This Week in Washington: Nation-building for God?
The world saw many shocking images as rioters forced their way into the US Capitol on January 6 this year, but for me, one of the most disturbing was of a large flag unfurled outside the Capitol. Designed to look like a campaign banner, the flag suggested that the unfolding chaos had endorsement from an unlikely source. It read: “Jesus 2020.”
Christian leaders from many denominations were quick to condemn the violence in Washington, D.C. Yet, in recent days, some observers have suggested that a certain worldview, known broadly as Christian nationalism, may actually have played a part in motivating at least some of those who rampaged through the halls of Congress. These commentators point to the chants of “Jesus is my savior! Trump is my president!” or “Give it up if you believe in Jesus! Give it up if you believe in Donald Trump!” They point to rioters who held Bibles and crosses along with signs that declared “Jesus Saves” and “Hold the line Patriots. God Wins!”
Others, though, are adamant that even if Christian symbols or sentiments were invoked by some of the rioters, their actions bear no resemblance to true Christianity. For this reason, they say, any attempts to paint Christianity as a motivating force in the event are either misguided or malicious.
So, how can people of faith—how can Seventh-day Adventists—start to untangle these competing claims? Did the violence of January 6 stem, at least in part, from a certain view of Christianity and its perceived role in the civic affairs of the United States?
What is Christian nationalism?
Christian nationalism as an ideology is neither new nor uniquely American. Its influence has been studied and documented in the political life of many countries through history—from Great Britain, to Germany, to Russia. Its impact has waxed and waned through the years, but it’s clear that forms of this ideology have at times played a part in shaping the political discourse of this country and many others.[i]
One of the hallmarks of Christian nationalism is an attempt to link Christianity closely with national identity—the idea that to be a true patriot one must also be a Christian. Another common narrative is that of “threat and struggle”: that is, individuals believe that a once-Christian nation is being assailed by hostile forces and Christians are therefore called to battle these forces in an effort to regain lost territory for their faith. Within this narrative, other faith groups and minorities are sometimes labeled as threats to Christianity. It’s hardly surprising then, that the ideology of Christian nationalism is shot through with ugly threads of hate: Anti-Semitism, racism, and a sometimes-violent hostility toward any ethnic or religious minority which is perceived to be out of step with the dominant form of Christianity.
Where do Seventh-day Adventists stand?
There is no ambiguity regarding how the Seventh-day Adventist Church views Christian nationalism: this is an ideology that’s antithetical to our theology and beliefs, and alien to our deeply held values.
A helpful overview of our church’s unique understanding of church-state relations can be found in a document adopted by the Council of Interchurch/Interfaith Faith Relations of the General Conference in March 2002, which can be accessed on our world church website. It reminds us of the clear biblical framework and prophetic counsel which undergirds how the Adventist Church and its members should relate to the civic realm. A key idea found here is a warning against partisanship. The principle is both clear and simple: the church, its various institutions, and its representatives will never align with any political party or political ideology.
Another principle is that, as a denomination, we will not seek political preference and we do not “use our influence with political and civil leaders to either advance our faith or inhibit the faith of others.”[ii] In fact, around the world within many different political contexts, we forcefully advocate against the alignment of any religious group—Christian or otherwise—with political authority. On the website of the Adventist journal Liberty, first published as The Sentinel in 1906, this idea is summed up well in the journal’s Declaration of Principles: “Attempts to unite church and state are opposed to the interests of each, subversive of human rights and potentially persecuting in character; to oppose union, lawfully and honorably, is not only the citizen’s duty but the essence of the Golden Rule–to treat others as one wishes to be treated.”[iii]
Yes, individual church members are encouraged, where they can, to carefully and prayerfully take part in civic life through voting, or taking part in public dialogue, or even holding public office.[iv] However in all these things, the individual church member acts and speaks only for him or herself.
At times, the Adventist Church will take a position on a specific issue of public policy that aligns with our values and will speak publicly about these ideas. Religious freedom is an area where the church consistently takes public positions. We work broadly to advocate for the right of every person to follow the dictates of conscience, regardless of their religious beliefs or nonbelief.
Yet contributing to the public discourse on specific issues is profoundly different to the sweeping ambitions of Christian nationalism.
The bottom line? Seventh-day Adventists should not seek to harness political power to create a uniquely Christian public square. Why? In large part, because our biblical understanding and the counsel of Ellen White lead us to affirm, unequivocally, that “efforts to legislate faith are by their very nature in opposition to the principles of true religion, and thus in opposition to the will of God.”[v]
Christian nationalism, in any of its forms and variants, will always damage our witness to the Gospel. The warning Ellen White gave almost 140 years ago remains as relevant today as it was then: “The union of the church with the state, be the degree never so slight, while it may appear to bring the world nearer to the church, does in reality but bring the church nearer to the world.”[vi]
Having clear theological and institutional guidelines, though, isn’t the end of the story. These don’t automatically immunize us, as individual church members, from the powerful and often insidious social forces that can distort our thinking about what it really means to be a representative of God’s kingdom. It is good, I believe, to take the time to remind ourselves of where we stand, and why.
As someone who works within the public space, I’m immensely grateful for the Adventist Church’s heritage of church-state relations and religious freedom advocacy. From the earliest beginnings of our church, we have tried to reflect one of our core beliefs: that every person, no matter who they are, is an individual who bears the stamp of the Creator God; someone endowed with both freedom and infinite worth.
Yet, before we become complacent, I would suggest that we have a responsibility to do more than simply stand back and affirm our church-state understanding. In whatever country we live, in whatever political context we find ourselves, we can speak out clearly and compellingly against the alignment of faith with political power. We can contribute to our communities in ways that demonstrate that every person is valued. And most importantly, we can actively bear witness to a God whose kingdom is not of this world; a God of love, who yearns to claim each person as His own.
Bettina Krause is an associate director of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty department of the General Conference. She represents the world church in Washington, D.C., engaging with US institutions as well as with diplomatic, international, and NGO communities headquartered in Washington.
[i] There are many scholarly works that explore the roots of Christian nationalism within a historical and international context. See, for instance, Stephen Backhouse’s book Kierkegaard's Critique of Christian Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
[ii] Church/State Relations, adopted by the Council of Interchurch/Interfaith Faith Relations of the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in March 2002. The document is used by the Church’s Department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty and can be found on the Adventist Church’s website at: https://www.adventist.org/articles/church-state-re...
[iv] Church/State Relations, op cit.
[vi] Ellen White, The Great Controversy, 297.