Christian Nationalism

Apparently we’ve forgotten the Second World War. In our touch-screen, never-have-to-get-off-the-couch culture of convenience, we’ve completely disregarded the millions that, yes, died in vain. You see, Christian Nationalism is on the rise, according to a story my wife sent me from the Huffington Post. About as much an aberration from literal “Christianity” as you can get, this movement believes America’s success is tied to its role as a Christian nation. Such believers, if they can even see that such rhetoric leads to war, don’t care. For the fact is that the economy of China is poised to pass, if it hasn’t already done so, the economy of what used to be United States. Call it Confucian Nationalism, but I have the feeling that when two giants try to get into the same compartment things tend to get unpleasant.

Serious thinking is a natural resource of which America has clearly run out. Easy answers, empty of content—junk food of the mind—are easily tweeted out from a personality that declares his own opinions truth. Everything else is fake news. Evangelicals, it’s sorely obvious, need to read The Analects. Don’t claim that its obscure; I’ve read the Bible. If you think you can figure Paul out, well, that’s what I’d call “fake news.” Oh, and by the way, Paul was anything but a nationalist. For all his faults, he knew that Christianity is nothing if it’s tied to nationhood.

Instead we puff out our chests and, ignoring the Bible on this very proverb, become the blind following the blind. If God has a plan he’d better reveal it to his 45th prophet soon because there are some enormous gulfs in the road and he insists on walking without a cane. American exceptionalism is built on the backs of the poor and helpless. They are also the ones most easily swayed by its perverse rhetoric. Nations must separate themselves from their religious beliefs. We’ve seen what happens when incompatible religions become the identifying factors of countries. As long ago as the 1970s I’d learned that nationalism was a powerful force for evil. I hadn’t been alive during the Second World War, but the world into which I’d been born was entangled in Vietnam. We were halfway around the world playing the bully, but it was because of capitalism, not Christianity. The end result, however, was the same. Unimaginable human suffering. Death, pain, and sorrow. And we’ve decided that the Prince of Peace wants us to head down that road again. “Vanity,” I hear Qohelet whisper.

For the Sake of Fighting

Different opinions can be used for discussion or destruction. In the formal context of government, the declaration of war is—or should be—an option of last resort. Increasingly language of belligerence is status quo ante when religion is the topic. “Culture Wars” is a thinly veiled reference to the profound disagreement between social conservatism, associated with Evangelical Christianity, and progressive policies, often affiliated with nones and mainline Christian traditions that don’t wish to be left behind. For years, decades, no one side can declare victory, for example, in the debate over whether America was founded as a Christian nation. Two news stories I saw this past week addressed just that question. Fox News ran a story about a Baptist Church in Shelby, North Carolina, that has decided to fly the Christian flag over the stars and bars until, well, I guess the Second Coming. Protesting the legalization of gay marriage, the congregation wants the message, aided by Fox News, to spread that in at least this corner of the country, God comes first.

The other story, on CNN, asks the question directly: “Was American Founded as a Christian Nation?” With five professors answering the question there’s bound to be differing opinions but all agree that this isn’t a simple yes or no answer. The even larger question, it seems, is how can the founders’ religious orientations help us to avoid cultural wars? Isn’t the fact that we’re still searching historical documentation over two centuries later an answer in itself? Maybe they didn’t tell us directly because it was none of our business. Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson are quoted on both sides of the debate. Their cultural context was Christian, but as all the five scholars agree, the question didn’t become a live one until the nineteenth century. Seems that we got along a century without knowing.

The “Culture Wars” may have been there, of course, but the need for a term only arose in the late 1980’s and early ’90’s. The divide had been simmering since the end of the ’50’s, however. Leave it to Beaver versus Star Trek: the Next Generation. The media has never been shy about telling us what to think. Difference of opinion is as natural as a pre-frontal cortex. Peaceful coexistence, however, doesn’t sell newspaper or commercial airtime or space. We want the thrill of danger, the chance to declare that, unlike the adversary, we are clearly in the right. Maybe if we changed the metaphor the rhetoric might catch up. In the meanwhile, battle comes to mind. Ironically, the Bible is a place that suggests peaceful solutions to many disagreements, but neither side thinks to look there for guidance.

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God, As a Hobby

Just as I was awaking from a night of loud fireworks and multicultural bonhomie, my wife showed me a full-page ad in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. A red, white, and blue page entitled “In God We Trust,” the ad wants nothing more than to convert the nation to conservative Christianity. It is sponsored by Hobby Lobby after all. Dividing the quotes that spangle the page into “Founding Fathers,” “Presidents,” “Supreme Court Justices,” “Supreme Court Rulings,” “Congress,” “Education,” and “Foreign Opinion,” prooftexted quotes are given inadvertently showing by their grasping nature that America is a godly country. The Hobby Lobby is not known for its critical reading of either Scripture or history. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, Deists all, are quoted at the height of their rhetoric, making it seem as if they were evangelicals out to build a Christian nation.

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When I was growing up, there were no Hobby Lobby stores in my area. Although I was a religious child, I would have found it a bit odd that hobbyists were not focusing all their attention on the weighty matter of eternity. Instead, making money seems to be the name of the game, and once you’re comfortably over-compensated the Lobby part of the name comes to play and God reenters the picture. We all know that the Hobbyists wish to have the Bible right next to the capital, if they can’t get it prominently placed in the Oval Office. Policy (the ad cites all three branches of government, as well as education) should be based on the Bible, although we think of ourselves as a land of opportunity. Opportunity for whom?

Starting with a quote ripped from the context of Psalm 33 (“blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord”), the ad doesn’t exegete this at all. Nationalism as we know it did not exist when this Psalm was penned. The author had what would become Judaism in mind, not evangelical Christianity. But then, appropriation of other peoples’ pasts is kind of a hobby. Pick and choose. Take what you find attractive and leave the rest behind. It works for history as well as for the Bible. After all, it doesn’t take historical probity to lobby the government. All that’s required is a surfeit of money. And the best way to achieve that, it seems, is to take up a hobby rather than trying to think through the issues with a mind honed by a solid education in Bible and history.

Texodus

I’m not sure what Patheos is, but it has been on my web-radar (or is it “ping”?) for some time now. They host bloggers with a more substantial platform than mine, and often have a number of comments that must require a full-time coterie of first responders. As a working class blogger, however, I siphon off their success to spin my own ideas a little further. All of this is preface to the fact that a recent article by Michael Stone on Patheos comments on Texas’s approval of textbooks where Moses inspired “the American system of democracy.” We are all used to Texas shenanigans by now, but making laws with the ultimate lawmaker just as a movie is being released that portrays Moses as a warrior is apt in a way that Rick Perry’s stomping grounds may not truly appreciate. The need to validate outdated laws with a largely mythical biblical figure is telling. Revisionist history depends on the version of history that is more compelling at the moment, and I find Moses charging the Egyptian army on horseback eerily appropriate.

Textbooks are insidious. They are society’s first crack at young, and naturally open, minds. As we socialize the rising generations to support that with which we’ve always felt comfortable—not wanting to jeopardize our ease in our advancing age—it becomes important to provide the appropriate propaganda. As I speak with fellow scholars (if I may be so bold) I frequently hear them decrying textbooks. By their nature they are a leveling off of what naturally comes in mounds—heaps, even. They are a tool used to keep everything even in a world of rough knowledge. They are insidious in that they are hard to override. Those of us who’ve taught in college know how difficult credibility is when “the book says” is the standard line of recourse. If it was published by Pearson corporation, it must be true.

Revisionist history.

Revisionist history.

Of course, we venerate the published word. Today the Bible, I suspect, were it newly composed, would have difficulty finding a publisher. Since it was written a couple thousand years ago, however, it retains all the trappings of hoary wisdom that is required to make the elders comfortable. Even scholars of the Bible have, as a matter of course, questioned Moses’ role in the story for centuries. As early as the Middle Ages some sages were asking how Moses knew to write his own death scene. Even so, the vast majority took the word literally, and now that we’ve defined ourselves as a “Christian nation,” or at least the southern half of a Christian nation, we can use the Bible as a textbook. What could be more natural? On the big screen I anticipate Christian Bale charging the Egyptians on horseback. In the Pentateuch I read of Moses hiding behind Aaron’s eloquence. One is biblical, but is it believable? If it comes to a contest of force between the two, I’ll go with Ridley Scott every time.

Rhode Island Blue

Rhode Island is often overlooked as the smallest state, a place seldom happened upon by accident, somewhere that one has to intend to go. Drawn by family, I made a trip to Rhode Island and serendipitously learned the lesson of Roger Williams. Roger Williams was the founder of Rhode Island, and, for those only familiar with the Southern Baptist movement, a rather unbelievably liberal Baptist. The founder of the first Baptist church in the nation, Williams was also the advocate of a form of religious freedom that is still railed against today by conservative Christian factions that wish to make America a “Christian nation.”

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Roger Williams' first Baptist church (in the country)

We are accustomed to religious propagandists today telling us that the “founding fathers” were Christians just like they are (simply not true), and that America should remain a “Christian country.” Roger Williams, although not often spoken of in the same tier as George Washington or Benjamin Franklin, classifies as one of our founders and he was an outspoken advocate of conscience as the guiding force behind religion, not state or federally mandated compliance. Rhode Island was offered as a “shelter for persons distressed of conscience.” It was a state where a mind was free to follow its lead.

I confess to overlooking Rhode Island often. But as a refuge for “Papists, Protestants, Jews, or Turks,” it is the Dreamland of religious liberty. Progressive to the point of welcoming Jewish believers and Muslims, Williams went as far as to declare, “none [should be] compelled from their own particular Prayer or Worship, if they practice any.” Even the unbeliever was welcome. How far the “religious right” has fallen from this original ideal of a humble Baptist who envisioned a homeland where residents were free to believe as their conscience dictated!