Does Christianity need another schism on the scale of the Reformation?
The events in Washington, DC on January 6th left no doubt that the rise of Christian nationalism is a threat to democracy and therefore a threat to the standing of the Christian church in the United States. Protecting that standing requires that Christians who embrace religious pluralism and respect the United States Constitution erect a firewall between themselves and Christian nationalists.
A bright line must be drawn between Christian congregations in this country that support religious pluralism and renounce authoritarianism, and those that do not. If that means a schism on the scale of the Protestant Reformation, so be it. A perception that Christianity in general is incompatible with democracy would do incalculable harm to the church.
Evangelical Christians are the vanguard of Christian nationalism, an authoritarian movement based on their belief that the purpose of government is to run the country according to their particular version of Christianity. Secular concepts like the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution and democratic elections are subordinated to what they consider to be a religious mandate to install political leaders who share that belief.
Christianity is a religion. Christian nationalism is most accurately described as a political ideology about American identity.
Evangelicals remain steadfast in their loyalty to former president Donald Trump, who exploited their addiction to secular power. That loyalty led to their complicity in the insurrection that took place at the Capitol.
Other Christians must condemn that complicity and distance themselves from it. And do so without further delay.
One lie after another
The impetus for the insurrection was the falsehood that Trump, not President Joe Biden, won the presidential election. It was a lie enthusiastically amplified by Franklin Graham, arguably the most influential evangelical Christian leader.
Graham used the lie to justify his calls for the election of Biden to be set aside. He described the election as “rigged or stolen” and joined in demands that state legislatures disregard the popular votes in their states and select electors to the Electoral College committed to Trump.
Evangelical pastor Greg Locke stated at a rally on January 5th that God is raising “an army of patriots.” Another pastor, Brian Gibson, proclaimed that “the church of the Lord Jesus Christ started America” and added that “we’re going to take our nation back!”
No one knows the power of words better than politicians and preachers. Neither Graham nor other right-wing Christian leaders can disclaim responsibility for the consequences of their inflammatory rhetoric, including the deadly events of January 6th. They put their ecclesiastical imprimatur on what was at best a dangerous lie, and at worst sedition.
Do not, however, expect remorse. Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, gave what became the typical evangelical response condemning the insurrection but absolving Trump of any blame for the violence — and by implication absolving evangelicals who supported the “stop the steal” movement. The purported self-absolution is nothing but another lie.
Ten years ago, famed evangelist Billy Graham, Franklin’s father, wrote an article titled “Things God Hates.” He cited Proverbs for the admonitions that God hates “a lying tongue” and “one who sows discord among brethren.” He had this to say in answer to the question of where man’s tendency to deceive comes from:
“Jesus gave us the answer when He said to those who spoke a lie in His day, ‘You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do’ (John 8:44). Human nature was warped and twisted in the fall of Adam. But Jesus Christ, who is the truth, came saying, ‘Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free’ (John 8:32).”
Evangelicals, including Billy Graham’s son Franklin, exploited the Big Lie — the falsehood that the election was stolen from Trump — to turn Americans, including Christians, against each other for their own ends. It was a course of action rooted in pure evil, and they now have blood on their hands.
The evangelicals’ addiction to secular power
Evangelicals became addicted to the political power achieved through their fealty to Trump. Their addiction made them vulnerable to propensities like lying and manipulation that often accompany politics.
The lesson for Christians in the death of Jesus Christ lies in his resurrection and in eternal life. The lesson from the time that he spent on earth, however, is the centrality of virtuousness. Jesus extolled goodness and eschewed secular power. It is a lesson that evangelicals have forgotten.
Editor Mark Galli of the prominent evangelical magazine Christianity Today penned an editorial before retiring in 2019 in which he warned that evangelicals’ relationship to Trump was a Faustian bargain. He predicted that the “whole game will come crashing down. . . on the reputation of evangelical religion and on the world’s understanding of the gospel. And it will come crashing down on a nation of men and women whose welfare is also our concern.”
Christian churches vs. Christian nationalist churches
Christians who reject religious nationalism must ensure that the “whole game” does not come crashing down on the reputation of Christianity itself by separating themselves doctrinally from Christian nationalists. They must denounce authoritarianism and affirm their commitment to the Establishment Clause by embracing religious pluralism.
They must reaffirm the self-evident principle that Christians have a duty to embrace the truth and repudiate falsehoods in all aspects of their lives. Let there be no mistake going forward which churches are Christian nationalist churches, and which are not.
I was raised in the Lutheran Church and now belong to a Methodist congregation. Pastors and other leaders of mainline Protestant denominations need not necessarily demonstrate the resolve of Jesus when he confronted the scribes and Pharisees, nor the courage of Martin Luther when he challenged the authority of Pope Leo X.
Those leaders must, however, have the fortitude to take a public stand against a perversion of Christianity that is inconsistent not only with the concept of a democratic, pluralistic society but also with the teachings of Jesus. They must call out Christian nationalism for the heresy that it is.