Much has been written in recent days about “white evangelicals” and there is just as much emotion conjured up when seeing the term. Those on the political right are often offended by the moniker as it attacks their truncated theological heritage. Those on the political left use it as a power word against a theologically aberrant ideology. Indifferent of the emotion, the now pejorative moniker has been weaponized against politically conservative, Trump supporters who are believed to have radicalized evangelicalism into a Christian nationalism, complete with white supremacy overtones, that dangerously resembles the pre-WWII nationalism of Germany. No matter where you fall, it is evident that the racialization of evangelicalism has indeed stirred passions and highlights the acute division among American evangelicals.
While all Christians should vigorously denounce any deviation from a New Testament understanding of following Christ, those condemning white evangelicals strikes as the “pot calling the kettle black.” That is to say, no matter if you are a progressive evangelical who denies the infallibility of Scripture, like Pastor Josh Scott who leads a staff including LGBTQ+ at GracePointe in Nashville, or a white evangelical who argued that “true believers” will vote for Trump, like the Reformed Pastor John MacArthur of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, there is enough shared culpability in the deviant theological evolution of evangelicalism in this country to go around.
In his recent Religion News opinion piece, Doug Pagitt rightly calls evangelicals to unite against the heresy of Christian nationalism as well as against white supremacy. He appeals to all evangelicals, no matter their political leanings, to join him in signing the Evangelical Leaders Statement Condemning Christian Nationalism’s Role in the January 6th Insurrection. With a growing list of what Pagitt calls evangelical luminaries, the statement highlights the now stereotypic description of white evangelicals and their implicitly-frequently explicitly-racist views.
I appreciate the efforts of those who developed the statement. Such a statement is long overdue. However, in my view, this statement simply substitutes a “radicalized Christian nationalism” for a more palatable American civil religion. It begs the question of who is deciding the content of this new American civil religion, particularly its theological and political ideologies. Even more, how long will it take before the new American civil religion radicalizes into a new Christian nationalism? The old aphorism is true, “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.”
While I applaud and support the condemnation of Christian nationalism and white supremacy, as well as the call to actions concomitant with Christlikeness, the statement still propagates a Christianity that seems foreign to Scripture. It is a form of Christianized Americanism or Americanized Christianism (Gorman 2011) that is democratic, revisionist, and patriotic. As a political ideology, this is not bad or wrong if your allegiance is to the state. It just is not the Christianity of the New Testament.
The form of extremism described by Pagitt and many others is not new. You can trace it very easily to the African Berber theologian Augustine and his justification for violence to convert heretics and others who did not agree with the opinion du jour, particularly his opinion. For Augustine, the use of political force (manifested in the military actions of the Roman Empire) was justifiable when it served the greater good. This line of theological rationalism runs throughout history from justifying an untold number of religious wars in Europe during the Middle Ages, to Luther’s antisemitism, even to the Calvinist violence against the Anabaptists for their apolitical pacifism (among other things).
In modern times, the extremism is most noted in Adolf Hitler’s appeal to Luther as the German theologian and his call to make Germany great again. U.S. history has not been immune to this extremism either. The “black robe regiment,” that group of pro-America clergy who led their congregants to war against the British, justified their actions as God ordained. In more recent history, George W. Bush’s appeal to Bonhoeffer in his argument for the war on terror only highlights the Christian penchant to justify violence by invoking theologians. Eric Metaxas’ biography of Bonhoeffer has only perpetuated this deceptive misreading of Bonhoeffer’s involvement in tyrannicide.
Disconnection from Our Heritage
It seems to me the issue is much deeper than what is described in Pagitt’s article about white evangelicals. The problem, in my opinion, is an evangelical church disconnected from her heritage in the theology of Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Origen. Justin (100-165AD), in the face of state persecution, acknowledged the important role of the government to ensure that Christians obeyed the law. Tertulian (155-240AD) saw that Christian political allegiance was idolatrous. Additionally, Origen (184-253AD) argued that Christians had a more “diviner” calling than politics: the spread of the good news of God. For all three early church theologians, God’s glory, not political ambition, animated the life of the Christian.
Is the problem white evangelicalism? Perhaps, in part, although I’m increasingly doubtful that racializing evangelicalism is the solution (a much better moniker than “white evangelical” might be Trumpgelical). White Americans definitely have an uncomfortable history they must confront; a history that justified the mistreatment of others based on a misguided understanding of the Bible. Additionally, the narratives of the American Dream and American Exceptionalism must be critiqued. Nevertheless, the root of the problem for American evangelicalism is the fact that it is a Christianity unmoored from its heritage and an evangelicalism with a chronic historical amnesia.