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“Jericho March” participants process around the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 5, 2021, to support President Donald Trump and protest President-elect Joe Biden's victory. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

Local Christian Leaders Call Christian Nationalism a “Heresy” and an Aberration of Historic Christianity

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Local Christian Leaders Call Christian Nationalism a “Heresy” and an Aberration of Historic Christianity

By Cassy Benefield

John Calvin once said, “Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” Add to that the biblical concept found in 1 Peter 4:17—that judgement must first begin at the house of God—and you have a crescendo of voices trying to work their way through the unholy syncretism of “God and Country” in America, otherwise known as Christian nationalism. This is not just a national movement, either, as Spokane-area Christian pastors and leaders are adding their voices to this mix.

Professor Jerry Sittser, known and admired by many of those he has and continues to mentor over the years, adds unique insight into this phenomenon. It rests upon his understanding of primitive Christian tradition and the overarching history of the church, having earned his doctorate in the History of Christianity and having taught in Whitworth University’s Theology Department for 30 years before recently retiring from that role.

Jerry Sittser/Whitworth

He currently mentors 16 young pastors through a reading group he meets with regularly. Their average age is 35 and almost all of them have planted their own churches in the last eight years. He says these leaders are “in it up to their eyeballs” in trying to deal with Christian nationalism in their more conservative churches, be they Assemblies of God, independent congregations, Foursquare churches, etc.

“It’s encouraging to me that these pastors are aware of the problem and really trying to address it,” said Sittser. “They see it as a heresy. It’s not Christian at all.”

How the church got to this place has been something Sittser has been working through, and he currently sees six streams that have flowed into what’s commonly known as Christian nationalism today. By understanding these streams in light of the broader history of Christianity, he thinks Christians can begin to understand how this kind of aberrant thought that conflates any kingdom of man, including America’s governmental system, with the kingdom of God has crept into their churches and perhaps, even their own thinking.

The Particular Interpretation of the American Religious Story

He says the first stream that has led to the current Christian nationalist thought is a “certain understanding of America’s history and that we are a Christian nation founded on Christian principles,” which, according to Sittser, is not entirely untrue. But when American history is taught today, it is either taught with “no religion or the wrong kind of understanding of religion when it comes to America’s history and roots.”

For example, when he used to teach his “Religion in American Public Life” class, students — except those who came from conservative religious schools — would ask, “Why is this new to me?”

He explains that it is not that the early founding fathers were evangelical, Bible-believing Christians as these terms are defined today — and as this seems to get taught within more conservative Christianity — but they had a healthy regard for religion and the largely virtuous and responsible people religion created. And more than 200 years ago, the Bible was a major document that was considered in the framing of our government along with the works of John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rosseau, and Baron de Montesquieu, among other liberal thinkers of that day, according to Sittser.

Only a couple of the founding fathers would be considered what is defined as evangelical today — which Sittser largely defines as a renewal movement within Protestant Christianity that dates back to the 18th century and that emphasized the need for a personal conversion. Many others were not Christian as he defines the term, but, instead, highly religious.

When Christians today misunderstand the exact role of Christianity and the Bible in America’s early founding, this leads to narrative that lacks nuance and results in a misunderstanding of America’s role in God’s kingdom.

This World Is not Your Home

Pastor Thomas Anderson Jr. of Shiloh Hills Fellowship, a Black Christian who does not identify as an evangelical, per se, leads a more conservative evangelical congregation in Northern Spokane. He has seen and experienced the downstream effects of this first tributary Sittser identifies and tries to teach those in his circle of influence—be they members of his congregation or students at Whitworth or Moody Aviation where he is an adjunct professor of New Testament theology—that America is not their home.

“Listen, America—God has been kind to her and her short 400 plus years here,” said Anderson. “But there are places that are much older civilizations that have reached higher pinnacles and at one level, in terms of their era, and while he’s been kind to us, it does not mean this is his promised land.”

He added, “I don’t like that we hold our Constitution and our Bible at the same level. You cannot do that, but we do that. And it furthers this Christian nationalism idea.”

Instead, he tries to teach others that every place is Babylon. This means any world system past, present, and future, and located anywhere in the world, is not meant to be the kingdom of God on earth.

This message has not gone over well with everyone in his congregation, some even leaving Shiloh Hills Fellowship. But he continues to challenge this mindset, which, ironically, has also brought new people into his church.

“For Shiloh, I am continually challenging, ‘Are we really going to be believers (of Christ) or not?’” said Anderson. “If we are, there are some things we’ve got to give up like the nationalism. You can be a patriot. You can love your country. But what you can’t do is put your country above all else.”

He’s sees Christians not doing an especially good job of this as they identify themselves with something in addition to their Christianity.

“I don’t care how you vote. I care how you live in terms of and in relation to Scriptures and the character of Christ,” Anderson said. “If you walk out of this building and you think of yourself in terms of your political affiliation, even if it’s equal to your faith, you’ve just walked into idolatry. How you vote should not define you. What should define you is who you submitted and align your life to.”

Puritan Legacy of the American Experiment

The second stream Sittser identifies is what he calls the “Puritan Legacy of the American Experiment,” which birthed the sayings “city upon on a hill” and “errand in the wilderness.” Under the preaching and leadership of John Winthrop, he relates that those early Puritans of the 1630s borrowed from the story of Israel, specifically the blessings and cursings found in Deuteronomy 30.

He explains this first generation of Puritans were under a self-imposed burden based on reinterpreting themselves as the New Israel and that if they got things right, God would bless them. If they didn’t, he would curse them.

Within the second and third generation of these Puritans, they began to see people falling away from the faith and began correlating their economic problems as proof that they were now starting to experience the curses of God due to their unfaithfulness, which unfortunately led to disastrous consequences such as the Salem Witch Trials.

“That form of a kind of American exceptionalism simply became more secularized as time went on, but we still carry that burden,” said Sittser.

Christians Exist for the Good of All Nations

Pastor Ryan Oletzke is one of the young men Sittser is mentoring through his book club. He leads True Hope Church, a Northwest Ministry Network Assemblies of God congregation. He sees this American exceptionalism not only in his church, but also in the broader community of Christianity. He has been teaching through Daniel on what it means to be an exile in a foreign land because he sees this as one of the primary biblical truths forgotten by American Christians today.

“My intent is telling the church, I want to call you to a life that can endure exile and that can be hopeful in the midst of exile,” said Oletzke.

“We all live in these nations, and we should be like Jeremiah 29 instructs us. We should be good citizens who work for the prospering of our neighbors, for the good of our countries, build houses, grow families, plant gardens. We should be good citizens, but we don’t have to feel the totalizing temptation to make our present nation or our present political climate, our primary battlefield.”

It is important to Oletzke to make sure the message of the gospel and the character of Christ he preaches is something that someone from any part of the world can relate to. He sees much of Christian energy today being spent on things that are distractions leading the church down rabbit trails of intense energy but without a lot of impact.

“You might say that one of the reasons my generation is maybe more tuned into this could be because of just increasing globalism—increasingly the world is smaller—and maybe we’re more aware of that reality through social media and technology,” said Oletzke. “But I do think about the fact that if what I preach to my church isn’t good news to someone who lives in another country, I’m preaching an American message, not a kingdom of Christ message.”

His message, too, like Anderson’s to his church community, has not always been received well. And while he welcomes those discussions, he believes it is important that this message gets out.

“I think politics are important, but I think meeting spiritual needs through political means leads us into pretty dangerous places,” Oletzke said. “So, I called the church to repent. I called the church to return our hope and our primacy of focus to the gospel, to the kingdom of God.”

“We exist for the good of all nations.”

Evangelical Entrepreneurship to Create a Christian Society

Sittser identifies the third stream as evangelical entrepreneurship, specifically the birth of hundreds of non-profits that promoted social good in order to create a Christian America, especially in the 19th Century and around the time revivals were taking off and the frontier was being settled.

“There were abolitionist societies, temperance societies, prison reform societies—you name it, they started something for it,” said Sittser. “That began to elevate the role of religion, an especially Protestant evangelical religion broadly understood … in shaping American culture.”

One example is Oberlin College, which back then was an evangelical institution. Today it is wholly secular. According to Sittser, it was the first institution in America that actually educated Blacks and women, and this was decades prior to the Civil War.

This season in America was dubbed the Benevolent Empire, and these reforms did a lot of good. However, it didn’t solve one major problem: slavery and all its consequences.

“The big failure that we never solved was slavery, the civil war, and afterwards, the utter disaster of the South. This became the unsolvable problem.”

Building Bridges across Unholy Divides Is a Christian Calling

Pastor and bridge builder Rodney McAuley is a Black man who grew up in the Black church tradition and who was largely discipled by white evangelicals. Today, he gives one modern “benevolence society” credit for his life-changing shift in focus toward unity and reconciliation across divides: the parachurch organization Promise Keepers.

Rodney McAuley/Contributed

The Promise Keepers was founded in 1990 by former football player and coach Bill McCartney with the mission to help men live with integrity by first committing to seven promises. When McAuley heard the “Unity” promise about reconciliation “beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of Biblical unity,” he was all in.

“I bit that hook, line, and sinker,” said McAuley.

While he still considers himself an evangelical, moments like the Jan. 6 insurrection challenges him to process what that means in light of Christian nationalism.

He feels like a Christian misfit because he is often considered too white for his Black brothers and too Black for his white brothers. He’s also too conservative for his liberal brothers and too liberal for his conservative brothers. But he understands he needs both communities across all denominational lines to make not only a better church, but a better world.

“So, all of the points of division, theologically, philosophically, socially, economically, I’m a misfit,” said McAuley. “I’ve gotten to the point where my heart’s desire is to represent and re-present Christ in all of his fullness [to] the whole church, the whole gospel to the whole city or whole state, nation, world.”

Still, he’s not willing to divorce himself from the term evangelical, yet, because he feels like that puts him in a position of having to choose whether he wants to live with his mother or his father because he seems not to in fit any box. So, he’s looking to God to define him.

“Again, I enter into this conversation catalyzed by Jan. 6 in a place where I am hungry and brokenhearted, but I’m determined to allow the Holy Spirit to dismantle my thinking and reconstruct my thinking to redisciple me,” said McAuley.

Divisions within American Protestants: Modernist and Fundamentalist, Then, to Progressives and Conservatives, Today

Probably the most complicated of the streams that led into Christian nationalism is the fourth one because of its nuance and its many layers, which make it difficult to describe succinctly. Sittser identifies this one as the divisions within Protestant evangelicalism that has its roots in the late 19th and early 20th century, when there was a large body of Christians who were more accommodating to modern science and willing to reinterpret Christianity in light of new ideas, such as Darwinism.

This modernist wing (what is understood as progressive today) was “reinterpreting Christianity, not rejecting it, but reinterpreting it in light of modern science,” said Sittser.

This then created a reactionary movement that was identified as fundamentalism and would be what is defined as conservative today. This fundamentalist reaction then birthed a religious subculture within American Christian history that was eventually forced underground.

This led to a robust and healthy subdivision with Christianity that started new publishing houses, built dozens of Bible schools, the most famous being Moody Bible Institute, began putting on large conferences, and created national media platforms, starting with radio.

“In the 1940s, a more forward-looking wing within that larger world of conservative Christianity launched what we now call the Neo-Evangelical movement,” said Sittser. “They simply wanted to exert more cultural influence.”

This desire to be more outward and missional to those around them, and less cloistered within their own silos, birthed even more entrepreneurial organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals, the Fuller Seminary, Christianity Today, Youth for Christ, Young Life, Navigators, and more.

“Now they didn’t change their theology that much, but they changed their culture—less belligerent, more willing to engage in dialogue, more visible, less reactionary,” said Sittser. “Billy Graham is the symbol of that movement.”

Then, Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority came on the scene, and he began to not only want to influence and interact with culture, but he wanted to exert political influence.

“He began to use the language of saving America—now he borrowed from earlier traditions, you know, Billy Graham was always preaching against communism,” said Sittser. “The spirit of ‘saving America’ was there in Bill Graham, but Falwell made it explicit and much more political.”

“That’s when modern conservative political fundamentalism really took root: the Moral Majority and the quest to save America.”

If You’re Not With Us, You’re Against Us

The Rev. Scott Starbuck, lead pastor of Manito Presbyterian Church and a regular teacher at Gonzaga and Whitworth Universities, finds himself balancing between the conservative and progressive strands of evangelicalism today, while not defining himself with either evangelical label.

Rev. Scott Starbuck speaks at a vigil at Temple Beth Shalom/Tracy Simmons – SpokaneFāVS

He attended Whitworth in the early 80s and remembers a confluence of Presbyterian reformed thought and evangelicalism and being attracted to evangelicalism due to its overall commitment to the authority of Scripture and the way Karl Barth would talk about it as a healthy commitment to the Gospel that should be proclaimed, which animates him still today.

As a leader in his church, though, he tries to stay away from labels altogether, in order to maintain a non-partisan posture toward his congregation.

“I tell the congregation all the time, let’s be honest, we sort of run our finances like a Republican platform, so we don’t go into debt,” said Starbuck. “Yet at the same time, we are concerned about social issues like oftentimes the Democrats. And I say, that’s because we’re Christians. We answer to Jesus.”

“I’ve been really concerned about the way in which the charisma of Trump has either led people uncritically toward him or to just hate him. Right? And it seems to me that as Christians, we’re not going to be very effective if we fall into either one of those camps.”

Another movement that has concerned Starbuck began as he was earning his master’s in divinity and doctorate in biblical studies at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1985-1996. He started to notice evangelical and conservative scholars began to shift away from interpreting the Bible close to its text, which was what they used to be known for and what he had been attracted to as a scholar.

“I started drifting away from any type of evangelical identity, sooner, long before this political stuff because of what was happening in evangelical thought,” said Starbuck. “You see now, politically, people having a hard time dealing with the facts, and they come up with their own facts. Well, that was happening already in evangelical scholarship. And so, if you didn’t toe the line, then you were labeled out of the group.”

However, vents like Jan. 6 insurrection show the real divides not only in the nation today, but also within Christianity. He laments that Jesus’ words to his disciples to not only love their neighbors but to also love their enemies seem to be a byword to what he calls a “political hijacking of religious” faith.

“There’s no one who marched on the Capitol who was practicing ‘love your enemy,’” said Starbuck.

Apocalyptic View of American Conflict

According to Sittser, an apocalyptic view of America’s conflicts is the fifth stream feeding into Christian nationalism and one that’s been playing an increasingly dominant role today than it had in the past.

He remembers doing his dissertation on religion on the Homefront during WWII and learning that in the 1940s that the early kind of fundamentalist, apocalyptic, pre-millennial, dispensational writers had nothing to say about America in their apocalyptic literature.

“Now it’s changed,” said Sittser. “America is playing a more dominant role all the time. It is at the center of God’s plan for the end of the ages.”

He does not know why exactly this shift happened.

“I just think it’s [the] confluence again of forces—American exceptionalism, borrowing on the Old Testament to understand our own history, which goes way back to the 17th century, [and] all of this gets kind of mingled together. Then, people start talking about the special role of America as God’s special place, which leads to a form of idolatry. Hence, Christian nationalism.”

Sittser adds that this kind apocalyptic point of view also leads to all sorts of “crazy thinking” where everything is seen through the lens of good vs. evil, of God vs. Satan, and the great battle yet to come, all of which makes complete sense to those who see through that lens.

“It creates such a charged atmosphere, that there is no way of talking about nuance [and] compromise, which is the art of politics,” said Sittser.

What’s more, according to Sittser, apocalyptic thinking can lead to such a variety of conspiratorial tangents and scenarios, best represented by QAnon today, of which there is no argument anyone can make against it.

Jesus Is the Way, the Truth, and the Life

Michael Wittwer earned a Bachelor’s in Theology at Whitworth with Sittser as his advisor. Today, he is one of the young pastors, along with Oletzke, who participates in the pastoral mentoring book club with Sittser.

After earning his Master’s in Ministerial Leadership at Southeastern University, he began a two-year transition to the lead pastor role at Life Center. He was officially commissioned as lead pastor on January 16, ten days after the Capitol insurrection.

While his denomination (Foursquare) has an official statement of belief about the “Second Coming of Christ” in that they believe it is personal and imminent, Wittwer says his church does not focus a lot on end times teaching.

“I just think that I don’t know how helpful it is to focus a lot on it,” said Wittwer. “I think it’s great to know what you believe, but ultimately … no one knows the day or the hour, not even the son. It’ll come like a thief in the night. I think the simplest thing is we know Jesus is coming, so we better be ready.”

As the lead pastor of Life Center, he tries to keep the focus on Jesus, which he didn’t see displayed at the Capitol insurrection. Instead, it seemed to him people were buying into lies that fueled the aggression of that day.

“Jesus said, you’ll know the truth and the truth will set you free,” said Wittwer. “And it seemed that that was the opposite, that there were some lies that were not setting people free, but holding them captive to an ideology that was leading toward a misrepresentation of Jesus.”

He also tries to lead his congregation out of the framework of us versus them, especially as it relates to politics.

“I don’t want to allow politics to become the issue,” said Wittwer. “Jesus made himself the issue. He said ‘I’m the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the father except through me.’ Jesus didn’t make the politics of the day the issue.”

Defense and Protection of White America

The final stream that has played an increasingly significant role in Christian nationalism, according to Sittser, is the protection of white America, which has been around in one way or another throughout her history.

“There’s a fear that we’re losing our nation. We’re losing what we romantically understand it to be,” said Sittser. “It’s racist and xenophobic.”

This can be traced back to when Polish and Italian people were a threat to the yellow scare of the perceived Asian threat. Today’s threats include a fear of losing it to foreigners among other groups of Americans, such as Muslims, people with liberal ideas, and African-Americans who are asserting themselves.

“There’s a fear of losing the power of white America, which is the group that embodies the main storyline of American history,” said Sittser.

And this is why “you could see people carrying a Trump flag, a Christian flag, an American flag, and a Confederate flag,” all of which were seen at the insurrection of the nation’s Capitol building on Jan. 6.

Sittser does not see Christian nationalism strictly as an evangelical problem either. While he’s less public about it now because of how connotative the term has become, he does identify as an evangelical, specifically a reformed, ecumenical evangelical, but more than that, he identifies as a traditional Christian who traces his roots back to the early Chrisitian period. This is also the main subject of his recent book, “Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian ‘Third Way’ Changed the World.”

“I think you could make a pretty good counter-argument that Christian nationalism is actually a perversion of evangelicalism, which has always been a global movement, not an American movement,” said Sittser.

He thinks there is much to be commended about evangelicalism throughout its history.

“The irony is that evangelicals in America have been at the absolute forefront of globalizing the Christian movement. They send missionaries everywhere,” said Sittser. “They are by far the largest missionary force in the world where they’re trying to create indigenous churches.”

He adds that many evangelicals have also been known for serving the common good in world-renowned organizations such as World Vision and World Relief.

“This is what is meant that Christ came for all people, not just Americans, but all people,” said Sittser. “In the age to come, it’s not going to be America. It’s going to be the kingdom of God, including all languages, all peoples, all colors.”

About Cassy Benefield

Cassandra Benefield mostly goes by Cassy (pronounced like Cassie but spelled with a 'y'). She is a wife and mommy, who married at the age of 37 and had her baby girl just shy of 39. She has moved around all her life, first as an Army brat. She is a returned Peace Corps volunteer to Romania where she taught Conversational English, Modern Literature, Creative Writing, U.S. Culture, U.S. Geography, and U.S. History (the last two subjects she was so not qualified to teach!). She is a Journalism major from Cal Poly Technical University in San Luis Obispo, Calif. She finds much comfort in her Savior, Jesus Christ, and considers herself a Bible nerd who is prone to buy more theology books than she is ever able to read. Morro Bay, California, is her favorite place on earth ... with the exception of being in the center of God's will. From time to time, you will find her writing devotions on her blog underhisshadow.blogspot.com.

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