Some years ago, I was discussing the Christian faith and politics with a group of parishioners. I remember the sincere confession of one of my favorite members. “I’m a good Christian, a good American, and a good Republican,” she said, wide-eyed and earnest. It was clear that she saw no daylight separating those three categories. In fact, further discussion revealed that she considered those three categories to be complementary aspects of one reality. She was, as I recall, shocked to learn that someone might think it was anything other than a good idea to connect all three.
My dear former parishioner was not and would not have considered being one of the violent insurrectionists who invaded the United States capitol just over three weeks ago. She would, I am sure, be horrified by such an action (although it’s been years since I’ve spoken with her, so I can’t be certain). Nor would she ever imagine that her sincere confession is directly connected with that attempted lynching and coup. But it is part of the historic and cultural through-line we now know as “Christian nationalism.”
I put both words in quotation marks because it seems to me that “Christian nationalists” are neither Christian nor nationalist in any helpful sense of either word. But the reality of this frightening political movement requires genuine Christian reflection and action.
With that in mind, I appreciated ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton’s participation in the panel discussion “Democracy and Faith Under Siege: Responding to Christian Nationalism,” hosted by Christians Against Christian Nationalism, an initiative of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Freedom, or BJC. You can find the youtube.com recording of that discussion at https://youtu.be/QmgWHBoGBi8.
Bishop Eaton joined Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church, USA, and Dr. Andrew Whitehead. Whitehead has co-authored a book, along with Samuel Perry, entitled Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. Whitehead is an associate professor of sociology at Clemson University. He is also the assistant director of the ARDA, a leading online religion data archive and an associate editor for the journal Sociology of Religion. Perry is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Oklahoma. He is also affiliated with both the Religious Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies Departments.
The book and the conversation are, of course, timely in the context of the January 6, 2021, insurrection and invasion of the United States capitol, carried out at least in part by avowed and identifiable “Christian nationalists.” In the discussion, Bishop Eaton referred to the recent ELCA social message on “Government and Civic Engagement in the United States: Discipleship in a Democracy.” That message was adopted unanimously, as the header of the document indicates, by the ELCA Church Council on June 24, 2020. You can find a PDF of the message at https://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Government_and_Civic_Engagement_Social_Message.pdf.
Bishop Eaton referred to the social message several times in her comments and encouraged viewers to access, read, and reflect on the document. So, I did. I hope you will do so as well. The message is not only worth the time to read, but it will serve as an excellent focus for small group discussion on the proper relationship, from a Lutheran theological perspective, between Christian discipleship and citizenship in a democracy. That relationship leads to conclusions diametrically opposed to the tenets of “Christian nationalism.”
“Lutherans care about government because it is a gift from God,” the message begins, “intended for the safety and flourishing of human life.” Martin Luther regarded good government as one of the many blessings given by God the Creator. He was painfully aware of the actual and potential failings of human government and governing authorities, as we can see in many of his writings. But, for Luther, the alternative of no government was far worse since human sin would have free reign in the world.
I like to illustrate the classic Lutheran view of the value of government by thinking about a bowling alley. We have small grandchildren, and when we go bowling with them, they use the “bumpers” to keep the ball on the proper lane. One function of government (and of God’s law in general) is to function like those bumpers, keeping cantankerous humans roughly within the limits of God’s life-giving laws. The other function of government is to get the ball to strike the pins – the more the better! That’s the positive pay-off.
Good government, then, limits the expression and consequence of human sin. And good government can lead, when properly managed, to greater “safety and flourishing of human life.” But what do we Lutherans mean by “good” government? “To evaluate how well agencies of government are doing their proper work of providing for the safety and well-being of those within the country’s borders and/or jurisdiction,” the message says, “Lutherans ask one simple but all-encompassing question: is the neighbor being served?” (page 9, my emphasis).
This focus flows directly from Luther’s understanding of faith and works. It is by faith in Christ’s justifying grace that we are put into a right relationship with God by the power of the Holy Spirit. We can do nothing to deserve or earn that righteousness. It is purely a gift. Since God does not need our good works, we can spend every bit of that time, energy, and attention on our neighbor.
In The Freedom of a Christian, Luther puts it this way. “Nevertheless, no one needs even one of these works to attain righteousness and salvation. For this reason, in all of one’s works a person should in this context be shaped by and contemplate this thought alone,” Luther continues, “to serve and benefit others in everything that may be done, having nothing else in view except the need and advantage of the neighbor” (my emphasis). The Lutheran view of government is an extension of Luther’s theology into our political life.
We should note that this view is not limited by the type of government system in which we Lutheran Christians might find ourselves. But that doesn’t mean we are neutral as to which types of human government are better or worse for loving the neighbor. We are not. The social message offers more specific guides “for assessing the performance of government.” These guides make it clear that our Lutheran perspective creates some policy “bumpers” as well.
There are fourteen such guides, but a few merit comments. Consent of the governed is more likely to produce an effective system than other options. Thus, “efforts to restrict access to voting should be condemned and resisted.” Public service can be and is a way Christians live out their vocations in Christ. Such service is rendered for the sake of others and not for personal gain, since love of neighbor is the limiting principle. Good government deals with citizens impartially, rendering “strangers encountered in public spaces” into “neighbors.” Neighbors deserve respect and dignity since all people are created in God’s image.
Systems and structures should be regulated in such a way that all strangers are treated as neighbors. So, safety, market, and environmental regulations supersede opportunities for personal gain when the welfare of any neighbor is at stake. Even though such systems might be fallible, the real concern is evil that is structured into a governmental system.
“Government becomes evil,” the message asserts, “when its goals, policies, and programs are designed or transformed into vehicles for harming the neighbor.” As examples of such structural evil, the message points to voter suppression laws and gerrymandering. Since human government is fallible and sometimes structured for evil, “abuses of power must be named and challenged.” The message speaks in particular defense of whistleblowers here. And “public servants” who help themselves should be resisted and changed.
People are citizens of a particular nation and under the government of that nation. People are our “neighbors” because God makes them so, regardless of any human legal, social, or political classification. “Just as Christians enjoy the ‘priesthood of all believers’” as part of God’s work of salvation in Christ, “all people are to enjoy a ‘neighborhood of all residents’” from God’s work of benevolent creation. This means that individual freedom is not absolute (under any system, including the American system). Instead, individual freedom of citizens is always conditioned (at least for Christians) by the needs of the neighbor.
As a result of this understanding, Lutheran Christians are called to active civic engagement for the sake of the neighbor. This includes working both to limit the consequences of sin and to expand the capacities for human flourishing. This work may require “when there is no lawful recourse” the exercise of “nonviolent civil disobedience.” The message is at pains to make clear, I think, that protests against police brutality, for example, are part of loving the neighbor and not contrary to that vocation.
The message reaffirms “democratic self-governance” as the best way to structure faithful neighbor love in human societies (at least until something better comes along). In this system “our institutional witness is to foster justice, racial and social equality, reconciliation, and healing with compassion and imagination.” No matter what system of government frames out cultural life, Christians have neighbor love as the standard against which to measure the faithfulness and effectiveness of that system.
What does this message say to us about “Christian nationalism”? It says that no human government is an ultimate concern or an end itself. For Christians, human government is a means to an end, a gift God provides to facilitate more effective love for the neighbor. To the extent that government fulfills that function, it deserves our support and participation. To the extent that government fails in that function, it deserves our criticism and resistance. No human government should ever be an object of worship or demand the unquestioning and ultimate loyalty of a Christian.
Such a demand, however, stands at the heart of what is called “Christian nationalism.” This perspective, as was noted in the BJC conversation, conflates “patriotism,” a twisted version of Christian theology, and a mythological version of American history. The result is a toxic, violent, and idolatrous cocktail that intoxicates the adherents with a lust for white male supremacy. Mix in the bad science fiction of QAnon, and the result is a sort of mass psychosis.
Luther often suggested his version of the Golden Rule as a primary guide for Christian conduct. Treat one another as Christ has treated you. “Without a doubt we are named after Christ,” he wrote in The Freedom of a Christian, “not absent from us but dwelling in us; in other words: provided that we believe in him and that, in turn and mutually we are a second Christ to one another, doing for our neighbors as Christ does for us.” That principle underlies the social message and all faithful Lutheran social teaching.
I would be glad for more conversation on this subject and on the social message itself. It is not a perfect or complete document, but it is an excellent foundation for both reflection and action. Please share your thoughts if you wish.