A remarkable thing has happened since the Baptist Joint Committee launched an unprecedented campaign called Christians Against Christian Nationalism. The usual big-talking Christian Right leaders seem visibly afraid. At least four Christian Right leaders and one conservative Christian columnist could not even bring themselves to say “Baptist Joint Committee” when they denounced the campaign. This included none other than WallBuilders founder David Barton, himself a leading proponent of Christian nationalism (and an architect of Project Blitz); Family Research Council President Tony Perkins and David Closser, FRC’s Director of Christian Ethics and Biblical Worldview; Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, and Cheryl K. Chumley, online opinion editor at The Washington Times.
The Washington, D.C.-headquartered Baptist Joint Committee (BJC) has a long history of standing for separation of church and state and religious freedom for all. The group once included the Southern Baptist Convention—until the fundamentalist take-over of the nation’s largest protestant denomination whose leaders no longer stood for those values. The BJC today is supported by 14 other Baptist bodies, including the American Baptist Church USA, the historically African American Progressive National Baptist Convention, and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Christian nationalism is “not new” Amanda Tyler, executive director of BJC told Jack Jenkins of Religion News Service, but they were inspired to draft the statement in light of what she said was “a spike in Christian nationalist rhetoric and efforts to pass state-level legislation that reflects Christian nationalist sentiment.” Much of that legislation is rooted in Project Blitz – a Christian Right effort to generally advance Christian nationalism in public life, and in public schools in particular, en route to a wider vision of religious and political dominion. And all in the name of religious freedom.
The BJC’s effort to inform and rally their communities towards greater understanding of Christian nationalism is not just about history and public policy, but also a vigorous defense of the faith in response to this rising ethos and ideology in the Christian Right. Their campaign is accompanied by a ten-part podcast discussion of Christian nationalism with a range of scholars, journalists, and religious leaders who explain how this is so.
The statement reads in part:
“Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian. It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation. We reject this damaging political ideology and invite our Christian brothers and sisters to join us in opposing this threat to our faith and to our nation.”
The statement has been endorsed by seventeen Christian leaders from a variety of traditions, including Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network Lobby for Catholic Social Justice; Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, and The Most Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate of The Episcopal Church.
It is telling to listen to Barton, Perkins, and Closson – who wrongly suggest the campaign comprises only those leaders who signed onto the CACN — and hear no mention of the BJC. At this writing, more than 15,000 Christians of many denominations have joined the initial signatories.
Leaders and avatars of the Christian Right are evidently alarmed that they are facing an organized challenge — even if it’s mostly just a conversation. Actual knowledge of and democratic conversation about Christian nationalism has sent them running for the shelter of misdirection and denial.
Cheryl K. Chumley of The Washington Times, founded and controlled by the Unification Church of the late Sun Myung Moon, does not mention the BJC and declares, “This is a campaign led by far-left types who use their religious positions to push their far-left ideas.” She adds, “This is a campaign filled with self-proclaiming Christians whose Christian ideals and beliefs are, in strict biblical teaching, very un-Christian.”
Their seemingly overwrought reactions may be explained by the fact that the ideology of Christian nationalism is a foundational part of the Christian Right’s program. The Family Research Council, a leading political organization of the Christian Right, seeks to indoctrinate churchgoers in this view as part of their justification for their longer drive toward religious and political dominion. In fact, the principal author of their organizing manual, FRC vice president Kenyn Cureton, epitomizes the problem that CACN is warning about, in that Christian nationalists question the patriotism of those who hold different views. He claims that the so-called “culture war” is a war against both Christian beliefs and against “our nation’s Christian heritage.” He concludes, “Nobody ought to claim to be a good citizen, a patriot, who takes Christianity out of culture, God out of government.”
The idea that the United States was once a Christian nation, and that this was the intention of God and of the Founding Fathers (and must be restored), has been debunked by distinguished historians from Franklin T. Lambert of Purdue University to John Fea of the evangelical Messiah College. Nevertheless, it remains an animating justification for the contemporary politics of the Christian Right. Lambert calls it a “useable past.”
But the past is not all they have in mind. Cureton goes on to say it is imperative that Christians act on what he calls a “Biblical worldview” or a “Christian worldview,” stating:
“This God-given responsibility and authority to have dominion is all inclusive. As vice-regents of God, we are to bring His sovereign rule (i.e., His Kingdom) to bear on every sphere of our world, not just the sacred, but also the secular. God’s dominion is to hold sway over all human endeavors and institutes, such as religious practice, ethics, education, government, science, medicine, the arts, the environments, entertainment, etc.”
Nevertheless, the FRC’s David Closson denied that there is any such a thing as Christian nationalism in the sense that the Christians Against Christian Nationalism intend. While offering no more evidence than Chumley — and also eliding the very existence of the BJC — he impugns their motives rather than addressing their concerns. He claimed that “left leaning church leaders” are “seeking to redefine nationalism in a way that implies something sinister about conservative Christians who love their country.”
Tony Perkins interviewed David Barton on his weekly podcast about the campaign. Neither mentioned the Baptist Joint Committee, pointing only to the endorsing Christian leaders, and emphasizing that some had served as “spiritual advisors” to Presidents Clinton and Obama. Barton says that he knows of no one who believes that America is a Christian nation, “the way they define it.”
In the less than 13 minute podcast, Perkins sought to divert attention from the substance of the matter by swapping out the Baptist Joint Committee as the originator and leader of Christians Against Christian Nationalism — reacting instead to Michelle Goldberg’s unrelated 2006 book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. In so doing, he not only dodged the Baptists, but inserted an anti-semitic dog whistle into the discussion by saying “Goldberg” three times. It was almost as if to say, “It’s the Jews, folks.”
Historian John Fea, who has signed the statement and has written extensively about Christian nationalism and its proponents, says:
“If you want a recent glimpse of Christian nationalism at work, read the following transcript from David Barton’s “Wallbuilders” radio program. As many of you know, Barton is a self-professed dominionist and GOP politician who uses the past to promote his Christian nationalist agenda. He knows a lot of facts about American history, but he does not think historically about these facts. In other words, he is oblivious to context, change over time, contingency, causation, and the complexity of the human experience. Despite the fact that his work as a historian has been discredited, he still has a large following and his disciples include GOP lawmakers and most of Donald Trump’s court evangelicals.”
Another denier is Mark Tooley, President of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, whose purpose for decades has been to disrupt and dismember the historic churches of mainline Protestantism in partnership with conservative Catholic strategists such as George Weigel and Robert P. George. Tooley says:
“If such a Christian nationalism actually exists as a significant force, it should be denounced and resisted. But where is it? Who are its followers and leaders? Where is its literature? Where does it meet? These questions need detailed answers if this movement really merits denunciation and resistance.”
The answers are there for anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see. But Tooley et al choose not to see and pretend not to know.
Christian Right leaders know that their long-term program to marginalize the values of religious equality and pluralism is threatened by the entry of much of the organized Baptist community in an historic struggle to reclaim the meaning of religious freedom. The Baptists are closely associated with the way religious freedom was envisioned by the framers of the Constitution and the First Amendment. To this day, they resist any form of sectarian hegemony, especially in alliance with the government. The avatars of Christian nationalism have no historical or intellectual standing that compares with the great Baptist tradition. And they know it.