The Heresy of Nationalist Christianity

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Is it time to think of Trumpism as heresy? Catholic scholar Charles Camosey believes so:

Though it seems to be waning a bit now, Catholic support for Donald Trump in the 2016 election was disturbingly high. It was disturbing on multiple levels, but especially because the primary vision for Trump’s campaign was to “make America great again” by putting “America first.”

If accepted and supported by Christians, this is a classic example of heresy – which historically has taken something true and pushed it well beyond its proper place…

In addition to heresy, “Trumpism” is a classic form of idolatry. Stanley Hauerwas, perhaps the most important Protestant thinker of the last two generations, pulled no punches in calling out Trump’s deep faith in Americanism.

For an orthodox Christian, Hauerwas insisted, America cannot be first. The Gospel of Jesus Christ must be first.

Hauerwas was right to describe Trump’s inaugural address as a “stunning example of idolatry.” When the president said, “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America and, through our loyalty to our country, we will recover loyalty to each other,” this was, using the words of Hauerwas, “a theological claim that offers a kind of salvation.”

Just one problem, though. When made by a Christian, it is an idolatrous and heretical claim.

Christ knew we would come to know people “by their fruits,” and the fruits of a Trump administration are already quite clear. The heresy of “America first” overshadows the Gospel…

It is one thing to vote for Trump as the lesser of two evils. I strongly disagreed with this strategy, but it is defensible from a Catholic point of view. And I fully understand the views of those who did so in defense of prenatal children.

What is not defensible, however, is positive, formal support for “America First.” That so many Catholics have expressed such support, however, may indicate that the time has come to name “Trumpism” a heresy.

Though Camosey is writing from a Catholic perspective, his words are even more relevant for all the “God and country” Christians of white evangelicalism. Their intense investment in the American national project recalls the heretical 19th century liberals who conflated the Kingdom of God with the progress of the American nation. It also brings to mind the 20th century German liberals whose belief in German exceptionalism prepared them to glorify war and endorse an anti-Christ.

What we’re seeing from many Trump-supporting Christians is not just a political disagreement, but a different gospel altogether.

Notes from the classroom: Immigrants Have Always Seemed Threatening

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For my Immigration and the American Dream class tomorrow I’ll be giving a lecture I’m calling “Bible Wars.” In the nineteenth century, controversies about Bible reading in public schools were often flashpoints for tension—and even violence—between native-born Protestants and immigrant Catholics.

Perhaps most famously, a dispute about the reading of the King James Version of the Bible in Philadelphia schools led to days of deadly violence here in the spring and summer of 1844. The danger in relating these stories is that students might find them inscrutable and absurd. Why were Protestants and Catholics killing each other, here in the U.S.? They must have been irrationally prejudiced, the student might conclude. Now, surely, we’ve become more sophisticated.

But if I’m able to provoke the students to think historically, they might begin to be able to see why Catholics might have seemed so threatening. They might begin to see that amid the prejudices were real disagreements about church and state, about education, about the very meaning of freedom (I’ll be leaning heavily on McGreevey tomorrow). Throw in the transnational context of the Irish famine and the Revolutions of 1848 and the vast numbers of immigrants we’re talking about—many of them not English-speaking—and we can begin to see, perhaps, why the influx was so unsettling.

If they can begin to understand this historical context, the parallels to the present day will announce themselves. I won’t even need to say it out loud. The historian Tyler Anbinder had a nice piece about this last week:

Many believe that today’s immigrants are more culturally isolated than those from the past. Previous generations of immigrants had to learn English and assimilate, runs this argument. They could not “press two for Spanish” or use satellite TV or the Internet to isolate themselves from American culture. Yet Irish, German, Italian, Slavic, Scandinavian, and eastern European Jewish immigrants were just as isolated in their ethnic enclaves in the 19th and early 20th centuries as today’s immigrants are in theirs. New York’s Kleindeutschland was so German, bragged one of its immigrant residents in the 1850s, that one could hardly tell it apart from Stuttgart.[1] Half a century later, adult Italian immigrants rarely learned much English. “I didn’t need it,” one New Yorker explained. “Everywhere I lived, or worked, or fooled around there were only Italians . . . I had to learn some Sicilian, though.”[2] When pundits complain that today’s immigrants don’t assimilate like those from the past, they are harking back to a golden era of assimilation that never actually existed.[3]

Some think that the religious beliefs of today’s immigrants pose an unprecedented threat to American values. Muslim immigrants, it is said, cannot be good Americans because they owe ultimate allegiance to foreign leaders and seek to impose their religious views on others. But Americans once said precisely the same things about Catholic immigrants. A Pennsylvania newspaper 150 years ago likened Catholic immigrants to a foreign army in our midst, waiting for the Pope’s command to destroy Americans’ most valued institutions.[4] Catholics would always remain foreign and separate from the rest of society, insisted an Ohioan. They cannot “really [be] Americans, but only residents in America.”[5] That every immigrant group viewed this way in the past has become an accepted part of the national fabric suggests that American Muslims will one day be fully accepted too.

Anbinder’s new book on immigrant New York is a great read by the way.

The Self-absorbed Politics of White Evangelicalism

Why did so many white evangelicals support Trump in November? Self-protection perhaps? As Wayne Grudem last summer:

a Trump-appointed Supreme Court, together with dozens of lower court judges appointed by him, would probably result in significant advances in many of the policy areas important to Christians. It would also open the door to huge expansion of influence for the many Christian lobbying groups known as “family policy councils” in various states, especially enabling them to work for further legal protections for life, for marriage and family, and for religious liberty.

Many white evangelicals believed it was more important to protect the prerogatives and traditions of their religious institutions than to resist the broader threat to the public good represented by the Trump campaign.

This insular brand of evangelical politics is not new. During the upheavals of the 1960s, many white evangelicals mobilized on behalf of their religious interests while remaining on the sidelines in matters of social justice. In the Spring of 1965, many clergy came to Selma, Alabama to participate in the civil rights movement’s voting rights campaign. But not white evangelical leaders. Just weeks after Alabama State Troopers attacked marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Clyde W. Taylor, Secretary General of the National Association of Evangelicals, firmly rejected rumors that the NAE was lobbying on behalf of civil rights legislation. He wrote,

The official stand of the NAE on the whole race issue, including Selma, is that we do not take a stand on it. We are neither for nor against.¹

In a telephone conversation with an evangelical who wanted the NAE to support the civil rights movement, Taylor’s assistant explained,

The NAE has a policy of not becoming involved in political or sociological affairs that do not affect the function of the church or those involved in the propagation of the gospel.²

This hands-off posture had not prevented the NAE from jumping into the fray of a national election just five years before. In 1960, the NAE produced and distributed materials encouraging Protestants to vote against John F. Kennedy, who would be the nation’s first Catholic president.

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A not-so-subtle NAE appeal to vote against Kennedy

For some white evangelicals, the prospect of a Kennedy Presidency was a threat to their religious liberty. Would Catholic Bishops exert undue influence on the President, working to subvert Protestant Christianity? Such concerns seemed to justify political engagement.

In contrast, the denial of basic rights and safety to Black Americans did not “affect the function of the church.” While evangelical leaders rallied to defend the role they believed their religious tradition ought to play in American life, they were less likely to take political risks on behalf of other communities.

The election of 2016 suggests this self-protective politics remains an important feature of white evangelicalism.
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¹Clyde W. Taylor to Herbert S. Mekeel, March 22, 1965. Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton College.

² “Memo for Dr. Taylor,” March 12, 1965. Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton College.