American Idolatry: How Christian Nationalism Betrays the Gospel and Threatens the Church by Andrew L. Whitehead

American Idolatry: How Christian Nationalism Betrays the Gospel and Threatens the Church cover imageSummary: A helpful, somewhat personal look at how Christian Nationalism is a type of idolatry that distorts Christianity. 

I am very much on board with the idea that Christian Nationalism is one of the more significant problems facing both the US political reality and the US church. But I also think that some critics of the idea of Christian Nationalism have a point when they suggest that some presentations are vague and unclear. Part of the problem is that many critics are not sociologists, and so are resistant to the reality of social science working in tendencies toward behavior. I have an undergrad degree in sociology and understand that sociology and other similar social sciences work with correlations that are often only partially explanatory. Other factors are always at play. And even two people with the same history, culture, and even biology (twins) may not believe or behave the same way. Social science broadly works in tendencies. All things being equal, if these factors apply, this result is more likely than if these factors do not apply.

As an example from Christian Nationalism, those that rank higher on the Christian Nationalism scale tend to view the world through a lens of racial hierarchy. But if a person who ranks higher on the Christian Nationalism scale has a significant relationship with others of a different race (maybe through adoption or marriage or in a church setting), that individual may agree with many tenants of Christian Nationalism but not view the world through a lens of racial hierarchy. That individual does not mean that the correlation between Christian Nationalism and belief in the racial hierarchy is false more broadly; it just means that they have other factors in their life that combat that aspect of Christian Nationalism. This year, Justice Jackson wrote in a concurrence (highlighted by Sarah Isgur), “Other cases presenting different allegations and different records may lead to different conclusions.” Jackson’s phrase is precisely the point here, while tendencies remain, individual cases may not be the same because no two cases are perfectly identical; however, there is value in exploring the ways that the tendencies work.

I am also reading American Idolatry in light of two books and a podcast. I read American Idolatry in print and overlapped it with the audiobook of Mark Noll’s history of the bible in the US from 1794 to 1911. Many of the uses of the bible in history would lend themselves to Christian Nationalist uses today. Some of those should be considered Christian Nationalism, and some should not. What is helpful about reading American Idolatry in light of America’s Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization, 1794-1911, is that longer trends both support and give pause to how we think of Christian Nationalism in this particular political moment. There have been points in US history that have had concerning Christian behavior. And the bible has long been used for political purposes (that is the point of Noll’s book).

Andrew Whitehead is careful throughout the book not to label those that tend toward Christian Nationalism as something other than Christian. He wants to say that there may be “an idolatry” that is a problem in the use of Christian Nationalism for control and power, but that these people are still Christian. And I largely applaud him for that and think that “othering people” can dismiss the problem or our role in the problem. That is where the podcast I referenced comes in. I have long followed Michael Emerson and listened to his interview on the Know It, Own It, Change It podcast. Emerson has repeatedly said in several interviews and articles that his research indicates that many White Christians have ceased to be Christians and have begun following a Religion of Whiteness. And having read much from Emerson on this point, I agree that his evidence is persuasive (similar to Robert Jones.) Still, while I want to take seriously Emerson’s (and Jones’) points that there does seem to be a line across which you cease to be practicing Christianity and instead are practicing a different religion, the bias should be to consider these differences within Christianity.

Whitehead does not draw a parallel with how Kendi speaks about racism, but I think it is helpful. Kendi suggests we should not consider ‘racism’ like a tattoo we are permanently labeled with. But instead, we should consider racism a sticky name tag that we can take on and off. Sometimes we communicate an idea that is racist, and sometimes we communicate an idea that opposes racism. One is not evidence that the other does not exist. Coming back to Christian Nationalism, we can communicate Christian Nationalism ideas at one point and at another point speak against Christian Nationalist ideas and still be a single person. People are complex.

Noll also makes a distinction between sectarian and custodial Protestants. In Noll’s conception, Custodial Protestants are those that “took for granted the comprehensive intermingling of ecclesiastical, governmental and social interests–as well as their own leading position as intellectual and moral preceptors.”(p54). There is an overlap here with the idea of Christian Nationalism. But Noll argues that there was a tension between the assumptions of European Christendom translated to the United States, where some sense of religious liberty existed. As sectarian Protestants became numerically and culturally stronger, especially after the second great awakening, the common understanding of the church’s role within the community fell apart, as did the bible’s role (the point of Noll’s book). Noll is not evaluating the rightness of sectarian versus custodial Protestantism. And he personally is a Presbyterian which tends toward a custodial view. But Noll subtly points out the difference between those custodial Protestants that took responsibility for the community and those that understood their role to be, in some sense, a divine right to rule based on chosenness. Noll is not discussing modern Christian Nationalism, but in this distinction, we can see the origins of what Whitehead calls a type of idolatry or syncretism.

The second book I also read in conversation with American Ideology is Karen Swallow Prior’s Evangelical Imagination. Prior is exploring how the evangelical imagination tends to work. Emerson uses the phrase “Evangelical toolkit” to talk about how the Evangelicals tend to have a narrow range of tools to handle racial ideas. Prior uses Charles Taylor’s idea of the “Social Imaginary,” similar to Emerson’s idea of the toolkit. She walks through a list of “tools” that shape how Evangelicals view the world.

Andrew Whitehead similarly walks through the toolkit or social imaginary of a Christian Nationalist worldview. It is easy to see how people can shift between the evangelical and Christian Nationalist toolkits because of overlapping ideas. In the more memoir-like sections, Whitehead hints at a similar social imaginary idea in discussing his exposure to many Christian Nationalist ideas as a child or young adult. But expanding his worldview, or imagination, allowed him to see how others viewed the world differently.

“In short, white Christian nationalism is a cultural framework asserting that civil life in the United States should be organized according to a particular form of conservative Christianity. Beyond any theological or religious beliefs associated with Christianity, white Christian nationalism brings with it a host of cultural assumptions, particularly a moral traditionalism predicated on maintaining social hierarchies, a comfort with (the “right kind” of) authoritarian social control that includes the threat and use of violence, and a desire for strict ethno-racial boundaries designating who can fully particulate in American civil life. As we’ll explore later, it centers and privileges the white Christian experience because it essentially teaches that this country was founded by white, conservative Christian men for the benefit of white, conservative Christian citizens.”

In many ways, I wish the memoir sections of American Idolatry were a more significant portion of the book because that story of change is essential. (As Prior’s chapter on conversation suggests.) But I think that the reality is that Whitehead isn’t that old, and he largely rejected many of the ideas of Christian Nationalism by his early 20s, so there was not as much to work with in his own story. There is space for Whitehead or someone specializing in ethnography to tell the story of adults who changed their minds about Christian Nationalism. At least some people embracing the term deconstruction are working through that type of conversion.

The idea of idolatry is central to the book. It isn’t that Christian Nationalism is a complete rejection of Christianity but a distortion of Christianity. American culture stresses individualism and tends to reject communal responsibility. Interpreting Christianity through an American lens leads toward an incomplete view of the gospel.

“…the doxastic aspect that focuses on individual salvation alone–that hinders many American Christians from seeing how Christian nationalism betrays the life and teaching of Jesus in two important areas: racial inequality and xenophobia. In these two areas, white American Christians tend to ignore the practical aspect of the gospel, including justice for the oppressed, thinking that as long as we believe the correct theological claims and encourage others to embrace those theological claims as well that we are doing all we need to do.”

Whitehead further details how race and ethnicity have become idolatry.

“…the Christianity of American Christan nationalism conveys particular forms of cultural baggage. Chief among these is how it privileges and centers the white experience. Christianity in the United States is inextricably tied to race.”

and later

“…the idol of power in Christian natonalism is a power employed for selfish reasons to behefit the in-group. To pursue justice, Chrsitians will have to see and use power. This employment of power should rather benefit all people, especially our neighbors who have been harmed or overlooked. Christian nationalism’s vision and use of power, however, is focused solely on extending and protecting a particular subset of largely white Christians’ cultural and economic interests. It is important to distinguish between the two uses of power to faithfully confront white Christain nationalism in our society and religious traditions.”

The phrasing of some of this is precisely the type of language that is both true and not sufficiently nuanced for those who want to argue. I know I am not helping my case here, but the concept of “Interest convergence” helps combat the “focused solely on extending and protecting…cultural and economic interests.” Whitehead is right that this is the main focus. But interest convergence means that there are times when there can be overlap with Christian nationalists’ interests in a way that looks like they are helping others. And those that want to argue with Whitehead’s point will point to those areas of interest convergence and ignore the ways that Christian nationalists’ interests are being addressed while also working with others.

The middle chapters exploring the idolatry of Christian nationalism all have titles that are suggestive of direct commands of Jesus: Do Not Be Afraid, Turn the Other Cheek, Lay Down Your Sword, Your Kingdom Come, On Earth as it is in Heaven, Who is My Neighbor. Russell Moore did an interview with NPR that generated a bunch of articles because of the following quote:

“…multiple pastors tell me, essentially, the same story about quoting the Sermon on the Mount, parenthetically, in their preaching — “turn the other cheek” — [and] to have someone come up after to say, “Where did you get those liberal talking points?” And what was alarming to me is that in most of these scenarios, when the pastor would say, “I’m literally quoting Jesus Christ,” the response would not be, “I apologize.” The response would be, “Yes, but that doesn’t work anymore. That’s weak.” And when we get to the point where the teachings of Jesus himself are seen as subversive to us, then we’re in a crisis.”

Part of what I found that was revealing about the quote on social media and articles is that this isn’t a new phenomenon, but it has mainly been discussed as if it were new. Some people were angry about it being treated as new. Some were thankful that Moore was speaking (although he has been speaking like this for a while). And some were irritated that there wasn’t more citation from Moore about those that had been saying this for a while. The center section of American Idolatry is all about Christians that seem to be rejecting direct biblical concepts as being “liberal.” Whitehead does well at both rooting the conversation in why Christian nationalists are at this place sociologically and why that is wrong regarding historical orthodoxy while citing many that have been calling this out for a long time.

I read a digital Advance Reader copy of American Idolatry that did not have working endnote links yet. After the first chapter or two, I started flipping to the endnotes and reviewing the whole chapter’s endnotes before I started the chapter. I think I had read about 60 percent of the books, articles, or tweets referenced in the end notes. I am very familiar with the literature that Whitehead cites in making this case. I am convinced of the importance of the argument that he is making and of the problems of a Christianity that seems to have lost its center. My family has left our church of nearly two decades, not because they are open Christian nationalists but because so many of the leaders of the church I have talked to over the past decade about my concerns are either unable or unwilling to take Christian nationalism seriously as a severe problem.

As with several books, I think American Idolatry help continue the conversation about why the idolatry of white American Christianity (especially evangelicalism) needs to be directly addressed. But at the same time, I think most people who need to hear it will not. And this book will not cut through the social imaginary that resists hearing this needed critique.

American Idolatry: How Christian Nationalism Betrays the Gospel and Threatens the Church by Andrew L. Whitehead Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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