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Look out—they’re coming!

Or, how to pre-order my forthcoming book on the existential threat of dangerous, power-hungry, un-American, idolatrous progressive Christian and atheist nationalism

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Look out—they’re coming!

There is an episode of The West Wing where Air Force One has a malfunction while trying to land. The press secretary does not want the press on the plane to know of the malfunction, so she creates a diversion. While a fighter plane flies by on one side of the plane to check whether the plane’s landing gear is functioning properly, she directs the gaze of the journalists to the windows on the other side of the plane to distract them with a made-up story about the “Festival of Lights” over West Virginia’s Blue Mountains.

It’s a “look here (so you don’t look over there)” type of scenario.

The problem is that it does not work—the journalists quickly and easily spot the F-16 flying on the other side.

I raise this episode because in the media and the academy’s unceasing invocation of the term “Christian nationalism,” there’s a cottage industry of books meant to direct your and other Americans’ attention to the looming threat of “Christian nationalism” while ignoring other important variables worthy of consideration. Consider some of the available titles: Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism, The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy, American Idolatry: How Christian Nationalism Betrays the Gospel and Threatens the Church, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, The Violent Take It by Force: The Christian Movement That Is Threatening Democracy.

I sense they are trying to tell us something.

Of course, much of this conversation turns on how the term “Christian nationalism” is defined. I don’t use the label for myself, but secularists and progressives would likely apply the label to me. Is that because I want the First Amendment rescinded and non-Christians deported? Or because I want the Second London Confession adopted as the official confession of the United States? Or because I think to be Christian is to make one more American? No to all of the above. We should be clear-eyed that “Christian nationalism” is this generation’s progressive epithet used to discredit and scapegoat conservative Christianity. A generation ago it was the “Christian fight,” “Christian fundamentalism,” “Christianist,” “the Religious right,” and howls about looming “theocracy.” “Christian nationalism” is the rallying cry of the moment that allows progressive angst to congeal around an identifiable and discreditable enemy.

When it comes to these authors, there is no room for a reasonable evangelical Christianity that values democracy even as it seeks to influence it.

This is not meant to deny the reality that there are troubling ideas, episodes, and figures on the Christian right to critique and reject. I’ve critiqued the idea elsewhere where I thought deserving. The “New Apostolic Reformation,” for example, has some very bizarre views on matters of church and state worthy of critique. Or conspiracists like Greg Locke or the fact that former President Donald Trump shared a bizarre video called “God Made Trump.”

But we should not accept the denouncement at face value. Why? Because the usage of “Christian nationalism” often cloaks the fact that the books above are written by card-carrying progressives who support progressive causes and do not like the Christians who disagree, so they’ll elbow conservative Christians out of polite society by discrediting them with slapdash labels. When it comes to these authors, there is no room for a reasonable evangelical Christianity that values democracy even as it seeks to influence it. Nope, it’s all Christian nationalism through and through.

The problem I see is the proportion of attention given to “Christian nationalism” while progressive secularism—which no doubt functions as its form of nationalist banner—receives no scrutiny or admission of its progressive biases. When you consider how atheists are more political than Christians, or that mainline Protestant liberalism tends to outspokenly cast its ministry objectives in political terms, one must ask whether there’s a slant and bias to the coverage. In my own view, there is. Why? Because the analysis is nakedly partisan. The media and the academy are overwhelmingly progressive and are thus prone to see threats only to their right and never to their left.

What is doubly fascinating is a new study from Neighborly Faith that examines the issue of “Christian nationalism.” It’s a helpful report because it defines terms cautiously and judiciously. Its findings are noteworthy because using its own methodology, “Christian nationalists” make up an exceedingly small percentage of America. In other words, to carry my metaphor forward from the beginning: Look at the window on this side of the plane (“LOOK DOWN BELOW: CHRISTIAN NATIONALISM!!!”) while we distract you from a very real issue going on the other side of the plane (the fact that progressives are more political than conservatives).

So why no volumes on the looming threat to democracy from the secular left or progressive Christians? Why, of course, because allies do not call out other allies. No, you focus your publishing contracts and your scholarly scorn on what is safe—and so that you can win your own progressive culture war while denouncing culture war in your book title.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew is the managing editor of WORLD Opinions and serves as associate professor of Christian ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. He resides with his family in Louisville, Ky.

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