We must resist Christian nationalists’ heretical form of religion, which parallels the “morality” of the Roman Empire that Jesus challenged.
By Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis
January 17, 2023
Social media was abuzz on the topic of white Christian nationalism for much of the summer, with the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene selling T-shirts that proudly proclaim her identity as a Christian nationalist, encouraging followers to join in. As each part of the Jan. 6 hearing unfolded, the influence of white Christian nationalism showed through — whether it’s the Jericho march directly preceding the Jan. 6 attack, or the “crusade” to challenge election results that followed.
Merchandise and flashy headlines aside, Christian nationalism has influenced the course of American politics and policy since the founding of the country, and the movement behind it is particularly emboldened now. The most recent victory of this nationalistic movement culminated in the Dobbs ruling, the result of the multi-decade campaign to reverse Roe v. Wade.
But the strength of these Christian nationalists is not limited to abortion rights and privacy rights. It can also be seen in the “Don’t Say Gay” campaign in Florida, the fight against critical race theory, the rolling coup of voter suppression laws across U.S. states throughout 2021 and 2022, and even Putin’s drive to establish the supremacy of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine.
However, we are simultaneously seeing organizing in Kansas to protect the right to abortion; efforts of progressive evangelicals to call out systemic racism; interfaith clergy rallying around the rights of trans youth, the unhoused, and more; and a movement of people resisting a heretical form of Christianity that adheres to empire and props up the status quo.
In actuality, the roots of a liberative form of Christianity that challenges powers and principalities; that proclaims everybody in, nobody out; and that insists that there is no room for racism, injustice, or bigotry in the faith run deep in U.S. history. From the abolitionist movement where Harriet “Moses” Tubman led hundreds of enslaved people to liberty, to the social gospel movement that challenged the robber barons and a distorted “prosperity gospel,” to the revivals held by the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and the decades-long Black freedom movement led by the likes of Anna Arnold Hedgeman, who organized tens of thousands of people of faith to join the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a “freedom church” tradition has stretched across the ages of U.S. Christianity.
My own political and moral roots are in the welfare rights movement and homeless union movement, survival movements led by poor and dispossessed people organizing a “new underground railroad” and challenging Christianity to talk the talk and walk the walk of Christ. Many who have led these efforts have been poor women of color who have asserted the right to thrive and not just barely survive. This conviction was captured in the words of Rev. Dr. Yvonne Delk at the 1992 “Up and Out of Poverty Survival Summit,” where she declared that society, including the church, must move to the position that “poor people are not sinners but poverty is a sin against God that could and should be ended.”
Delk’s words echo others from 20 years earlier. In 1972, Beulah Sanders, a leader of the National Welfare Rights Organization, the largest organization of poor people in the 1960s and 1970s, spoke to the National Council of Churches. She said, “I represent all of those poor people who are on welfare and many who are not … people who believe in the Christian way of life … people whose nickels and dimes and quarters have built the Christian churches of America. Because we believe in Christianity, we have continued to support the Christian churches … We call upon you … to join with us in the National Welfare Rights Organization. We ask for your moral, personal and financial support in this battle for bread, dignity and justice for all of our people. If we fail in our struggle, Christianity will have failed.”
Sanders was not alone in her assertion that Christ’s mission in the world and justice were intrinsically connected. In fact, Christians committed to truth and love would do well to remember that Jesus’ ministry began in a time like ours, when the Roman Empire was strangling millions of poor people and calling it peace.
Jesus inaugural sermon starts, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, and he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor,” drawing directly from the prophet Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah goes on to proclaim “liberty to the captives” — a phrase that, in turn, comes from the Jubilee laws of Leviticus. And let us remember that in Exodus when asked for God’s name, we hear the reply, “I am the one who led you out of Egypt.”
That God reminds us how we treat the poor, how we treat the immigrant neighbor, is how we honor and worship God. All of this, especially God’s name and mission of liberation, runs counter to the distorted vision of Christianity that Christian nationalists profess.
It is important to step back for a minute and unpack the matrix of interlocking and interrelated values and beliefs that I am naming Christian nationalism. I understand these to include a few core features, though the list that follows is by no means exhaustive:
- First, a highly exclusionary and regressive form of Christianity is the only true and valid religion.
- Second, white supremacy, along with patriarchy and heteronormativity, is “the natural order” of the world and must be upheld in our personal lives as well as in public.
- Third, militarism and violence, rather than diplomacy and debate, are the right ways for the country to exert power; and connected to this, it is right that the U.S. should exert our power over other countries.
- Fourth, scarcity is the economic reality of life and we (Americans vs. the world, white people vs. people of color, natural born citizens vs. immigrants, etc.) must compete for resources.
- Fifth, people oppressed by systemic violence are to blame for the deep social and economic problems of the world. The poor are to be blamed for their poverty, LGBTQIA people are responsible for disease and social rupture, documented and undocumented immigrants are “rapists and murderers” who are stealing so-called American jobs, and so forth.
- And sixth, the Bible is the source of moral authority on these (and other) social issues and should be used to justify an extremist agenda, no matter what is contained in the good book.
Focusing on that last feature, given how the Bible has been used and abused to blame marginalized people for all of society’s problems, pit people against each other, and claim that injustice and inequality are inevitable (i.e. if God wanted to end poverty and racism he would do so), I want to turn attention to what the Bible and its historical context say about such ideas.
In particular, in reflecting on the Dobbs decision and the decades of degrading the lives of poor women leading up to it, it is interesting to explore how the Roman Empire used marriage laws and other imperial rulings to control bodies and sexuality and keep their imperial subjects divided and distracted. After all, although the empire talked in terms of being pro-life, Caesar and his enablers dealt death and destruction in the name of life and livelihood.
The term “Pax Romana” signified a military strategy of divide and conquer that included rape and pillage and all forms of what the Apostle Paul calls porneia — the ways that the rich and powerful use and abuse sex, sexuality and procreation for their own benefit. It was called “Roman Peace” but it meant war and death, especially for the poor.
The emperor in power at the time of Jesus, Caesar Augustus, was known for ushering in the Golden Age of Moral Values. To establish and preserve this Golden Age, he legislated who could marry whom, who could relate to whom, controlling the bodies and sexuality of his poor subjects. Scholars say that the Golden Age had three primary qualities: peace and security (that was established through war and plunder); the flourishing of the traditional virtues and values (that were upheld through marriage laws and other sexual mores); and prosperity under a glorious divine leader (a “divine leader” who is not the God who led the people out of bondage under empire, but one who executed Jesus as a revolutionary challenging empire).
If we fast-forward to today…
- Trump and his mantra of “I and I alone can fix your problems”
- the contemporary and historic attacks on abortion, same-sex marriage and trans youth in the name of family values, at the same time as cutting welfare, healthcare, wages and other life-sustaining programs
- and the emphasis on policing and militarizing communities, allowing guns to proliferate, all the time talking about peace and security and thoughts and prayers for the victims of violence
…are revealed to be not just characteristics of our contemporary political and religious life, but parallels of the very Roman Imperial “morality” that Jesus was challenging.
There are lessons for us in all of this. If we are serious about confronting Christian nationalism and honoring the God who led us out of Egypt, there are steps we are called to follow. These include:
1. Challenging the religious ideas being promoted by religious extremists and nationalists.
2. Pushing forward progressive policies that raise up all Americans: living wages, healthcare, reduction in the military budget, voting rights and more.
3. Creating space for people to work together and build relationships and heal the many divides that have been forged by adversaries.
4. Equipping leaders to be able to respond when confronted with the distorted narratives of Christian nationalism and replace them with moral and compassionate narratives.
We can draw inspiration from welfare rights leaders, the prophets and gospel writers, and those who struggled for rights and justice throughout history, as we confront the heretical form of religion propagated by Christian nationalists. We can envision the beautiful world we are building.
The night before Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was killed, he preached: “It’s all right to talk about ‘long white robes over yonder,’ in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’ but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the New Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.”
We are living in the midst of a “kairos moment” — a time of great change and transformation, when the old ways of society are dying, and new ones are being born. We are living in a valley of dry bones, and like the prophet Ezekiel we must cry out, “Can these bones live?” In this moment, the sick and uninsured, following the leper in Matthew’s Gospel, are saying to the leaders of faith communities and our politicians, “If you choose, you can heal me.”
Therefore, if we follow the prophetic women of the welfare rights movement and other efforts of revolutionary Christians throughout history, the question is: “Do we choose to heal or will we let Christianity fail?” I believe we must choose life and the struggle. As Rev. Dr. King reminds: this is what we have to do.