(This sermon was delivered at Greensboro United Church of Christ on July 3rd, 2022. If you prefer listening and watching to reading, the video is here.)
In preparing to preach each week, I always begin with a text from scripture. The text provides the theme and title for the sermon. I did not do that this week. This week I started with a title, the dangers of Christian nationalism. For me, that title points first toward the Exodus passage that we just heard, then to two passages in Matthew’s gospel where we see Jesus speaking out of his understanding of our Exodus text.
The Exodus text brings me to an affirmation that there is only one God worthy of my worship, only one God in which my life rests. That God holds me like no other thing in my life. To be sure, I love other things. I love my family. I love my church. I love my country. I love University of Tennessee football. But those things are not God. When I start thinking and living like one of them is God, my life gets out of balance.
I am the Lord your God, have no other gods before me—-and don’t take my name in vain, don’t misuse my name.
That prohibition seems particularly germane when we think about Christian nationalism. I believe that many Americans want to believe that our nation trusts in God. We plaster God’s name all over our money. And we turn around and spend 766 billion of those dollars on weapons of war. I am hard pressed to understand how that is an action of the people who trust in God. It makes me think that we trust in the manufacturers of armaments at least as much as we trust in God.
To be able to say that we trust in God while we are arming ourselves in such an exorbitant fashion makes me think that if we are honest, we want to at least say “In God and armament manufacturers we trust,” if we are honest. If we are not honest, we distort our religion so that it makes it all normal for us to be pious and religious sounding while trusting in lots of other things beside God. Could there be a more insidious way for us to use God’s name in vain?
Two questions we need to answer as we explore these texts. First, what is Christian nationalism? Second, why is it dangerous?
According to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the term “nationalism” is generally used to describe two phenomena: the attitude that the members of a nation have when they care about their national identity, and the actions that the members of a nation take when seeking to achieve (or sustain) self-determination. The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics defines nationalism as a set of beliefs about the nation: its origins, nature, and value. Of course, more has been said about nationalism, much more.
What happens to nationalism when a particular religious viewpoint is added to it? When we christianize nationalism we adopt “. . .a cultural framework that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life. Christian nationalism contends that America has been and should always be distinctively “Christian” from top to bottom – in its self-identity, interpretations of its own history, sacred symbols, cherished values, and public policies – and it aims to keep it that way. But the “Christian” in Christian nationalism is more about identity than religion. It carries with it assumptions about nativism, white supremacy, authoritarianism, patriarchy, and militarism”( WhatIsChristianNationalism.pdf (bjconline.org).
Joseph Williams, professor of religion at Rutgers University, sees “Christian nationalists insist(ing) that the United States was established as an explicitly Christian nation, and believ(ing) that this close relationship between Christianity and the state needs to be protected—and in many respects restored—in order for the U.S. to fulfill its God-given destiny.” Therefore, Christian nationalists go to great effort “to secure a privileged position for Christianity in the public square that often coincides with efforts to preserve the historical status quo on issues of race, gender, and sexuality.”
Therefore, for the purposes of this sermon, we could say that Christian Nationalism seeks to impose a particular understanding of Christianity and a particular version of American history on the policies, laws and practices of our nation so that the two are wedded together in way that gives privilege to the right sort of Americans while harming those not considered American enough or Christian enough by said policies, laws and practices.
Why is Christian nationalism dangerous?
Why were the Crusades dangerous?
Why was the inquisition dangerous?
Why were the Salem witch trials dangerous?
Why was the Holocaust dangerous?
Christian nationalism endangers our life together for all the same reasons.
One of the chief dangers of Christian Nationalism lies in the way it identifies those who are a threat to its idealized vision of America’s past and its insistence on a present that grants it the privileges to which it assumes entitlement. All that matters is what happens to true Americans. Christian nationalism ignores those who have been excluded, persecuted, enslaved, forced to migrate, denied the vote. In doing so, Christian Nationalism, has looked at and treated whole groups of people as something other than human beings created in the image of God and endowed with certain inalienable rights. No Christian Nationalist would justify treating a true Americans or true Christian in that way, but for those who are other than true American and true Christian, there are no such reservations. Throughout the history of our country, there have always been those who were other, other than true American, true Christian. The people who were on this land when Europeans arrived, Enslaved Africans and their descendants, the Irish in the 1840s-50s, Chinese in the 1880s, Italians in the early 1900s, Jews in the 1930s, and Muslims in the 2000s. To survive, our LGBTQ+ siblings have had remain invisible for most of the time our country has been in existence. The 2nd class status of women is a core value of Christian Nationalism all the way from a constitution that gave them no right to vote right up to a week ago Friday.
To be clear, the othering of some Americans by the Christian Nationalist mindset is not a practice that is confined to our history, it is ongoing. This week in Ohio after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health case that overturned Roe v. Wade, an Ohio state law went into effect making abortion illegal for anyone who has been pregnant for 6 weeks or longer. A 10-year-old rape victim, 6 weeks and 3 days pregnant, could not access the care she needed and that her parents sought for her in her home state. She nor those responsible for her care were deemed American enough to decide what care she needed nor to access that care in her home state.
The Courts ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton in favor of Coach Kennedy’s post game prayers leaves the high school athletes of other faiths, of no faith, or who understand Christianity differently than the Coach with little recourse. If they want to play, they are going to have to pray. They are not American enough to have the freedom to exercise their understanding of religion in their own way or to exercise no religion at all.
Similarly in Maine, the court’s ruling in Carson v. Makin forces Maine taxpayers to pay for religious education without regard for how that religious education agrees or disagrees with their understanding of faith and spirituality. They are not American enough to have the freedom to expect public school dollars be used to pay for a public-school education.
The most frightening example of the danger of Christian Nationalism has been brought to light by the January 6th hearings. On that day, the target of Christian Nationalist was not a law, a practice, or a policy, but the makers of laws and policy. The ones not American enough were elected members of Government.
These are just a few examples of how Christian Nationalism endangers our democracy. While these dangers are real and they are grave, I am even more concerned about the danger Christian Nationalism poses to our faith. For us, as followers of Christ, watching the misuse and abuse our sacred scriptures and practices erode the message at the heart of those scriptures and undermine the foundation of those practices is a painful thing through which to live.
We shall have no other gods before me.
Or text this morning makes it plain that if we are going to order our religious life and our understanding of spiritual matters in accordance with the teaching of scripture, and there’s only room for one God. One recipient of our devotion. One entity in which our lives ultimately rest. I am the Lord your God; you sure have no other gods before me.
In Matthew’s gospel, chapter 6, we see Jesus expressing his understanding of what it means to have no other gods before God. In verse 24 he says, no one can serve 2 masters, or slavery the hate the one and love the other or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. Remember where and when Jesus is speaking, 1st century Palestine. He is not living in a free and independent country free to make its own decisions. No, it’s an occupied territory under Roman rule. What Jesus is saying in this context is that if you are serving wealth, you cannot be serving God. Presumably you would have to have made some kind of deal with the Romans, a less than ethical deal. A deal that meant you gave a part of yourself to the deal that should only have been given to God. For Jesus, worshipping God was not just something that happened in a religious space like the temple, but it was a matter that touched every aspect of life. Serving God meant in the temple, at home, at rest, at work, and everywhere in between.
The history of our country is full of examples of Christians who were trying to serve two masters. Most notably, the way the church in America used the Bible to defend chattel slavery. Not to mention the Trail of Tears, Jim Crow, new Jim Crow, and the prison industrial complex that disproportionately incarcerates black and brown bodies.
Jesus understood, and he wanted his followers to understand that serving God not only meant saying yes to God, but it also meant saying no to that which was not of God.
In the 22nd chapter of Matthew, Jesus is asked a question about paying taxes to the emperor of Rome by some Pharisees. They likely did not think it was lawful or right for them to be paying taxes to the government that had invaded their country, but if Jesus agreed with them and answered no they might report him to the Roman authorities and get him arrested for starting a rebellion. If he answers yes, then he loses his crowd. None of them think it’s right to be paying taxes to invaders and occupiers. Jesus answers neither yes nor no. Instead, yes record did he ask whose image is on the coin. When he hears their reply, Caesar, he tells them to give to Caesar that which bears Caesars image. Then he tells them to give to God that which bears God’s image. Namely themselves. Give your coins to Caesar, but you, you created in the image of God people, give yourselves to God. You who bear the image of God, give that to God. No one or nothing is worthy of that image other than God. Caesar can have your coins, but your heart and your hopes, your soul and your dreams, your spirit and your aspirations, those belong to God. Give yourself to God and see what happens.
It is in that freedom of choice that we are truly able to experience and discover the mystery and wonder of being connected to God. That is not a choice anyone else can make for us. And it’s certainly not a choice that anyone can push us into or guilt or shame or pressure us into. But if we freely choose to open ourselves to God, we enter the mystery of the Christian life. Henri Nouwen help us see that is not our work to do, but God’s gift to us to be received — receiving a new life, a new identity, which depends not on what we can achieve, but on what we’re willing to receive.
Our participation in this thing that God is doing in Christ, our participation in Christianity must be voluntary. It cannot be produced by government edict nor social custom. If our participation in it is anything other than voluntary then what we are participating in is something other than the movement that God started in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
God longs for an intimate, loving relationship with each of us, and all of us, but God does not force God’s self on us. God yearns and longs for us, God whispers and prods us, God invites and calls us, again and again. God waits for us…. to realize we’re free. For freedom Christ has set us free.
Free from any religious system, spiritual path, or destructive ideology that would have us to look at ourselves and others as anything other than human beings beloved by God.
Free from being coerced, shamed, guilted, belittled into religious conformity.
Free to love as we have been loved.
When the government acts to impose the practices of our faith on our fellow citizens in an involuntary way, as the US Supreme Court has done in at least three cases during this recent session, The government does harm to the cause of Christ and abuses the heart of our religion. Christianity that is not freely chosen is not Christianity.
Every emperor since Constantine has offered some privilege to the church. And with every acceptance of such privilege, the church became less the company of the faithful called by God and more of an appendage of the empire, a tool to serve the aims and aspirations of the state.
Our resistance to any movement or ideology that tries to make the Christian religion about something other than loving God and loving others is vital to our growth and development as followers of Christ both as individuals and as a congregation.
When people call themselves Christians and use the Jesus story to exclude, we have to say no.
When people call themselves Christians and use the Jesus story to deny the human dignity of some of us, we have to say no.
When people call themselves Christians and use the Jesus story to threaten the lives of those who do not meet their criteria for being American enough, we have to say no.
We have to say no to all of that because with Jesus there’s really only one thing, people to be loved. neighbors to be loved, enemies to be loved.