A Feature Review of
American Idolatry: How Christian Nationalism Betrays the Gospel and Threatens the Church
Andrew L. Whitehead
Reviewed by Stephen R. Clark
It’s a hot day somewhere near Jerusalem and an expert in religious law asks Jesus, “So, who is my neighbor?” Jesus launches into what we call the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 19:25-37). After sharing the story, Jesus asks the expert, “Who was the beaten man’s neighbor?” The expert replies correctly indicating it was the one who showed mercy. Jesus looks him in the eyes and says simply, “Go and do that.”
The New Testament is laced with these kinds of simple directives to guide Christians living out their faith in the world: Care for your neighbor as yourself. Tell people about Jesus. Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Advocate for justice for all, because Jesus loves us all.
Andrew L. Whitehead– in his book American Idolatry: How Christian Nationalism Betrays the Gospel and Threatens the Church– suggests that white Christian nationalists would respond to these directives critically, “Not so fast!”
References to and concerns about Christian nationalism are cropping up everywhere. Whitehead defines Christian nationalism as “a cultural framework that idealizes and advocates for a fusion of a particular expression of Christianity with American civic life. It holds that this version of Christianity should be the principal and undisputed cultural framework in the United States….” In other words, with white Christian nationalists, “it’s my way or the highway” when it comes to politics, religion, and culture in general.
White Christian nationalism is marked with a high need for power and control, the use of fear as a justifiable means to a self-serving end, and a ready willingness to employ force, and even violence, to assert authority. These are tools aimed at perpetuating the privilege of the “white experience,” establishing increasing influence for a privileged few, and marginalizing those viewed as “other.”
“Others” are delineated by race, religion, ethnicity, politics, and place of origin. Favor falls to white, politically conservative, natural-born citizens. White Christian nationalism is primarily a white, male-driven, authoritarian, might-makes-right, hierarchical club of homegrown gun-toting citizens who tend to scorn the ideas of putting others first, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, and other traditionally accepted aspects of the Christian life. In fact, what’s surprising is that it seems that Christian nationalists have little or no interest in following the way of Jesus.
Whitehead explains, “White Christian nationalism is not primarily a theological category but a cultural framework intent on privileging a conservative ethno-cultural and political orientation — one draped in religious rhetoric.” It demands allegiance in ways that make power, fear, and violence into idols, thus setting up a direct conflict with the example and teachings of Jesus.
In the preface of his book, Whitehead gets right to the point stating, “to faithfully follow the teachings and example of Jesus of Nazareth, [we] must work to disentangle Christianity from Christian nationalism. The two cannot coexist.” A first step is to acknowledge and recognize the problem. He states bluntly, “Any pastor, religious leader, or politician who downplays or minimizes the degree to which Christian nationalism endures throughout the broader population and especially within white evangelicalism is either lying or misinformed.”
Whitehead offers a field guide of some “possible identifying markers of Christian nationalism.” These may be encountered in churches or in interactions with individuals. In churches, displaying the American flag in the sanctuary, holding periodic services to celebrate America, and preaching fearful messages thin on gospel content may indicate the influence of Christian nationalism. Among individuals, an intense defense of rights and privileges, a specific narrow view of history, a strong us-versus-them rhetoric that tends to demonize the “other,” a longing for the “good old days,” or an insistence that our country was fully founded on Christian ideals rather than merely influenced by them may indicate a Christian nationalism outlook.
Countering the impact of white Christian nationalism– while requiring “a concerted effort–” is actually straightforward: do what Jesus calls us to do. We must serve the marginalized. Set aside acts of violence. Seek justice for everyone. Act with mercy instead of power. And, when engaging in political activity, which is fine, do so with a servant’s heart aimed at benefiting all, and not as a grab for self-serving power. Whitehead points to the reminder offered by Martin Luther King, Jr. that “The church…is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.” As Whitehead clarifies, “Throughout the biblical narrative, God consistently calls people to trust in him alone rather than in kings, weapons, or other gods.”
How did things go so awry? Whitehead references a quote by Jerry Falwell that hints at the heart of the problem. Falwell stated, “We [the Church] have a three-fold primary responsibility: number one, get people saved; number two, get them baptized; number three, get them registered to vote.”
This is nothing less than a bastardization of the Great Commission that wrongly conflates the Gospel with partisan politics. While registering people to vote is a fine activity for a church to support, political activity is not and never should be a “primary responsibility” of the church. What the church is commanded by Christ to do is “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20, NIV).
Along with Whitehead, I agree that white Christian nationalism “makes us bad Christians.” It encourages us to be selfish rather than selfless, to build a human empire instead of growing the Kingdom of God, and to shift trust from God onto the idols of power, politics, and personal privilege.
This is an important book with an important message.
Stephen R. Clark
Stephen R. Clark is a writer who lives in Lansdale, PA with his wife, BethAnn, where they attend Immanuel Church. His website is www.StephenRayClark.com. He is a member of the Evangelical Press Association and a regular contributor to the Christian Freelance WritersNetwork blog. He has published three volumes of poetry and his writing has appeared in American Bible Society blogs, The Christian Century, Christianity & Literature, and more.
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