taking the words of Jesus seriously

The breadth of the January 6th hearings will tell Americans a lot about the substantive threats to our democracy, if we are willing to listen. I hope Christians, in particular, will heed the substantive threat Christian nationalism played in priming insurrectionists to storm the Capitol with crosses, Christian flags and banners that proclaimed “Jesus Saves”. 

 As a pastor, I fear this movement is not only a danger to our democracy, it is a threat to Christianity itself.

 Christian nationalism is not Christian. In fact, it is idolatry, violates God’s commandments, breaches freedom of religion, and claims innocent lives. Eighteen months later, despite what certain Members of Congress may claim, the Christian nationalist movement that helped fuel the Capitol Hill insurrection continues to kill. The white supremacist who slaughtered ten Black people at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, is merely the latest to be driven to mass murder based on his belief in the “great replacement theory” which has strong roots in Christian nationalism. 

Christian nationalism leads Christians in the wrong direction, separating us from God’s vision of a world where all are treated with dignity. It is a heretical violation of the two greatest commandments in the Christian faith: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39 NRSV) 

 Christian nationalism is a form of idolatry, placing one so-called ethnic group, race and nationality ahead of God’s love for all of us. Scripture and the real Christian vision is bigger than the interests of our class, religious, national or ethnic group. Our liberating God calls us to build a society based on shared power around a moral vision of loving our neighbor and welcoming the stranger. 

 Instead, Christian nationalists advocate for laws that denigrate and roll back the rights of people who are not white, Christian, heterosexual or cisgender. They dare to cloak cruel policies in the guise of religious freedom when in reality these laws have nothing to do with religion or freedom. These laws codify hatred and deny God’s love for all humanity. And to be clear, these laws also violate the founding American principle of religious freedom itself for millions of Americans whose religious values, like Christianity, teach them to value each and every human being. 

 Christian nationalism refuses to take a clear-eyed view of history so that our children can learn from our mistakes and build a nation where all can flourish in all of our God-given diversity. It ignores the full story of the systematic exclusion of people of color, Native Americans, women, LGBTQ people and religious minorities from the benefits of our so-called democracy and our call in Matthew 22. Its propaganda leads to electing racist leaders to “make America great again” and claiming elections are stolen when voters of color turn out in record numbers to vote their values. 

 In the face of this clear and consistent warping of Christian faith, messages and values, it’s no wonder many are tempted to throw out faith altogether. When extremists co-opt the language of faith, it’s easy to believe that our democracy and society would be healthier and freer if religion was completely removed from public life. The answer is not to disengage from faith, but to engage deeper into our spiritual practices and guiding values. We have an opportunity and calling to reclaim faith from those who twist it to cause harm.

 For many of us, Christians and people from every faith, our faith is what motivates us to build an equitable democracy. Our shared values that honor human dignity urge us to build a world where every person can thrive.  We remember the multi-faith movements that have come before us, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma. I see it every day in my work as faith leaders welcome migrants at our borders and as people of faith show up with “Love Your Neighbor” signs to support in Islamic Center threatened by an appearance of a hate group on their day of worship. 

For people of all faiths and no faith we have an opportunity to dig deeper into our values, affirm the human dignity of each person and build a multi-faith, multiracial democracy where everyone has the freedom to thrive no matter where they were born, what they look like or how they worship. 

 Faith leaders are organizing against Christian nationalism. In 2019, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty launched the Christians Against Christian Nationalism campaign. My organization, Faith in Public Life, is organizing multi-faith, multiracial faith leaders ahead of the midterm elections to protect our elections against the threats we saw in 2020. 

 More Christians must step up. We must do more than just watch the January 6th hearings aghast. We cannot allow our faith to continue to be hijacked by white supremacists covered in religious language. For the sake of our faith and our democracy, we must denounce Christian nationalism and reclaim a faith that values and affirms the human dignity of all people. Including our own.

About The Author

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Rev. Jennifer Butler (Twitter @RevJenButler) is CEO of Faith in Public Life Action, a network of faith leaders united in the pursuit of justice. She was chair of the President's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships under the Obama administration.

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