Interesting Things I’m Reading: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Patrick Schreiner, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Christian Nationalism: A Baptist Perspective”

After Schriener rightly and helpfully calls for quick listening and slow speaking, he offers three forms of “Christian Nationalism” as a way of understanding how the term is used by different people. His three forms include (1) the Good: those who want to see Christianity influence American civil life through the use of persuasion, (2) the Bad: those who want to see a fusion of Christianity and American civil life through the use of political power to change laws, and (3) the Ugly: the dominion of Christianity over American civil life through force and even violence.

While one may quibble over whether his distinction between the Bad and the Ugly is viable, Schreiner’s attempt to make distinctions is helpful to show that not everyone is using the term “Christian Nationalism” in the same manner. However, I don’t think that Schreiner’s “Bad” and “Ugly” forms do justice to the argument of theonomists like Doug Wilson and Joe Boot.

While I find myself more comfortably in a historic Baptist posture towards civil government like Schreiner, I think that he is in danger of missing the point in two areas.

(1) Schreiner assumes an idealistic “religious pluralism” that could exist in America so long as Christian values were widely accepted across culture. “Religious pluralism” of the American type is a fruit of a Christianized culture not the root from which emerged Christian values. Historically, this seems to be well established. At our nation’s founding, there was a broad, unquestioned moral consensus shaped by Christianity and that consensus in society enabled religious pluralism. The “religious pluralism” of the founding era was expressed as tolerance for non-conformists like Baptists amidst the state sanctioned Anglicanism of New York or the Congregationalism of Massachusetts. “Religious pluralism” in America was not formed as tolerance for Islam or no religion. It was tolerance for various sects or denominations of the predominantly Protestant colonies. Even in the modern era, Roman Catholicism was treated differently for fear of the papacy overtaking American politics, as is evident in John F. Kennedy’s declaration, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic”.

The shape of American civil life for most of our history was decidedly Christian and more specifically, Protestant Christianity. Now, Protestant Christian values no longer undergird and unite society. In the present context, “religious pluralism” means the civil repression of any traditional culture that holds to historic views of marriage and gender such as Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism.

Our present context requires a different question. How do faithful, evangelical Christians relate to a pluralism shaped by secularism instead of Protestant Christianity? This pluralism assumes a public/private split that is not acceptable to anyone operating from a Christian worldview, nor is it realistic for any human because we will all integrate our “private” convictions, religious and otherwise, into our public life, especially our politics. I find that theonomists who are often labeled “Christian Nationalists” to be facing this question more honestly and clearly, even if I am not persuaded by their tactics.

(2) Schriener adopts a negative view of power that does not do justice biblically or historically to the ambiguous nature of power (see Sykes, Power and Christian Theology, 2006). He presents persuasion and domination as two, binary options. However, persuasion and domination are both exercises of power that exist on a spectrum. For example, I presume that Schreiner would not want the police to use persuasion if an intruder were in his home intending harm. He would want the intruder forcibly removed by domination, and his acceptable use of force would increase if his family were in danger.

A Christian view of power is far more nuanced than a binary choice of persuasion and domination. I believe that the advocates of Christian Nationalism are rightly reading the changed situation in American civil life, and the argument among faithful Christians needs not to be stuck in a binary choice between persuasion/domination. Instead, our conversation needs to pivot toward the ways in which the use of power/force are ethically and morally justified especially when the protection and preservation of human life is concerned. The shape of the conversation should include the full range of persuasion and domination tactics, and a biblically informed ethic of power to guide the use of power in particular situations.

For example, should Christians attempt to persuade fellow Americans that abortion is morally abhorrent? Should Christians attempt to enact public policy that restricts abortion against the will of those who want it (domination)? Should Christians enact capital punishment on an abortion provider as a just response to taking a human life?

One’s answers to these questions will likely reveal far more about one’s posture to the surrounding culture than the binary persuasion/domination choice that Schriener sets up, and can also serve as fruitful points of reflection to sharpen our thinking on how to relate to the use of power in its various forms, ranging from persuasion to domination.

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