While reading about Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s latest “owning the libs” stunt of dumping immigrants on Martha’s Vineyard even as his fans hail him as a champion of Christianity, something broke inside me. As an observant Christian, I not only can but do feel I must accept as fellow members of the body of Christ all sorts of people whose specific beliefs, worship practices, and interpretations of their faith leave me bewildered or unhappy. And I’ve tried to be consistent: Even as I’ve chastised religious conservatives for treating themselves as the only “real” Christians, I’ve chastised religious progressives for trying to replace one self-righteous set of claims on the Gospel with another. I even try to understand those whose tenacious belief that 1950s white patriarchal American culture was and remains holy has led them to support neo-pagan warlords like Donald Trump for reactionary efforts to put equality in its many dangerous forms back in a bottle.
What I cannot cope with is allegedly Christian people wallowing in hate. And as Jonathan V. Last pungently points out, unlike Trump, DeSantis professes to be a follower of the Prince of Peace even as he preaches constant cultural warfare:
Let’s put aside the theology of immigration. Let’s pretend, just for a moment, that Jesus would have nothing to say about whether or not the state should seek to discourage undocumented migrants as a high-level matter of government policy.
Those planes were filled with actual human beings. People with dignity. People with hopes and dreams, problems and challenges. People with names and families.
And this Christian man used them as props. He didn’t clothe the naked or feed the hungry. He literally did the opposite: Evicted them — and not because he felt that he had to, because it was a requirement of the law. But because he saw that he could use them as a means to the ends of his personal ambition.
I’m trying — really trying — not to get too hot here. But Christians should look at this act and be revolted. They should be horrified.
Because using vulnerable human beings for your personal gratification is evil. Full stop.
Conservative Christians (not all of them but some of them) dehumanizing their many perceived enemies has become so common that cries of anguish from within the ranks of Evangelical Protestantism itself are become more pointed every day. Here’s a plea from Michael Gerson, a highly influential conservative Evangelical in the conservative-Christian-inflected George W. Bush administration:
Anxious evangelicals have taken to voting for right-wing authoritarians who promise to fight their fights — not only Donald Trump, but increasingly, his many imitators. It has been said that when you choose your community, you choose your character. Strangely, evangelicals have broadly chosen the company of Trump supporters who deny any role for character in politics and define any useful villainy as virtue. In the place of integrity, the Trump movement has elevated a warped kind of authenticity — the authenticity of unfiltered abuse, imperious ignorance, untamed egotism and reflexive bigotry.
This is inconsistent with Christianity by any orthodox measure. Yet the discontent, prejudices and delusions of religious conservatives helped swell the populist wave that lapped up on the steps of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. During that assault, Christian banners mixed with the iconography of white supremacy, in a manner that should have choked Christian participants with rage. But it didn’t.
Many in the rising Christian Nationalist movement (who typically hold that the return of American Greatness as they understand it is essential to the divine plan for the human race and is even a prerequisite for the Second Coming of Christ) have eagerly adopted the rhetoric of “spiritual warfare” for their political battles, literally demonizing political opponents as agents of Satan, as American-studies professor S. Jonathon O’Donnell explained in 2020:
Since the 1980s, growing numbers of evangelicals have given the fight against demons a key role in their spirituality and their politics. Known as “spiritual warfare”, this views demons as central actors in world politics and everyday life. While often seen as fringe, belief in spiritual warfare is common across denominational lines, including among evangelicals close to Donald Trump such as Robert Jeffress and the president’s spiritual advisor, Paula White.
A key idea in spiritual warfare is that demons don’t only attack people, as in depictions of demonic possession, but also take control of places and institutions, such as journalism, academia, and both municipal and federal bureaucracies. By doing so, demons are framed as advancing social projects that spiritual warriors see as opposing God’s plans. These include advances in reproductive and LGBTQ rights and tolerance for non-Christian religions (especially Islam).
People in the grip of these delusions, cherry-picking their way through Holy Scripture without a shred of context to justify their hate, do indeed have a powerful belief system. But it has less to do with Christianity in any recognizable form than with the sanctification of entirely secular cultural passions with the unshakable faith owed only to God given to politicians.
It’s probably about time to conclude once and for all that Christianity and nationalism are essentially incompatible because the latter always swallows the former. It was true in the Spanish Civil War, when priests blessed fascist murderers on the grounds that their “godless” victims would enjoy eternal life if they confessed before being shot. It was true in Nazi Germany, when the Faith Movement of German Christians tried to excise Jewish influences from the Bible. It’s true in Russia, where the criminal regime of Vladimir Putin has managed to fuse Stalinism with religious orthodoxy, to the cheers of American Evangelicals who admire Putin’s homophobia and “manly” virtues.
Somehow, nationalists keep subverting the unavoidable truth that Jesus Christ was the great enemy of nations, races, tribes, and even families when they became a stumbling block to acceptance of the radical equality imposed by human sin and its rescue by divine grace.
Today’s Christian Nationalists need to choose, just as German Christians were called to choose in the Barman Declaration that rejected the Nazi appropriation of Christianity by denouncing worship of party, nation, or Volk as idolatrous. You can choose to follow your culture wars into partisan politics or even authoritarianism and insurrectionary violence, like the not-so-spiritual warriors of January 6. But please, please, be honest about your motives and leave your savior and mine out of it.