The Church and the Myth of Christian Nationalism: Processing the Aftermath of the 2016 US Presidential Election

It’s taken me the better part of six days to write this post. I’ve started it seven times and stopped just as many. Finding the right words has been more difficult than I expected.

I have only a few acquaintances that were truly happy about the election results. Many felt dirty about their vote (on either side of the aisle), and even more felt dirty over the entire process. I think most Americans with a conscience would agree. This was a very small percentage’s ideal campaign.

The unexpected blow, the one that finally gave me the insightsI needed to write this post, came when sitting with friends who are minorities. I’ll give voice to their issues in a moment.

Trying To Make The Right Call with the Wrong Stuff

Statistically speaking, of the white voters at New Life, in my own church, 8 out of 10 voted for DonaldTrump last week. That’s a very high figure, even among pollsters.

I think very few of them actually “liked” Trump; of those who do, we all know them on Facebook.

But given my demographic’s tendency to be suspect of immigrant non-assimilation, to view the Left being complicit in minority economic suppression in urban environments, to oppose anything that threatens the physical ability to defend private property, and, most of all, to refute abortion at all costs, it’s at least understandable to me why so many felt that Trump was their only choice.

Suggest a third party candidate or mention not voting and most white evangelicals will balk. The stakes are too high to merely cast the “send a message” vote. Doing so would mean missing out on valuable Supreme Court nominations, ending the flow of special interest funds, arresting the downward spiral of lost American jobs, and finally being able to thwart foreign enemies hostile to the pursuit of freedom. All of these, it’s reasoned, would have lasting impacts for the next several decades. And so, in our minds, we’d rather win with a less-than-scrupulous candidate than lose to someone far worse. Trump, in white evangelicals’ minds, truly is the lesser of two evils.

The Backlash

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, to everyone’s utter amazement, Trump won. I’m sure it was startling even for his campaign. I literally thought Google was playing one of their classic gags on my iPhone. But they weren’t.

Within hours, the backlash began.

Word of protests, marches, and rallies spread quickly. Defiant rants exploded on social media. Opposition signs clouded every news source from Left to Right.

People were upset.

Minorities were upset.

“I didn’t want to leave the house tonight,” said one friend who will remain anonymous.

“I’m afraid,” said another, also anonymous. When I asked for a specific reason why, she replied, “There’s a new sense that it’s suddenly okay to be vocal about your racism.”

As first I thought they were overreacting. Until I started asking questions, putting myself in their shoes, and reading dozens and skimming hundreds of reports on the sudden uptick of unspeakable racist behavior across the country.

“It’s permissible now to be a bigot in public.”

Just read the initial findings of the Southern Poverty Law Center and browse through the growing list of reports tracked here.

“I am intensely conservative in a lot of ways and pro-life views are one of my top three issues in voting,” said another friend. “But right now, I’m keeping my head down and my mouth shut, trying not to let on how horrified I am by some of what Christians, I once admired, are saying.”

Several more of my black friends couldn’t even find words to answer simple questions that were posed to them. Sitting in the presence of their silence made me self-aware that I was unready for this reaction, unready for the pain I saw in their eyes. All at once, I realized the emotion that was intangibly but viscerally swelling in the air.

Betrayal

Who’d You Vote For?

Dozens of friends overseas have asked me who I voted for. In their eyes, Hillary Clinton was the obvious choice. That didn’t surprise me. Their media tends to paint Left-leaning candidates in very pure light. But they failed to point out her establishment cronyism, countless spats with FBI investigations, numerous lies made under oath at congressional hearings, and countless life-costing failures in foreign policy.

Even if those things were diligently pointed out, she hasn’t been what her opponent is in the eyes of the nations: a racist, misogynistic, xenophobic bigot. Regardless of her stance on abortion (something I’ve needed to point out to my global friends, as world media also tends to downplay this fact), Clinton has made efforts to be seen as mostly sympathetic to humanitarian issues.In other words, she hasn’t asked for a wall against Mexicans, she hasn’t singled out “all Muslims” in speeches, hasn’t asked to defund sanctuary cities for refugees, hasn’t made obscene sexist remarks on a national platform (though she’s been accused of covering up plenty), and she’s consistently stood with minority movements including Black Lives Matter.

I say mostly sympathetic to humanitarian issues becauseClintonfails to stand in the gap for the neediest people group in the world, those most at risk, those most fragile, most vulnerable, voiceless, and helpless: our unborn babies. How anyone can say they’re for protecting those most at risk but endorse full term abortions is the epitome of what it means to be deceived.

My implication here is not that she is the better choice over and against Donald Trump, as so many often presume. Clinton wasn’t the perfect choice, to be sure. I sure didn’t vote for her. But I think what my international friends were really asking was not how Hillary Clinton lost but how Donald Trump was able to secure 81% of the white evangelical vote as the exit polls showed.

And my Christian minority friends are wondering the same thing.

God Has Favorite Presidents?

Let me be clear: not every person that voted for Trump is a racist. I have very good friends who voted for him for their own reasons, many of them outlined above. I don’t hold their reasoning, or their vote,against them. Arguably, to arrive at any sense of reason within this election is a feat of extraordinary resolve. Their logic is their own, and, truthfully, plenty of it made sense, though I could not personally pull the lever for Trump.

Many reasoned that Trump had the pro-life vote over Clinton. I agree. He garnered much of the Christian vote because of it, even if reluctantly. The problem, of course, is that the Christian vote shouldn’t be pro-life about babies alone—it must be Pro-Life for everything living. This means a deep antipathy toward violence, a hatred of anything that limits equality, resistance to policy that marginalizes people based on race or economics, and a stern and adamant rebuke of enforcement that is anything less than humane.

For most reasonable people, we all knew going into the voting booth that we were dealing with levels of evil to choose from. In fact, not a single person I talked to was 100% sure who they were voting for the morning of the election. I don’t ever remember anything like this before. And no one I spoke to was naive enough to think there was actually something “good” to come of all this.

Or did they?

“Trump is God’s man,” one Facebook friend wrote.

“We have one final chance to turn this nation around!” wrote another. “If we don’t elect Trump, our country is doomed!”

“This is the church’s last chance to shine! Without [Trump] winning this election, the church will be crippled forever.”

Shares and likes populated in the hundreds.

It was bad enough that many Christians nodded in agreement when Trump began generalizing Mexicans; I wonder how often any of them visit churches south of the border and address congregations. It was bad enough that other Christians whitewashed Trumps deplorable and filthy speech toward women, even toward his own daughter; I shutter to think what conditional expectations they’re raising their children with. It was bad enough that some Christians cheered when an entire worldwide demographic of religious followers were slandered; I doubt that many of these brothers and sisters in Christ have thought through the cost of loving our enemies precisely when the enemy doesn’t reciprocate.

But when fellow Christians asserted that Donald Trump’s success in a political election predicated the church of Jesus Christ’s influence in the country—that somehow Trump was God’s will—that’s when they tipped their hand and crossed the God line.

This is nationalism in Christian clothing.

This is exchanging the Christian birthright of being God’s “new version of humanity,” as famed theologian N.T. Wright calls it, for a flicking flag and an ambient anthem. The church was never told that its fruitfulness was to be conditional upon the success of a political party. This is where the toll taken by the Christian Coalition still has teeth. To hear many of these Christians talk, you’d believe an American flag will be flying high somewhere in the new heavens and the new earth.

While I am blessed to live and hopefully die in the United States of America, you can be certain that I am not an American Christian, but a Christian who happens to have an American Passport. That is because American nationalism, just like Roman nationalism, is antithetical to the kingdom of God.

Waking Up In Empire

In a world that was saturated in empire, Paul knew all too well that if he didn’t secure Jew-and-Gentile harmony within these newly formed communities known as churches, they would not last to the end of the century under Roman rule. This is precisely the urgency that we feel undergirding every line of every letter he wrote, extolling them to a new pattern of reformational living.

“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good,” he wrote to five small churches in the heart of the Roman empire, to Christians he had never met.

“Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor,” he charged them, certain that this sense of shared care would preserve them against the coming hostilities. “Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord,” he urged, aware that they would be tempted to grow weary in doing good.

“Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer,” he went on. Then, sure that Rome would not attend to the weak except to slaughter them, or to the refugee accept to enslave them, he added, “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”

If I, as one who is inferior to Paul, weep in reading these next lines, I must believe he wept as he penned them.

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”

Those words surely echoed in the hearts of those disciples who were crucified. Those Christians who were fed to lions and sawed in two. Those who were hung, who were burned alive. If they heard Paul, if they heard Jesus, the last words on their lips were, “I bless you.”

His tenor rising, Paul doesn’t let up.

“Live in harmony with one another,” he pleads. “Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.”

Associate with the lowly? Don’t claim to know it all? What political ethos has ever embodied such tenets?

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

How could Paul know so well what Christians living 2016’s America needed to hear?

At the end of his sweeping charge not to take vengeance on enemies, something Paul only could’ve learned from close examination of the life of the Messiah that he so radically followed, Paul ends with what may be one of the most reformational statements of the New Testament.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

What possessed him? What conviction gripped the soul of this Apostle to the Gentiles? I think that Paul believed if the church didn’t live this out, no one would. It is the church’s responsibility, and it’s alone, to manifest the realities of God to the earth, to be the outpost of heaven.

This is why blacks feel betrayed.

This is why women feel betrayed.

This is why Mexicans feel betrayed.

This is why Muslims feel betrayed.

Not because America let them down. But because the church did.

We may very well have voted for the pro-life candidate, but it appears as though we did it at the cost of blacks. Of Mexicans. Of Muslims. Of women. And I, for one, believe that the cost was too great.

“I don’t understand how the first time [Trump] said something blatantly racist, he wasn’t just told to take a seat,” said a conservative black friend in confidence. “I don’t understand how my actual brown-skinned life got put on a balance scale against the hope that he was actually telling the truth about his picks for supreme court justice.”

What was the alternative? Not vote? Possibly. Vote for one of the pro-life third party candidates and lose the election altogether? Possibly. I wonder if either of those would have been better than what we’ve created now: an air of suspicion among those who were looking to us for trust and safety. But what is certain is that we didn’t do what we should’ve done, which is now hindsight: Decry outrageous behavior from moment one.

Every minority friend I’ve spoken with did not see Clinton as the best answer or even the person to vote for; they know, better than anyone, that policy hasn’t changed under the Obama administration. What minorities wanted was for the church to be the church and see through the charade. They wanted the church to bemoan all unscrupulous conduct, Left or Right, and refuse to play the game even if it meant losing the White House. They were looking for 8 out of 10 evangelical whites to say that protecting babies’ lives and minority lives mattered.

“The fact remains that the people who are blatantly racist see Trump as their best hope to have the country they want,” said a black friend. “And that should’ve been a wake-up call for all of us.”

Even as I finish this, we’re learning from tonight’s 60 Minutes interview that Trump is already backpedaling on some of his major campaign promises—less than one week in. Certainly, I’m grateful that he’s backing away for the ledge of his polarizing campaign promises. But was it worth it? Is a more tempered president-elect worth the damage caused by endorsing a zealot?

Yes, it’s too late to undo the election of 2016. But, Christians, it must never be repeated.

Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not 

In a world where the term euangelion, good news, meant that “Caesar is Lord,” the first century Christians hijacked it, forever connecting it with the message of God’s covenant faithfulness to all of humanity through Christ. “The good news,” they would have told you, “is that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.”

For those Christians who feel afraid and betrayed, I want to let you know, Jesus is Lord, Trump is not. The world is not worthy of your worry, sweet friend. Come, little sheep, do not be afraid. The light is shining brightly. Not all evangelicals are suspicious of you, but we understand it may be a long while until we win your trust back. I’m so sorry.

For those Christians who feel like the church just got saved in this election, I need to remind you, Jesus is Lord, Trump is not. Be mindful that when you presume God’s activity is dependent on a political leader, you are not only undermining the movement of God’s Spirit in the church, but you are slandering every Christian church in every nation that doesn’t have “God’s man” in an office. My fear for you is that where a Clinton victory would have snapped you awake and made you more reliant on the church, a Trump victory has coaxed you further into a sickening lethargy that believes a President, not Jesus and his church, is God’s hope for the nations.

Your hope was never in Rome, and it is not in Washington DC.

You are the beautiful bride of Christ, and your hope is in King Jesus. Be the church, not in spite of the mess we’ve made, but because we—not a political party—were charged to be the salt of the earth and the light on a hill. Our holy calling is nothing less and could not possibly be more.

Be the church.

END NOTE:

Please read Addendum: Apology and Clarification

  • Amen sword-brother. I too couldn’t vote for either, and I am glad to be a citizen of the Kingdom and not of this earth. Romans 12 has become my life passage.

  • AM

    That was worth the wait for your thoughts on this election! Beautifully articulate and heartfelt.
    I understand Christians could not bring themselves to vote for Clinton, and I don’t think it would have been wise to do so on so many levels, if not for the protection of the most vulnerable alone.
    I have struggled to understand those who voted Trump, but came to accept their vote was about lifetime appointments to the supreme court. But, regardless, one of them HAD to win. I don’t think it’s quite fair to say the white church is guilty that the person on the conservative ticket won. The only people I know who are happy about him are not believers.
    My biggest feeling of grief and shock is not that Trump won (though I was genuinely shocked), but that he was the person selected to run in the first place. This is where the failure was in my view.
    I am relieved that Clinton did not win. But I am NOT happy that Trump did.

    • “I don’t think it’s quite right to say the white church is guilty that the person on the conservative ticket won.”

      This is true. I could have been a little more articulate here. Though what I was trying to bring to the forefront was our majority participation in whatever larger demographic brought him into office.

      “The only people I know who are happy about him are not believers.”

      Interesting. Mine is the complete opposite.

      “My biggest feeling of grief and shock is not that Trump won (though I was genuinely shocked), but that he was the person selected to run in the first place. This is where the failure was in my view.”

      I agree, and I hope that’s the message we all take away for future generations.

      Gosh, now I sound like an old fart.

      • AM

        No, no, you most certainly don’t. It’s a great piece. I’ve already sent it to 3 people! 🙂
        I have only 2 people I know who wanted Trump and were happy to vote for him. Neither are believers. Our Christian friends were also distraught by it all, but most relented to vote for the conservative ticket, some refused to vote for Clinton or Trump.

  • LarryBurt

    Thank you. I hope these inspired words might spread throughout the Christian community.

    On a small side-note, not germane to your overall point, I hope you may one day find time to look at the charges against Hillary. She is a Washington insider, and she is pro-choice, but nearly all, if not all the other charges against her, she was condemned without reason, other than purely for political gain. This is your blog, and I won;t get argumentative with you, by going into a long diatribe of why. but she will never be a politician again. It’s time for her to get the credit she deserves.

    • Thank you for the kind words, Larry.

      I also believe you’re right in highlighting the fact that Hillary does merit more credit than she’s given—certainly from the the Right. Because of my conservative background, I tend to judge her and others with more bias than is needed. I appreciate the valuable reminder. Duly noted.

      • LarryBurt

        Thank you for your kind and thoughtful response.

  • Sverker Blyth

    As an international is so interesting getting a comprehensive, honest, clearly expressed and easily understood insight to the recent presidential campaign in the USA. A definite good & challenging read especially as a Christian …

    • Merci, Sverker. Thank you for reading and posting a comment. The international community is one we Americans far too often forget about (or worse, dismiss). Glad it was a helpful read.

  • WayneBatson

    Hi, Christopher, this is a powerful piece, and mannnn oh mannnnn, has your writing improved. You should write books or something… I have to confess, I didn’t know what to do with this election. I was heartbroken after the primaries. Of all the decent and honorable leaders out there could America choose these two? In all honesty, I think the primaries were rigged. In fact, I think the whole political system in America is a disaster. A two-party system is no longer viable for such a diverse nation as ours has become. I highly respect some of the Democratic platform’s social agenda, just as I highly value the RNC’s Pro Life stance. But there’s no party to vote for that covers it all. And it’s entirely likely that, in a 3 or 4 party system, it would still be the case that some platform issues seem biblical and worthy of support, while others will still seem horrid.

    Originally, I intended to refuse to vote for either. I even wrote publicly about how big a person’s God is if that person thinks that only one party could do God’s will. With man, so many things are impossible, but with God, nothing is. And yet, in the end, I caved in and voted for Trump. It was the influence of several trusted friends who wrote poignant pieces of why Trump was the way to go, and I pulled the lever, asking God to forgive me if I’d made a heinous choice.

    I’m as alarmed at the legitimate fears of minorities and women as I am about the violent and destructive protests. When I voted for Trump, I had no idea a Trump win would lead to such titanic terror. And, of course, I’m a white guy. No wonder. I never really investigated the terribly racist/misogynist etc comments he’s made. I just assumed “Well, they couldn’t have been that bad or the RNC would have kicked him out, or at least the public outcry would have been so great that Trump needed to step down.” I was wrong. The fear felt by minorities and women right now is probably the same kind of fear that I’d feel if Hillary had one. I would be afraid of church persecution, of religious freedoms being taken away, and for the lives of untold millions of unborn people. Mostly I’d be afraid for the world my kids would grow up to live in. I’m still afraid.

    The only distinction I can muster against your piece is this: “We may very well have voted for the pro-life candidate, but it appears
    as though we did it at the cost of blacks. Of Mexicans. Of Muslims. Of
    women. And I, for one, believe that the cost was too great.” I find it difficult to weigh the minority life versus the unborn baby’s life. After all, so many aborted babies are minorities. Which is better? Risk a rise in racism and discrimination or sit and watch as minorities and women in the millions are murdered before birth? That’s too great a question for me to answer.

    In the end, I hope for Godly supreme court justices, and I hope that Americans will treat all people equally. But, if neither hope occurs, I have to return to my first hope: Jesus. I have to hope that He will lead His church to love God and to love our neighbor.

    • Wayne,

      As always, thank you for taking the time to post such a well conceived reply. All your compliments are also duly noted; much of my writing improvement has come form seminary kicking my tail. Thank you.

      I also appreciate your openness to share your personal experience in a very public way; you are a perfect person to do so as I believe all of your efforts are genuine, motivated with no ill-will. I think your sentiments (and resulting takeaways) embody the majority of white Christians who voted for Trump (the rest being those who actually believed in all of his rhetoric). Thanks for helping us think through the process with kindness. As I already wrote, I don’t fault you for the vote; what’s more, I credit you for placing yourself empathetically in the hands of others’ plights.

      My arrival at thinking the cost was too high was not in the direct comparison of unborn babies to minorities—I also couldn’t weigh that out, nor do I think there should have to be that polemic scenario to begin with—but in the *promise* that unborn babies would be helped. It would’ve been one thing to trust a level-headed nondescript nominee with the promise of electing judges to overturn Roe vs Wade—the chance of them doing so is slim-to-none in this day and age. But to trust Donald Trump with such lofty promises, and then do so in light of his bigoted disposition toward minorities—*that* is what I was referring to as being too costly. We trusted for too greatly at the expense of too much for the return of too little.

      Much love,

      Christopher

      • AM

        I could quite honestly read a dialog between Sir Wayne and Sir Christopher all day long. I love the honesty between you and the beauty in your writing. Wayne represents most of my believing friends conclusion about the election…why they chose Trump in the end. What concerns me besides Trump himself (who was a pro choice dem until recently anyway) is how this has caused the most intense division in the church I have ever seen.
        I suppose being driven to our knees is just where we need to be…

  • Patrick Kenney

    Christopher,
    After moving away from Depauville and Watertown, I’ve watched with interest the changes that you’ve been a part of these past few years. I know from previous conversations with members of the church that our political views most likely differ more than agree. That said, I read the above message (and its addendum) with joy. I believe strongly that it is with love that we express who we are as believers. This love is not simply the ProLife love that limits itself to the unborn, and it does not espouse policies of taxation and representation (though I’d argue it does not prevent us from having points of views in that regard either). As a sidenote, your definition of ProLife here is perfect and not one I’ve considered. Rather, like all of God’s love, it is without measure or boundary and cannot be limited to a stage of life or circumstance. This love was missing from the election, and it saddened me more than in previous years, at least partly because I see a lot more of the people who need that love these days. I take hope in Proverbs 21:1, that “The king’s heart is like a stream of water directed by the LORD; he guides it wherever he pleases.” Thanks for such a great post, it gave me a lot of food for thought.

    • Patrick: I apologize for not replying sooner. This is a beautiful comment, and one I take to heart considering the long familial connection. Thank you, truly.