Unpacking “Christian Nation” as a Fascistic God Term
Okay, so the last couple of weeks’ blog posts about LGBTQ+ inclusivity and abortion bans as fascistic (see here and here respectively if you want to catch up). That coming in the midst of the crucially important January 6 hearings in Congress and the upcoming 4th of July holiday has been a thing. Not to mention the recent Supreme Court decision allowing to door to open to the Religious Right’s Holy Grail of “(Christian nationalist) prayer in schools.” All of this has me thinking a lot about all the rhetoric I heard as a kid about how America was a “Christian Nation” and how fascistic that Christian nationalism rhetoric was in retrospect. So in this blog post I want to focus on that using, as I did last week, Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works book as a base.
I’ll also be referring back to my series on god terms (things to be defended at all costs) and devil terms (things to be fought at all costs) that starts here.
As you’ll see if you hang with me, it all hangs together.
As always, I’m tackling this as a pastor’s kid who grew up in a right-leaning “moderate” denomination that recently took a hard-right turn (at least some elements are seeking to make that happen—I talked about that here).
I later went on to get a PhD in Communication. You know, the discipline that’s spent a ton of time since WWI and WWII looking at the propaganda and rhetoric going on there to identify how all of that went down so we can avoid that happening again where we’re able.
Thinking Through the “Messy Middle” in an Age of Fascistic Rhetoric and Policies
And yeahhhh the interesting thing to me about my upbringing was that the healthy elements always disclaimed Christian nationalism and actually refused to join in with it. Meanwhile, the unhealthy elements said they were disclaiming it while actually joining in on the fascistic side in the culture wars that were raging.
Others genuinely thought they were doing the first thing but were really doing the second thing.
Some were more “messy middle” nuanced than that, mind you. But yeah, a lot of people also said they were the messy middle and absolutely were supporting fascistic Christian nationalism rhetoric, either wittingly or unknowingly.
Building on Jesus and John Wayne
Kristin Kobes Du Mez has done a great job in her book Jesus and John Wayne of outlining how white Evangelicals, including some of those in the “messy middle,” have been supporting theologies and political policies and rhetoric that were actually militant masculinity in disguise for years. (Note that I’ve been building on Du Mez’s excellent work in several previous blog posts, starting here.)
In this piece I plan to call on Jason Stanley’s descriptions in his book How Fascism Works to supplement those efforts using Stanley’s outline of fascistic rhetoric. I’ll also be talking about how “god terms” and “devil terms” fit into the picture, based on the work of Kenneth Burke, as I’ve mentioned.
Ugh, Fascistic Christian Nationalism Is Disturbingly Real
And yeah, all of this stuff is extremely important. As I’ve pointed out several times before, the attempted seditious conspiracy on January 6 (as it’s now been officially described by the bipartisan January 6 committee) was literally carried out with prayers and a cross as part of its emblems.
The thing is, the Religious Right’s culture wars rhetoric and policies in recent decades have been part and parcel with fascistic rhetoric as well.
Not My Christianity? Yes and No….
I mentioned here that people saying “that’s not my Christianity” is in many ways an extremely unhelpful response, if it’s meant to dismiss the problem. In the current piece, I hope to nuance that view a bit.
After all, it’s important to note that fascistic visions of Christianity are only using and exploiting Christian symbols. The people driving this movement forward are bad actors in no way desiring to, say, actually figure out what Jesus would do.
In fact, their goals are often directly opposed to what Jesus would do in a real way.
Yeah, Says It’s “Christian” But…Totally Different Definition
Instead, they’re doing exactly what Stanley points out fascists do. In short, they’re using a call back to a mythic past in which America was somehow “pure” and “holy” and labeling that as a “Christian” past.
And they’re setting THAT up as the thing to be defended at all costs. Over and against those who are being scapegoated as the “real criminals” who add seeming “impurities” to our nation.
And let’s be clear: the culture wars make it very clear that those populations who are seen to be fought at all costs are actually the ones Jesus told us to take care of as the “least of these.”
When Those Jesus Advocated For Become the Devil Term…
In short, those to be fought at all costs are the historically excluded: women, poor people, black people, foreigners and strangers, and so on and so forth. THESE are the ones that fascistic Christian nationalism finds to be “impure,” that they seek to reject.
And let’s be clear: while I have all the empathy in the world for those who, like my previous self, were snowed by this unhealthy socialization, I also think it’s super important to point out that people who try to say that “both sides should just get along” is absolutely not walking accurately or faithfully in the way of following Jesus if you take his words and actions as recorded in the Bible seriously.
Jesus Did Choose Sides
See, whenever Jesus was given an option between choosing the religio-political fascistic rhetoric of his day or those who had been historically marginalized, I see him supporting the historically marginalized.
Jesus chose sides. And when you look at the material of the Bible understanding what we know about fascistic rhetoric now, there’s no good way to argue accurately that Jesus would have stood for the scapegoating and marginalization of historically excluded populations.
Almost every one of his parables and actions says otherwise.
Definitely Not the Jesus I See in the Bible
But yeah, this is why it’s so important to go back to what I already mentioned above: that Christian nationalists of the sorts that have been driving the “Christian nation” rhetorical dreck in recent decades seem to have absolutely no interest in following the Jesus that’s described in the Bible.
If they do, they have a very peculiar way of showing it, that is.
Because yeah, the rhetoric and policies and actions of this group in America, up to and including the “Culture Wars” rhetoric and policies and the actions of the mob on January 6, are the exact opposite of Jesus’ rhetoric and actions I see recorded in the Christian Bible.
Discerning Types of Nationalisms
They do, however, line up excellently with the picture of fascistic rhetoric and policies as laid out by Jason Stanley in How Fascism Works. (Again, I strongly recommend reading this book—it’s very accessible and important, though naturally hard to read in light of everything that’s going on.)
Before I dive further into the “Christian nation as a god term” thing, which is where I’m headed, I want to briefly describe a really incredibly important distinction Stanley talks about in the book.
In short, in defining nationalisms, Stanley doesn’t turn nationalism into an all-bad devil term that always comes out of the wash as evil.
To the contrary, he carefully points out that there’s a huge difference between unhealthy zero-sum scapegoating of largely-innocent groups types of fascistic nationalism and those kinds of nationalisms who have equality as their goal.
“Both Sides” Are NOT the Same
This is super important because only one of these kinds of group efforts is a genuine threat. And, spoiler alert: it’s absolutely not the equality-seeking kind of nationalism.
This is crucial, because to buy the idea that all nationalisms are either god terms to be defended at all costs or devils to be fought at all costs is absolutely a huge part of the fascistic zero-sum logic.
And it is absolutely a false dichotomy, that load of bunk.
And to believe it is to fall prey to fascistic logic.
When Historically Marginalized Groups and Their Supporters Become Devil Terms
This is what the issue comes down to: when people use rhetoric of the nation being “Christian” as something to be defended against all costs against those evil “secular humanists” that think people of other religions and historically marginalized groups should have rights, well, that’s creating a fascistic view of the world.
It’s exploiting people’s fears in dominant groups that they may lose power.
It’s encouraging them to see people who seek equality as a threat, something to be fought at all costs.
“Purifying the In-Group”?
And it’s trying to persuade those in the “in-group” that they are inherently the pure and lawful ones while “those other folks” are inherently impure criminals just for identifying with an opposing group.
And yes, folx, that’s exactly what fascism does.
Christian Nationalism=Not the Same as a Reality-Grounded Christianity OR a Healthy Nationalism
So yeah, as I pointed out before, it’s really important we don’t dismiss Christian nationalism as not part of the dysfunctional family that is Christianity. It’s also a dysfunctional member of the family that comprises healthy forms of nationalism, for that matter. (And yeah, a lot of the founders were theistic but not Christian.)
And based on reading Christian nationalism’s rhetoric next to fascistic rhetoric, we can safely say that like other “god terms,” Christian nationalism is fairly well opposed to most orthodox “dictionary definitions” of what Christianity is all about. It’s also pretty opposed to healthier ideas of equality-seeking nationalisms.
Which is, again, how fascistic rhetoric works. It’s also how unhealthy “god terms” function.
Christian Nationalism=Neither Healthily Christian Nor Healthily Nationalistic
See, as Stanley writes, the goal of fascistic rhetoric is to gaslight us into a world of authoritarian unreality where conspiracy theories rule the day. Where impossible mythic pasts and beliefs about the purity of the in-group are to be defended at all costs. But expertise and evidence are seen as devil terms to be fought at all costs.
So yeah, the very fact that “Christian nationalism” has nothing to do with the Jesus of the Bible, much less the Founders’ intent regarding the separation of church and state, is actually the point.
Seen through a lens of important research on fascistic rhetoric and policies, this is extremely clear in a helpful way toward sussing that out.
Trying to Parse Through the Unhealthiest Things to Stand Up Against
To make it clear, I am not trying to critique here those who have an issue with Christianity as a whole—I think it has plenty of faults and a ton of critiques are valid.
But I also think that it’s really important to note that in the same dysfunctional family, there really are some people that are the bullies keeping the family unhealthy, even while there are others suffering under that bullying and others who are rejecting that paradigm.
And I think it’s really important to recognize that we reserve the worst of our critique for the unhealthy sides of that equation as much as we are able.
Being Healthily Against Fascistic Rhetoric and Policies
After all, to be anti-fascist means we need to fully see the logic of fascism and push back against it as much as we’re able.
And that means refusing to fight people who genuinely are concerned about the same things as us. Refusing to buy the toxic crap that we all get socialized into from time to time.
And yeah, none of this is easy or simple.
This Sucks, and Yet There’s an Opportunity Here
D*mn I hate that we have to deal with such obvious fascism in our day and times.
But there’s also an opportunity here: see, when fascism shows itself as strongly as it is right now, it makes itself much easier to respond to, in a lot of ways.
Since we’re stuck in this unpleasant position, we might as well appreciate that side of things. Which means we really need to keep up the fight to do what we can to speak back against this mythic unreality these unhealthy people are trying to elevate.
Parsing Through The Different Audiences in This Equation
While doing so, though, it’s really helpful to understand that while a lot of the adherents of fascistic rhetoric see it as the reality, and others are trying in good faith to sort through the mess and gaslighting and just aren’t quite there yet, the people who are crafting these words and policies—and the aware-and-on-board-with-fascistic goals side of their supporters—absolutely understand that it is not.
And it’s super important to recognize the difference between those three kinds of folx. Because two of these groups can sometimes be persuaded. The third group will not but needs to be opposed anyway.
Sometimes We All Get Tired
And then of course there are those who are actively rejecting the unreality, both internally and externally, and want to push back and are just tired. Others are actively pushing back and possibly getting discouraged that others aren’t fully on board.
These last two groups, too, often need different approaches. And different kinds of support.
Doing What We Can
Here’s hoping we’ll all pitch in to support the collective efforts to stand up against unhealthy fascistic forms of Christian nationalism the best we can, and take breaks as we need to.
Will we get it perfect? Will we persuade everyone? Absolutely not.
And that’s okay. But whatever we can do can help.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to keep speaking up against the toxic crap (including fascistic “Christian nation” garbage) toward a healthier (and more equal) world for us all. We can do this thing.
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