Christian Nationalism misrepresents Christ and Christianity.
I had a moment of reckoning with my road rage when my church handed out bumper stickers with their name and logo on them this past fall. As silly as it may seem, having that bumper sticker on my car is a weird reminder that I’m no longer just representing myself when I drive. I’m also, in a way, representing my church. When I wear a t-shirt from the high school where my husband teaches, I’m representing his school and him as a teacher. When I work at a coffee shop and my laptop features my company‘s logo on it, I’m representing them. Association should spur responsibility. By associating myself with those entities, I’m assuming a small part of responsibility to represent them well. By using their name, I’m putting not just my own reputation at risk, but theirs. There’s a chance I may impact how others view those things.
Those are relatively insignificant examples, but as I looked deeper into Christian nationalism, I realized how many people were flaunting their Christian bumper stickers, as it were, while running people off the road and not caring one bit about the damage done. They throw the name of Jesus around like a weapon, like a political arrow to take down their perceived enemies rather than to love them. And in doing so, they not only misrepresent the name of Christ but the purpose of Christianity, which is to glorify Christ.
When I was little, I memorized the Ten Commandments. Based on the third commandment, you shall not take the Lord’s name in vain, I quickly assumed a repertoire of replacements for “oh my God.” Phrases like “oh my gosh,” “oh my goodness” or (my dad’s favorite) “rattlesnakes!” took its place.
Turns out the Hebrew translation for “in vain” carries a lot more weight than just slipping up and saying “oh my God” when you stub your toe. It also can mean empty, worthless and for no good purpose. We aren’t just forbidden from saying his name out loud in a moment of anger or frustration; we’re forbidden from misusing it and bearing it for selfish motivations (as that phrase could also be translated).
Christian nationalism attaches the name of Christ to something that is not of Christ. I would argue that this is a form of taking his name in vain. That’s why when I saw flags that had the name of Jesus on them flying high with a smoky Capitol building in the background during the January 6 riots, I felt sick. The fact that his holy name was flying beside such hateful, divisive messages in the midst of a chaotic, destructive riot was nothing short of a disgrace. And I was drawn back to Exodus 20:7, realizing that these modern spins on using the Lord’s name in vain are likely far more damaging than saying “oh my God” once in a while.
In my opinion, too many of the instances where we’ve seen the name of Jesus used recently have been for no good purpose. Which is why we need to start pausing before we carelessly toss it around. If you’re using his name to further an agenda, promote a conspiracy or prove a point, you’re probably using it in vain. If you’re using his name to glorify anything else above his very name, then you’re likely using it in vain. If you are using his name for political gain, then you are using his name in vain.
Christian nationalism is not only a misuse of the name of Jesus, it’s also a misrepresentation of Christianity as a whole. Sticking the word “Christian” in front of anything that is not biblical is dangerous because you’re asserting you know something about Christianity that the Word of God says nothing about. In this case, Christian nationalism asserts that Christian power is more important than Christian principle, as author and scholar Paul D. Miller describes.
As Christians, we’re called to work for justice, care for the poor, follow Christ, love our neighbor as ourselves…these are Christian principles. That is different from promoting Christian culture, Western heritage or Anglo-Protestant values. Miller goes on to explain how it was possible for Christians in the past to be involved in politics without it becoming an idol.
“…they believed Christianity required them to work for justice. But they worked to advance Christian principles, not Christian power or Christian culture, which is the key distinction between normal Christian political engagement and Christian nationalism. Normal Christian political engagement is humble, loving, and sacrificial; it rejects the idea that Christians are entitled to primacy of place in the public square or that Christians have a presumptive right to continue their historical predominance in American culture.” [What is Christian Nationalism]
Forcing our way into politics is not the way to bring people to Christ. Jesus did not win people to the Father by running a massive political campaign or sucking up to Pilate (we know how that went down). What he did was protect the house of God from corruption. He led with his actions. He was an active part of society, loving “the least of these.” He advocated for justice for the oppressed. He was a living, breathing representation and characterization of his Father. So too are we called to be.
None of this is to say that we should shy away from saying the name of Jesus. It just means that before we step into that realm of representing Christ and Christianity, we must ask ourselves the tough questions. Am I sharing this in love or to prove a point? Is it possible that this might be misinterpreted and used for harm? Is this furthering the kingdom or my own agenda? Is this winning people to Christ or turning them away from him?
The Bible says the world will know we are Christ’s disciples by our love for one another (John 13:35). Not by our loud signs or arguments or bold symbolism – but by our love for one another.
We cannot always control the conclusions others will draw about us, but we can certainly limit the number of conclusions they are able to draw by auditing our own intentions before we choose to represent the name of Christ or the heart of Christianity.
“But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives.” – Philippians 3:20