Wednesday, January 13, 2021
It's Wednesday, January 13, 2021.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
What Is Christian Nationalism and What Is the Danger? Understanding the Different Roles of the Church and Nations in God’s Plan
Christian nationalism is in the headlines. It comes down to an accusation, the accusation that there has been, amongst some conservative Christians, an absolute and idolatrous fusing of the nation and to the gospel. Let's think about that for a few moments. It takes us back to Washington, D.C. and many of the national media, and that would include those of more secular worldviews and those who have a better understanding of Christianity. They remarked about how much Christian imagery was used or abused in the demonstrations that took place on Wednesday and even the violent invasion of the United States Capitol. What does it mean that there were banners that invoked the name of Christ, that there was Christian symbolism? Is this an idolatrous fusion of the nation and the gospel? Well, it certainly could be, but let's take a closer look.
First of all, we have to understand that nationalism is always a clear and present danger. It's especially clear in the 20th century when nationalism took various, very deadly forms, but at the same time, in our increasingly unrooted age, we're looking at the fact that the political left is hard-pressed, indeed absolutely resistant in many cases to acknowledge a proper patriotism that is not an idolatrous nationalism. Furthermore, right now, the term "Christian nationalism" is being bandied about as an accusation that basically comes down not only to the serious theological issue that is at stake but to the accusation that there are Christians who believe that there should be public consequences to Christian truth and the Christian faith.
Now, the extent to which, for example, biblical law is made the law of the nation, well, that's a very complicated and important conversation, but what you have going on right now is the accusation that what we're now seeing is a resurgence of Christian nationalism. Is it true or is it false? Well, if you were looking at the images from Washington, D.C., it would appear to be at least possibly true, and we have seen in the case, for example, of that invasion of the United States Capitol and some of the symbolism that was co-opted for it, we have seen a very dangerous confusion of the nation and Christian identity.
Now, at this point, perhaps this is a clarifying insight. When you're looking at the danger of nationalism from a Christian perspective, the greatest danger is that the nation, rather than the church, becomes the vessel of God's providential plan and His promise of covenantal blessings. To put the matter just as bluntly and simply as we can for Christians, even as we celebrate a proper patriotism, even as we are very thankful for the United States of America, even as we are eagerly and actively involved citizens of the United States, and even as we see a singular identity for the United States even amongst other nations, we do understand that our ultimate identity is not national. It is indeed not even patriotic. Our ultimate allegiance, our ultimate identity is in Christ to whom, by faith, we have been united, and under whose Lordship, we gladly serve, and that includes, most importantly, our identity within the church of the Lord, Jesus Christ.
It is about the church, not any nation that Jesus said, "Upon this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." There is no such promise to any nation, and as a matter of fact, the Christian biblical worldview makes very clear that every earthly nation is eventually going to disappear. Every single empire will fall. Everything that is not part of the church of the Lord, Jesus Christ and a part of the new creation in Christ is that which will burn and that which will be consumed.
So, with that is a very important clarification. Our identity is, first of all, in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our ultimate allegiance is always to Christ. Our ultimate citizenship is in heaven. At the same time, we do recognize, as biblically minded Christians, that there is a proper patriotism, that there is a role for nations in God's providential plan, and we come to understand, even as we discussed on The Briefing, that Christian principle of subsidiarity that makes clear that the human community is best represented by the units that have an identity, and that identity is important as well. It's not ultimate, but it is important.
Christians in the United States understand that we have a public responsibility to this people, to this nation, but something has to go horribly wrong for us to see at least some of what we saw last week, and this requires a closer look.
Now, looking at the mainstream media and, of course, by definition, this is largely secular coverage, you have a front page article in yesterday's edition of The New York Times by Elizabeth Dias and Ruth Graham, "A Movement Buttressed by Grievance and God." Now, what's really interesting about this is that the Christian symbolism becomes a very important part of the story. The reporters tell us, "The presence of Christian rituals, symbols and language was unmistakable on Wednesday in Washington. There was a mock campaign banner, 'Jesus 2020,' in blue and red; an 'Armor of God' patch on a man’s fatigues; a white cross declaring 'Trump won' in all capitals. All of this was interspersed with allusions to QAnon conspiracy theories, Confederate flags and anti-Semitic T-shirts."
Now, let's just say, as Christians, we should immediately be concerned about the mixture we're talking about there. We're talking about the inclusion of Christian symbolism among symbols of other things with which Christians ought to have nothing to do. This is one of the things that biblically minded Christians have to keep in mind. We have to be very clear about what the gospel is. We have to be very clear about who Christ is. We have to be very clear about what the church's message is, and we have to be very clear about the totality of biblical truth. No one said this was going to be easy, but when you look at this news story, you will see that at one point, it looks like the major media is reaching for just about any kind of Christian symbolism it can find in order to say there is this idolatrous fusion, but on the other hand, we have to admit, we can see with our own eyes that at least in many cases, this fusion was horrifyingly apparent.
The next paragraph in that New York Times article said this. "The blend of cultural references and the people who brought them made a clear phenomenon that has been brewing for years now that the most extreme corners of support for Mr. Trump have become inextricable from some parts of white evangelical power in America. Rather than completely separate strands of support, these groups have become increasingly blended together." Now, is that true or false? Well, at least to some degree, it is true, but it's interesting that the news report points out that it's true at "the most extreme corners."
Now, again, we have to balance the realization that this is at the extreme corners, but it is not fair for us to deny that those corners exist. Some are trying to use this accusation of white Christian nationalism as a way of dismissing the influence of conservative Christians in the United States. We have to be watchful of that. At the same time, there are those who have claimed that conservative Christian identity who have misused Christianity, but what we see here is that it is not fair to say that mainstream evangelical Christianity in America is characterized by the kind of fusion and Christian nationalism of an idolatrous sort that's been identified here.
Looking at this New York Times article, we see some danger signs that theologically-minded Christians should be very aware of. For example, one woman aged 40, I'm not going to mention her name, identified as an evangelical Christian from Texas, we're told she flew to Washington after she had received what she called a burning bush sign from God to participate, following her pastor urging congregants to "stop the steal." Now, let's just stop there. That's not the kind of language that pastors ought to be using, but furthermore, you see here this kind of reference to a burning bush sign from God.
Now, let's just say that when we are really seeking to be faithful as biblical Christians, we are not basing arguments for our actions upon burning bush experiences. If we really believe in sola scriptura and scriptural authority, then two things must be present. Number one, we have to make our arguments on explicitly biblical grounds, and secondly, we ought to make those grounds in the context of a local church that is committed to the gospel and committed to Scripture and committed to help Christians to reason through these things together in order that we will be faithful.
The next statement made by this woman identified as an evangelical Christian from Texas is, "We are fighting good versus evil, dark versus light. We are tired of being made out to be these horrible people," she said. Well, we're going to have to look at many of these questions at greater length than days, weeks, and months ahead, but is it true that we are fighting good versus evil? Is it true that we are sons and daughters of the light who are fighting the sons and daughters of darkness? Well, there's a sense in which, according to the scripture, it is true. Indeed, the scripture itself uses that kind of language as did the Lord Jesus Christ, but it is extremely dangerous to use that language without understanding exactly what we mean and understanding that there is no position politically. There is no position politically that is beyond sin, that is a sinless, innocent political position.
Now, that's not to say that we don't believe that certain political issues, many as a matter of fact, are very clearly either right or wrong. Just take the issue of abortion to which we will turn later today on The Briefing. We do believe that it is absolutely right to defend the sanctity of human life. We believe that it's absolutely wrong to subvert that sanctity, much less to murder unborn children in the womb. We do believe, as Christians, that marriage means the union of a man and a woman, and we actually believe that the law should reflect that truth. We're not scared away by the accusation that that is merely some kind of effort to impose a biblical truth upon a secular nation.
There's a lot to unpack there, but we really don't believe that the nation is secular in a radical sense, and furthermore, we believe that the confusion of marriage is not only a rejection of clear scriptural teaching. It's a rejection of the order of creation, and there will be no lasting healthy civilization that will set itself on war against creation, but even as we do believe that we are to vote our convictions, we also have to understand that it is too simplistic to say that we are merely the children of light, fighting the children of darkness, or maybe we need to be really careful, assuredly so, about who the we is.
When we speak of we as the children of light, we're talking about the church of the Lord, Jesus Christ. We're not talking about any kind of particular national identity. We're instead talking about what it means by the gospel of Jesus Christ even as we are told in the New Testament that we have been made a royal priesthood and a holy nation. Now, again, that's spoken to the church, not to any earthly nation. As the children of light, we understand that we are so because in Christ, God has created us as a people for his own possession, and we have been called out of darkness into his that is Christ's marvelous light.
Later in The New York Times article, we read this. "You can't understand what happened today," meaning Wednesday of last week, "without wrestling with Christian nationalism," and that's attributed to Andrew Whitehead who was rightly identified as a sociologist at Indiana University, Purdue University, Indianapolis. He said furthermore that white evangelical movements that have long at least tolerated far-right extremism, he said to them, "They provided the political and theological underpinnings of this, and it has allowed anarchy to reign."
Now, is this true or false? Well, at least in some places, in some corners, to use the language of The New York Times, in some corners, this is true, but it's not true of American evangelicalism as a whole, and it is not a fair accusation about American evangelical theology. What we are seeing is an effort to try to dismiss or to marginalize American evangelical Christianity by identifying it as some form of Christian nationalism. That's a very loaded term. We need to unload it, understand it, take it apart. We need to recognize where the critique is appropriate. We also need to recognize where there is an effort to try to silence public Christianity in the United States.
Bad Theology Is Everywhere, Even on the Front Page: There’s Great Value in Testing an Argument by Considering Alternative Contexts
As Christians, biblically-minded Christians, theologically, serious Christians, we understand that there is a lot of bad theology out there, and when it shows up, we need to recognize it. It showed up in a big way in Monday's print edition of The Wall Street Journal in another front page article. This one's entitled, "One Trump Fan's Descent into the Mob Attack," but our concern with this particular headline news article in The Wall Street Journal is not so much about this man and his entire story but about one theological aspect, and it shows up pretty importantly in the story.
Identifying this individual, we are then told, "He says he walked upstairs on the mall side of the Capitol, where he found the doors open. He says he hesitated. He says he felt the need to go inside to share his views with Congress but wanted to consult God first. He prayed aloud: 'Lord, is this the right thing to do? Is this what I need to do?' He says he felt God’s hand on his back, pushing him forward. 'I checked with the Lord,' he says. 'I checked with Him three times. I never heard a ‘No.'”
We're then told, "He walked in, and he said he found himself in a whirlwind of broken glass and debris." The journal then tells us, "He says he was shocked. The event on the Ellipse have been all picnic, blankets and puppies. This was an orgy of destruction," but what we really want to look at is this man's theological argument. He says that even as he had illegally entered the Capitol and even as he was a part of this mob, this insurrectionist group, he said that he had prayed aloud, "Lord, is this the right thing to do? Is this what I need to do?" but notice how he describes the answer to his prayer. It's both positive and negative. Number one, he says that he felt God's hand on his back, pushing him forward. Now, remember that. The second thing we're told is a direct quote. "I checked with the Lord. I never heard a 'No.'"
Now, that's a negative issue. Now, what I mean by positive and negative here is that he said positively, that he felt the Lord pushing him forward and negatively, he didn't hear a no. Now, how do we unpack that biblically? Well, number one, again, we either believe in biblical authority and biblical Christianity, or we don't. To put the matter as simply as I know, if you're making the argument about doing something that was illegal but you felt God pushing you forward, well, you're going to have to do better than that for a theological argument. That is an extremely dangerous theological argument.
What exactly does it mean that you feel God pushing you forward? Now, here's the issue. In terms of Divine impressions, we understand that, but we understand that they are only valid if what we feel is the impression, the encouragement from God to do what he has explicitly said in scripture that we should do, what is clearly, unambiguously the right thing. The second thing is we should never set God up for the necessity of some kind of no. That, regardless of the issue, regardless of the context, is illegitimate. That is just not worthy of any kind of biblical Christianity. The statement again, "I checked with the Lord. I never heard a 'No.'"
Now, one of the issues that we should keep in mind is that we always need to watch for parallel arguments. So, let's put this in a different context. Let's say that you are a parent. You're a mom or a dad, and you're raising children. Now, that's going to take all the fortitude and biblical conviction you have, which is why parenting is one of the most important assignments and one of the most important vocations detailed in scripture. That's very clear, but you are a mom. You are a dad, and you're raising a son or a daughter, and that child disobeys or does something that is clearly wrong. You call that child to account, and the child says, "Well, mom, well, dad, I asked the Lord for an answer, and he didn't say no. I checked with the Lord, and he didn't say no." Would you accept that argument in a parenting context? Well, I would hope not.
What about a church context? Well, I hope you wouldn't accept it there either. Well, if it's unacceptable in a parental context, if it's unacceptable in a congregational context, it is certainly unacceptable in another ethical context as well and in particular, in this context. We also need to recognize that Jesus Christ spoke to this issue explicitly. In the gospel of Luke 4:12, Jesus says, "You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test." Jesus there was citing the Old Testament verse, Deuteronomy 6:16, and it comes down to the same thing. We are not to test the Lord.
Now, the meaning of that text in Deuteronomy has to do with testing the Lord's patience and testing the Lord's justice, but you get the point. We are not to put the Lord our God to the test. We don't set up a situation and say, "God, I'm going to see if you are going to tell me no, and if I don't understand you to tell me no, then I'm going to take that as a yes." That is totally illegitimate. We're going to have to be watching these issues very closely. We are living in a very interesting and crucial time, a critical time in which we see many of these issues and arguments being presented right now in the public squares, up to Christians to think about them biblically and to think about them together.
Supreme Court Reinstates Restrictions on Access to Abortion Pills: The Court’s Conservative Majority Sends an Important Signal
I next want to turn to another news story out of Washington, D.C. This one is about abortion, and the Supreme Court is at the center of the story. The case may not be all that significant when it comes to national consequence, but it does send a very clear signal, and since it has to do with upholding the dignity and sanctity of life, it's a big case, morally speaking, but it's also the first time since the arrival of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court that the court has handed down a ruling on the issue of abortion. Observers of the court have been waiting for the very first ruling or decision that would be handed down, not only in this new term of the Supreme Court but most importantly, now that the court includes six conservative justices and three clearly identified liberal justices. This case had to do with the reinstatement of a federal requirement that women who were seeking to end their pregnancies by use of medication would have to pick up at least one of the pills from a hospital or from an accepted recognized medical office.
Now, without going into the convoluted details of how this issue arrived at the Supreme Court, it did arrive, and the Supreme Court handed down the ruling, and the ruling was 6-3. The court's conservative majority said that it is not wrong for the federal government to require that women seeking what's defined as a medical abortion, that is an abortion by pill, should have to go to a medical authority to obtain at least one of the two major medications that are involved. Now, in this 6-3 vote breakdown, the Chief Justice of the United States, John G. Roberts, Jr. was in the majority, but he did not write a majority opinion. Instead, he wrote a personal opinion in which he basically sought to say that this was a limited ruling, but the big story is that with Amy Coney Barrett on the court, there is now a very solid conservative majority and thus, a pro-life majority. The left is absolutely apoplectic.
Evidence of that comes in the coverage of this ruling at Vox.com. I looked to that kind of article from that kind of source particularly to indicate the response of the left. The headline is this: "The Supreme Court hands down its first anti-abortion decision of the Amy Coney Barrett era." The use of the term anti-abortion decision tells us something of where this article is going. Ian Millhiser, the reporter on the story, tells us, "Read between the lines, however, and American College," that's the name of the ruling, "warns of a dark future for abortion rights."
Now, again, notice. A dark future for abortion rights. What you have on the part of so many in the mainstream media and certainly those who support the pro-abortion cause, the abortion rights movement, what you see is the effort to try to describe the bottom line fundamental norm as "abortion rights" or "a woman's right to choose." That language was used by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of the liberal justices, the only one who actually issued a dissent in this decision. That dissent was joined by Justice Elena Kagan. She said this. "It imposes an unnecessary, irrational and unjustifiable, undue burden on women seeking to exercise their right to choose."
A part of the background of this is the fact that the pro-abortion movement had tried to use the COVID-19 pandemic as an argument for what amounts to expanding abortion rights. That's what this majority on the Supreme Court said was illegitimate. Now, we also have to note that with a Biden administration coming into office, the White House itself could be behind the rules change that could nonetheless make it far easier for women to obtain these abortion pills without having to go to an authorized medical provider, at least for the pill itself.
So, what we're looking at here might indeed, as the Chief Justice said, be of limited importance but from a worldview perspective, it's really of massive importance. That importance is not just, as if you can say just, but the court here has taken an action that will help to uphold the sanctity of human life. It is also that the outcry from the left indicates just how central the issue of abortion is to the modern, moral revolutionary worldview.
Just remember, if you have babies, you really can't have that moral revolution. If sex leads to babies, well, that puts a damper on the revolution itself, and thus, you see the importance of abortion among other issues to the sexual revolutionaries. It's right here in the house and in the complaints coming from, what even the Chief Justice said is a limited ruling. It's a ruling nonetheless that reminds us what's at stake. Elections do have consequences. The six-three conservative majority on the Supreme Court is one of those consequences. A change in the rules coming from the White House on abortion could be another. We'll watch carefully.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.