The Churches in Germany should be a warning to us, they should scream, “don’t do this, stay away from this.” But History is incredibly consistent and we find ourselves at the crossroads again when service to God, may mean being critical of our country.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner
Over the last four years I have had the chance to study the effects of the various nationalistic movements in history. One that I have had a unique opportunity to look at is the Church in post-war Germany. For those who do not know, Herman Goering thought it essential to co-opt the Church, both catholic and protestant, to ensure that the Nazi’s machinations against the Jews would not be met with opposition from the Christians. Georing did not have to try hard, as Bonhoeffer scholar Dr. Gordon Isaac of Gordon-Conwell points out, the ground was ripe in Germany for the type of Christianity fused with Nationalism that Goering needed to accomplish his subversion of True Religion. Germany had been going through its own nationalistic period since David Strauss in the mid-nineteenth century and both world wars were the inevitable outcome of such a spirit, the reason then that Goering had little trouble co-opting the church was because the Church already had adopted some of the tenants of nationalism, indeed, it had replaced the Gospel with them. Goering merely completed the transition. There is a picture of a Lutheran Church in Berlin lined with banners and flags all bearing that terrorizing symbol of the holocaust, the Swastika. Whenever I have had the chance, I ask people who have been or who live in Europe if the Church has ever recovered from this thorough alignment with Nazism and the answer I always get is a firm and resounding “No.” In fact, the churches that are thriving are the descendants of Bonhoeffer’s “Confessing Church” while the mainline churches are dead or dying. It has been almost 80 years since World War II ended and the churches where this played out are all but gone. After the war, Christianity fell out of favor precisely because it had sold out to the government and went alone with what Hitler and the Nazi’s were doing. It gave up its prophetic voice, the prophetic voice of the Gospel, to be the trumpeters of Nazi Propaganda. It is truly ironic in every sense of the word that Eric Metaxas has given the fullest treatment of the Nazi Theology that arose in Germany.
Hitler himself said in December of 1941 of the Churches:
“The war will run its course, and then I will see it as my life’s work to sort out the problem with the Churches. Only then will the German nation be safe. I do not care in the slightest about articles of faith, but I am not having my Clerics sticking their noses into worldly affairs. This organized lie has to be broken in such a way that the state becomes the absolute master. We need to get to the point where only Idiots stand behind the pulpit and only old women sit in front of it, and the healthy youths are with us.”
One of the rules of being a Historian is that you should avoid making one to one comparison’s whenever possible. Since Nazi Germany is not Modern America there are different social pressures and mitigating circumstances. But I do believe that in this case, a one to one comparison can be made to the Church in Germany in the 1940’s and the Church in America in the 2010’s. Just like Christians in Germany in the 1940’s, Christians in the United States have merged the tenets of nationalism with Christianity and reignited Christian Nationalism to a harmful and destructive extent. Like German Christians we are like the boiling pot of water with the frog in it. Christian Nationalism was first introduced in a subtle form by the Whig Party as a political platform (for those who do not know, Abraham Lincoln was originally a member of this party). Southern Democrats had their own version of it that also drove the division over Slavery. It is interesting to read pieces from the era from both the North and the South where the causes of both groups were framed in distinctly theological terms.
The nob got turned up again in the beginning of the twentieth century with the “Modernist/Fundamentalist” controversy where political language begins to get infused into the theological discourse, it is also around this time that revisionist history begins to give rise to the myth of a Christian Nation. The Temperature gets turned up again in the 1970’s with the rise of the religious right, again in the early 2000’s with George W. Bush’s election and again in 2016 when 81% of Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump as president and the church seemingly coalesced around one human being as the savior of Christianity, a view which I have recently written is completely absurd. Now we find ourselves in a boiling pot of water and we are, like the frog, internally self-destructing in a manner that is reminiscent of the German Churches.
This is how the enemy operates though, as Jonathan Edwards pointed out in the 18th century: “Any sign that could be a sign of a revival, we must remember that the devil can mimic these things.” He is crafty, running around like a lion dressed as a lamb, slowly slipping in one small error after another until we have a full blown heresy right before our eyes and we are so used to it we fail to realize it is heresy. That is what Christian Nationalism in any state, in any place, in any time is, pure and unadulterated heresy because it confuses the Kingdom of God with the kingdom of Man.
As my friend and fellow pastor Jess Joles said to me in a conversation: “We keep trying to make the Kingdom of man, the Kingdom of God and they are absolutely two different things.” The early Christians understood this, and instead of trying to remake the Roman Empire into the Kingdom of God, they set up resistance pockets in the catacombs where they loved their neighbors, enemies included, cared for the sick, enemies included, and served the poor and downcast, again, even their enemies. The result of this humble service for 300 years was a transformed empire, it did not go in reverse, they did not seize power and force Christianity on a society, they humbly and patiently grew into a formidable part of the population and when they did come into prominence through Constantine they continued, for the most part, the humble service to their neighbor. Historians like to talk about the Christianizing of Rome in terms of triumphalism, but that really could not be further from the truth. Even after they came into their own in the 4th Century, they had no illusions that the kingdom of God and Rome were the same thing. The Christendom model that is now dying here in America was a later aberration that has also been the victim of much triumphalist revisionism over the centuries starting with the Roman Catholic Church and continuing with the Protestant Church today. It actually bears little to no resemblance to what actually happened. Christendom presided over some of the deadliest wars in modern history and some of the worst atrocities, like the Holocaust, were committed under its watchful eye. Christendom, Christian Nationalism, Dominion Theology, they are all pieces of the same heretical puzzle that tries to make the kingdoms of man into the kingdom of God.
The result has led us to this new movement that the Washington Post reported about Monday called “Patriot Churches.” Groups that have, to couch it in Isaiah’s language, chosen to weary man and God (Isa 7:12) by placing their trust in man and asking God that their man be elected because he is the one who will save Christianity. The cross draped in the flag is unfortunately nothing new in modern Church History, it was the cross and flag that came to South America from Spain and decimated the people there. In fact, anytime the cross has come draped in a nations flag, Christianity has not been received well, but that is exactly the symbol these “Patriot Churches” are using, such as Liberty Baptist in Spokane, which a friend of mine who is an Anglican Priest lives down the street from. It should be obvious to us that this is contrary to the Word of God and the Kingdom of God which has no flag, but a cross, but it does not appear to be as the Post reported that “more churches are looking to join.”
The Heresy of Christian Nationalism is this: It confuses the kingdom of man with the Kingdom of God. The Kingdoms of God is no longer confined to a geographical location, it s a global kingdom within kingdoms and it is united not by a spirit of Patriotism which is a fleeting feeling, but with The Holy Spirit that is a real, living member of the Trinity who lives inside us and is not a fleeting feeling. Even Israel was not meant to keep God’s blessings bound up in a geographical location but bless the entire world with the knowledge and peace of God the Father. God may have chosen Jerusalem to dwell in, but now He dwells in 3 billion temples spread out all over the world. Each temple is organically fused to one another by that very Holy Spirit who lives within. Christian Nationalism reduces Christianity to what a nation thinks it is and it quite literally says: “what you think is Christianity is not really Christianity, we have the real deal.” The amount of ignorance in this position is easily recognizable, it says that God only always works one way in all places and any divergence to that way is not “true Christianity.” The bible, by the way, neither supports this position nor allows us think in those terms. The only “true Christianity” is a life that is totally wrapped up in Christ and Christ-Like in every way and any form of Christianity that no longer looks like Christ, as the world’s critique of Christian Nationalism goes, is no longer Christian. More and more in talking to unbelievers I hear Ghandi’s words to MLK: “I like your Christ; I dislike your Christians.” If Christ is not seen in Christians, we have ceased to be Christians.
In a Church History class I remember a Korean Student asking how the Church in Korea could avoid following the same pattern of the American Church. For those who do not know, Christianity in South Korea has exploded over the last 20 years but has evened out and even began declining. The answer every student gave was: “Avoid entanglement with Politics, when the culture takes your power and influence from you, do not fight for it back.” That was the sin of the German Churches, when the people in power offered them a seat at the table of influence they saw it as their chance to stop their decline, it only sped up that decline. The same pattern is playing out in America, the Religious Right was a response to increasing secularization, instead of graciously returning to a seat at the back of the room and waiting to once again be moved up at the banquet table. We started fighting foolish and ill-advised culture wars that intended to force Christian morality onto people who were telling us they wanted nothing to do with it. The fallout of that has been unpleasant and the Church has, sadly, contributed to the vitriol in our current political situation by fighting people instead of proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord. Again, this is a pattern in history, any attempt to force a Christian Utopia or a Christianized society has been met with fierce secular pushback that has done more and more damage to the name of Christ.
What we have done is syncretize the Kingdom of God to the Kingdom of Man and when you syncretize anything you inevitably remove what made both unique in their separation, to syncretize in religion is to compromise it. You are, in effect, saying: “That tenant of our faith does not matter because it conflicts with the tenant of the philosophy we are syncretizing it too.” Kenneth A Myers noted this in his 1996 Essay: Proclamation over Protest” where he notes that by syncretizing the Church with the Kingdom of Man we have lost what is unique about the church, we have turned ourselves into a mere “voting bloc” which man can then hold sway over. Instead of the sacramental people of GOD, united in baptismal grace and sharing in the same bread and cup, holding with organic unity by the Spirt and united in Creed and Deed, we have allowed ourselves to be blown about by the winds of the doctrines of man’s kingdoms. Once we give up our status as the “Called Out” people of God, we give up the ability to speak into the culture in any relevant or meaningful way. What Myers wanted Christians to do rather than act as a voting bloc who has to fight culture wars to have any influence, but move from protest to proclamation, to go from civic engagement as an aggressor, to go to civic engagement as a messenger of a different kingdom. This is a well tried and proven means of civic engagement where the Church keeps its total uniqueness and God’s word is proclaimed in the public square.
A Christianity that is allied so closely with nationalism cannot proclaim the way that Christianity is meant to be proclaimed because it carries with it the concerns of the national politic. It is also easily swayed to spend millions fighting against abortion laws while abandoning the children in the foster care system or the mothers who feel they had no other option then to get an abortion in the first place. It means we become “Pro-Life” in a political sense, making a “Pro-Life” ethic little more than an Idol, instead of honoring every life from the top down, from conception to the very end of life. The result of such a focus and limited concern is evident in the way many Christians have treated the COVID-19 Pandemic. Personal Freedom, a tenant of American Ideology, not Christianity, is touted as more important than the life that may be snuffed out because personal freedom was more important than loving our neighbor. Religious Freedom is another such case, despite the revisionists attempts, religious freedom is purely a western invention, is it influenced by Christianity? Absolutely, but it is an extension of man’s thoughts about Christianity and the bible, not the bible itself. Religious Liberty is granted by man and man can take it away. It is also a blessing from God, though not granted expressly by him in scripture (actually the exclusivity of Christianity may actually exclude it as a God given right, but that is another article). In scripture we do find that when man squanders the blessings of GOD, the blessings are taken away. When “religious liberty” becomes more important than loving your neighbor you are likely going to lose your religious liberty since you squandered a good gift from God. And if you do not believe, consider that this is the entire history of Israel and even Christianity. When the Church uses the blessings of God for good, it grows, when the Church tries to hold onto the blessings and makes idols out of them, bad things happen.
Christian Nationalism has also allowed us to settle for the Christian Libertinism that is endemic in the prosperity circles. “Love God and do what you please” does not mean love God and do what pleases your hedonistic pleasures, it means that if you truly Love God, what you will do is what pleases Him, if you Love God you will Love people because it pleases God when we love people and make disciples, it displeases God when we treat people with contempt who think differently than we do and tear them down. It displeases God when we act like the world and follow its pleasures and passions. The Apostle John warns us that: “Love of the world is enmity with God.” If you love the politics and pleasures of this world more than you love God, you do not love God but are at enmity with Him.
Because Christian Nationalism requires us to sell our soul to the kingdom of man, it is safe to say that in doing so we have made an enemy of God, we are in effect doing things in His name without a relationship with Him and Matthew 7 stands in condemnation over us. But we have gone a step further, we are doing things in His name that are contrary to what He has called us to do. The only recourse is repentance, turning 180 degrees, going in the opposite direction and letting God completely transform and renew us in the Gospel, to once again reform us into His image.
That is the stage where the European Churches have been for almost 80 years. After World War II the backlash against Christianity by the secular world was enormous, just as Jesus and Bonhoeffer predicted it would be. Why should we expect things to turn out any differently here in the United States? The answer is that we should not, we should expect the same kind of backlash whenever the secular forces gain full control over the society. We may be about 50 years away from hard persecution in this country if we do not repent as a church and return to the throne of Jesus. Christ will never return to the center of American Public Life until He returns to the center of the Christian heart, the center of the Churches heart and has had time to patiently ferment there, as he did in the lives of the early Christians. So, let us turn and repent and know that God will heal His church. Let us once again take up the mantle of proclamation, reclaim our uniqueness as the presence of God here on Earth and let God renew us by His Gospel so that His desire may be fulfilled. Let us become again, a Kingdom within Kingdoms and though it may be panful, the grace of God’s refining is that we enter into eternal rest at the end. Christian Nationalism is a heresy that leads to death, the way of Jesus leads to life.
Before you go, would you consider taking a stand against this Theological Heresy by sharing this article and signing the Statement Against Christian Nationalism
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife and daughter in Northern Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center