the practice of Christianity in our country when they’ve been so linked through our leaders, many national Catholic voices, and so many of our parishes?
Maybe the best thing to do is to open our eyes and see. Let’s think critically. Let’s look around and ask questions. We can consider the level of representation of flags, patriotic songs, and voting directives in our homilies and worship and think really critically about whether that’s appropriate in a Church that’s designed to be universal. We can look at whether our churches centralize love of country in a space that’s meant to centralize faith and service to the least of these. If we explore our thoughts about Jesus of Nazareth who carried no flag and did not come to bring personal freedom but instead came to show us that we belong to each other in self-sacrificial love, maybe we’ll find the treasure that we’ve lost along the way. Maybe we could get to know the real Jesus again. Maybe that could be the fruit of this crazy time and that would be so good, wouldn’t it?
I don’t know. Sometimes the whole thing seems like it’s too big to disassemble. As an institution, we are so inextricably linked to these ideas and so many elements of the Church are unwilling to see the harm that’s come from it all. I can get really discouraged that all we’re left with in the practice of our faith in this country is a caricature of Jesus, a list of political priorities, and a flag. How sad.
But then I remember the bigness of God, and the movement of the Holy Spirit, so I pray, watch, and see what He’s doing and what He will do. So, I’m holding on in hope like an anchor in this time of reckoning in the Church that I love. And friend, how about you?
Thanks so much for listening to today’s episode – I know it was a bit of a challenging one. But as we conclude today, let’s pray together.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.
God of all nations, help us to truly know You. Let this be a time of discovery of Your very nature, Your kindness, and Your true self so that we can follow You authentically in service of our sisters and brothers by Your example of self-sacrificial love. Let us be salt and light to the world who really needs us. And we pray all of this in the name of Jesus, amen.
Okay friends, thanks so much for listening, and I’ll see you next time.