Christian Nationalism, the Liberal Remix
While the dangerous ideology of Christian Nationalism is most often (correctly) associated with the right, its liberal variant must be confronted as well.
I have written and spoken extensively about the extremely real dangers of the right-wing Christian Nationalism ideology that we saw on full display throughout the Trump presidency and especially during the January 6 coup attempt. I think it’s a serious and entirely-malevolent movement that needs to be confronted and eradicated, especially by Christians.
But this right-wing Christian Nationalism has a liberal cousin, a liberal form of Christian Nationalism. I’m not trying to pull a “both sides!” whataboutism, and I’m certainly not going to draw a moral equivalency between the two forms — the right-wing form is more evil and dangerous in almost every way. That being said, as a member of the left and as a Christian, refusing to acknowledge and confront this liberal Christian Nationalism would be hypocritical and it would allow an evil (albeit a lesser one) to thrive unopposed.
My intention here is not to pour cold water on Christians who have moved from right-wing evangelicalism to liberal Christianity, or to heap disdain on the Biden presidency; I recognize the move from the right-wing to liberal as a beautiful, important step and I still have high hopes for the new administration. But perhaps because this is “my side” as it were, my critiques may feel either too light or unnecessarily harsh. If the following comes across as either, I apologize and would happy to clarify or expound on any points of confusion or neglect.
Biden’s inauguration took place over a month ago so it certainly seems late to be talking about it — especially in the context of a non-stop, 24/7 news cycle — but there are some aspects of it that I think definitely need to be addressed. Particularly, I want to critically look at some of the ways that Christianity was intertwined with a more benign seeming form of nationalism at the ceremony.
To start, I want to point out a tweet from the Washington National Cathedral in D.C., which is an Episcopal Church (Episcopalians are one of the denominations most-associated with liberal Christianity). On the night of Inauguration Day, the cathedral tweeted out an image of their building with a massive projection of stars and the American flag on it in celebration of Biden and Harris’s election. This was symbolic of the victory laps that a lot of liberal Christians have been doing in light of the election and inauguration.
Now, to some — especially those with privilege and power — that flag represents themes of freedom and liberty and strength. But as a leftist and as a Christian, I am concerned about the underprivileged and the disempowered, and too many of those people the flag of the United States is historically not a symbol of freedom but a symbol of oppression. What is the American Flag to the wrongfully incarcerated? What is the American flag to the Indigenous people in reservations? What is the American flag to the millions who have been killed, maimed, or displaced by the American war machine? It’s not a symbol or icon that makes you feel like you belong and have dignity, it’s just the opposite, and the display of the symbol on their church was unintentionally a display of where the National Cathedral’s loyalties lie: with those who have power against those without it.
And of course, at the ceremony itself, the Christian themes were evident. Biden has never made any attempt to hide his deep fondness and familiarity with the Catholic Church, and that shined throughout his speech. From directly quoting St. Augustine to speaking of healing and forgiveness and community through a very Catholic lens, Biden’s Christianity was a centerpiece of the day.
From the moment the ceremony ended and through the proceeding weeks, the media has said all kinds of things about the way that Christianity was shown (both at the inauguration specifically and as a continuous thread through Biden’s public life in general). One of the biggest of these stories has been how prominent religion was in the ceremony and in Biden’s government. For example, there are a lot of Catholics in Biden’s White House and for a country that just elected it’s second Catholic president, that does certainly seem like an interesting thing to parse out. And it’s not just the White House either, most prominent Democratic members of Congress are some denomination of Christian as well.
Christian Nationalism’s Friendlier Face
Christian Nationalism is something that many people aren’t thinking about in regards to Joe Biden, largely because it was such an obvious facet of the Trump regime. And, just like child migrant detention centers, it’s a story that seemed to fade away instantly on January 20th.
To be fair, it’s incredibly easy to look at the Trump Administration, conservative Christianity, January 6, etc. and point out an obnoxious, abrasive, ugly type of Christian Nationalism that uses all sorts of obviously gaudy and absurd Biblical interpretations to lobby for brutal and hateful policies. But there is still a different form of Christian Nationalism, a liberal form. And while it certainly presents itself more politely and is not blatantly and intentionally waging war on already oppressed and vulnerable people (at least, not most of the time), it is still very, very dangerous and pernicious. Liberal Christian Nationalism has different qualities, but many of the same eventual effects.
(Now, here as a brief aside I do want to say that there is a false narrative popular among a lot of leftists and libertarians, and it’s this idea that we can collapse Biden and Trump into the same category, that they’re the same person, that they’re equally bad. They’re not, that’s hogwash. Are they both bad? Yes, but in different ways. It’s important to understand those differences or else you don’t have any idea how to effectively organize against them.)
So what are those qualities? What are the different parts that make up a liberal Christian Nationalist ideology? Not only is finding out how liberal Christian Nationalism operates a worthy goal in and of itself, but I also believe it is tied to the fight against the right-wing, Christo-fascist form of the ideology.
I want to return to the example of the National Cathedral I pointed to earlier because it’s such an illustrative example of how this liberal ideology works. Here we have a very progressive denomination, but now that Biden’s president this type of Christian Nationalism, this certain type of patriotism, can return. Historically, liberal Christian Nationalism has been found in denominations like the Episcopal Church, but it avoids a lot of scrutiny; it’s the business-as-usual Christian Nationalism of the Bush years for example, even the Obama years in a lot of ways. It’s a Christian Nationalism without the obvious ugliness that was there during the (not brief enough) Trump years. This liberal Christian Nationalism is apt at flying under the radar of essentially every liberal Christian. How many liberal Christians have you seen calling out liberal displays of nationalism from Biden and Democrats since January 20? Very few, I imagine.
One of the reasons why it is so easy for Biden’s Christian Nationalism to fly under the radar is because no one is accusing Biden of using religion to cynically drive home his points or agenda or to manipulate people like Trump did. (Of course, one of the reasons why no one is accusing Biden of doing that because he’s not doing that.) I think a lot of people find Biden’s expression of Christianity to be refreshing because it feels so much more genuine than Trump’s — again, because it is. Joe Biden is someone who is obviously deeply familiar with and inspired by the Catholic tradition, and I think it’s obvious that he takes his faith very seriously, as opposed to Trump who just sort of bumbled his way through misquoting and mishandling the Bible for four years. Biden’s sincere Christianity is a refreshing contrast to Trump’s romp with right-wing Evangelicalism.
While it’s important to draw this distinction, in a lot of ways it’s ironically the genuineness of Biden’s faith that makes his brand of Christian Nationalism more difficult to critique. In my opinion, there’s a tendency among liberal Christians to take a critique of the way they express their religion politically as a critique of their faith itself. I suppose in some tangential ways it is, but that’s certainly neither the point of the critique nor anything I am interested in doing: I have no problem believing that Joe Biden and the majority of liberal Christians have a true faith and sincere beliefs and religious commitment. I do not see those facts and a critique of Biden’s/liberal politics as mutually exclusive of each other.
When liberals combine their genuine Christian religion with nationalistic assumptions like American exceptionalism, that the U.S. is the greatest country in the world, that American hegemony is desirable, then the result is liberal Christian Nationalism. This blend of friendlier-seeming nationalism and liberal Christianity end up baptizing an awful amount of extremely violent, terribly exploitive, and hierarchy supportive actions and polices. No group of people is quite as subtle about baptizing the violence and imperialism and exploitation of the United States than liberal Christians.
The Idolatry Critique
One thing that is clear to me about both right-wing and liberal Christian nationalism is that boiled down they are both idolatrous. From a religious point of view, that’s extremely problematic. Obviously, making an idol of anything is giant no-no in Christianity. This idolatry critique of any sort of nationalism is one that is extremely common among Christian anarchists; you’ve seen this argument if you’ve read from people such as Jacques Ellul, Leo Tolstoy, Adin Ballou, William Cavanaugh, etc.
This is not to say that I do not think there can be healthy manifestations of patriotism, but I do think that this idolatry critique is extremely compelling and very powerful against both liberal and right-wing Christian Nationalism. Mixing nationalism into Christianity will always pollute the religion and obscure the message of the Gospel.
Reflecting back on the inauguration has triggered these Christian anarchist reflexes in me, most of which I acquired during the Obama years. These are reflexes that are tied directly to this idolatry critique. I do think that it is important to recognize when a critique is insufficient though, and for several reasons I think this idolatry critique often is. I am unashamedly a fan of the Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas, I think he has numerous incredibly valuable teachings. He also stands by this idolatry critique, and the conclusion it brings him to is essentially that Christians should drop out of the political process all together. To be clear, I think that conclusion has all kinds of problematic potential ramifications, and it’s one that needs to be thought about with a lot of nuance and applied extremely carefully. That said, the facet of this type of thinking that was (and is still) so attractive to me is that it places so much emphasis on creating a strong distinction between what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be a citizen of the United States.
One theologian I have been reading from recently is Ignacio Ellacuría, who was a Jesuit priest in El Salvador and was killed in 1989 by paramilitary fighters trained by the United States government. In his essay “The Crucified People”, Ellacuría suggests that not only was Jesus crucified but that throughout history are who he calls “the crucified peoples”. These are people who have experienced oppression, systemic violence, extreme exploitation, etc., and they participate in the crucifixion with Christ. Forgive me, but I’m going to return to the National Cathedral example one last time — I couldn’t get this idea of the crucified peoples out my mind when I saw that image of the flag projected on that church. The Cathedral — which is supposed to be dedicated to Jesus, the crucified person — had the flag on it that is the very flag that has authorized the figurative crucifixion of millions around the world, including Ellacuría himself.
This honestly makes my blood boil in a way that not even right-wing, bigoted Christianity can’t. At least right-wing Christian Nationalism is obvious about what it condones and is easy to write off as idiotic and scummy. But this liberal Christian Nationalism is so frustrating because it’s practitioners are so convinced that they’re on the side of the oppressed and exploited when they’re not; they’re so certain that their ideology is a great progressive vehicle when it in fact serves mainly to grease the gears that are figuratively and literally crushing people this very second all around the planet. That is an extremely troubling thing to see Christianity manifest itself as.
I imagine that I will spend a lot of the next four years thinking harder about variations of Christian Nationalism and that I will roe revisiting some of the theologians and philosophers of Christian anarchism, in order to see how their ideas apply to a more benign liberal Christian Nationalism.
The Materialist Critique
I mentioned earlier my fear that the standard Hauerwasian idolatry critique of liberal Christian Nationalism was insufficient. Ultimately, I reject the idea that politics is fundamentally bad and I think there is room for Christians to be politically involved and in government. I think it is an incredibly hard thing to do, but I think it’s possible. For another reason, the idolatry critique only works on people who 1) can be convinced that they have turned their nation into an idol and 2) who are concerned about idolatry to begin with. I’m not convinced that the majority of people fit into these categories.
Because of these two things, I think it is necessary to critique liberal Christian Nationalism from another angle, and I am choosing to do so from a materialist perspective. I think when dealing with anyone in the broad political left (of which, as I said, I consider most liberals to be a part of) that it makes sense to use a materialist, more socialist critique that hones in on anti-imperialism, labor issues, and “the crucified peoples” through a lens of material conditions.
As a Christian and as someone who finds discussions about theology fascinating, it’s very easy to get caught up in the ideological, theoretical battle that is the idolatry critique; to say that Christians should believe X and nationalism requires a belief in Y, so the two are incompatible. But the materialist critique is so useful because it suggests that if I am a Christian then I believe X (let’s say, that God has a preferential option for the poor), and that regardless of what I believe I can trace the United States materially acting in the world. For example, when Biden promises that his administration is going to continue support for Juan Guaidó in Venezuela, with a materialist critique I can see that the United States is threatening people’s self-determination and political sovereignty. The materialist critique allows for a focus on this material reality in a way that the idolatry critique simply isn’t meant to do and is thus incapable of doing.
(I do want to quickly point out that a lot of Liberation Theologians in Latin America who have put a lot of time into developing and applying the idolatry critique as a tool against both liberal and right-wing Christian Nationalism. I don’t want to negate their contributions or mischaracterize the idolatry critique as something that only privileged American and European theologians are concerned with.)
Another example of how a materialist critique can make up for and point out the flaws of liberal Christian Nationalism is in regard to the infamous 1776 Project that the Trump Administration launched towards the end of their reign. The entire project was just a massive racist backlash to the 1619 Project and it essentially wanted to make sure that all public school history curriculums were nothing but nationalist, white supremacist lies. It was another fine example of the gaudiness and obvious ugliness of right-wing Christian Nationalism. But where that form of the ideology revels in the evil of U.S. history, liberal Christian Nationalism tries to avoid and paint over it in an effort to buoy up the United States as some sort of exceptional national project.
Just like it’s ugly brute of a cousin, liberal Christian Nationalism is the product and perpetuator of Indigenous genocide, of African slavery, of Jim Crow, of mass incarceration, of abhorrent economic inequality, and so much more. Liberal Christians have an extremely common inability to admit that all of these sins are constitutive of U.S. identity. The liberal view is that these evils are all just ugly spots on an otherwise immaculate tapestry of Americana. They’re treated like dead branches on a thriving tree that can be sheared off and then all will be well. In other words, the liberal view is not only blind and impotent, but it ultimately serves to enable the right-wing. This is where a materialist, anti-racist, anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist critique comes into play. Those lenses let you realize that this national project is unsalvageable; rather than investing more into it, we should divest as quickly as possible.
This is an aspect of Liberation Theology that is so uplifting to me; it demonstrates and portrays a type of Christianity that isn’t nearly as constrained or impotent or evil-accommodating as the U.S. type. It requires a realignment of the way that you think about the United States and about who’s “side” Jesus is on. There are definite ways forward for liberal Christian Nationalists, but those all require hard conversations with mostly well-meaning liberals. It’s going to be incredibly frustrating because I truly believe their hearts are in the right place and they earnestly want to be right, but their political priorities are out of order because they lack solid anti-imperialist, anti-exploitation, anti-racist lenses to view the economy and world through. This presents a massive challenge for political and theological education, but it’s one that Christians opposed to all forms of Christian Nationalism must meet over the next four years.
Biden and the Christian Left
This Christian prominence in the New Democratic government (executive and legislative) has a lot of people hyping up the ascendency of the “Christian Left”. A strong narrative seems to be that the Christian Left ascended simultaneously with Biden. Now, if you’re familiar with my thoughts on liberalism, you likely know that conflating liberalism and leftism really grinds my gears. Do I consider a lot of liberals as part of the broad political left? Yes, definitely. But equating the two is no different than saying that all squares are rectangles or that all pizzas are pepperoni. At best, it’s an extreme mischaracterization.
Given all the discussion about the Christian Left occurring nowadays, it’s important to understand — and correct, when needed — the story about the Christian Left that so many are trying to tell. Some people are saying that the Christian Left is a new phenomenon and that this is an exciting next step for Christianity in America. Some people are saying that the Christian Left has been around and growing for quite a while, and Biden is sort of the inevitable result (or symptom) of that. Others are going even further and saying that Biden is not only the culmination of the Christian Left, but the future of it as well.
Let me again reiterate that I am excited about the potential of the Biden Administration, and I do believe that Biden is a sincere, good, virtuous person. Still though… I pray he is neither the culmination nor the future of leftist Christianity. I believe that what the Christian Left has to offer the United States (and the world) is a much more interesting and radical political way of being that what Biden is offering. The type of theology that demands the abolition of hierarchy and oppression is vastly different than a theology that suggests the softening of hierarchy or the mitigation of oppression.
For Christians who are leftists in a more radical way than the typical liberalism of modernity, the next four years will likely be very frustrating. We are going to have to double-down on what the full, radical potential and message of the Christian Left is and reject the limitations of the liberal label. No, being a part of the Christian Left doesn’t mean that I just want more people to drive electric cars and for politicians to be more civil; it means we want a total revelation in the way the children of God relate to God’s creation and we want hierarchies to crumble (among many other things).
Leftists long for a society that Biden frankly has no interest in or intention of manifesting. Christians are going to have to work very hard these next few years to distance the traditions of Post-Liberal Theology, Liberation Theology, and other radical Christian teachings from the Americanized, liberal Christianity that is currently empowered. At the same time, we do have a responsibility to sift through what Biden and the Democrats do that does improve the lives of vulnerable and working people, and we have even more of a responsibility to push that impulse in him and the Democratic Party as far as we possibly can.
Christian leftists have an imperative to oppose Biden’s liberal Christian Nationalism and to critique it as effectively as possible. Already, Biden is doing things that demand our political opposition against him, and to effectively oppose him we have to understand how this ideology operates. I am trying to extend the impulse that motivated me to vote for Biden in the first pace, along the the lines of thought from people like Angela Davis, Rev. William Barber, Noam Chomsky, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others. This impulse was simply accepting that Biden is obviously not a leftist and he is not going to deliver the leftist presidency I would like, not by any stretch of the imagination; nevertheless, there are measurable difference between Biden and Trump, and these differences will have significant and tangible impacts on people’s lives.
I don’t regret my choice to vote for Biden, and I am legitimately happy with several things his administration has done so far. But that doesn’t mean that I can just ignore the very real existence and danger of liberal Christian Nationalism.