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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Taking America Back for God

Written by: on September 2, 2020

“Americans who most enthusiastically affirm Christian nationalist ideals seem to put political power above religion.”[1]

I have noticed over the past several years that the task of preaching in the local church Sunday after Sunday has become more challenging. My seminary professors and ministry mentors all taught me the importance of good exegesis of the Biblical texts, while addressing the present needs of the day. In other words, to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. My sermons often acknowledge important social or political issues, but I work hard to be non-partisan. Some might call me an “equal opportunity offender.” I would merely argue that I try to be as faithful to the Gospel as I can be.

But lately it seems that even the seemingly most innocent and innocuous sermon subjects are often received with reluctance. Listeners lie in wait for anything that sounds like a political stance, then rush to complain that the sermon was offensive, divisive, or too partisan. And there is not much conversation to be had to convince people otherwise. No one seems to care that it was quoting Jesus, and not Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer, or Mike Pence or Mitch McConnell.

I have wrestled for several years with what feels like a growing divide in society as political identity becomes the primary way people are engaging with the world. This happens even in my own local congregation, which is the largest mainline Protestant church in my community. The membership ranges along the political and theological spectrum from ultra-progressive to centrist/moderate to extreme conservative. And it is not unusual at all, in my community or within my local church, to encounter people who wholeheartedly align with the strongest Evangelical advocates for Donald Trump and embrace decidedly American Christian nationalist ideals.

Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry’s “Taking America Back for God” is helpful in better understanding what is behind the current division in the United States, especially among Christian believers and their political affiliations. Their research identifies four types of American and how they talk about church and state: what they label as rejecters, resisters, accommodators, and ambassadors. A short summary describing the four categories: “Rejecters oppose declaring the United States a Christian nation or favoring Christian values in public policy.” Resisters tend to be more religious than rejecters, however, they too believe the government should not declare the country to align with any particular religion. Accommodators favor the value system taught in Christianity. They are “generally comfortable with the idea of America’s Christian foundation, and (are) amenable with the idea of a social where Christianity is conspicuous.” Finally, ambassadors believe the founders’ intentions were to establish the United States as an explicitly Christian nation, while stopping short of imposing any particular denomination as the national faith expression.[2]

Paul Rosenberg believes this book will be helpful in defining and understanding what is currently happening in the United States for years to come.[3] It was helpful to me simply to have language, even imaginary conversation partners along the spectrum. What promises to be uncomfortable and sticky conversations with members of the community and congregation can be practiced with people in the book in order to gain a better understanding.

However, as I read the book, I wondered just exactly how I might utilize the information. I feared it might not be as helpful in the conversations with those in my midst who would most align with the identity of “ambassador,” of which there are a great many in my community. As Eric Kaufmann revealed, “because Whitehead and Perry are sociologists, a discipline with essentially no ‘Christian nationalists,’ no one in their field thought to check the liberal prejudices that prevent flawed concepts such as Christian nationalism from being challenged and refined.”[4] I think it is safe to say Kaufmann was not a rejecter or resister, but still, some insight is probably better than none, even if it helps to start the conversation.

What concerns me most in my desire faithfully to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that our faith begins with a declaration of the Lordship of Jesus Christ and that a Christian’s identity be first in Jesus. And where the bulk of my frustration can be found is in facing the reality that, at the end of the day, I feel this argument is losing. Even faithful, committed Christians, people I admire, have either made the choice or have been unwittingly swept up in a Christian nationalist identity and are no longer able (or willing?) to separate the teachings of their faith from their political views. They seem to be wrapping their faith around the flag, or vice versa.

I sincerely believe that following Jesus will make people better citizens. When we are seeking to live by the commandments of loving God and loving neighbor, we cannot help but make a positive impact in our communities and in our nation. And while I “resist” the idea of “taking America back for God” in terms of the United States claiming Christianity as the national religion, I can wholeheartedly advocate for those who practice Christianity to represent the life and teaching of Jesus in such a way that the Christian faith serves to influence in matters of public policy.

Jesus taught once about the impossible task of serving two masters. His focus in the moment was on choosing to serve God or material and worldly wealth, but perhaps US American Christians today face a similar choice. Is our religion merely a tool that serves our politics and national identity or is our religion that way of living and being around which our lives (and our nation) might be shaped?

[1] Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, “Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States,” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020,) 87.

[2] Ibid, 26-38.

[3] Paul Rosenberg, “Sociologist Andrew Whitehead: How Christian Nationalism Drives American Politics,” Salon.com, February 29, 2020, https://www.salon.com/2020/02/29/sociologist-andrew-whitehead-how-christian-nationalism-drives-american-politics/.

[4] Paul Kaufmann, “For God and Country,” washingtonexaminer.com, February 27, 2020, https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/eric-kaufmann-on-taking-america-back-for-god-by-andrew-whitehead-and-samuel-perry.

About the Author

mm

John McLarty

Husband. Dad. Pastor. Play a little golf.

10 responses to “Taking America Back for God”

  1. mm Dylan Branson says:

    John, one of the things I’ve been reflecting on in the past year has been how we are so ill-equipped to talk about politics (both inside and outside the church). We always say that politics is a taboo subject to talk about, so we avoid it. However, at the same time, maybe it’s BECAUSE we don’t talk about it that we’re in our current divisive situation. Here in Hong Kong, the tensions between “blue” and “yellow” parties (those who support the police and the protests respectively) are still high. It’s a touchy subject to bring it up, and to even show any non-partisan/neutral response to it can be difficult at times.

    As you were imagining those conversations with various people in your congregation along the Christian Nationalism spectrum, how do you think the topic of Christian Nationalism would be accepted or rejected? How have you navigated political tensions in the past in your congregation?

    • mm John McLarty says:

      I just commented on another post about the solution being “more Christ, not less” and the challenge in doing that within systems that rely on people and money. When folks are confronted with uncomfortable truths, they often either bail or seek the leader’s removal, so tackling tough issues is risky. It’s especially complicated when it’s wrapped up in our national identity- to mess not only with what they believe about the Bible, but also with what they believe it is to be American. It’s slow because conversations like this are not usually for public consumption, but one-on-one and only after significant trust is established. All the while, the Christian nationalist narrative grows stronger.

  2. mm Greg Reich says:

    John,
    I so relate to your blog. I to advocate believers in Christ to exemplify Jesus in their daily lives. I encourage people in business to see themselves stewards and loving servants of Christ. Can a pastor truly preach the full word of God without stepping on a few toes? Do you perceive a difference and a divisions in your area around Christian Nationalism? As I read the book I couldn’t help but look at the political culture in Washington and wonder how many people see Christianity as a threat to there cultural identity all because of Christian Nationalism. I was also forced to look back to 2005 at the times I was told by fellow believers in Indonesia and Singapore about their envy in wanting to live in a Christian nation like the USA. I sadly had to inform them back then that we are not as Christian as they think we are and things are not what they seem. I wonder where their opinion of us being a Christian nation was nurtured and why they believed we were? Is it because of our freedom and ability to exercise our faith in an open forum or something else? Do they correlate our freedoms in America with a sense of true Christianity?

    • mm John McLarty says:

      I think preaching inherently steps on toes. The problem is that people today seem to be so hyper-sensitive and quick to leave (or call for a preacher’s removal) if they hear anything that upsets, confronts, challenges, or offends them. If they leave, the church grows smaller, others get upset, and the funding dries up. If the pastor is removed, that person’s livelihood is impacted, and it’s almost always difficult for the church. I think Jesus was on to something when he said you can’t serve God and money!

  3. mm Jer Swigart says:

    John. I really sympathize with you. I congratulate you and your team for being able to maintain a congregation that is representative of the four different positions outlined in Whitehead & Perry. Two questions. First, how might faith leaders in your position you hold the tension between inviting folks into the transformation that is both necessary and possible while not being so disruptive that they leave your church in search of one that is more in line with their position? Second, how do we go about bridging the divides between these four groups?

    • mm John McLarty says:

      If we can do anything at all, it will happen in small gatherings of people who covenant to listen and respect each other as we carefully identify and walk through the challenge. I’ve found that most folks don’t have either the time or emotional energy/intelligence to do this, no matter how important they think it might be. It saddens me how easily people are manipulated and how uncritical and reflective we’ve become.

  4. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    John, your post reminds me that this isn’t the first time a religious ideology has been firmly tied to or intertwined with the state. I’m not near as intimately acquainted with Augustine as I should be. Are you? I’m guessing there is something fresh in the City of God for our time.

    • mm John McLarty says:

      I’d probably do well to go back through the theologians of old sometime. We certainly aren’t the first society to encounter the blurring line between national and religious identity. Heck, my own religious tradition was founded by a person whose own denomination was structured with the nation’s monarch as the head of his church. I guess it’s nice to know we’re not blazing entirely new ground here!

  5. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    John,
    I love that you’re an “equal opportunity offender.” In that role, how have you seen your congregants move in one direction or the other? In what ways are they following Jesus more closely, rather than just blasting off an email to you saying they are offended? Preaching the Gospel is offensive. It is a radical way of looking at the world and requires radical submission and love to and for God, others, and self to carry it out.

  6. mm John McLarty says:

    The challenge is really about keeping people in the conversation. The trend, over the past 20 years especially, is for folks simply to bail. They’ll leave a church and find one that doesn’t upset them (as much.) There are loads of options and denominational affiliation is not nearly as important.

    I’m not talking about the shallow “church shopper” who will bounce from place to place in order to avoid getting invested or who is chasing the “high” of being recruited or enjoying the new church smell. Nor am I talking about those whose spiritual journeys truly call them out of one place and leads them to another. I’m talking about the ones described in John 6:66 (seriously!) who left Jesus because the teaching was “too hard.”

    It seems easier for people to take offense, then act on that offense by leaving the conversation than sticking around for the more uncomfortable and challenging conversations that might actually lead to real transformation. It makes me sad to think too much about what people so willingly settle for rather than push a bit further to what God was eager to give.

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