“Christian nationalism makes American Christians less Christlike,” Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis associate professor of sociology Andrew Whitehead writes in a piece for Religion News Service. He goes on to make an argument that is common among progressive Christians, contrasting the false gospel of right-wing Christian nationalism and its idols of “Power, Fear and Violence” with a true gospel that is always “good news to the poor, oppressed and imprisoned.” He concludes that to regain its “prophetic voice,” the American Christian church must abandon hate and embrace the true path of Christ, which emphasizes tolerance, freedom, and love.
I, too, would like the U.S. to take this path. The Right’s current assault on abortion rights, transgender people, Black people, immigrants, and other marginalized people is terrifying. White Chrisitans are one of the major sources of support for these violent and bigoted policies. Therefore, I can appreciate Christians like Whitehead who say clearly that they do not support those policies and are trying to get their coreligionists to take a better path.
As a Jewish atheist, I’m not invested in arguments about which version of Christianity is truer. However, I am skeptical when I hear Christians respond to Christian nationalism by distinguishing it from “true,” “Christlike,” “pure,” or “orthodox” Christianity. If Christianity is only true Christianity when it is good or kind, then no “true” Christian ever does anything bad. That makes it easy to dismiss Inquisitors and slaveholders alike in the past, and it makes it easy to dismiss structural power to do harm that you may have as a Christian now as well.
I’m not arguing that there are no liberatory strands in Christianity; Christianity is a long-lived tradition with a complicated history of interpretation and practice, including both liberatory strands (for instance, the Black church’s role in the Civil Rights Movement) and oppressive ones (say, the Inquisition, or Christianity’s role in justifying slavery, or the reemergence of Christian antisemitism). As ex-evangelical writer and senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches Chrissy Stroop observes: “The Bible … is multivalent and internally contradictory.” She adds that “communally mediated interpretation is what shapes the political theology of particular Christian groups as opposed to some imagined ‘objective’ approach to the Bible.”
Stroop’s point is that there are a multiplicity of Christian political positions, practices, and theologies. Arguing over which Christianity is “true” might be of theoretical or theological interest to some Christians, but it’s of limited interest to the rest of us, who are more concerned about how, exactly, those squabbling Christians are going to use their power to regulate and police us. Theology shapes politics, but the fact that Christian theology, in particular, shapes politics in the U.S. is often as important as which Christians win those theological debate. The fact that intra-Christian debates are so central to U.S. political outcomes is itself evidence of just how much power Christians, of whatever theological bent, have over the rest of us.
When Christians — even progressive Christians — default to this intra-Christian discussion while trying to express solidarity with the targets of Christian nationalism, I see an example of what professor of education at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Khyati Y. Joshi, refers to as “white Christian privilege.”
When people think about religious prejudice or bigotry, they tend to think of direct expressions of personal animus: the use of religious slurs, barring non-Christians from clubs or restaurants, or religiously motivated assaults. Joshi, though, argues in the book White Christian Privilege that “there’s far more to [white Christian privilege] than individual cruelty.” That’s because Christian privilege is structural. Specifically, Joshi argues that white Christian privilege
“...has afforded the Christian majority the historic and contemporary power to shape social norms.This Christian normativity makes Christian values intrinsic to our national identity, conveys the status of truth and rightness on Christian culture, and makes Christian language and metaphors and their underlying theology the national standard.”
Christian nationalists express an overt ideology of white Christian privilege — as when Republican Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert declared, “The church is supposed to direct the government, the government is not supposed to direct the church.” But Joshi is also pointing to a less overt but still powerful Christian nationalism which doesn’t call for Christian rule directly, but nonetheless assumes that Christian language and faith are the natural framework and backdrop for public debate.
When progressive Christians insist that true Christianity is always “good news” to the oppressed, they are making a claim on civic virtue which is unconsciously, and even blithely, exclusionary. By claiming that true Christianity is virtuous they leave little space for non-Christians, or atheists to criticize Christian privilege, or to talk about an ongoing history of Christian oppression rooted not just in one Christian ideology, but in Christian power and as assumption of the rightness of that power.
Assuming that Christianity is, in its truest essence, natural and good makes it difficult for progressive Christians to criticize their own tradition’s hegemony or to acknowledge its history of violence or bigotry. In mainstream accounts, even progressive Christian writers present white evangelical loathing of immigrants and violent attacks on LGBTQ+ people as an aberration, rather than as a predictable expression of at least one of the longstanding traditions within Christianity: discrimination and oppression. In 2021, for example, John Pavlovitz, author of If God Is Love, Don’t Be a Jerk, tweeted, “If you’re a Christian who doesn’t welcome refugees and immigrants, you’re not a Christian.” For Pavlovitz, to be Christian is to be kind and welcoming.
But the truth, of course, is that Trump’s rabid anti-immigrant rhetoric, and broader behavior and political aims, are not outside the norm when considering the breadth of Christian history. Both the Crusades and slavery were justified and normalized through a Christian lens. The church has a long history of misogyny and sexual abuse. And for some people who worship in pews on Sunday, there is no contradiction between identifying as a Christian and embracing violent racism, xenophobia, or sexism. When we take into consideration how Christianity has justified these historical injustices, Christians supporting Trump or their embracing Christian nationalist ideologies becomes less of a paradox.
Again, as a Jewish atheist, I don’t really care if Christian nationalism is “idolatrous” or if it betrays the principles of Christianity. My concern is that Christian nationalism works to give Christians power over me or power over those who are considered to be unfaithful Christians because of their political beliefs, sexuality, or race. Christian nationalism is an ideology of entitlement, which says that certain Christians have the right, and even the duty, to impose their values and their rule on others.
The issue here isn’t ultimately about theology or spirituality. It’s about hierarchy. Christianity is a lot of things. But in the U.S., its most salient public characteristic is power. As it currently stands, Christianity is the majority religion in the country and Christian positions dominate public discourse; from which days are considered holidays to whether abortion should be considered illegal. Christians use their power to dictate public life. Christian nationalist politics are dedicated to maintaining that power.
Progressive Christians want to reject white Christian nationalist hierarchies of gender, race, and nationalism, which is good. But they often have trouble rejecting hierarchical thinking whereby Christianity itself is viewed as the standard of virtue and righteousness against which public actions are judged. And, as a result, they frame Christian nationalists’ violence and bigotry as mistakes or failures to properly live up to orthodox Christian teaching, rather than acknowledging that their behavior and politics align with an often-cruel Christian history.
Fighting for a better Christianity is a worthy thing for Christians to do. But if Christians really believe in equality, charity, and humility, then that fight can’t just be an intra-Christian struggle over the true nature of what it means to be a Christian. Whether progressive Christians think that white Christian nationalists are Christian doesn’t matter to most people who aren’t Christians.
What does matter is that progressive Christians stand with the targets of Christian nationalism. That means, in part, acknowledging a Christian history of violence and a non-Christian history of resistance. It means that when people talk about Christian violence or Christofascist cruelty, the response should be solidarity and aid, not merely an admonishment that people who behave in such a way “aren’t real Christians.” It means focusing on the harm to marginalized people, rather than worrying about harming Christianity or the church’s reputation.
Dismantling Christofascist power requires dismantling white Christian privilege. To do so, Christians have to challenge the idea that Christianity is or should be seen as the sole or true embodiment of civic virtue. Christians need to speak, and act, as if non-Christians exist, as if they matter, and as if they too have a say in what and who is good.