Online Conversation | The Challenges of Christian Nationalism with Mark Noll and Vincent Bacote
On June 18th in partnership with The Center for Public Justice and AEI’s Initiative on Faith and Public Life we were honored to welcome renowned scholars Mark Noll and Vincent Bacote to discuss “The Challenge of Christian Nationalism.” As the lines between faith, politics, and patriotism have become, in some quarters, increasingly blurred, it is increasingly important to understand the origin, ideas, and consequences of Christian Nationalism — what it means, why it matters, and how best to respond. We hope you enjoy this conversation!
The song is “O Jerusalem” by The Porter’s Gate feat. Greg Thompson.
The painting is ‘Landscape with shepherd and a flock of sheep’ by Anton Mauve.
Special thanks to this event’s partners:
Transcript of “The Challenges of Christian Nationalism” with Mark Noll and Vincent Bacote
Cherie Harder: Welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation on the challenge of Christian nationalism, with Mark Noll and Vince Bacote. We’re really glad to have you here. I want to especially thank our partners in this effort, our collaborators at the Center for Public Justice and the Institute for Faith and Public Life at AEI, ably led by Stephanie Summers and Tyler Castle, respectively. It’s a real pleasure to get to collaborate with friends on the first of what’s going to be a three-part series that looks at not only today’s topic, the challenge of Christian nationalism, but also the challenges facing religious freedom in a polarized era and new forms of Christian public engagement. So we hope that you’ll tune in for each of those.
The topic that we’re discussing today can be a controversial and confusing one, as well as a vitally important one. The horrifying events of January 6, when the entire world watched as some of those who stormed the Capitol erected crosses and prayed in the Senate chamber, dramatically illustrates the ways in which Christian symbols have been instrumentalized and fused to nationalistic and political ends. But if those events of the January 6th insurrection represented a shocking extreme, many of the ideas or the assumptions that characterize Christian nationalism—including the conflation of Christian identity with American identity, or the belief that the U.S. has a religiously covenantal relationship and is the new Israel—are fairly widespread and have acceptance among many people of faith, so much so that they might not even be recognized as nationalistic, much less debated or questioned. So how do we understand and grapple with the question of Christian nationalism? How do we learn to recognize and wisely respond to its distortions? And how do we distinguish living out one’s faith in the public square with instrumentalizing faith for political ends? All these questions form a daunting task and one that’s often elicited more heat than light, more reaction than reflection.
So I am particularly delighted to welcome to today’s conversation two guests who are among the most respected, thoughtful, and insightful scholars of American Christianity of their time, Mark Noll and Vince Bacote. Mark Noll is a renowned historian whose scholarship over the course of his distinguished career has focused on the history of Christianity in the United States. He’s an emeritus member of two history departments at two different universities, both Wheaton College and the University of Notre Dame, a member of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a recipient of the National Humanities Medal bestowed by the President of the United States for excellence in the humanities. His many works include the award-winning book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, God and Race in American Politics: A Short History, The Civil War as Theological Crisis, and In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life. Joining him is Vincent Bacote. Vince is the associate professor of theology and the director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College. He’s a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Society of Christian Ethics and is also a regular columnist for Comment magazine, as well as writing for a broad swath of other journals, including Books and Culture, Christianity Today, Christian Scholars Review, and many others. He’s also the author of The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life, Reckoning with Race and Performing the Good News, and The Spirit in Public Theology: Appropriating the Legacy of Abraham Kuyper, as well as a contributor to many other works. Mark and Vince, welcome.
Mark Noll: Thank you.
Vincent Bacote: Great to be here.
Cherie Harder: It’s great to have you here. So we’re going to dive right in with what seems like an easy question, but can actually be quite a thorny one, which is: what is Christian nationalism? How would you define it or describe it? And is it a set of ideas or a theological construct or more a set of attitudes? So, Mark, we’ll start with you on that one.
Mark Noll: Yes, a very good place to begin. I think I’d start by trying to distinguish between responsible Christian patriotism and what might be called damaging or destructive Christian nationalism. Responsible Christian patriots love their country, but also realize that God’s standards of right and wrong must apply to my country as well as to all the countries of the world. In contrast, Christian nationalists are often those who love their country right or wrong, and refuse to allow any criticism of its history. Responsible Christian patriots try to show how Christianity can be a service to the nation; extreme nationalists make Christianity a servant of the nation. Maybe a contrast can make the distinction even sharper. Responsible Christian patriotism expresses confident loyalty, along with the capacity for self-criticism. Damaging or destructive Christian nationalism expresses fearful loyalty with a compulsion to demonize opponents. But then it’s really important to make a contextual statement that these are polar opposites with a lot of ambiguous gray areas in between, particularly because, Cherie, as you mentioned, Christian nationalists are really not a sharply focused thing, but a series of loosely defined ideological positions.
Vincent Bacote: Let me add one thing to that in terms of just a short way to sort of illustrate that. If you think about the cross: patriotism, rightly construed from a Christian point of view, will put the flag at the foot of the cross. Christian nationalism wants to drape the [flag] over them. So is God serving your country, the sponsor of your country, or are you, as a Christian, operating wherever you are and having loyalty, but not your primary loyalty to your country over God?
Cherie Harder: Both of you mentioned the area of sort of ambiguity that seems to attend our conception of Christian nationalism. And, Vince, one of the things I wanted to ask you about is, according to many descriptions, there almost seems to be an overlay of white supremacy that accompanies many of the attitudes of Christian nationalism. But you’ve pointed out in some of your writings that there’s actually, in some cases, even in African-American churches some Christian nationalist assumptions. And I would love to get your thoughts on how does race play into Christian nationalist assumptions or ideas?
Vincent Bacote: Sure. I think one of the things that is important to note is that there are a lot of people— I mean, Martin Luther King said he thought the United States was a Christian nation. Now, what he meant by a Christian nation and what people are talking about in terms of Christian nationalism now are not the same thing. What King meant was, this is a country with a Judeo-Christian background and that out of that background, that this has something to do with being a country that’s recognizing liberty for all persons. And are you willing to live up to that? So he wants to put the Constitution in front of people and say, is this really equality for everyone or are you saying it’s only equality for some? Whereas I think when it comes to, I would say, contemporary Christian nationalism, which is I think the thing that’s more the challenge, I would say it’s disproportionately white, but not exclusively white. So if you look at the surveys, you’ll see that there are American citizens of various backgrounds who will have some of this complex of ideas or commitments, but it’s largely associated with people that are predominately white. That said, I think it’s the case that it’s an oversimplification to conflate white supremacy and white nationalism with Christian nationalism. And I think one of the particular reasons for that is probably the great majority of people that are Christian nationalists aren’t even necessarily people that might even use that label to describe themselves. I think they have unwitting commitment to God sort of sponsoring America, but they may not recognize it as sponsorship, whereas there are people who have some of the same ideas that are talking about white supremacy. And for them, being a white nationalist includes the idea of being Christian as sort of part of the heritage, etc. So I think it’s important to distinguish those things. I think the moment that we’re in makes it easy to fuse those things, particularly because you get more rewarded for being incendiary and inflammatory, and that’s one of the ways I think that can happen too easily.
Cherie Harder: Mark, let me ask you about how this movement sort of developed in that, you know, in some ways, I think there might be a similar challenge with conspiracy. Conspiracy theorists rarely think they are conspiracy theorists. They think they have uncovered the truth. I’m betting Christian nationalists don’t really think of themselves as Christian nationalists. They see this as a coherent approach to public life. So I’d love to ask you kind of where does the movement come from? You know, what are sort of the intellectual antecedents? Were some of these ideas held by founders? And, in particular, as the author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, which looked at strains of anti-intellectualism within evangelicalism, does that strain play a role in Christian nationalism?
Mark Noll: Yes. I’m a historian and therefore a coward about a lot of current events, so I’m going to let Vince handle the immediate origins of what we’re talking about today. But I think historically, it’s very clear that American Christian nationalism that surfaced in various ways throughout American history begins before there’s a United States. It really begins with British imperial Protestantism in the colonial wars between Britain and France in the 18th century. During those conflicts, Britons looked upon themselves as defenders of the truth, defenders of the Bible, defenders of freedom. France was everything evil, everything imaginable, particularly because in the Protestant right, France was papal. Roman Catholic. During the American Revolution, loyalists and patriots both treated each other as demonic, inspired by tyranny and opposed to the Christian faith. Now the Patriots won, so their viewpoint becomes enshrined. You could say, during the Civil War, North and South both treated each other as extreme examples of what honest, straight-thinking, Bible-believing people rejected. That’s deep in our background. Obviously, there are things that have happened since the Second World War that—political, ethnic, economic—that has stirred the pot. But the idea that the United States is a chosen nation imperiled by its religious and political enemies, that idea goes way back. And the anti-intellectualism part is usually these extreme views are promoted by people who are appealing democratically [to the] lowest common denominator, but who are effective users of the media. Used to be speech, newspapers, publishing books. Now it’s, of course, the new social media. So older ideas fashioned in response to contemporary crises, circulated by the explosion of popular access and social media.
Vincent Bacote: I think in terms of the contemporary dimension of it, here’s the way I think to frame it, particularly in terms of I guess the people that I would say might be nationals without knowing it: is that if you think about threats of secularization happening in society—and let’s not kid ourselves, there have been threats of secularization. So people’s experience of that and then narratives that people hear about that leads them to fear that something is being lost. And the way that it gets articulated is, you know, “we are losing blank.” Fill in the blank. But the blank has something to do with what America is supposed to be properly as a country with a Judeo-Christian background. And I think to the extent that that gets intensified and people get fearful about it, then that creates a context where people may say, “Well, I don’t want to lose this.” And, you know, it’s not always very clear the specific things that they think they’re going to lose. But it has something to do with some idea of a country that’s supposed to be a Christian—for some an explicitly Christian—nation or a nation founded on Christianity. And they think it’s going to be either secular or it’s going to become something else. And I think also the background of the Cold War also plays a role in that as well. So I think that that intensification of it for some people leads them to have a nervousness about it. And, of course, that desire, that fear, makes you want to hold on to something. But what is it that you’re holding on to? How well can you articulate that? I’m not sure that a lot of the people, over 50 percent of the people that would have some kind of general Christian nationalism, that they could articulate it specifically in terms of like several things. But there is this sense that “am I going to lose my country to something?”, whatever that something is, and that country that I’m losing is this country with this Christian background.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, it’s a great point. And you clearly see many signs of, you know, fear, aggrievement. And in some cases there are good reasons for concern, you know, in that there has been certainly an encroaching secularism that has tried to sort of drive expressions of faith out from the public square. So given that there is both a palpable sense of danger and it’s sometimes a valid one—we’ll start with you, Vince—what do you see as the harms to the Church of Christian nationalism?
Vincent Bacote: I think one of the biggest harms is the lack of awareness about why you believe what you believe about it, honestly. In other words, what are the things that are actually shaping your view or your worldview, if you want to use that that term? What are shaping your worldview about how you’re seeing what the United States is in relationship to you being a Christian? And are you being informed more by actually this Bible you say is your number one authority or are other things actually having the same level of formative influence about what you think is real and what you think ought to be a priority for what God’s people ought to be doing? And it winds up being, what should God’s people ought to do? I think it honestly winds up operating this way. If you ask a lot of American evangelicals about what they think Christians around the world should think about public interest, they probably think—they may not admit it, but deep down or passively, let’s say—they believe that, “Well, you should care about the interests of the United States because that’s good for everybody.” So they’ll prioritize that over something else. They may not articulate that, but that’s kind of the way that they feel about it because they’re thinking mostly about what’s happening here and not thinking about the broader reality of Christianity being a global reality than a United States reality.
Mark Noll: Maybe I would add that we’ve heard a great deal of well-researched commentary about church life, the last four or five years particularly, but stretching way back actually into the late 20th century where church divisions have actually taken place because individuals in the congregation say you can’t possibly want to vote for so-and-so and be a Christian. You can’t possibly want to vote for so-and-so or be for this or that public platform being a Christian. And that’s the kind of inversion I think Vince was talking about earlier, draping the flag on the cross. Christian people are going to disagree among themselves about what is good for society. And sometimes those disagreements will run very deep. But Christian people here, there, everywhere, now, in the past, in the future, if they don’t define themselves primarily by the universal offer of forgiveness in Christ, by the gospel, are really betraying the faith.
Vincent Bacote: Yes. And on top of that, I think it is interesting to note the way that political identities are giving people the kind of meaning that really religious identities ought to give them. I mean, if you think about it, there’s nothing in the Bible about modern political liberalism or about modern Democratic or Republican parties. So why would anybody think that being a Republican or being a Democrat is like the first marker of whether you’re a Christian or not? Yet there are people who absolutely say, “I don’t see how anybody who is a Christian could possibly…” Fill in the blank: be a Republican or be a Democrat. Well, that’s because of the way that there’s been, again, a really, an attachment that it’s a social, political or cultural commitment that winds up taking on religious significance. And it’s like, well, yes, public engagement, yes. I think there’s a big theological argument to make for that. That’s not the same thing as saying, “Therefore, you must be part of party X.”
Cherie Harder: It’s a fascinating point, Vince. I’d love to dig into it just a little bit in that, you know, public engagement is a good. We are called to love our enemies, we’re called to work for justice. These are both Christian principles. And so one of the things I would love to kind of get more of your thoughts on is, like, what is the difference between advancing Christian principles in the public square, leaning into, really valuing, that kind of work, giving time to it, which is also an expression of value, and advancing or buying into Christian nationalism? I’d love to hear from both of you on that one, but we’ll start with Vince.
Vincent Bacote: Sure. I think the first thing is actually being able to understand how your faith is the basis for your public engagement. In other words, is it simply a kind of intuition? You just kind of feel like you should be able to do it? Or you grow up in the United States where you have a level of political agency that most people haven’t had in world history, and you just assume that, well, this is something we can do and I’m a Christian and maybe I should sort of kind of figure out how to do this? And so, in other words, there isn’t the argument or people aren’t being formed in their churches in a way that tells them, “Here’s why what you believe leads you to have public responsibility.” Whether it’s, say, because this is a version of the second greatest commandment, loving your neighbor as yourself, or part of the cultural mandate, first page of the Bible, about having the stewardship of the entirety of creation. They might not know any of that. But you sort of absorb by kind of osmosis this idea that this is what you ought to be doing. But it’s like, OK, well, why? And then when you get there, what determines your priorities? So what is it about what you believe that is orienting you towards your political commitment? And to me, I think that’s less clear. I think I think it’s more vague. And then those other commitments, I think, wind up being what inform why people have those political values.
I think the danger is when one does, as a Christian—let’s say you pray the Lord’s Prayer: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.” And you wind up with a kind of belief or arriving at a belief—again, maybe it happened by osmosis, maybe you didn’t study and arrive at it—but you believe that we’re supposed to be establishing God’s Kingdom on Earth because we pray for the Kingdom to come. To which my response is: nobody sees clearly enough to articulate public policy with a level of specificity about what the Kingdom is going to look like. So that’s a big danger because you wind up being, you know, this word triumphalism—this idea that I will tell you exactly what the Kingdom of God is, exactly what it looks like, and if we do that through certain things culturally and certain things politically, then we will have arrived at what the Kingdom of God is. Well, if Paul sees through the glass darkly, I’m sure we do as well. So I don’t think that we can really be so certain about that. So triumphalism is a danger about presuming we know much more than we can possibly know about the specificity of Kingdom realities in public.
Mark Noll: What I have to say merely complements what Vince has to say, but it would involve a shout out to one of the sponsors today. The Center for Public Justice is the sponsor of this, along with a couple of other organizations, and its task it’s given itself over the last, I don’t know, 40 or 50 years, to the notion that political responsibility takes thorough thinking through how you move from a biblical basis to the sorts of things Vince was talking about. In other words, intuitional politics based on simple assumptions about what should be political positions based upon a rousing appeal for fundraising or activity in the public square is almost bound to be damaging or ineffective if it’s not rooted in something that we could call biblical, theological, or a contextual understanding of how belief in Christ as the savior of myself and the world should be translated into public life. And CPJ and a number of other groups have said, “You must think through the meaning of politics, you must think through what is possible and not possible, particularly in a democratic society, if there’s going to be a Christian witness with integrity as opposed to just spasmodic Christian shouts.”
Vincent Bacote: Yes, and just one thing let me add to that real quickly. I think part of the problem is, is that most people do not think about the entire political process and how long it takes to go from some idea about what a policy might be to actually that policy being implemented. As I’ve heard some people say, they want politics to be like the fire station: “I know it’s there, but I only want to know you’re there when it’s an emergency.” So they only think about public policy when it’s an emergency policy, in other words when there’s a cause for alarm, and then they pay attention to it. So they’re not thinking consistently about the overall and long-term process of political action. And of course, the danger with that is, is that there are people who do. And they are putting their nose to the grindstone and being involved in the long process. And they are the ones who are putting smaller as opposed to—and larger things—into practice in terms of public policy. So there needs to be at least some Christians paying more attention to the long game of politics rather than just the “call the fire station” approach to politics.
Cherie Harder: Well, let me ask you—and we’ll start with you, Vince—how one does that. We do see through a glass darkly. And yet there are things that require urgency. There are real injustices that need to be addressed. Those Christians who are involved in politics or cultural efforts, there are certain tried and true techniques and best practices that usually lend themselves to stoking concern, if not fear, a sense of urgency, the things that are the levers where political action takes place. So, Vince, you have literally written the book on what it means to be a political disciple and a theology of public life. How does one kind of engage and pursue that kind of theology amidst the constraints of our politics and the success of techniques that essentially work on the fallenness of human nature?
Vincent Bacote: Sure. One thing I would absolutely recommend to everyone is a curriculum that CPJ has that’s a political discipleship curriculum that basically reacquaints people with the way that our political system works. And it brings together people who are different from each other to sort of reacquaint themselves with that and to choose an issue and to learn about this issue and to think about how to meet, how to pursue some kind of attention to that issue. And the idea is ultimately to culminate with meeting with hopefully a local representative, whether someone in your town or whether it’s all the way to someone who’s in Congress, depending upon who you’re able to meet with. And so the point is that you are then learning how to be participating in the system itself. So that’s one thing that I recommend. So Center for Public Justice political discipleship curriculum, that’s one of the ways to do it. When people are doing that, I would say the first thing is to recognize that, one, lower your expectations about what you’re going to accomplish politically because you’re not going to fully establish the Kingdom of God. And so set that part aside while still prioritizing the fact that as a Christian you have a unique opportunity in a country like this one to use your political agency as a way to express neighbor love. So what are things that you’re interested in where you see antagonism to neighbor love? Antagonism to human flourishing? And is there some issue locally, something in your state, something in your town that you care about? And then I would say turn your attention to that in terms of a very direct type of engagement.
If people aren’t doing that, then I would say at least, one, try to vote at least every four years, at least try to vote. Or every two years, because of midterm elections. At least try to do that, and do that in an informed way. But doing it in an informed way where, again, you’re not just voting for one or two issues and your expectation isn’t just about whether a person is only going to be a one-issue type of person because most of the work they’re doing isn’t going to be just on that one issue. So are you going to pay attention to more of what a person is doing? And I understand that that’s a very hard thing to do when there’s an avalanche of information that are coming at people all the time. But we have the opportunity to actually be involved in helping hopefully good candidates to get to office.
I think a second thing is, of course, some people should think about whether they should actually perhaps participate on the local level, be a part of a school board. Maybe, you know, someone who’s watching right now, maybe you want to run for mayor. OK, well, go ahead and think about trying to do that. Or think about being involved in the party apparatus that goes on in your county, in your town. Those are all different ways that I think that people can begin to get involved because they’re possibilities in the democracy, in the republic, that we have. So that’s the biggest thing that I would encourage.
So the shorthand of it is: put your antenna up and see what’s already out there for participation because the possibilities for participation are already there. I think the problem is that most people, they know that somebody is going to take care of the streets getting paved. Somebody is going to take care of deciding when a street gets expanded from two lanes to four lanes, all these different things that are decisions that people get made that are political decisions, actually. They’re used to somebody just taking care of those. So for the most part, they’re not in enough of a crisis mode to actually feel like they need to pay that much attention to it. As long as it’s not too bad, it’s all right. Right? So I think, you know, well, maybe try to dial up the attention a little bit more. Start there, is what I’d want to say.
Mark Noll: I would add that—and it’s mostly from listening to political people who are astute like Vince and others that come from a Christian angle—trying to discern what are major themes in the scriptures, major themes in the history of Christianity, to propel public action is the place to begin. Not responding piecemeal to things that seem particularly pressing right now, but trying to think throughout the length and breadth of scripture about what it is that God requires faithful servants to do. And we could talk about a number of particular areas. But it does seem to me that one of the things that comes through time and time again, particularly in the New Testament, is the idea that if I’m defending something that affects me, that can be good and proper and necessary. But the Christians are called—the true believers, true followers of Christ—are called to be as concerned or more concerned about injury to others than injury to myself. And that seems a pretty clear Bible principle that won’t tell you how to vote on a minimum wage of fifteen dollars, but will give you a perspective on how to evaluate your own participation in public life and how to evaluate the participation of other people.
Vincent Bacote: And I add to it that, I think what’s also part of that is our disposition towards people in the populace in general. In other words, one, if I’m committed to a particular truth, the fact that I’m right doesn’t give me the right to lie in order to support the truth. And it doesn’t give me the right to be condescending and dehumanizing of people with whom I disagree. It’s my call to love my neighbors. And it’s my call to do the hard things like forgive people that offend me. And those are hard things, but that Christian commitment means I need to be the person that says, “I’m not going to play dirty” or “I’m not going to lie about people” or “I’m not going to use rhetoric that is disrespectful to people just because of my political commitment.” So I think that disposition is very important.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. We’re going to go to questions from our viewers in just a second. But before we do so, one of the things that sort of strikes me is some of the involvement that you both have just been talking about pertains to the nitty-gritty local level, you know, getting one’s hands dirty, the hard work of making the trains run on time. And, you know, it’s very kind of close to the community. And, of course, so much of our political engagement now is much more sort of a spectator, tribal, kind of sport that’s based on national politics and rooting for one’s team. And while there are a few Patriot churches in the United States, for the most part, that kind of politicization is not coming from the pulpit. There’s a different sort of catechesis that’s going on in terms of media that one may consume, messages one hears, that aims to sort of mobilize into that kind of tribal display. And I’d love to get both of your thoughts on what both churches—church leaders, pastors—as well as interested parishioners can do to both encourage a more biblically-grounded catechesis of Christian public and political engagement, and also for people in their own individual capacities who may recognize, like, “You know, I think my media diet might be skewed in some way.” Are there resources that they should go to? And we’ll start with you on that one, Mark.
Mark Noll: Sure, and I think it’s often easy from the ivory tower to tell people what to do in an ideal world, and actually sometimes the ideas from the ivory tower are good ones. So you’ve described, I think, in brief, the kind of silo situation we have for communications and media. That might be a—I think it’s happened at all times and places—but it’s intensified in our time and place because of the dominance of social media and then the plethora of sites and sources of information. It would seem to me that in the churches, it would be always beneficial to have more than one Christian viewpoint when it comes to an adult ed class, young people’s class, looking at public service. How would you do this simply? Well, you have an issue. You read Sojourners magazine and you read First Things magazine. And you’re going to get different points of view from a Christian angle as to the particular issue. In the broader public, the silo effect, I think, which you’ve talked about, is magnifying the voices on the extreme, a point Vince made earlier. If ourselves, we tend to watch the PBS News Hour, maybe I should occasionally watch Fox News to find out a different angle and watch not just to criticize, not just to be on my high horse and say, “Oh, those idiots don’t understand anything,” but actually listening as if they might have something to inform me that I need to be informed about. So somehow getting out of your own echo chamber and hearing other voices and remembering always that voices exist from people who are made in the image of God and thereby have dignity.
Vincent Bacote: Two things I would say. One is just kind of following what Mark was just saying is actually interacting with people that aren’t just the people you are used to interacting with. And if your church is big enough, can your church arrange opportunities for people just to get to know each other and to learn about each other’s lives? I think one of the biggest problems is—this includes a secular reality as well—that people don’t know actually that much about the people about whom they seem to have omniscience. And so, for example, you know, how many people in Silicon Valley actually know an evangelical Christian and have had a conversation with them, rather than being sure what they think they know about what an evangelical Christian stands for? So, similarly, even within a church—and most of these churches are going to have a diversity of people around—whether they admit how much different they vote about things is another thing—but there’s enough diversity for them to actually get together, have conversations, and just learn about each other and be curious about each other, find out about other people’s experiences. Because a lot of times what happens is people don’t really know that, actually, what some people are talking about is actually based in truth. So some people might think, “Well, nobody who’s a Christian really gets persecuted like, you know, in their office or whatever.” It’s like, well, actually, it depends on the company you work for. It depends upon what’s happening in your workspace. It might be a situation where you are at a disadvantage because of that.
similarly, though, there are a lot of people—this goes back to the race thing, Cherie, actually—there are a lot of people, they actually do not know about the life experiences of nonwhites, if they’re in the majority culture. And they are what, as someone from the Ferguson Commission said at an event we had here at Wheaton, they’re actually sincerely oblivious about the lives of other people. They have nice intentions, but they don’t really know because they haven’t interacted with people, what their lives are actually like. And so the only way that that’s going to happen is actually spending the time together. And majoring on having a sense of humility and a listening ear and asking more questions rather than sharing more information. I think that’s one of the biggest things that needs to happen.
The second thing I think is a major catechesis point, which is teaching people that their beliefs actually do orient them to their ethical practice. We have this split between our theology, what we confess, and our ethics, what we practice, and they’re not often very connected. The ethics winds up being very, very ad hoc type of things like, “Oh, there’s a crisis. Let me sort of figure out maybe how a Christian ought to address it.” The question ought to be, “How are my beliefs already orienting me to live in a particular way? How is it orienting me to think about how I am participating in this world, to perceive the world that I’m in, and to be faithful in this world?” And I think that taking our beliefs into action and doing that explicitly is one of the most important dimensions of formation that needs to happen.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Well, the questions are pouring in. And just as a quick reminder to our viewers, you can not only ask a question, but you can also “like” a question and that helps us get an idea of what some of the most popular questions are. And it will be no surprise to either of you that a lot of the questions try to dig down into more definitional specificity. So I’ll kind of combine a few of those and toss them out to you. Harry Lewis asks, “Will you please distinguish between a patriotic Christian and a Christian nationalist?” Julia Rich ask, “Is not Christian nationalism an oxymoron? Nationalism suggests an overriding attachment to a geographical area. To me, this is antithetical to Christianity’s call for the world.” And then Clifford Humphrey asks, “What’s the difference between classical Christian political thought, which includes civil support for a religion and a Christian society, and Christian nationalism as discussed here?” So that’s all sorts of definitional questions kind of lumped together. And, Mark, why don’t you take the first swing at those?
Mark Noll: Right. Yes, definitions are really, really important. One of the strands often in contemporary Christian nationalism is the idea that the United States is particularly chosen by God, has been particularly blessed by God, and has a particularly rich heritage that is now under really serious threat. In my way of thinking, it’s important to say two things about that supposition. First, there has been a great deal of good accomplished by Christian people in the United States and actually in the United States in the world. But secondly, the notion of a unique, singular relationship—covenant even—between God and the United States, in my view, is a heresy. After the coming of Christ, all nations are on a level as potential instruments for building the Kingdom, but never to take the place of Old Testament Israel or never to take the place of the worldwide church that enjoys the special blessing of God and has been commissioned to bring in the King. So a very specific example: If you are inclined to believe that the United States is unique because of God’s relationship to the United States, this to me is Christian nationalism, or at least liable to become Christian nationalism. And it’s an idea that believers should repudiate.
Vincent Bacote: And patriotism, I would say, just going off of what Mark said—if you think about Jeremiah, even in exile, they are there to seek the good of the place where they are. So wherever you are geographically, then you should seek the good and care for that place, the good for that place, for its people, etc. But that does not mean to worship that place, nor does it mean to in any way really make that place kind of—that’s more in the place of God and God is some kind of spiritual servant of that place. So I think that’s an important thing. Because I think proper patriotism is an important thing. It’s one of the ways of thinking about “How do I seek the good of where I am?”
But patriotism also, I think, properly enables you to care enough about the place where you are that you actually love it enough to tell the truth about how it’s failed to live up to its aspirations. And it’s really OK to have a narrative where you tell the truth about not living up to your aspiration. And of all people, the people that ought to be willing to do that ought to be Christians, because they believe that sin is real. And even traditions that believe in a very optimistic view of sanctification, even those traditions believe that humans tend to be sinful, which means: what should your expectation be about the cumulative effects of all that sin in the trajectory and the history of any nation? It’s not going to be one where you’re seeing, “Wow, look at how the Kingdom of God was arriving.” Really, you should not be surprised at all the ways that history confirms that sin is a reality, from the individual level all the way up to the national level.
So a patriot is a person that ought to be able to admit that and not be afraid of that. And actually that’s a reason for them to want to say, “Well, how do we love God better? How do we love neighbor better because of the ways that we fail to love neighbor in our history?” I think that’s the way to do it, whereas I think a Christian nationalist is nervous that if you criticize the history at all, that it means that somehow you are disloyal to the nation.
And just add one thing to what Mark said about the heresy piece. I think it is interesting to observe that—or it’s curious I guess to observe—that anyone who thinks that the United States is mentioned in the Bible—the United States is in the Western Hemisphere—is missing what the Bible talks about, because the Western Hemisphere isn’t mentioned except for “all the Earth” and “the nations,” perhaps. That’s about the only coverage that we’re getting. So for us to be a special nation appointed by God would seem to require a certain kind of special revelation that occurred that the Bible does not seem to suggest was coming down the road, especially after the time of Christ.
Cherie Harder: So our next question comes from Werner Mischke. And Werner asks, “Sometimes I observe that pluralism really scares Christians. Is pluralism a Christian ideal? Can you discuss this?” Mark, I’ll toss that one to you.
Mark Noll: Is pluralism a Christian ideal? Yes and no, of course. That’s the academic answer: yes and no. Yes, because that’s the situation of the New Testament in which the Christian faith was established, in which the very best examples of Christian confirmation were carried out. I would add that for most of the world today, vibrant, active, forceful, evangelistic Christian movements are operating already in a pluralistic situation. So what might be “no”? It’s possible to imagine a society in which individual and group Christian activity has brought about a consensus on what is good in the society, and in those circumstances, you would be restricting pluralism. Very extreme example. It’s not just Christian but general human history believes it’s wrong to kill people. You don’t want a society in which there are different views about whether it’s wrong to kill people. You want a society in which there is a unified view that it’s wrong to kill people. That undercuts pluralism. There have been in US history other much more detailed beliefs that were thought to be common. Some of those now have been challenged in the last 50, 100 years. But when a society has a consensus, there should be really no real problem with some restrictions on pluralism. That’s, however, not the case in the world today. It wasn’t the case in the formative decades, centuries, of the Christian faith. So I think pluralism is probably what Christian people should get along with and figure out how to act in as best as they can.
Vincent Bacote: And I think one of the things that people are concerned about, the fear that maybe was raised as part of the question, is some people understand pluralism to mean a view of things where there is no truth. In other words sort of a radical, post-modern, everything— So pluralism is relativism, right? In other words, there’s nothing objective. There is no truth. And, whatever your truth is, whatever works for you, as long as you don’t kill anybody, hey, let’s all live and let live. And then you just kind of have this way of living together. And if that’s the world that you have, then if you want to say that there is a reason for not killing people, that there is a reason for having various forms of justice that emerges out of, say, a faith tradition, then a kind of pluralism will say, “No, that’s not allowed because, you know, you stand for something.” Right?
And so I think that there are people who have that concern about a pluralism, which is sort of a—I mean, it doesn’t really exist because somebody’s worldview is always going to be running the show. But the specter of there being a sort of public where all views are equal or there is no truth. And what that leads to then is opening the door to suppressing the influence of Christians in society. So I think some people, when they think about pluralism, that’s what they hear. Right? They don’t hear, for example, that if you’re a country like ours that talks about liberty of all people, pluralism means that you care not just about the religious freedom of Christians, but the religious freedom of, say, Zoroastrians, as well as Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims, etc. So those are two different ways of thinking about what’s going on with pluralism. So a question worth asking is which pluralism are you talking about?
Cherie Harder: So we have a few questions from pastors, and I want to combine a couple of them. And, Vince, I think I’ll toss this to you first. Dan Jacobson asks, “As a pastor in a ‘patriotic community,’ what encouragements would you have to help me shepherd my community towards biblical fidelity without triggering political backlash where I lose the opportunity for gospel ministry?” And similarly, David Brenner asks, “How can pastors and church leaders better engage their congregations around living faithfully with the past, being careful with history, and applying it well to our understanding of God’s work in the world?”
Vincent Bacote: Sure. In both cases—and hey, Dan, if it’s the Dan Jacobson that I know—the first thing I would say is, I think, you know, again, go back to what is it that people already believe? So if you already believe certain things about—again, this is very basic: Jesus said the two greatest commandments are “love God” and “love neighbor.” Do you really believe that? And are you encouraging people to really believe that? One, if you really believe that you love God above all, which is a positive way of saying, “I have no other gods before me,” is your faith always a faith that is willing to put into check even your patriotism? And then if it’s not, the question is, why are you getting upset because I’m saying that God says you should ask questions about your country and whether your loyalty is rising to worship? Because then you’ve got an idolatry problem on your hands. That’s arguably Christianity 101: “have no other gods before me.” So starting with something like that. I mean, I think low-hanging fruit is the way to go. Love your neighbor as yourself.
A thought experiment that I like to do with my students sometimes is to say, have you ever had somebody at a family gathering introduce you to somebody else and you didn’t like the story they told about you? And everybody thought, oh, look, so now we know what you are. And everybody is content with knowing what you think is a distorted version of who you are. Now, you don’t like it when people do that, right? It’s like, OK, well, are you willing to consider whether you do that to other people? And are you willing to engage other people to learn about them and to hear from them rather than to already be sure? You know plenty about them and have them sized up. And my point is, is that it’s one of the ways of saying, look, what’s going to be my disposition towards people where I know even within my own church, much less outside of my church, there’s a lot that I don’t know about anybody here. And how am I going to treat them like I would want to be treated where I don’t become, you know, an exemplar of intentional misunderstanding of people, but really lots of intentional curiosity about people as an expression of neighbor love? And so I think starting with those kinds of things can begin to orient people towards saying, “Well, what are some of the ways we can love God and neighbor and become known for that?”
And of course, I think another thing, from a vision point of view, to put in front of a congregation is to say, “You know—at least in the current state of affairs—if you’re somewhat associated with that word evangelical right now, you don’t have a good public reputation. But good news is supposed to be our reputation. Hey, you know a way we can be good news people? If people actually discover we actually really care about them and want to get to know them. And see good for them. And that we win them over just by being curious about them.” That’ll be very interesting because then people will say, “Well, wait, how come you’re not like all these other people slamming each other on social media all the time?” So in other words, that kind of formation, I think, which emerges out of just the two basic commitments about love of God and neighbor, is a way to start.
And then, of course, I’d want to go deeper in terms of what are the other things that you’re already saying, what’s already part of your common vocabulary? Those are the things to start with, because then you’re not introducing something. You’re saying, we already talk about this. This is already the way that— this is on the books for us. We preach about this all the time. What does it really mean to put that into practice? That’s that way, I think, to do it without people thinking, “Oh, I know what you’re doing” and then raising suspicion. No, you’re saying it’s right here, what we preach all the time. So let’s actually, you know, do this with integrity and go deeper into what we already say.
Mark Noll: I have a lot of sympathy for pastors who—which is almost universal today—will have in their congregation people who have not necessarily Christian nationalism but very strong views politically, which make it difficult to address from the pulpit the reasons why they are so at each other’s— so different. But preachers have the great privilege of being expounders of the Word of God. And if pastors are preaching regularly through the scriptures, they’ll be called upon to talk about the passages in the Old Testament where Israel is told to welcome strangers, passages in the Book of Isaiah about the day of the Lord when the nations will come into Israel. Passages where Jesus instructs his disciples to go to those who are not of Israel. Philip ministering to the Ethiopian eunuch. In the Book of Revelation, right toward the end of the Bible, where the kings of the Earth bring their treasures. And a pastor can’t afford to be commenting on the local school board election, or certainly not many of the great political issues of our day. But a pastor can be inculcating the principles of the Word of God.
And then on the history question: Good ministers select illustrations carefully. In evangelical churches it would be great to have a minister who could point to a David Brainard for certain spiritual things, but then point to say, Frederick Douglass, who had to struggle to learn to read the Bible because his slave master thought teaching African-Americans to learn the Bible would make them dangerous. Douglas becomes a great critic of what he calls the false Christianity in America. But really, he’s in many ways an exemplary Christian person into his own age. So being determined and smashing people over the head when you think they must do something different is not the way to go. Subtlety: not a great American quality. But subtlety, scripture, careful historical examples, may help.
Cherie Harder: So we have a number of questions that are sort of either pushing back or pushing in, and I’ll combine a few. And Vince, as the ethicist on this call, I think I’ll direct this to you first. So one question: “Do you not believe that Christians have an obligation to create a society that gets as many people to heaven as possible? And cannot the government help in this? For instance, the government could or could not ban pornography. Surely we should ban it. And the banning is rooted in essentially Christian principles.” We’ve had several questions about abortion as well. And similarly, Eva Nappier asks, “What would you say is the appropriate biblical response to encroaching secularism in our nation rather than the fear of Christian nationalism? What’s the alternate movement?” So, would love to hear from both of you on that, but, Vince, we’ll start with you.
Vincent Bacote: Sure. Well, what I would say about any issue is, well, first of all, is that, one, in most of Christian history—at least since Constantine—it’s been a very checkered record with how Christians have done merging Christian commitments with political life. Now, there’s a picture of a certain Dutch prime minister from the Netherlands in my office, a guy named Abraham Kuyper. OK, so I’m one of the books about people being engaged in public life. But I’m also aware of the ways that it can go wrong. And my point about that is, so when we talk about, yes, what should we make possible? To the extent that we can facilitate things that enable the possibility of sharing our faith, we should do that. But I think we also need to understand that, as I understand, especially what we’re being taught in the New Testament—and I’m not saying this as lost discontinuity with the Old—but what we’re being taught in the New Testament is not the idea that mission is going to happen because I get enough of the right laws passed. Mission is going to happen because of the faithfulness of God’s people and their witness, no matter whether they are in situations more like a 1 Peter situation where you have basically no religious capital, no social capital, no political capital, but you do have an opportunity to truly be a witness that raises the question about “why are you people not the problem that we thought you would be?” So you have that kind of situation.
And I think it’s important to say that when you’re in a situation like the one we’re in in the United States, the question is, I think, how—if I’m talking about religious freedom—how am I going to do that in a way where it’s clear that my reason for doing this is not just because I want people to be converted, but because it gives me the opportunity to worship and to form people. And if I form those people, if churches form those people, then you have people who are committed to the good of all persons, and not only to Christians. In other words, that whether people are getting converted or not, Christians are committed to seeking the good of those people. And is that the kind of country that I’m trying to facilitate? I think that’s the thing that we should be thinking about.
So I’m all for saying we ought to be in the game of public policy and seeking the good. But I think we also have to be thinking about, OK, what’s our ultimate expectation about what we’re going to be able to accomplish through political means? Political means are not necessarily what God needs in order for people to get converted. It’s not a political system that leads to conversion; it’s the work of God in people’s hearts. So that can happen, whether you’re in a situation of oppression or not.
In terms of laws, etc., I mean, we’re in a country where you have the opportunity to participate in seeking public policy. The question is, in a pluralistic society that talks about freedom of expression, how do you want to have your own freedom of expression and protect it while also saying, “Here’s why other forms of expression are ones that ought to have limits on them.” What kind of argument are you making to people that aren’t Christians or to people that are not well-informed Christians? How are you doing that in ways that are going to be convincing to them? So how are you going to translate Christian commitments into a key that people can at least begin to understand?
In terms of abortion, what I would say is, are you willing to be pro-life from womb to tomb? From all the way to conception to once somebody has been born? And are you also committed to the flourishing of people, not just so they’re able to, you know, make it out of the womb, but once they’ve made it out of the womb, are you committed to a society that seeks to do as best as it can to facilitate the conditions for people to exercise their agency and to then pursue their opportunity for flourishing? Is that the kind of society that you’re committed to? So it can’t just be about abortion because, OK, a lot of poor kids get born. Then what? They’re in bad neighborhoods with bad schools systems, with minimal economic opportunities. And the question is, how are we facilitating the transformation of those contexts? How are we coming alongside there? Again, to facilitate the agency of the people, not to coddle anybody, etc. But how are you facilitating that so that people are able to enter into the possibilities of flourishing, to even have a vision of flourishing, if they tend to be born to contexts where there isn’t much of a vision to flourish? So what is happening in terms of being pro-life in that way? So we have to—yes, definitely, all the factors that lead to people talking about terminating pregnancies, you know, in my view, with the exception of life-of-the-mother type of situations—then what about once the children are born? What about those realities? So are we entering into ways to to facilitate flourishing there?
Mark Noll: I would only add, agreeing with Vince on the particular issue of pro-life, that pro-life means something very comprehensive, and if it’s not comprehensive, it probably isn’t really pro-life. And I would add that if in our democracy, the kind of broad, far-reaching sort of arguments that Vince has just laid out are not effective, it does not mean that the gospel witness must cease. In the post-World War II era, the Christian faith has grown more rapidly in the People’s Republic of China, which has always had legal abortion, than anywhere in the world. Should China move in a pro-life direction? In my view, yes. Is that move essential to the progress of the gospel? No.
Cherie Harder: So our next question I’m going to toss to you, Mark, as the historian on this call. Rick Barry asks, “Electoral/partisan politics tends to operate within a fairly short historical memory, as opposed to Christianity, which tries to orient us within the entire story of human history. How have you seen Christians or Christian communities successfully foster a deeper and longer relationship to history? And how has fostering a longer-term perspective on history changed their posture in politics now?”
Mark Noll: Right. Fostering a longer-term perspective on history, I think, would allow people in the United States to realize that religiously-motivated argumentation can sometimes lead to flourishing society—I’m thinking of the campaign against slavery, for example, which in Britain was more successful earlier than in the United States, but was motivated not exclusively by Christian people, conservative Christian people, but mainly by Christian people. And people who know that history know that it took a long time to move from the first attacks on the slave trade to the elimination of slavery. So that lesson is a good lesson in how hanging in there for a long time can be really useful. By the same token, that same period of history saw the strengthening in the United States of the notion in the North—white North, as well as the white South—that somehow the Bible legitimated slavery. And that argument, looking at how that argument developed over time, brings some caution to how entrenched notions—and there it was the assumption that Black people were simply ordained for slavery—assumptions building up over time that lead in the wrong direction. But in both cases, it’s necessary to take the longer review. Now, how to do that? Well, I’m not a magician, so I’m not sure. But encourage people to read. Again, pastors, select illustrations that push you and your congregation out of your comfort zone. Try to have an awareness of points of view that reinforce what you think, but at least a few that go against what you think. It’s a long struggle. I’ve not done nearly as good a job with providing an answer as framing the question, but it’s a really good question that demands a lot of thought and a lot of careful work.
Cherie Harder: So we also have a lot of practical questions. I want to combine two, and, Vince, as the ethicist concerned with praxis maybe you could start us off here. Marie McKnight asks, “In a society that is increasingly losing the ability to respect differing points of view, how can we restore the basic respect that will make dialogue possible even among Christians?” And Marilyn MacIntire ask, “If you are fully persuaded on what you believe to be credible evidence that a particular news outlet is, what they’re purveying is, not only distorted but false and harmful (hate-mongering, for instance), why would you be obliged to listen to it with the same respect as a source that you believe has more integrity? Isn’t there a time to walk away and say, as one word to a bully, ‘I’m not listening to this, it’s wrong and doesn’t deserve a hearing.'” So two different questions about essentially how then do we navigate this?
Vincent Bacote: Right. To the second question, I would say yes, sometimes that’s what you do. But I also would say it depends upon what’s my reason for watching the other things and learning about the other things. Because I may think that a particular news outlet is largely, you know, propaganda, let’s say. Well, I think if there are people that you know, with whom you want to converse, that are you believe under the sway of this propaganda, one of the ways to actually converse with them is to know what they’re listening to. Right? Which doesn’t mean that you have to have a steady diet of listening to it all the time, but having some familiarity with it and understanding the way that they’re hearing, that they’re giving the news, I think that that can be important. That can at least facilitate a conversation with the person that you know that primarily gets their source from there. Let’s say somebody says, well, somebody watches blank news outlet ten hours a day. Right. OK, well, I need to have some idea of what’s happening, what they’re hearing ten hours a day. I don’t have to listen to it ten hours a day myself. But if I’m going to, I think, engage them with integrity, it helps me to be informed about that. So I think it depends upon, I would say, your purpose for, you know, exposing yourself more broadly to the different outlets.
To the prior question— Remind me of the prior question? I got caught up in that piece. I just want to make sure that I answer it correctly.
Cherie Harder: Yes. In a society that’s increasingly losing the ability to respect differing points of view, how can we make restore the basic respect that makes a dialogue possible even among Christians?
Vincent Bacote: Sure. I think the first thing is to look in the mirror. It’s the first thing that I need to do. And ask, “OK, what are the things within myself that need to be transformed? What are the things within myself that make it hard for me to be charitable to people with whom I disagree? How do I tend to think about them? How do I tend to categorize them? Do I think about them as three-dimensional people? Do I think about them in terms of what their tweets are?” Right? Or whatever their other kind of sloganing might be? Right. So I think that’s one of the things I have to do is first start with myself.
But then I would want to say that hopefully the communities of which we are a part, can we introduce ways of beginning to have discourse with each other and in those conversations with each other or orient each other to say, “Listen, when we’re dealing with people outside of our circles, are we willing to be the people that want to respectfully engage other people and not get drawn into it?” I think part of that also means perhaps learning how to moderate one’s engagement with a lot of what happens on social media. I don’t think I’m the only one who has perhaps gone on Twitter, and at one point you found yourself thinking, “OK, why do I feel like my emotions are going in a not-so-good direction right now?” Right? So the point being, well, maybe that means take a break. And it’s really OK to not be in the sea of tweets and Instagram feeds and other things. So I think that there’s that piece of it as well.
The biggest thing I would say about it, though, is are we orienting ourselves to be people that say, “I want to be characterized by militant respect for other people, irrespective of whatever their disposition is toward me.” And are we forming our communities to have those kinds of people? Because I think that’s the way that it’s going to start. Now, people who are like big influencer people, if you’re able to have people who follow you because of what you say, then what I would say in your case is then you become the model and have a campaign about respect to everybody. But really mean it. Not conveniently respect everybody, but actually respect everybody. That’s what I would say.
Cherie Harder: Mark and Vince, as we close out our time together, I’d love to give each of you the last word. So, Vince, let’s start with you.
Vincent Bacote: So what I would say, in political disciple mode, is that if you are a Christian, then your first loyalty is to God alone. If you love God, above all, you can have the space to be— open yourself to be a person where God can question you about your commitments. And in questioning you about your commitments, that can include how are you loving your nation? How are you loving other things? And if we’re really those people with that first commitment to God, and our trust is in God who is saving us, that our nation does not save us, then our trust ought to be in him and displayed in our love of neighbor. And I would just encourage all of us to think about, you know, what are new ways I can imagine to love my neighbors, especially the neighbors that don’t think like me?
Mark Noll: Being asked to think about Christian nationalism has led me to two historical conclusions and one theological conclusion. First, the Western Christian heritage has given great gifts to the history of the United States: the rule of law, the strength imparted by traditional families, the importance of personal moral responsibility. But secondly, churches passively or actively have done a great deal to undermine, have been complicit in undermining, these great gifts. The theological point is, especially in a democracy where we’re encouraged to bring our values into the public space, Christian believers should always remember that even political opponents are made in the image of God. Even political opponents are those for whom Christ died.
Cherie Harder: Vince and Mark, thank you so much. It’s been a real pleasure and honor to be with you. Thank you to each of you who have joined us. Have a great weekend.