taking the words of Jesus seriously

In the summer of 2021, the unmarked graves of hundreds of Indigenous children were uncovered near a Christian boarding school in Saskatchewan, Canada. The graves contained close to eight hundred remains. This discovery came weeks after authorities discovered a mass grave near another church-run school for Indigenous children in British Columbia. One child was likely as young as three when she died.

In the United States, the Civilization Fund Act of 1819 called for the federal government to work with missionaries to establish schools in Native territories. Funded by the federal government and in many cases run by Catholic and Protestant denominations, the boarding schools existed explicitly to erase Native American culture and practices by replacing tribal practices with Christian ones.

The founder of one boarding school bluntly stated their objective: “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” This goal was just a slight augmentation of the prevailing opinion at the advent of these schools: “The only good Indian is a dead one.” The law advocated that Native Americans be forcibly assimilated to what leaders considered Western Christian culture. This, they surmised, would make them good citizens. For decades, Native tribes had both their land and their children taken from them. The schools were often overcrowded and hundreds of miles from their homes. The Christian leaders of the schools did not allow the children to speak their native languages, and noncompliance was met with physical beatings. Some students reported priests fathering children with Indigenous students, whose babies were then taken from them and killed.

The mass graves in Canada vindicated the often-ignored claims of Native children and families devastated by these practices. These governments could no longer try to hide the violence of years past. And in some cases, these atrocities are barely even past. The US Congress did not outlaw the forced removal of Native children from their families until the late 1970s. These horrific discoveries were just another reminder of how easily efforts to inculcate Christianity via governmental decree produce violence, especially toward feared outsiders.

While recognizing the absolute tragedy of this history, some of us might still question whether a desire for privileging Christianity in the affairs of the state could lead down a similar path. Would Christians today similarly embrace violence in the service of “the greater good” of spreading Christianity to create ideal citizens via governmental force?

Consider what Declan Leary, an editor for the American Conservative, wrote in July 2021 in response to the discovery of the mass graves: “Whatever natural good was present in the piety and community of the pagan past is an infinitesimal fraction of the grace rendered unto those pagans’ descendants who have been received into the Church of Christ. Whatever sacrifices were exacted in pursuit of that grace—the suffocation of a noble pagan culture; an increase in disease and bodily death due to government negligence; even the sundering of natural families—is worth it.” As much of the conquest of new land was led by nations baptizing their quest in the gospel, Declan argues, such genocide—if it results in more Christians and a more Christian society—is worth countless deaths of Indigenous adults and children. For centuries, such logic has provided fertile ground for the enactment of terrible violence by Christians in service of their nations.

The tragic history of Indigenous peoples in North America clearly demonstrates that any quest to protect power based on hierarchical relationships between “us” and “them”—ultimately founded on fear of “them”—will undoubtedly resort to violence. Additional examples exist at various levels of social life.

Countries will proactively go to war on the basis of real or imagined fears of threats to their land, safety, or security (Iraq War, Russian invasion of Ukraine). Whole regions will enact laws to separate and segregate groups of people and turn a blind eye when one group upholds those divisions through violence (Jim Crow and the lynching of Black Americans). Governments will systematically steal land and separate families in order to force Indigenous peoples to assimilate.

At the individual level, American men move through suburban neighborhoods—whether their own or not—looking for perceived threats to what they see as their rightful space and act with deadly violence when they deem it necessary (George Zimmerman, Kyle Rittenhouse, Gregory and Travis McMichael). Repeatedly, they find and engage perceived threats with deadly force.

No matter the scale, Christian nationalism provides theological justification for violence toward enemies, making it a righteous act. At both the national and the individual level, this political theology makes space for “true” citizens to protect themselves and their country—however they see fit—from those threatening it. While distinct ethical frameworks justifying collective violence versus individual violence exist across various strains of Christian theology, Christian nationalism blurs those lines. Christian nationalism considers the use of multiple forms of violence to defend one’s body, family, community, or nation to be aligned with God’s will. The world is a dangerous place, and sometimes we need good guys with guns or the nation’s military to restore order.   

Consider some of the examples from Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s influential book, Jesus and John Wayne. She follows the thread of militant masculinity in American Christianity, especially through the last century, showing that white Christian men looked for and repeatedly found a new threat to Christian America to confront and subdue through righteous violence. Taking cues from popular fictionalized historical figures like William Wallace, Maximus Meridius, and various on-screen characters played by John Wayne, many have believed that the defense of our Christian nation requires the use of righteous violence, both collectively and individually, when necessary.

My own experience provides one example of how Christian nationalism blurs the application of collective and individual forms of violence. Growing up, I was drawn to the exciting and oftentimes violent Bible stories in which the people on God’s side were the clear victors, and the losers suffered humiliation and defeat. Among these were David picking the five smooth stones and slaying Goliath, Gideon outwitting and slaughtering the Midianites, the Red Sea crashing down on all the Egyptians, and Samson exacting his revenge. Stories like this were told and retold through felt boards, illustrated children’s books, and second-tier animation.

While we were generally taught in church that hurting others is bad and should be avoided, these stories clearly demonstrated that, at certain times and for certain reasons, those on God’s side (who were always people like me) could resort to violence in order to fulfill God’s will. Sure, Jesus never fought back, but how realistic is that today? He is the Son of God, after all, so we can’t expect to live up to his earthly example. And don’t forget how Jesus is depicted in Revelation as “a prize-fighter with a tattoo down his leg, a sword in his hand and the commitment to make someone bleed.”

In their sermons, pastors and teachers highlighted these or other Bible stories—or depictions of violence in popular culture—in which good claimed victory over evil. The corollaries were clear. I could see myself as someone engaged in a similar struggle, albeit with lower stakes and likely in the spiritual realm but all the while willing and able to fight and destroy and defend, just like any good Christian man should.

It can be a small step between fighting spiritual battles to defend your family and religious community and fighting physical battles to do the same. It is difficult to keep the examples of physical violence in the Bible solely as lessons for spiritual battle today. It is all too easy for those earnestly listening—like I was—to see how physical violence may yet be of use today, just like it was in the Bible. I mean, we all might need to braid a whip and clear the temple every now and again. And just like David, Moses, Gideon, and other Israelites, I might have to violently defend my life or the lives of my family members from threats. Similarly, I may have to engage in or support collective violence to counter threats to our way of life (Christianity) arising from those who want to destroy it (non-Christian nations and peoples).

And just like that, I was able to endorse various forms of violence if I believed it was in service of the greater good, which usually meant my immediate needs or family, my fellow white Christians, Christian morality as we defined it, and the nation that was committed to it all—the United States. Growing up white in a majority-white community largely shielded me from any personal contact with interpersonal or collective violence. Violence was something I could support from afar without ever having to reckon with its fruit. This allowed me to maintain a sense of innocence regarding individual forms of violence and America’s collective use of violence both at home and abroad. It allowed me to collapse these distinct forms of violence into one. Christian nationalism is strongly associated with support for the use of violence, whether interpersonal or collective.

Content taken from American Idolatry by Andrew L. Whitehead, ©2023. Used by permission of Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Purchase the book here.

About The Author


Andrew L. Whitehead (PhD, Baylor University) is associate professor of sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, where he codirects the Association of Religion Data Archives at the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture. He is the coauthor of Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, which won the 2021 Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Whitehead has written for the Washington Post, NBC News, Time, and Religion News Service and speaks frequently about Christian nationalism.

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