What is Christian nationalism, and what should the relationship of church and state be?
About This Episode
Peter and Susannah discuss Christian nationalism, and whether there might be a good version of this thing which so many books have recently been at pains to dismiss. They also talk about the reality of the bad version: Christianity which is nothing more than a tribal signifier.
Then they talk about Oscar Romero as a potential model for an “integralism” which would be attractive to both Anabaptists and Roman Catholics.
Russell Moore comes on to discuss the church’s own infidelity as a cause of plummeting enrollment, and Susannah presses him on what the relationship of church and state ought to be.
- I: Peter & Susannah: What is Christian Nationalism?
- II: Peter & Susannah: On Good Christian Nationalism and Romero Integralism
- III: Russell Moore: Why They Leave
- IV: Russell Moore: The Church as Polity
- Russell Moore, “Integrity and the Future of the Church: Why Are So Many Young People Losing Faith?”
- Russell Moore, “The Upside-Down Church: Witnessing to a Strange Gospel”
- Andrew Whitehead & Samuel Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, OUP USA, April 2020
- Katherine Stewart, The Power Worshipers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, Bloomsbury Publishing, March 2020
I: Peter and Susannah: What is Christian Nationalism?
Susannah Black: We’ve got a lot in store for you. We’ll be talking nation-states, empires, borders and all things Christian nationalism. I’m Susannah Black, senior editor at Plough.
Peter Mommsen: And I’m Peter Mommsen, editor-in-chief of Plough. If you haven’t already, you should really catch up on our growing back catalog of episodes.
Susannah Black: Christian nationalism: the good, the bad, and the ugly. What do we mean when we talk about Christian nationalism?
Peter Mommsen: Well, one thing we mean by Christian nationalism is that we’re talking about a term that lots of other people are talking about, and I’m not sure they’re all talking about the same thing, but there’s been this huge spate of books, certainly since the election of Donald Trump. I’ll put out a few: Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States; The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism; Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez, which we’ve discussed in previous episodes of this podcast, but even going back just to the grand old days, the early Bush years, those innocent days, 2006, Michelle Goldberg, the New York Times columnist, published a book, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism.
This is something that people have been talking about for a while, and that’s just in the US context. Of course, there are Christian nationalisms in other places too. Most recently, there’s been little upticks of debate about the Christian nationalism represented by a figure like Viktor Orbán in Hungary. So one thing we’re talking about with Christian nationalism is just a thing that lots of other people are talking about. Why are they talking about it?
Susannah Black: I’m not sure that they know what they’re talking about. I think they’re talking about it because … it’s a lot of people who are writing from the outside who are not themselves, obviously, Christian nationalists, who are seeing something that feels scary to them, and is in many cases actually genuinely scary, and they’re trying to describe what it is that they’re seeing. This is not the case with all of the books that you mentioned, but a lot of times, there’s a deep lack of sympathy for Christianity as a potential positive thing in the world, and in some cases, a deep lack of sympathy for nations as a potential positive thing in the world. And I share that when it comes to questions of the nation state, although I’m ambivalent.
But one of the things that these books never seem to ask, because that’s sometimes not what they’re aimed at doing, is what is the alternative to this? What is the good that this might be a distortion of, or is there a good that this is a distortion of? Should church and state – in the way that we can now think of them – always and forever be completely separate, and what does that even mean?
Peter Mommsen: So I think, but without getting into careful definitions yet, and we should do that, what I think a lot of people mean right now when they hear the word Christian nationalism is White people marching into the Capitol with Confederate flags and crosses on January 6 and doing what they did, showing that “we” own this nation and not those other people, as variously defined: Christian nationalism as a tribal, ethnic identity, and I think that’s actually pretty accurate to talk about that as a thing that has infected US Christianity. And I think we should stipulate right at the beginning of this, Susannah, it’s not really useful for us to talk about anything outside of the United States right now, because I think there are Christian nationalisms that may have similarities to the US elsewhere, but that thing that we’re talking about right now is something that is of most interest and concern in the United States.
Susannah Black: I would agree with you, except that I think that we also need to be able to look at maybe how this has worked out historically. And so to say America is the only thing to look at is actually one of the problems, and I think that being able to say America is a country like any other, with certain religions represented in its makeup, can dial down the temperature and also help us to be a little bit more clearheaded when we’re thinking about what’s good, what’s bad. How bad is this? What exactly makes it bad? Is there a good version? So we don’t need to talk about other manifestations of Christian nationalism across the world in this day and age, but I do think we need to be able to push outside the boundaries of America a little bit.
Peter Mommsen: No, that’s fair enough. I just wanted to make sure that all those French Christian nationalists and Brazilian Christian nationalists …
Susannah Black: Don’t feel left out?
Peter Mommsen: … and Ethiopian Christian nationalists don’t call us up after this podcast and say, “You didn’t talk about us.”
Susannah Black: Fair. Or Canadian Christian nationalists.
Peter Mommsen: If they exist.
Susannah Black: I don’t think they exist.
Peter Mommsen: In David Foster Wallace novels.
Susannah Black: Yeah.
Peter Mommsen: So American Christian nationalism, I mean, there’s two pieces of it. There’s the Christian and there’s the nationalism, and it’s only Christian in a pretty specific sense.
Susannah Black: So we talked about January 6. There are other, I don’t know, symptoms of this. Joe Biden most recently quoted, I think, the Prophet Isaiah: “Here I am, Lord; send me,” and put those words into the mouths of the US military. “When evil is roaming the world, the US military has always said, ‘Here I am, Lord, send me.’” I’m not 100 percent sure that I would describe the work of the US military in all of its activities around the world as necessarily the work of the Lord, although for the soldiers themselves, I think there’s great honor and service.
On a more statistical level, half of all White American evangelicals, and one quarter of all Americans of all stripes, believe that the founding documents of America, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, are inspired by God.
Peter Mommsen: Inerrant.
Susannah Black: Yeah. And that’s pretty nuts. I mean, obviously one could imagine divine inspiration in a number of ways. There are certain poems that you might say are divinely inspired, but I think people mean something heavier than that. They tend to think of America as maybe, in some sense, God’s unique protagonist in the world, in the way that Israel was in the Old Testament and in a way that I really think only the church can be said to be now, and what America does for good or for ill will be looked at by God and judged by God in the way that God was keeping his eye on what Israel did for good or for ill in the Old Testament. And that, I think, if you believe that to a really substantial degree that excludes that being the case for other countries, you are pushing into something that’s probably a technical heresy. So there is a batch of people who really believe that. I do not think that they tend to be people who have the best theology in all respects.
Peter Mommsen: Why be concerned about this? Is this just a talking-head problem? I mean, one reason a lot of the people wrote books about it was to explain the rise of populism, populist conservatives, and specifically, of Donald Trump, right? And you have this big voting bloc that identifies as Christian evangelicals, who do things like vote for hard-border policies, and, I guess, prayer in schools, and who use the symbolism of Christianity as tribal mascots, right? Crosses and the Ten Commandments and suchlike. Christmas nativity scenes becoming a symbolic battle point.
One of the best books that I looked at was Taking America Back for God, I mentioned it before, by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry. They’re two sociologists, one in Indiana, one in Oklahoma, and they looked at it, I thought, quite dispassionately, and they were very careful to distinguish “Christian” and “nationalism” from both actual Christianity and actual nationalism. One of the things that I thought was most fascinating from their findings was that those who identify with Christian nationalism, sociologically speaking, actually have quite different beliefs and behaviors than people who are devout Christians.
Susannah Black: Can you say more about that? What were the examples?
Peter Mommsen: Well, how do you define devout Christians? So they looked at people who go to church regularly and show strong engagement with their religion, and one big one is immigration. People who are really engaged with their religious tradition, statistically, tend to listen to the teachings of scripture about welcoming the stranger, we’ve talked about that before, and to put a strong emphasis on helping the weak, whereas those who identified as Christian nationalists did not, obviously.
So that’s one example, and there’s others when it comes to economic justice, to racism, where those who identify as Christian nationalists have much harder positions of us-versus-them than those who tended to be deeply immersed into their religious traditions. Now, obviously these are all generalizations, right? But they were able, as sociologists, to see a statistically significant difference in behavior, and I think that’s really interesting because it helps bring out what you were just saying, Susannah, from a theological point of view, that the kind of Christianity that is forming a part of this American Christian nationalism is really not a question of, “Am I theologically orthodox? And am I deeply invested in my faith?” but it’s more using Christianity as an identifier, as an us-versus-them demarcator of the in-group versus out-group. And they say actually, Whitehead and Perry, that this word “Christian” in this context is increasingly being used as a code word for “White people like us.”
Susannah Black: We’ve used the word Christendom positively in the past, and I think of it positively. I think it’s a good thing. But there are definitely some places, especially in the depths of the internet, where Christendom and Christianity, you start to have the sense that this means something like the folk religion of White people, and I think that there’s an element of that that happens in the US as well, although I also think it’s a lot more complicated than that, because I imagine that you would be able to find at least some Black people who have some of the beliefs of Christian nationalism as they’ve defined it.
Peter Mommsen: Yeah. And then how do you exactly define that, right? So these two sociologists looked at six indicators. I thought it might be fun to do this. Everyone loves a survey, right? And they pick these because there has been good testing by the Baylor Religion Survey on these questions. So there’s data. Okay. One is, “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation.” Second, “The federal government should advocate Christian values.” Third, “The federal government should not enforce the strict separation of church and state.” “The federal government should allow religious symbols in public spaces.” Five, “The success of the United States is part of God’s plan.” That’s where the nationalism would come in. And six, “The federal government should allow prayer in public schools.”
And I just laughed when I looked at this list because it turns out most Americans are all over the map with this, and there’s actually only, I believe, if you divide people up by strongly agree to agree to somewhat agree to strongly disagree, that whole thing, only 7 percent of the population strongly disagrees with all six of those propositions, and only 1 percent of the population strongly agrees with all six of those. So I guess that puts me in... I don’t know about you. Maybe you belong to the elect 1 percent or 7 percent somewhere in the middle.
Susannah Black: Yeah. I’m somewhere in the middle.
Peter Mommsen: And I also think that Abraham Lincoln would have said yes to each of these propositions.
Susannah Black: Yeah. And I wonder about Dr. King.
Peter Mommsen: So there we come to it.
Susannah Black: Yeah.
II: Peter & Susannah: On Good Christian Nationalism and Romero Integralism
Peter Mommsen: Now I have to say, and I don’t think we need to feel constrained by the definitions that these two authors use, but they discussed Dr. King and the use by the civil rights movement of Christian language and the language of a Christian nation in the service of the prophets’ call to justice and peace and mercy. So in a way, careful sociologists that they are, they’ve also gone about defining their terms in such a way that Christian nationalism is all the bad things and everything else doesn’t go under that name, and I’m not wondering if that’s actually though a little bit too convenient for their argument.
Susannah Black: I’m an annoying Aristotelian, and so I’m like, what is the good thing that this is a bad version of? I think we can fairly say January 6 was a bad version or it was a bad thing.
Peter Mommsen: Or maybe even more specifically, let’s go back a little bit. Let’s say the Ku Klux Klan defending White Christian America against “godless” Jews, Catholics and Black people was a bad thing. But it was “Christian” in the sense that they claimed the language and history of Christianity. They were the Knights. Right? And it was certainly nationalistic in the sense that they believed that there was something God-ordained about the particular political and social order – the horrible, unjust political and social order of Jim Crow – that they were defending. So that would be fairly called “Christian nationalism.”
Susannah Black: It would be called a Christian nationalism. I mean, I think you’ve, to a certain degree, answered your own question. That is a bad thing. That is a Christian nationalism. That does not answer the question of whether there are good things that are Christian nationalisms. And I think that you could very easily argue that Dr. King was a good thing that was a Christian nationalism, and …
Peter Mommsen: Right, because again, I mean, I have no idea whether Dr. King would have said that “the United States should be declared a Christian nation.” However, in his speeches, he certainly spoke of it in terms that edged right up to there. “The federal government should advocate Christian values”? Well, depending on what those values are, but if you’re talking about justice, mercy, peace, care for the vulnerable, those are all things that, yes, the federal government should advocate. “Should not enforce the strict separation of church and state”? Well, public appeals to the gospel in regard to matters of public policies seem to at least eat away a bit of that separation. “Religious symbols in public places”? Well …
Susannah Black: I mean, you can’t really have the Black church without having religious symbols in public places. I mean, the other option is to eliminate the Black church from public life, and I’m not sure that there are many people who are not White supremacists who would really want to do that.
Peter Mommsen: “Success of the United States is part of God’s plan”? All the arc of justice. I mean, the arc of …
Susannah Black: History bending towards justice. Yeah.
Peter Mommsen: And prayer in public schools was not actually that controversial at that time. So yeah, I think the bad Christian nationalism we’re talking about exists. Is there a good version of it?
Susannah Black: We may have reinvented post-liberalism in the sense that once again, bad things are bad, whereas good things, by contrast, are good.
Peter Mommsen: Okay, so what’s the good form of this? And here, I also thought in Whitehead and Perry’s book, they usefully distinguish between Christian nationalism and what used to be called the theocrats. If you remember back to the early years of the Bush administration in our extreme youth, there was much talk of theocracy, and he says this is really a different thing. Christian nationalists …
Susannah Black: It’s much more populist, for one thing.
Peter Mommsen: Right. And they’re not actually saying that all aspects of orthodox Christianity should apply to public policy, because they’re specifically carving out huge exceptions for serial adulterers and abusers to hold the highest office of the land. They’re rather saying, “We need champions who fight for our group, which we are using Christianity as a bit of a badge.” That, however, this whole terminology, seems to confuse. Right? Because good, secular liberals can say, “Oh, Christian nationalism, how horrible,” and with that, throw out both the supposed theocrats, whether you like them or not, and the super-bad populists and Ku Klux Klan descendants, and potentially a whole bunch of other people too. Like the whole abolitionist movement, and the early suffragists, and the people who fought for the rights of those with disabilities, and those who fought the eugenicists, and all kinds of other people also go in that pile.
Susannah Black: Yep. And before you sort of come around and say, “Yes, but also people who called themselves Christians were advocating for eugenics,” although much, much fewer than were fighting it, and [some] were advocating for slavery as well as advocating for its abolition. Yes. Once again, good things are good, whereas bad things are bad. And you can’t use the fact of, I don’t know, corruption to dismiss the good.
Peter Mommsen: Having kind of done this, apparently you and I agree a little bit on defending some things that could be called Christian nationalism, but let’s talk about the cancer in American Christianity that fully deserves condemnation and opprobrium and opposition, both from outside the church, but then all the more so there needs to be from within the church in the name of the gospel itself.
Susannah Black: Because this is in fact a heresy.
Peter Mommsen: Right. The language of heresy can sound kind of theoretical, but it really hurts people and it hurts a lot of people. It results in real pain. It results in writing off the suffering of people in other countries who are affected by our military adventurism. You mentioned Joe Biden’s use of the prophet Isaiah’s language to bless the actions of US Marines [and other military forces] in foreign countries that did not invite us. And the people who are hurt are also here. All those excluded from that folk religion, that White folk religion that is defending itself, defending its own power and privileges within our society. And that has deep and horrible roots in American Christianity that should not and cannot be denied. And actually, one of the good things that’s come out of the racial reckoning of the last ten years is a greater appreciation for just how deeply rooted some of this stuff is in American Christianity. There’s a reason that so many denominations split in the 1850s and 1860s.
Susannah Black: I tend to think that the solution to bad theology is good theology and the solution to bad practice is good practice. And I think that it’s not a coincidence that the strongest kind of voice at least in the 20th century in favor of a kind of public Christianity, and a public kind of sort of call to America to become a Christian nation in the best sense, was from the Black church. I think there’s something particularly kind of appropriate given our history that that was the case. And I think that God knew what he was doing. That said, I guess one of my kind of suggestions towards solution – I’m not sure that’s even what we’re looking for – is pay attention to the tradition of the Black church in trying to find a version of Christianity or rather a version of Christian civic engagement that is both indigenously American and not toxic. That is not the only place that I think that can come from. But I think that is a big place.
Peter Mommsen: And another place of course is history. And it’s so helpful as you were saying earlier to just extract ourselves from the peculiarities of the United States. And when you’re talking about big principles, look at a place like El Salvador in 1980, where Archbishop Romero, Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador, was, in the name of the gospel, calling on both a repressive government and Marxist guerrillas to desist from violence, to respect the rights of the poor and very specifically, in the language of the Passion and Good Friday, calling a people and a government to go the way of Jesus. And if that’s not an example of how in the language here a government should advocate Christian values, I don’t know what is.
Susannah Black: Oscar Romero is my kind of integralist. I think this is a version of Catholic integralism that actually shows the best it can be in the sense that … and it also shows the kind of weird commonality that it can have even with the Anabaptist tradition. So what Romero was, was a bishop, he was the archbishop. He understood El Salvador to be a Catholic country. He understood the people that he was speaking to, both the perpetrators and the victims, as being his sheep, some of whom were acting like wolves towards the others. And with the authority that he had as an archbishop, he was commanding them. And he used the language of command to act like Jesus towards each other, because that is the way of Christians. That is the way of the gospel.
And this is a huge violation of the separation of church and state. Enormous. There’s no way that this would be a kind of safe, secularized thing to do, but this is an appropriate, I think, thing that is the role of the church. It is the role of the church to speak to the state. And when the state is being just – just is when the state has just laws that are based on the natural law – an expression of the natural law, rather than unjust and arbitrary tyrannical laws. What the state ought to do when the church and her ministers command it in the name of Christ and command it correctly in the name of Christ, is to obey, because that’s kind of what we all need to do when God commands us and when people command us to act towards each other as Jesus would have us act. And that seems unambiguous to me.
Peter Mommsen: So have we just identified the good form of Christian nationalism?
Susannah Black: Yeah, Romero integralism.
Peter Mommsen: Okay. I think we’re agreed on that.
Susannah Black: Yeah. Okay.
III: Russell Moore: On Those Who Leave
Peter Mommsen: We’re delighted to be joined today by Dr. Russell Moore, public theologian with Christianity Today. Worked a long time with the Southern Baptist Convention and he’s given us a piece “Integrity and the Future of the Church: Why are so many young Christians losing faith?” This is actually based on a talk that Dr. Moore gave here in Fox Hill in August at a Plough event there and was really electrifying and so excited to talk to you this morning about some of the issues raised.
Russell Moore: Yeah. Yeah. Well, it was great to be with you all at the Writers’ Weekend. It was a really spiritually enlivening sort of a weekend for me, several days for me. The main point of that piece is really coming out of a conversation that I’m having multiple times a day, either with somebody who is concerned about people in their own church who are walking away, or even more often, people who are right at the edge of walking away. So they don’t want to and in some ways it’s almost like Simon Peter in John 6, “Do you also want to go away?” “To whom shall I go?” I mean, it’s that sort of tension that’s taking place in order to explain why is that happening and how do we address that.
And particularly because what I see happening is different than what I would’ve been dealing with say, ten years ago, where usually if someone – and this happened several times when I was in theological education – there would be a ministry student who would come in and say, “I’ve lost my faith. I’m an atheist now.” Or “I’m almost an atheist now.” And what I would always, almost always find, is that there really wasn’t a cognitive or a theological sort of move. It was somebody usually involved in something that was bothering his or her conscience and trying to find a way to adjust the conscience and they lose their faith in that. That’s not what I see happening very much right now. Instead, the people that are walking away from the church aren’t the people who are saying, “I’m just too educated to believe that dead people come back to life, or that virgins get pregnant” or something like that, that you might have heard in the twentieth century quite a bit. And nor is it people who are saying, “I think that the churches’ moral standards are too high and too rigid.”
And “I want to Prodigal Son, to go off to the far country and live my life in riotous living.” That’s usually not what’s happening.
Instead you have people who often are wanting to walk away because they believe in the moral integrity of the Christian faith and they don’t believe the church does. So they start to see the church as something that’s just another marketing scheme, or just another mobilizing mechanism for something else. And so I’ve been especially concerned about this as somebody who went through all that as a teenager in a sort of different Bible Belt ecosystem, but really the same thing. And so I’m really burdened when I look around and I see people who are having that same sort of struggle and maybe they don’t have the kind of support system that I had to bring me through it.
Peter Mommsen: I mean, one thing that was really striking to me in your piece is how you say it’s the struggle for many of these people [that] the church doesn’t actually believe what it says it believes. Could you break that down a little? In what sense does the church not believe what it claims to believe?
Russell Moore: It’s not the typical problem, which is, well, there are hypocrites of the church. I mean, people have been saying that all the way back to John Chrysostom and before. That has always been a struggle for people. And so it’s not I think that people are falling short of the ideal. I think it’s instead a bigger fear, which is that what if the whole thing is just a way to gain some sort of social control? So if you look for instance at the aftermath of say Ireland and the sexual abuse revelations coming out of the Catholic church there – worldwide but concentrated particularly in that way in Ireland. And what’s the response? It’s not so much that people are saying, well, we’re disappointed in our leaders for being hypocrites. It’s that they’re saying, what is this?
It’s that less that they’re saying, “I don’t think the church is the force for good that I thought it was,” as they’re saying, “maybe the church is actually a force for evil.” And that’s a very different thing. And it’s very different from the sort of postmodernist, relativist sorts of arguments that would’ve happened fifteen years ago: “Well, who’s to say what’s good and evil?” Very few people saying that now. They’re saying “we understand the difference between good and evil. And we think maybe you’re evil. And not only that, we have the receipts for good evidence that you are.” That’s a different sort of reality. And what that leads to is for some people, of course, it leads to a kind of smug, “See, I told you that these people were awful,” but for many other people, it leads to a sense of terror because these are people who really have encountered something in the life of Jesus. And when they see this happening, it leads to a kind of almost existential crisis.
Peter Mommsen: This has been something that I was going back to your book from, what is it, ten years ago, Onward, where you write about how the church. And you were writing specifically then about Southern Baptist churches in the American south, were becoming disestablished: it was no longer necessary for respectability to be a good churchgoer and how that might free churches to be more faithful followers of Jesus. Is there any solution in that or what are the solutions to this problem?
Russell Moore: Well, there is an opportunity for freeing churches from a certain degree of cultural captivity when one removes the cultural cachet that comes with a church membership, even if someone’s not affiliated in an everyday sort of way with a congregation that they know what congregation to which they belong. I mean, that’s been a longstanding aspect of decreasing areas of American life. And the last gasp of that was the Bible Belt. I think the problem is, and what I didn’t really see coming when I was writing Onward, is the fact that there is a kind of cultural Christianity that’s very different from the old cultural Christianity, which was at least in some way embedded in membership. So what you have now is a kind of cultural Christianity that is almost completely disconnected from the church, from the community in any way.
And instead becomes a sort of tribal belonging that doesn’t even need to have the pretense of being churched. You can see in Europe with Tobias Cremer, the researcher who’s been working quite a bit on these Christian nationalist movements around the world. One of the things that he has noticed is you can go to someone in leading a protest in France under a Joan of Arc sign or someone in the Netherlands with a huge cross. You go and talk to that person; you find out this is an atheist, this is an agnostic. That’s not what the cross or the Christian symbolism is about. It’s a way of saying we’re Christian, meaning we’re German, or we’re Dutch, or we’re French, and we’re not Muslim, or we’re not something else.
And so that’s the way that they’re framing it. I think you see the same thing in a different sort of way in the United States context, where you can have people who not only don’t go to church, don’t have a church they would know to go to if they wanted to, but who are posting Christian memes on Facebook because it’s a kind of identity that is saying, it is not that I’m saying I’m affiliated with Jesus in a way that I’m taking up my cross and following him, it’s that I’m saying, I am not one of whoever the enemy is. And this is the way that I’m claiming it. So it’s almost more of a way of saying I’m, in an American context, I’m a real American and you’re not, or in a European context to say, we are the conservators of Western civilization and Christianity is the way that we do it. So that’s one of the shifts that I think we have seen happening over the past several years.
Susannah Black: So it’s sort of Christianity as the folk religion of White people or Europeans in a certain way.
Russell Moore: Right. And with a focus on, “Where is the enemy?” And so in a Christian historic, Christian biblical view of reality, of course, the enemy, this would include the principalities and powers of this present darkness as Paul says. It would include ourselves in need of dying to self and living to Christ. So you can’t find this one group of flesh and blood people to say, “these are the people we’re defining ourselves against.”
So what this does is to essentially secularize Christianity in very real ways, just as much as say the old Protestant liberalism would try to do with, well, let’s take the … think of the Jefferson Bible coming in and saying, let’s take out the stuff that we find ridiculous, the miraculous and we’re left with what? The Sermon on the Mount, the ethical teachings of Jesus. Often you see sort of almost the reverse of that. You’re cutting out the Sermon on the Mount and leaving everything else because it’s sort of a tribal identity marker. But it’s the same impulse behind it, which is to secularize, to de-supernaturalize in ways that make Christianity something useful. And I think that’s a temptation going all the way back.
That’s a temptation going all the way back throughout human history, there are always people who want to co-opt any religion. Caesar is doing that with the pantheon of gods in the Roman Empire. You see that with Pharaoh, you see that so many times, where if you can take a religion and co-opt it, then what you can do is take whatever the ideology is or whatever the interest is, and you can lift it to a level of authority that is beyond question, so that’s always a pull.
Peter Mommsen: So, specifically on this topic of Christian nationalism, and I’d love to get into the left side of this too in a little bit, but if we start with the Christian nationalist side, the response to what you just said, Russell, would be, I think, “Well, Christian culture really is under threat. We’re losing out demographically in Europe and the United States. There is an overweening cosmopolitan elite that’s dismantling family, that’s dismantling view of the role of men and women, that’s indoctrinating our children in schools.
The cultural cohesion of our communities is being diluted or ripped apart by uncontrolled immigration. And so, we need to rise in defense, we need to stop playing along, that there is a long tradition in Christianity of loving those who are close to you.” I just read a review actually of Kristin du Mez’s book Jesus and John Wayne, a critical one from a self-proclaimed Christian nationalist, who traces back to Aquinas and Augustine the idea that we should love our countrymen in a particular way, defending that Christian version of nationalism as something that’s been in the tradition for a long time. So, is there anything to that?
Russell Moore: No, I think, because essentially what often these conversations come down to is, “Who is my neighbor and where are the limits of my responsibility?” And then behind all of that, I think is a larger question, and the larger question is in some words that you used in framing this, “we” and “our.” “We” are having a demographic decline, or “we” are having these sorts of things. The question is, how do we define we and our? And so, I’ve been almost chuckling to myself for a couple of weeks, because I teach on a secular campus students who almost all are not Christians and haven’t had any real contact with Christianity of any substantive level. And I had a friend of mine come in who’s a long time church planter, urban area, working in these things. And one student said, “Why do you even want to use the word evangelical when it has so many bad connotations in this context?” And my friend said, “Because most of us are in Africa and Asia and Latin America and the North Americans aren’t entitled to just change what we’re called.”
And it was almost this moment of, “Huh.” And you could almost see everyone thinking, “I wasn’t expecting that.” I thought the most important thing that he said there is us, most of us, meaning that we belong to the body of Christ, which is just as much Asia and Africa and Latin America, so I think the framing of who we are and the sort of blood and soil identity is exactly what you see going all the way back to Lamech and Nimrod and Cain, and what you see happening with what John the Baptist is saying, “Don’t say to yourselves we are children of Abraham, because God from these stones can raise up children of Abraham.” So, that sense of seeing ourselves primarily according to the flesh and fleshly blood lines, especially in terms of saying, “Who are the people who don’t belong to us and therefore we have no responsibility for,” that’s, I think, not just dangerous, I think it’s rooted in something that is anti-Christ.
Peter Mommsen: Well, and to be clear, I absolutely agree with that and I’m not sure how effective my channeling of the imaginary Christian nationalist was. Susannah, how did I do?
IV: Russell Moore: The Church as Polity
Susannah Black: I think you did pretty well. So, if that’s not how we ought to be relating Christianity to the nation – and we can fold in all kinds of assumptions about, and the nation ought to be part of a sort of political expression of the ethnos, that is, of the people – so, if we’re rejecting that, I guess my big kind of question for you is, so what is your political theology in the sense that, how ought Christians be related to secular polities, how should we think about the church as a polity?
And I feel like one way to sharpen that question is – you wrote this piece for us back in 2015, where you were talking about the problem that James is addressing when he rebukes the churches by saying, “If a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly and a poor man in shabby clothing comes in, you’re nice to the rich man and you treat the poor man badly.” And you said something really kind of interesting and pretty cool, I thought. You said the problem was not that those church leaders were too politically savvy, like the church leaders, James was criticizing them for being too politically savvy, but that they weren’t politically savvy enough, because they didn’t have the next trillion years in view.
And meanwhile, Paul later talks about the crucial importance of judgment in the church. We are to learn to conduct ourselves with justice and our leaders need to be able to make just decisions about church discipline. And he says [in] this kind of exasperated way, that we are to judge angels, so those two rebukes, it seems to me, portray the church as a polity.
Russell Moore: I think the question is one of ordering and of priority. So, look at the analogy for instance with the family, so you have these seemingly contradictory commands in scripture to say, honor your father and mother. Jesus from the cross is handing over the care of his mother to John, “Behold, your mother, behold your son.” “Honor father and mother,” and “If someone does not hate father and mother, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). How do those two things fit together? Well, they fit together in terms of ordering and priority, so the only way that I can legitimately love family, is by not having family in a sense of ultimacy, either in terms of my identity or in terms of the value of the other members of the family. And you can see that happening all the time with, for instance, a great deal of trouble that I find in marriages that are falling apart.
Usually it’s not because people have too low a view of marriage. It’s usually because they have a super high view of marriage – that this person is supposed to be my soulmate, is supposed to meet all of my needs, everything is to be this vehicle for onward and upward self-realization – and no human being can meet that. And so, then there is this sense of disappointment that turns to resentment. Or with children, when you have parents for whom their entire self-identity, the most important thing in their lives, would be their children. Then you end up with a sense where the children are disappointments instead of if the children are second in terms of one’s place in Christ and the marriage is second in terms of one’s reality in Christ, you’re actually free to love them in a way that’s not possible when they become first.
I think the same thing is true in terms of our embedded communities, whether local communities, national communities, national responsibilities. I have those responsibilities, but those have to be subordinate. And what’s ultimate then shapes and forms the conscience as to what my actual responsibilities are. So, just as with a family, you know how to – if your primary calling is following Christ and being shaped by the narrative of scripture and the community of the church – you know how then to say, “I have to drop my nets, [like] Peter, James, John, and follow Him.” Walk away from family in that sense in order to follow Christ, and I know when my responsibility is to even closer come in to my family responsibilities. Both of those things are true.
And I think the same thing is true in terms of the nation. I’m able to love my country with a sense of patriotism, because I have a sense of gratitude and because I don’t expect the nation to meet my needs for identity. I expect the nation to do what the nation is designed to do. And that is not to give me a sense of ultimate belonging. It can’t do that, and we already have a vehicle for doing that. So, I think in terms of the polity of the church, it’s not that you have a polity of the church, therefore not any other polity, it’s that the church is the way, the outpost of the Kingdom of God, where we are in a training pattern toward eternity with one another. That has implications for the way that we act in the outside world, because we’re having consciences that are shaped to know how we use power responsibly, which is what I think when John is talking in Luke 3 to the tax collectors and to the soldiers, and they’re saying, “What do we now do?”
And he’s giving to them directives as to how they are to act in terms of conscience. What he’s not giving is a blueprint for the Roman military or for the Roman tax collection system. He’s saying, “You act in this way.” So, I think that the church then shapes and forms the kind of people who can carry out those varying responsibilities, which are going to differ from person to person, so it shapes and forms the archaeologist in a way that doesn’t require the church to dictate what archaseology protocols ought to be. And the same thing, and I think often in terms of governance.
Peter Mommsen: From an Anabaptist perspective, I absolutely agree with that and I’ll pull out my favorite Tertullian quote again, the early church father, that in matters of religion, there can be no compulsion, otherwise it’s no longer a religion. I want to back away from the political theology angle a bit and get back to what you were saying, Russell, about how the church can retain its integrity as an outpost of the Kingdom of God. So, quite practically, let’s talk about the United States now, and with apologies to our listeners elsewhere, we have an American evangelical Christianity strongly identified with some of the very things that we’re saying in this podcast are not truly Christian, that are a sham Christianity. How do we get back?
And there’s this fear too, on the other side, we’ve criticized Christian nationalism rightly today, that the corrective may be equally bad, right? That accommodation to the liberal critique of Christianity, by rushing to dismantle all the things that we think are bad, will leave nothing left and that you see that a lot, I mean, in people’s personal lives, the number of former evangelicals, the so-called exvangelical phenomenon, who don’t necessarily seem to be running to a robust Christian vision. What more often happens is that they simply become liberal Democrats. And so, what is the path forward?
Russell Moore: I would argue a little bit with the framing of the question, because I don’t think that what we’re seeing are correctives, as though these are opposite things. So, the sort of Christian nationalism that we spoke about earlier, or the kind of liberalizing, whether in terms of, say, the early twentieth-century modernism movements or what we’re seeing in terms of just secularization all the way out, I don’t think that those are opposite things and correctives of one another, they’re actually manifestations of the same thing, which is to see Christianity as a means to some end. For some people that end is going to be blood and soil identity; for some people that end is going to be progress and justice and those sorts of things, but the problem is that it is the end.
So, it takes me back to what J. Gresham Machen argued during the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in his little book, Christianity and Liberalism, which is an unfortunate title, just because liberalism means so many different things, especially in this context, but for him, the way he’s defining it is Christianity as a useful means to get to some goal. So, he would give the example of fighting communism and would say, “Does Christianity contradict communism? Yes. Is a place where Christianity is thriving a place where communism is going to be under a critique? Yes.” But if Christianity becomes a means to fight communism, or as the early twentieth-century Protestant liberals would say, this is a way to civilize the world. Very, very colonialist sorts of interpretations coming from the left in the 20th century: you can have a Christian civilization, which is going to mean that people aren’t going to fight with one another, they’re going to have just labor systems and so forth, that’s the point of Christianity.
By the time you do that, you have something other than Christianity. And so, the same thing tends to happen whether on the left or the right, if you have someone who says, I mean, look at, for instance, John Shelby Spong, the notorious heretical Episcopal Bishop of Newark, died several weeks ago. One of the things that Spong would constantly say is, “Christianity has to change or die.” And what he meant by change is to say, take out the offensive and scandalous parts of Christianity, which would be the supernatural bodily resurrections, and then it would be the moral demands that are out of step with the ambient culture. By the time you end with that project, you end up with almost nothing left.
Well, what happens when people see that taking place, they know a couple of things. One of things they know is that, “Okay, well, this actually is just a second step to wherever the culture is going at the moment, so why am I listening to you, why don’t I just listen to the culture and get a step ahead of you?” And also, the goals that you’re putting forward Christianity as the way to solve, we can handle those things without giving up a Sunday morning. So that’s happening on the left. The exact same thing is happening at this point on the right, because after a generation of Christianity, at least in many ways presented as a way to get to family values or political triumph or any of these, of owning the libs, whatever it is, you have a generation understanding that they can get to those things without giving up a Sunday morning.
So, if you’re looking, for instance, if you look at, you go to a typical college campus and you look at a twenty-year-old leftist, very rarely are you going to find someone who is in the line of Walter Rauschenbusch and Harry Emerson Fosdick and John Shelby Spong. You’re going to find people who are usually thoroughly secularized. And if you’re talking to your typical twenty-year-old on the right, you’re going to find someone who is not being shaped and formed by Abraham Kuyper, or even by Jerry Falwell, [but rather is] being shaped and formed by, say, Jordan Peterson, a Jungian, or even those figures who are maybe YouTube personalities, or others, who might be Christians in their personal lives but that’s not the mode by which they’re speaking to these issues. They’re doing it in a very different way. So it all is coming from, I think, the same place and it’s leading to the same place. So the contrast has to be with a Christian church that is doing a number of things, and I think the most important thing, and this I said to someone just yesterday because I had a Christian student on an elite secondary secular campus who said, I’m trying to figure out how to follow Christ here. And I said what I’m about to say to you is going to sound like a Sunday school answer, but it’s because I think Sunday school was right in this sense, and that is: there has to be an immersion in the storyline of scripture. Not just biblical literacy in terms of people knowing how to get around the Bible in order to make arguments, but a people who are actually able to see their own storylines. First Corinthians 10, this is who we are.
So I can start to recognize, I have seen these things before because I have been there as the people of God in my story. So I think that’s a key part of it, and not just in terms of individual private devotion, although that’s certainly true also, but in terms of a church that is able to accomplish that. Which means, and this is going to sound very Anglican but I mean it more expansively than that, that means a recovering of liturgy, which is not just for high churchers, that’s for low churchers too. And by that, I mean a kind of rhythm of life within the community that is not just novelty, but is stability.
In the church that I grew up in, one of the best things that happened in terms of shaping and forming people, and probably one of the reasons that I was able to make it through my teenage spiritual crisis, is that there was an ordering of life around, for instance hymns, where there’s a connection with a biblical story and with the broader community through hymnody and through the same hymns being sung, something as simple as a vacation Bible school for kids in the summer that had the same pattern every year, so that you’re starting to see your life in terms of that pattern. When there are funerals where … I mean, we were very low church Baptist, but everyone used the Book of Common Prayer for weddings and funerals, whether they knew it or not.
And so when you’re at a wedding, you’re hearing the same vows that you took and that you know that one day, your children by the grace of God will be taking in that assembly. When you’re at a funeral, you’re hearing the same words at your father’s funeral that you heard at your grandmother’s funeral, and you know those will be the same words said at your funeral. I think that has a shaping power in understanding who we are, and then once we start to understand who we are, there can be a certain kind of distance from even all of these temporal good things that can enable us to actually carry those things out as Christians. So that you’re able to have, Acts 17, both Paul provoked internally because the city is filled with idols. He recognizes that. And the response is then to reason with them.
Well, why? Because this isn’t an existential threat to Paul. He’s in grief about the situation of the people around him, so he doesn’t go into what we often see, which is the exact reverse, which is to reason our way toward how to be provoked. So the being provoked is itself theatrical, and I think that a church that takes seriously the sort of life that we’re to have together, that’s the way that we counteract all of this.
Peter Mommsen: So quite practically, how do those kinds of churches come to be in the United States in 2021?
Russell Moore: Well, they come to be by people, first of all at the leadership level, intentionally knowing that that’s what they’re setting out to do. But then secondly, it happens by coming in and showing people, in many ways, you actually know how to do this, but you don’t see how to do it in multiple areas. But there are always going to be some areas where you do, you actually do know how to do that. So for instance, I had someone say yesterday, “I don’t know what to do because our church is so divided politically. And I don’t know what to do about that because you can’t even start to address it without the division’s becoming almost overwhelming.” And I said, “Why don’t you go in and show the people” – I was familiar with this church so I knew this was the case – “show the people how they actually do know how to do this when it comes to personal moral issues.”
So there are going to be some things where the scripture’s clear, and they’re going to say to one another, we’re not going to just agree to disagree about child abuse. That’s not going to be the case. But then there are going to be some other issues where we have principles that we’re teaching, but they’re going to apply in different ways. So parents, you have a responsibility to your children. That doesn’t answer whether or not your children should be in public schools or private schools or home schools or what have you. And then they’re going to be some things where, Romans 14, we leave that to the individual conscience. You’re not always going to get those distinctions right, but you have the categories there for that. Take that reality that they already know and show them how that actually does work in terms of these social identities as well, in a really similar way.
And sometimes in a congregation, it works the reverse. So for instance, I found it was really interesting in working in the area of human dignity that I would have an event where I would have maybe half the people there for whom it was easy in their congregations to get up and to preach or teach against abortion. People would applaud. Really difficult if they were to talk about the Kurdish refugees down the street from them and the responsibility to see them as in the image of God and to care for them. And then you would have someone else who may be is a church planter in an urban area where it’s really easy to get up and say, “We need to care for the refugees in our community,” but there’s a chill and a backlash if he talks about abortion. Well, both of those, they kind of needed each other to say, the scripture is speaking to all of these things, regardless of where we are in terms of political controversy.
So take the concern that your people have for refugees, don’t negate it, show them how that actually applies to unborn children. And then take the concern that these other people have for abortion, and say, yes, here’s the reasons why you care about the vulnerability of unborn children, that’s why you ought to also care about their moms, that’s why you also ought to care about the poor, and so forth. So take what people know and show them that really, sometimes things they think are alien to them really aren’t. They’re really in continuity. Which is why there was a Cato study several years ago that was surprising to a lot of people, it didn’t surprise me at all, which said that the more evangelistic a church is, the more likely that church is to be welcoming of immigrants and refugees, involved in caring for the poor.
So this sort of contrast between evangelism and social concern that we often see actually doesn’t exist in real congregations that are evangelists. Doesn’t surprise me. Why? Because if you have people who are focused on mission, they see the people around them not as enemies trying to destroy them, but as a mission field that potentially could be their brothers and sisters in Christ in the future. That changes the way you see people. And so it’s taking things that already exist and showing people, here’s what we’re doing and here’s why. I think that long-term, that has an effect.
Susannah Black: I’m wondering whether you’d be willing to talk a little bit about how in your post-SBC life, what you see your kind of mission as? You’ve been someone who tried to I think interpret evangelicalism to the wider world, you’ve been someone who’s represented, to a certain degree, evangelicals in the wider world, and you’ve also spoken to the church. How do you see the balance of those things working out in your new role? And I’d love to hear your thoughts about that.
Russell Moore: In exactly the same way, because I don’t think that those are two separate tasks. I think those are in many ways the same task, because what’s happening when one speaks to the church, one is being overheard by the world, and when one speaks to the world, one is often being overheard by the church. So what you’re trying to do in both cases is in speaking to the church, to say to those who are maybe with some curiosity watching in, here’s why this is important, that we care enough about the bride of Christ to want to see her thriving, because this is beautiful. And then as we’re talking to the outside world, to say everybody has to do this. It’s not just some people who have to talk to the outside world. Everybody has to do it in their communities. They’re speaking to people who don’t understand them.
And one of the big problems that I find is that there is this mentality that comes out of culture wars and comes out of a kind of apologetics that assumes that we’re a beleaguered group of people who are hated by those around us. A kind of intimidation that comes where Christians often think that their secular neighbors hate them in ways that simply aren’t true. So for instance, when I’m on secular college campuses, I am all the time, atheists come up, as recently as last night, I had one atheist agnostic after another coming to meet with me, and what they’re asking about is not “what do you think evangelicals are going to do in Iowa in 2024?” Nobody’s asking that. Instead, they’re asking things along the lines of, as one said, “I’m curious, and if this is too personal a question, and if it’s offensive, you don’t have to answer it. But in your view, how does a person get right with God?”
And well, this is somebody who isn’t accustomed to having people giving gospel tracts to them, so it’s not even as though they’re … They don’t feel like you’re seeking out the pyramid scheme to say, can you tell me about your herbal supplements? It’s a genuine curiosity to say, how does somebody think that way? And then the person right after to say, “Tell me about hell. Why do you all believe in hell and what’s hell like, and how does one avoid that in your view?” Well, these are situations, they’re not kind of Nicodemus situations where you have people who are at the point where they’re in a state of alarm about these things, but there’s a genuine curiosity and openness to those things, precisely because they are so strange.
And even when you have hostility that’s coming, ninety-nine times out of one hundred, you’re dealing with somebody who has come out of a bad religious background, and that’s what they’re really speaking to. So if Christians don’t understand that often, the sorts of things that you’re saying, if you come into it with a defensiveness and a kind of hypervigilance and paranoia, you’re actually not going to be able to make the connections with people that often, they want. So I think that is a big obstacle for us right now.
Peter Mommsen: So Christian self-confidence.
Russell Moore: Yeah.
Peter Mommsen: Or confidence in the gospel, not in self.
Russell Moore: Yeah. Christian Christ confidence. And also to say, I think there’s an assumption, because we assume that people change through arguments, even in terms of YouTube culture, even as it applies to Christians, it’s a little clip of watch this apologist own this agnostic student, or knock down these Hindu arguments, or whatever. When in reality, that’s not how people change. And it can give people the false understanding that in order for me to bear witness with people who don’t have any connection with this, I have to be an expert on every possible objection. And I can never say, I don’t know the answer to that question. Well, what do you end up doing? You end up filtering out only the people who think that they’re experts in everything, which means you end up with what Kierkegaard said is geniuses instead of apostles. Rather than people who are carrying a message, you have people who are experts, and that’s just not how the gospel proceeds.
Peter Mommsen: Thank you, Russell. This has been a wonderful conversation.
Russell Moore: Well, always good to be with Plough and with all of you. I’m grateful to have the conversation.