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No doubt you’ve seen the news recently that Donald Trump is hawking the “God Bless America” Bible. How did we get to the point where the most profane President in U.S. history is endorsing a Bible?

Jemar Tisby has the best description of white Christian nationalism that I’ve read: “White Christian Nationalism is an ethnocultural ideology that uses Christian symbolism as a permission structure for the acquisition of political power and social control.” According to a recent PRRI survey: “Nearly two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants qualify as either Christian nationalism sympathizers (35%) or adherents (29%).” I read that description and these statistics and wonder, “Really. Sixty-four percent use Christian symbolism to acquire power and control?! How did so many of my fellow white Christians here in the US get so far off the track?”

I’m neither a sociologist nor a historian, but I’m going to guess that a partial answer to this question is that many white Christians self-identify as “culture warriors.” They believe that they must fight culture and fight any people whom they believe oppose their understanding of the Christian way. From that perspective, power and control become personally, politically, and theologically desirable. Living into that identity, Christians have wreaked havoc on themselves, on the Christian faith, and on American society. (Sadly, we’ve been here before. Recall the Crusades, which was another Christian nationalist movement.)

Though Christians must take action to do what is right, they must act in the right way, in a Christ-like way. Culture warriors are, by definition, at war against the culture. Theirs is a “holy war”—a term recalling the Crusades that is used by a current presidential candidate. Today’s American culture warriors stray from morality issues when they try to dominate society by repeating falsehoods about elections, embrace conspiracies, and revise the story of the founding of America into a quest to create a Christian nation. They refuse to accept that our country is a pluralist democracy by constitutional design (see US Constitution, Article VI and the First Amendment), and instead separate people into “us” and “the enemy.” They work to shut down libraries and public and government institutions that don’t conform to their will and plan to replace tens of thousands of federal government employees with loyalists if given the opportunity. Many stockpile weapons.

Though I had heard the culture warrior metaphor before, I never gave it much thought till I read a quote by a Liberty University professor, Nick Olson, who says Christians need to replace the dominant metaphor—culture warriors—with something different. “That’s been the running theme for evangelicals: we’re always embattled, always fighting back. But what if we laid down our defense mechanisms? What if we reframed our relationship to creation, to our neighbors, to our enemies, in ways that are more closely aligned to the Sermon on the Mount? What if we were willing to lay down our power and our status to love others, even if that comes at cost to ourselves?” (Quoted in Tim Alberta’s book, The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory.) I applaud Olson’s words, especially since Liberty University has been ground zero in the culture war and a hotbed of Christian Nationalism.

One of the problems with imagining yourself in a culture war is that embattled people convince themselves that the end justifies any means, and power becomes the chief end. Laying down power becomes unthinkable. In Losing Our Religion,Russell Moore quotes Robert P. Jones: “‘Of this generation of white evangelicals . . . their greatest temptation will be to wield what remaining political power they have as a desperate corrective for their waning cultural influence. If this happens, we may be in for another decade of close skirmishes in the culture wars, but white evangelical Protestants will mortgage their future to resurrect the past.’ The danger, he notes, is forgetting this: ‘Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, resurrection by human power rather than divine spirit always produces a monstrosity.’”

We witnessed a monstrosity when Christianity was used to justify violence on January 6, 2021. According to a 2023 PRRI/Brookings Institution survey, about 31% of white evangelical Protestants agreed, “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” Culture warriors brought their Bibles, their gallows, their “Jesus Saves” signs, and their zip ties to the US Capitol building. They beat Capitol police officers, caused the deaths of nine people, and wreaked $30 million in damages to the building. Now, as the 2024 election unfolds, we’re subject to revisionist history about the events of January 6. In that version, those jailed for their offenses that day are “government hostages” and “unbelievable patriots” who will be pardoned the first day of Trump’s next presidency.

We witness a monstrosity when culture warriors organize armed vigilante groups in the name of Christ. Militia are organizing using Tactical Civics to “take back” “this republic of sovereign States founded in the Name of Jesus Christ.” According to a Tactical Civics chapter in West Michigan, their purpose is to organize county government sanctioned militia who will engage in “law enforcement” to fight: “demonstrable, long-term organized crime by our servants from school districts to Congress, the White House, and the US Supreme Court.” Not merely satisfied with county militia, in late February 2024, Jack Posobiec opened this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference with these monstrous words: “Welcome to the end of democracy. We are here to overthrow it completely. We didn’t get all the way there on January 6, but we will endeavor to get rid of it and replace it with this right here.” He held up a cross necklace and continued: “After we burn that swamp to the ground, we will establish the new American republic on its ashes, and our first order of business will be righteous retribution for those who betrayed America.” (Quoted from an email newsletter from Heather Cox Richardson, “Letters from an American,” Feb. 25, 2024.)

The book Society of the Snow, about a 1972 plane crash in the Andes, tells how one of the survivors wrote a note for the others shortly before his death, saying, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The man quoted John 15:13, not only because he died as a result of a heroic action he undertook to help the others, but also because he offered his own body as nutrition in the bleak Andean landscape of snow and rock. Though few ever are called to give their lives in that way, that verse sums Christ’s call for Christians living. Other passages drive home the same point: “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” (Luke 6:31). “Love your neighbor as yourself,” (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:39). Jesus even shocked his followers with this call: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matthew 5:43,44). In Losing Our Religion, Russell Moore writes, “The commands to ‘gentleness’ and ‘reasonableness’ as well that a person crucify ‘quarrelsomeness’ and a ‘craving for controversy’ are on almost every page of the New Testament.”

The Christian faith has lost the cachet it once had for many reasons, not least of which comes because people who call themselves Christian choose to live opposite of the Bible’s call to love, self-sacrifice, and self-denial.

The early church provides a good model for how Christians can respond faithfully to our waning cultural influence. In a recent sermon for Lent, Rev. Len Vander Zee described the behavior of early Christians as having “A universal and overwhelming emphasis on peace, non-violence, and loving their enemies. Now remember, this was the age of persecution. But the church taught that if you’re going to be baptized into Jesus Christ . . . you’re committed to accept his cross. That means not to engage in retaliation, or violence. Instead, you must love your enemies and pray for your persecutor, and accept even death as an expected result of following their Lord who died on a cross. And this is the church that grew tremendously.”

The season of Lent invited us to turn from selfish gain and turn to serving and loving people, pursuing justice on personal and systemic levels, in the footsteps of our self-sacrificing Savior. Easter presents us with a triumphant but not triumphalist Lord, who bears the marks of his self-sacrifice throughout eternity. Christ opposed overthrowing a brutal government that his disciples hated. After Jesus’ many resurrection appearances, he gathered with his disciples who still wanted him to crush the Roman empire, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) Well, no. Not only would Jesus not restore political power to Israel, he also would call his disciples to pour out their lives for the sake of others.

Recalling the ultimate sacrifice of Christ, the apostle Paul called Christ’s followers in Philippians 2 to “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Jesus called his followers to acknowledge their sins with humility and regret, repent of them, and turn to him who gave his life for others as Redeemer and Lord. Like the man who offered himself for his friends in Society of the Snow, Jesus’ flesh is real food and his blood is real drink to nourish those he loves, and to bring about the renewing of all creation (see John 6:55).

When I’m tempted to despair because some fellow Christians are ruining Christianity and may ruin democracy in the United States, Lent and Easter remind me to have hope. Though the Crusades did horrible damage to people and to the name of Christ, they came to an end. Likewise, this present madness embarked on by culture warriors in America will end too. Just as God reminded Elijah that not all Israel bowed its knee to Baal, so also not all Christians in America embrace destructive, vigilante power. Some deny themselves, take up their crosses daily, follow Christ, and lay down their lives for others.

Mark Stephenson

Mark Stephenson was ordained in the Christian Reformed Church in 1989, and served as pastor of two congregations. In 2006 he became Director of Disability Concerns for the CRC and served as interim director of three other CRC ministries until his retirement in 2022: Chaplaincy, Race Relations, and Social Justice. He and his wife have five children and three grandchildren.

27 Comments

  • Keith Mannes says:

    Powerfully and beautifully articulated. Thank you l, Mark l, for clarifying The Call of Christ.

  • Vern Swieringa says:

    Amen!!! Thanks, Mark!

  • Alicia Mannes says:

    Thank you Mark for your wise words!

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Note to readers: don’t click on the “Tactical Civics” website. Certainly, don’t look around it or enter any information on it. It could be a front group for FBI agents trying to entrap gullible, possibly even mentally unstable, people into conspiring to, say, kidnap the governor. Of course, I realize that virtually no one here wants to kidnap the MI governor (anti-gun, pro-abortion, just yesterday celebrated Trans Day of Visibility, etc.). She’s just the kind of politician that people around here adore. But the FBI agent who sees you messing around on the website doesn’t know that.

    No. The FBI agent doesn’t know that you are probably an aging white Boomer with Christian Marxist tendencies who is employed in the education industry, or is a pastor of a small church with a large endowment, or a bureaucrat in an ever-shrinking denominational office who hates Orange Man with a burning passion and anyone who voted for him. He or she or they will be disappointed with you. You’re not who he or she or they are looking for. However, if they or he or she can get you to say something stupid or twist your words to sound “insurrectiony” they will not hesitate to visit you with guns drawn some morning as you are settling down with a cup of coffee and the RJ. You are, after all, an aging white Boomer Christian. In their view, some times you got to break a few eggs to make an omelette.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    As for the essay, I think it brings up a really good point. In the case of a blizzard that traps an entire congregation inside a small church for an indefinite time, who do you eat? (After the cookies and, possibly, ham buns)

    My guess, for those of you who have one or two, would be the Republicans.

    https://youtu.be/rxM8oCm4TnM?feature=shared

  • James C Dekker says:

    I don’t know you, but recall when you regularly wrote reasonably contrarian reponses to RJ blogs, but I haven’t seen them for some time now. This reply perplexes and worries me. Are you really serious about FBI agents stalking aging white boomers like me? What are your sources for that? The Republican party of today in no way resembles the party for which my parents voted, as I did I for some years when we still lived in the USA. It has beccome anti-American and, as the blasphemous Bible hawking of last week gave evidence, idoatrous of a man who compared himself to Jesus, an even more blasphemous move than hawking the Bibles for sale with items of American culture that he has shown by words that he actually disdains. Please . . .

    • Marty Wondaal says:

      Again, just don’t click on the website. You’ll be fine.

      • Marty Wondaal says:

        Upon further review, don’t click on the website I just posted above. That’s not an appproved narrative, and may trigger notice by the authorities.

        You can still, however, click on the Kicking and Screaming video. There’s no threat to anyone by looking at that. Plus, it’s funny.

        • James C Dekker says:

          Oh well, it is April Fool’s Day, but I won’t click anyway. Maybe you’re kidding? Maybe not? Peace

  • Dean Van Farowe says:

    Thank you for this piece. Sometimes recently I have thought that those who say that Christian nationalism is on the rise are overstating the problem, but you have set me straight with lots of good evidence.

  • Joan Huyser-Honig says:

    Mark, thank you for your thoughtfully honest words.

  • Thomas B Hoeksema Sr says:

    Wonderful essay, Mark, thank you! It brought to my mind Niebuhr’s classic book, “Christ and Culture”, from my college Ref Doc class.

    • Mark Stephenson says:

      Tom, thanks. A lot of us forget that when Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me, . . . ” his authority and now ours comes through sacrificing ourselves, not seeking after power.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Happy Easter prayers of joy and hope quickly give way to Monday’s deep concerns of our future in a strife-torn country and church. Thanks, Mark, for giving voice to our stressful hearts that long for hope, faith, and love to renew our lives as disciples of the Prince of Peace.

  • Scott VanderStoep says:

    That Tactical Civics website is scary. Started by a graduate of a Christian high school in West Michigan.

    • Mark Stephenson says:

      It is scary. They have armed themselves and want to decide and enforce the winners of elections without reference to actual results and be judge and jury enforcing laws of their choosing.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Mark, Thank you for this sane look at the current political situation.

  • Dean Miedema says:

    Thank you Mark. Well Done. Both the mandate and the challenge have been clarified today.

  • William Harris says:

    On the Monday after Easter, let me pose a contrary take: if Jesus did not die for the Christian Nationalist, he did not die for me. If we have a breakdown in love, in a division between us and our neighbor, we cannot heal it by speaking of a “they”; compassion asks for something different.

  • Mark Stephenson says:

    William, I agree. Critical reflection on positions that people take, including fellow Christians, is not a judgment on their eternal salvation. God alone makes those decisions about each of us. However, we need to call one another to account, to repentance even. As Russell Moore (https://kingdomharbor.com/2024/01/04/why-not-punch-left-russell-moore/) wrote a few months ago, “The gospel does not come with a gag order. The moment we believe it has is the moment we’ve given up on the words, You must be born again.” So the obvious starting point for any of us engaged in this critical reflection is humility and readiness to repent.

    • Mark S. Hiskes says:

      Mark,
      This is such a well-written, well-supported essay that clarifies for Christians the differences between these two approaches. Also, I really appreciate your tone (expressed beautifully in your response above) that, while you tell the truth boldly you do so with humility, sensitive to those who disagree.

  • David E Stravers says:

    Thanks for this precious essay. This reminds me of Wang Yi, pastor of Early Rain Reformed Church in China. He warned that those of us who follow Jesus as you have described must be prepared not only to carry the cross, but to be crucified on it…that is, willing to pay the price however heavy. Wang Yi is now in prison, as he predicted. When I met repeatedly with Chinese house church leaders in the 1980’s and 90’s, they expressed the same willingness to suffer defeat. Victory for us, as for them, might not be visible or apparent in this life.

    • Mark Stephenson says:

      David, your story reminds me of my favorite theologian, Kosuke Koyama, who reflects with insight and humility on the triumphalism that Western missionaries brought with them to 19th and 20th century Japan, and all the damage that did to the people and to the gospel. For example, he writes about the way the western missionaries forgot that when Jesus said all authority has been given to me (Matt 28.18), he received that authority by laying down power and even his very life.

  • Diane Plug says:

    Thank you Mark
    I remember fondly our conversations while traveling to meetings. Let me know when you cross the bridge across that ‘blue’ water.

    Diane Plug
    .

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