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On Christian Nationalism, Death, and the Hope of Resurrection

Written by: on September 1, 2020

Dying is ugly and hard.

It requires a distinct letting go of known and comfortable places of life that steady us along the journey and an entering into the mystery of the unknown. Sadly, in America, within our medical, religious, political, and family systems, few are able to release control and allow new life to emerge from the death of what was. Within our medical systems, this is evident in a  “If you can, you should” mentality that is costly and painful for all involved.[1] It is predicated upon a system of fear that seeks to mitigate pain above all else. This pain mitigation often leads to “more time;” “more time” filled with more symptoms, drugs, side-effects, and weakness, in essence, “more time” almost always involves more dying, and the pain of that can never be mitigated, no matter how hard we fight.[2]

Reading social scientists, Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry’s Taking American Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, it is clear that the influence of Christian nationalism is dying and those that adhere to its premises are in the “If you can, you should” state of being. “‘Christian nationalism’ describes an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular Christian identity and culture.”[3] Christian nationalism embodies a blurred identity between being Christian and being American, a conservative political viewpoint, belief in the Bible, a premillennial vision of moral decay, and a divine command for conquest of others. It’s high calling is “fidelity to religion and fidelity to nation.”[4]

Whitehead and Perry utilized “high-quality and transparent methods to gather, analyze, and truthfully present data” collected from hours of interviews of American men and women from different regions of the USA, with the goal of “systematically and empirically examin(ing) Christian nationalism and its influence in American social, cultural, and political life.”[5] Since the 1800s, Christian nationalism has impacted all aspects of American life, whether a person “rejects, resists, accommodates, or embraces it.”[6]

Within the study, four main groups of Americans were identified regarding this subject: Rejecters, Resistors, Accommodators, and Ambassadors. Rejectors oppose narratives that espouse a special relationship between God, or some higher power, and the USA. Resistors are more indecisive, believing that the government should not declare the USA to be a Christian nation, are not directly opposed to religious symbols in public places, but do oppose Christian nationalism. Similar to Resistors, Accommodators are indecisive on governmental declaration of the USA being a Christian nation, but do see value in positive Christian, and other religious group’s, principles within the public sphere. The last group is that of Ambassadors. This group wholly embraces and supports Christian nationalism by advocating for governmental declaration of the USA being a Christian nation, desiring prayer in schools and the Ten Commandments displayed in courthouses, and maintaining a conservative political stance.[7]

Over the past decade, Ambassadors have experienced a decrease in number. This decrease is offset by an increase in numbers of Rejectors and Resistors. This shift is but a continuation of a thirty-year decline, where Americans increasingly do not believe America to be a Christian nation. This belief is especially prevalent in younger generations, such as millennials.[8] These trends lead to power shifts and struggles. Positions of power and influence are weakened, thus creating a threatening environment for those who have embodied Christian nationalism throughout their lifetime. As fear creeps in, rhetoric in political and religious systems intensifies as that which was known moves into the realm of unknown, as what once was slowly dies and is replaced by a measure of mystery and discomfort.

Culturally, Americans do not die well. Death goes against our “can do” attitude. Not only do we have limited language surrounding death, but many Christians also lack the theological foundations to support them through dying into death. As a result, we panic, flail, fret, and fight. None of which is pretty, and little of which is God honoring.

Because we lack language for dying and death, we often strip others of their humanity. We label and blame, causing increased pain in already stressed systems. The line between the good guys and bad guys becomes increasingly blurred, and the “more time” within comfortable knowns that we desperately seek becomes increasingly filled with suffering and adverse symptoms. Our current political and religious climate attests to these realities.

Until we are able to lean into that which is dying and allow it to die, new life will not emerge. This is true in nature, in our spiritual life, and in our nation. There’s really no way around it; we can only go through it, trusting God is present as much in the dying as in the resurrection.

 

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

[1] Stephen Jenkinson. Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul. (Berkley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2015) 32.

[2] Ibid., 32-35.

[3] Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry. Taking American Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2020) ix-x.

[4] Ibid., 15.

[5] Ibid., 5.

[6] Ibid., 152.

[7] Ibid., 22, 30-31, 34-37.

[8] Ibid., 44-50.

About the Author

mm

Darcy Hansen

16 responses to “On Christian Nationalism, Death, and the Hope of Resurrection”

  1. Rob Christ says:

    This is marvelous. We resist death with all our might. We fear it and the uncertainty it brings. I love how you link “if you can, you should” medicine with the unwillingness to let Christian nationalism die, and the hardening of divisions that result. We are experiencing apochalypse, a revealing, nowadays. I hope for resurrection.

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Rob,
      One of the things about “If you can, you should” mentality, is that it rejects the reality of our humanity. This is evident in the decline of Christian nationalism. What we fail to understand is that a stripping must happen- all we once held dear must be stripped away so something new can emerge. The pandemic, racial tensions, and political climate are revealing our filthy rags, but rather than allow them to be stripped away, we cling to them. This is the antithesis of life modeled by Jesus. The revealing is shocking because we reject it could ever be a reality, much like the fact most people don’t believe they will die, which is why doctors must “break the news” to people.

  2. mm Dylan Branson says:

    Darcy, when we talk about Christian Nationalism starting to die out, I wonder if using the various stages of grief could be a helpful paradigm in imagining the next steps. Maybe we’re in the stage of arguing and bargaining for power and for the last dying breaths of it before moving into the stage of depression and numbness that accompanies it.

    I would argue that different Christians are in different places of accepting this; what would it look like to come together as a community of believers that have moved beyond that initial grief into acceptance and walk alongside those who are still angry about it? I know that I’ve had my frustrations seeing the blend of nationalism and religion a lot of American Christianity has become, and yet I wonder what it looks like to take on the role of Virgil or the guide that helps them progress to the next stage.

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Dylan,
      I appreciate your observations regarding the stages of grief and how that impacts communities. I have a brilliant book called Grief, by Melissa Kelley. Her observations echo your second paragraph, in that the complexity of grief produces more of a mosaic than linear stages. I have not observed the US to be a country that grieves well. Even on days set aside for remembering and grieving, we fill those days with BBQs and boating. Until we are all able to agree on the travesties that have taken place in our nation, I do not think we can grieve communally. Mark Charles would say we have no shared memory, and without that, it is very difficult to move forward in a collective way. Individually, I agree that we can be guides to walk with people in vigil of what once was- but I’m not sure how that can be done collectively when the embedded histories are so vastly different between people groups. Thoughts?

      • mm Dylan Branson says:

        It’s difficult to say. Part of it would be rewriting an entire cultural disposition toward individualism to that of the communal. Of course, if we tried to do that there would be a rebellion in and of itself haha.

        Part of it is that I don’t think we know who we are as a country. We don’t have a universal definition of, “What is it to be an American?” It comes down to a willingness to be able to accept that common identity, the thing that would theoretically bind us together. One could argue that in the midst of great national tragedy, America came together ever so briefly. Emotion can be a major binding agent, but if it isn’t guided it won’t bring about change. How do we guide the Emotional Elephant in a way that can build identity?

  3. mm Greg Reich says:

    Darcy,
    Brilliant meshing of the identity of Christian nationalism with the lack of language around death. Is it possible that both a lack of ability to understand and embrace death and Christian Nationalism is the fear of the unknown? Our fear of the future tends to
    neuter our faith. I am often reminded that growth and change are opposite sides of the same coin. One can not happen with out the other. To grow means to change and without change there is not growth.

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Greg,
      Americans do like to know what’s ahead. We really like certainty, especially in our systems of faith. We inherited this from our evangelical forefathers. Sadly, this adherence to certainty leaves little room for transformation, which is how I would categorize your growth/change paradigm. We say we are to “become like Jesus,” but our actions and words betray us, especially in the political and medical realms, where we fight tooth and nail to keep that which we’ve always known and reject the inevitable reality of change.

  4. mm Jer Swigart says:

    Something is indeed dying…a slow, painful, and I might add, violent death. Yet what, specifically, would you identify as that which is dying? And how would you recommend that we allow it die with dignity?

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Jer,
      Such a good question. While there are numerous options, I am going to go with the death of identity, as a nation and as a people (especially white, evangelical, patriotic, etc). The skeletons in our closet have been brought in the light and revealed. When we take a hard look at them, we either admit we aren’t who we thought we were and figure out how to change, fight the truth and try and shove the skeletons back in, or reject the skeletons all together. We are in a time of reckoning with our past and current identity and sins, especially as Christians. Sadly, as much as we like to espouse our firm belief in Christian principles, we sure don’t like repentance (especially on a communal level) and all that “death to self to live for Christ” stuff. How do we die with dignity in this area? We have to give it language. Call it what it is. Don’t sugar coat it. But the problem is few can agree on the issues- there’s just so many perspectives- some true and some out of a fantasy world. Bridging that gap is tough. Solid leadership who isn’t afraid of speaking truth is absolutely necessary, but even that gets sticky, because we live in an age of untruths being truth. On a national scale, I have no idea how to reconcile that. Individually, I can only do my part to develop language and increase awareness around theological and societial gaps, and trust others will listen and learn alongside me.

  5. mm Jer Swigart says:

    Solid.

    I’m especially drawn to the biblical concept of death to self. Thinking about Jesus’ teaching in John about a seed needing to die in order for life to emerge. Makes me wonder if we’ve duped ourselves into believing that new life can occur without our death to self?

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Agreed. Theologically we have failed to embrace suffering and death, especially in certain evangelical circles. Exceptionalism in the church and public forums makes it difficult to recognize the mandate and model of death before new life. In general, we are untouchable, immortal, which of course is the greatest sin of all- a denial of our humanity.

  6. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Darcy, in liminal spaces there is a strong pull back to the old status quo. The known, even the decaying, is often more appealing than the unknown that lies ahead. I think of the Israelites wandering in their liminal desert saying, “we remember the fish we ate in Egypt AT NO COST” (Ex. 16). At no cost! You were slaves! Allowing something to die so that something new might be born goes against everything in our self-protective egos.

    On a different note, can you please elaborate on what you mean by saying “it is clear that the influence of Christian nationalism is dying”? Electing the POTUS seems influential to me.

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Per your question- my statement was made in light of the reading statistics. I think what we are seeing is the result of the dying process of the Ambassadors- Trump’s election is them grasping for the last bit of breath. They are all scared their way of life is threatened. He has played them to his advantage to maintain power. I actually think the people who actually are more religious and are actually less likely to uphold Christian nationalism, are part of the awakening, the revival, the new thing God is doing amidst the death of systems that have been in place for centuries. Does that help? Make sense? Thoughts?

  7. mm John McLarty says:

    I think one of the great ironies and tragedies of Christian faith in US America is our fear, perhaps hatred of death. We preach a gospel of resurrection. Easter is one the days with the largest worship attendance. But we forget about the death that came before the resurrection. Attendance at a Good Friday service, if a church even offers one, is usually a small fraction of the Easter attendance. It stands to reason that fundamentalist US American evangelical Christians would be among the last to accept the death of a Christian nationalist identity- simply because it requires ceding control. For all of our talk of faith, the demands and practices of the faithful life are much harder than simply tightening our grip on power, boundaries, and order. I imagine the Crucified and Resurrected One- the one on who “our hope is built” is just shaking his head.

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Agreed. A a Methodist pastor, what does discipleship for your congregation look like, especially in regard to death? Death to self? Actual death? I think the two are intricately woven.

  8. mm John McLarty says:

    I’d say we look much like everyone else on that. Our approach to death tends to be linked to the circumstances. When one is old and has lived a good life or when one has suffered on end, we tend to see the blessings of death. When death comes suddenly and tragically, it’s much more difficult to process. Either way, we still mostly see death as finite and linear- the end of something, rather than the beginning of something else.

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