‘They do not embody Christ:’ Local clergy condemn rise in Christian nationalism


Anthony Scilla

The United Methodist Church in Kent, Ohio on March 26, 2023.

Leah Shepard, Staff Reporter

Conservative Christian nationalism has erupted into the public eye in recent years. Local clergy say the American church must do what it can to combat the rise of hatefulness and violence in the church –which they say is being co-opted by America’s political right.

Christian nationalism is “an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic belonging and participation,” according to sociologists Samuel L. Perry and Andrew Whitehead. Perry and Whitehead explore the topic of religion and politics in their book Taking America Back for God. 

The past decade has seen a surge in white supremacy and Christian nationalism the likes of which many haven’t seen before, with a study by the Public Religion Research Institute finding more than half of Republicans either “adhere to the views” of Christian nationalism or sympathize with those views. Some politicians bolster these beliefs unashamedly on Capitol Hill. 

From Marjorie Taylor Greene, a representative from Georgia’s 14th district, self-identifying as a “Christian nationalist,” to Lauren Boebert, a congresswoman from Colorado who has said Christians must “rise up” to “influence this country,” the ideology seems to be everywhere. 

Representatives Marjorie Taylor Green (left) and Lauren Boebert (right). (congress.gov)

But local clergy claim this is harmful rhetoric and not indicative of the majority of Christians in this nation. They say the moderate Christian majority must revert back to the original teachings of the faith and reject the idea America was ever meant to be a Christian nation at all. 

“I think that perhaps what has happened is that some groups have tried to borrow the bumper-sticker of Christianity and use it for purposes that I wouldn’t consider appropriate for a Christian witness,” the Reverend Mary L. Staley of Christ Episcopal Church in Kent, who has served as an Episcopal Priest for 17 years, said. “I’m not convinced that some of the groups that use ‘Christian,’ in their name are congruent with what Jesus taught.”

Staley attributes the rise in the ideology to how outspoken people in the space have become. 

“I think that we have challenges ahead of us,” she said. “White Christian nationalism has had some very good PR agents in the past few years. They got their message out, and I think that the rest of us didn’t really have the organization to get out there and say that hey, there’s another view.”

“Their ideology is not consistent with Christianity,” Staley said. “If you sit down and look at their behaviors and beliefs, they do not embody Christ.”

The Episcopal Church has wide-reaching influence throughout the nation, with over a million active members, but especially in Washington D.C., Staley said, with national offices like the Episcopal Policy Network being only blocks away from Capitol Hill. 

“The Episcopal Policy Network, and a few other groups that represent us, engage in the work of what we see is Christianity’s call: to be advocates for peace and social justice issues,” Staley said. 

The Episcopal Church has been LGBTQ-affirming since 2015 and has allowed women preaching from the pulpit since 1977, Staley said. She has officiated an LGBTQ wedding herself.

Other clergy say the rise of Christian nationalism impedes the mission of the church as a whole. 

“What I’ve seen in recent years in the Evangelical Churches is some developments that are actually damaging to the propagation of the gospel,” David Palmer, the head pastor of the United Methodist Church in Kent, said. “It’s gotten to the point where some churches and church leaders are undermining what we are trying to do, and unfortunately, they get all the publicity.”

Palmer, an ordained pastor for almost 44 years, said today’s American Church is starkly different from the American Church when he started his ministry in 1979. He said when he began his ministry, the overwhelming sentiment was if the Church were to get involved with any politics, it should be in the realm of the teachings of the Old Testament, primarily those pertaining to idolatry and justice. In the biblical context, idolatry refers to anything put in place of, or before God. 

He said idolatry in the modern age can be applied to lusting after money and fame, while justice can be linked to helping the poor and pursuing things like racial justice. 

“Most church leaders saw the need for the church to be involved in society, in terms of trying to create a better society, trying to help people in need, trying to promote anti-racism, things like that,” Palmer said. “We were very involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Thinking of politics, that’s kind of the realm where the church was, with most people thinking that the church shouldn’t be involved politically in the sense of advancing candidates.”

Palmer added the term “evangelical” has become warped in recent years.

“The term ‘Evangelical,’ means to proclaim the good news of the gospel,” he said. 

He said many of these churches are doing the opposite.

Palmer called the increasingly radical stances of many conservative churches “disturbing,” as they use the name “Christian” to promote things that do not hold up when compared to the gospel. He said this was particularly strange during the 2016-2020 Donald Trump presidency. 

“It’s been a very negative turn for the church,” Palmer said. “Some segments of the church nationwide unfortunately decided to align themselves with particular political leaders, namely Donald Trump, whose principles and values at bottom conflict with Christianity.”

There were people within the evangelical movement itself, primarily some of the editors of a popular religious magazine, Christianity Today, who spoke out about pastors giving their full support to Donald Trump towards the beginning of his presidency, Palmer said. They warned this would have “dire consequences,” for the faith as a whole. 

Almost seven years later, Palmer said their warnings ring true. 

“It’s very concerning, the direction the church is going, for me,” he said. “Especially the ones labeled evangelical that have gone in the direction of aligning themselves with an extremist form of right-wing politics that has little to do with the gospel and is actually more of a way of promoting a set of traditional American values, not Christian values.”

Palmer gave the example of anti-immigrant sentiments among Christian nationalist groups, saying being anti-immigrant is not a Christian value. He quoted Leviticus 19, which gives instructions to “treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love them as yourself.”

Palmer also noted how extreme Christian stances on abortion have become since his ministry began, calling the overwhelming opposition to it as “simplistic.” 

Palmer suggested the reason behind this dramatic shift can be attributed to efforts by Baptist minister Reverend Jerry Falwell to unify the Christian right under one issue during the 1980s as a way to gain political power. 

“The idea that religion and politics don’t mix was invented by the Devil to keep Christians from running their own country,” Falwell was quoted saying at a sermon in Lynchburg, Virginia in July 1976.

Prior to this revival in the 80s, abortion was not seen as such a black and white issue as it is today, Palmer said.

John C. Green, political scientist of over 40 years and author of multiple books on how religion and politics interact, was living in South Carolina in 1979. He said at the time, a movement of “traditionally religious people” into the world of politics was just beginning, and today this particular group of people are still heavily involved in politics.

 Green said the politics of the late 70s, particularly the rise of the “Moral Majority” party, a political party founded by Falwell in 1979, got him interested in the study of religion in relation to politics. 

“The way Reverend Falwell would have put it at the time,” Green said, “is that he was not responding to political issues, but to what he saw as moral issues.”

He said this sentiment extended to many of his followers as well. According to Green, the “moral issues” of the day included the issue of abortion, as well as the push for gay liberation that erupted in the 1970s. Falwell went on to found Liberty University, a Baptist university in Lynchburg, Virginia, known for its conservative views and policies. 

Green said Christian nationalism is connected to the idea of what political scientists refer to as the “Providential Creation of the United States,” or the idea that God “had a hand” in the creation of the United States as a nation.

“By nation, we mean a group of people as well as the American state, that is, the American government,” he said. 

Green said a hundred years ago, the view of Providential Creation was the default view held by most Americans. He said since then, things have changed —  not all Americans and not all American religious people adhere to this ideology. 

According to Green, Christian nationalism has only recently come into the public eye, and much of this is because of Donald Trump, who he describes as a “nationalist” before anything else. 

“Many traditionally religious people back Donald Trump,” Green said. “Some of them back Donald Trump for purely instrumental reasons. He was right, from their point of view, on certain issues like abortion. So, it was instrumental.”

On his own, Green said he has interviewed hundreds of conservative pastors who condemned Trump’s behavior and words but supported him because of his pro-life views.

He said the other group of evangelicals and “traditionally religious” people were different. 

“They saw a certain identity between their concepts of America and Donald Trump’s nationalism,” Green said.

According to Green, many followers of Christian nationalism aren’t particularly religious people.

“They have a strong identity,” Green said. “They identify themselves as Christians, and they identify themselves as Americans, but many of them are not regular church attenders. Many of them are not people who are particularly knowledgeable in conservative theology. For many of them, this is an identity. And it’s a powerful identity.”

He said the similarities between their perspectives and Trump’s nationalism helped him gain favor with his conservative base. Green also said the idea of “god and country” has always existed, and Christian nationalism has latched on to that belief. 

“They got connected to the Trump presidency,” he said. “To the extent that Christian nationalists saw Trump as somehow protecting what God wanted in the world. In their view, the well-being and future of the country is at stake.”

Green said polarization is his biggest concern in today’s politics. He said there have always been those on the left and the right, but in the past, a “vast majority” of Americans fell in the middle of the spectrum. In the past 20 years however, Green said that the left and the right have grown.

He said what the public views as “extreme” political figures, such as Marjorie Taylor-Greene, are the “ultra-polarized,” and not representative of the majority of Americans. He also noted these political figures aren’t only present on the right but on the left as well. 

“Some of the simmering social issues that led people like Jerry Falwell and other traditionally religious people to get involved in politics 40 years ago are still with us,” Green said. 

He cited last year’s Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson’s Women’s Health Administration, which ruled abortion is no longer protected by the constitution, as an example of a social issue uniting traditionalist Christians. 

“And that was not something that happened by accident,” Green said. “The pro-life force, some of whom are Christian nationalists, some of whom are liberal Catholics, labored long and hard to try to get that decision overturned.”

Green said the pro-life movement will likely move down to the state level, as the Dobbs decision allowed for individual states to enact their own abortion regulations. 

Palmer said despite its growing popularity, Christian nationalism is not a new phenomenon. He called it a “dangerous road,” that could lead to fascism supported by the church.

“Historically, whenever the church has gotten too close to any political leadership, it’s always bad for the church in the end,” Palmer said. “Because political leadership is always flawed, and when it collapses, the church becomes damaged. It leads in a ruinous direction.”

Palmer warned against the dangers of equating both America and God until they are one in the same. He questioned if what people are putting their faith in isn’t God at all. 

“You begin to get confused over who God really is,” he said. “What power you’re kneeling before.”

Leah Shepard is a Staff Reporter. Contact her at [email protected].