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Kathleen BonnetteMay 09, 2024
An artist displays an image of former president Donald Trump and an image of the face of Christ at the Conservative Political Action Conference's annual Ronald Reagan Dinner on Feb. 23, 2024. (OSV News photo/screen grab CPAC)An artist displays an image of former president Donald Trump and an image of the face of Christ at the Conservative Political Action Conference's annual Ronald Reagan Dinner on Feb. 23, 2024. (OSV News photo/screen grab CPAC)

A recent story in Politico by Alexander Ward and Heidi Przybyla (“Trump allies prepare to infuse ‘Christian nationalism’ in second administration”) and the kerfuffle it has animated in Christian spaces is in need of some nuance.

The authors warn of the dangers of a Christian nationalist agenda; they also highlight documents indicating that Christian nationalism would be an explicit policy priority of the administration if Donald J. Trump is again elected president. Mr. Ward and Ms. Pryzbyla worry that Russell Vought, a prospective chief of staff in a second Trump administration, “and his ideological brethren would not shy from using their administration positions to promote Christian doctrine and imbue public policy with it.” They also note that Mr. Vought “makes clear reference to human rights being defined by God, not man.” In a later interview on MSNBC, Ms. Pryzbyla went further, stating that the belief that rights come from God, rather than human authority, makes one a Christian nationalist.

Some Christian political activists, including Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and Brian Burch of Catholic Vote, cried foul, saying that the MSNBC interview in particular is evidence that Christianity is under attack.

It is true that a fundamental belief of Christianity asserts that God is the source of all justice and that all human rights derive from our dignity, which is not contingent on our beliefs, actions or anything other than the fact of our existence as human beings made in the image of God. If our rights come from human sources, they can be rescinded at any time, so acknowledging the transcendent nature of human rights is an important protection against totalitarianism (which is why such an acknowledgement is the basis of U.S. founding documents). Though Ms. Pryzbyla has since apologized for her “clumsy words,” Mr. Ward and Ms. Pryzbyla overstepped by conflating this Christian principle with its iterations that motivate Christian nationalism (despite their attempts to draw a distinction). 

While it is important to emphasize the transcendent source of our rights, it would be shortsighted to pretend that Mr. Ward and Ms. Pryzbyla’s under-nuanced pronouncement against Christian doctrine represents a greater threat to Christianity than the distorted ideals of Christian nationalism itself. Our first instinct as Christians should be to search for the log in our own eye. Instead of reflexively taking offense, we should reflect on what may be leading some religiously unaffiliated Americans to conflate Christianity and Christian nationalism. The problem may not be anti-Christian animus but rather that many Christians have become guilty of idolatry—and the God we have offered the world is not one of transcendent love.

In other words, we have to ask whether we believe that rights come from God, the transcendent mystery that is the source of all being, or if rights come from a particular perception of God that we hold to be absolute. When we assert that Christian norms are the standard of human rights and that others have no right to be free from those norms, as Christian nationalists and integralists might, we have made idols out of our ideals and become guilty of totalitarianism ourselves—as the Politico piece warns. (Anti-L.G.B.T. laws based on a particular theological anthropology come to mind.) This is why Catholic social teaching emphasizes principles rather than policy prescriptions: Advocating for Catholic values in the public square should not entail coercing others to adopt particular norms, specific to Catholic doctrine, that do not affirm universal needs such as food, water, shelter and health.

Sometimes people outside the church—who are equally loved by God and made in God’s image—alert the church to its need for change. Jesus told his Jewish followers a story about a Samaritan to demonstrate what it looks like to be Christ-like (Lk 10:25-37); a woman of “bad reputation” showed the disciples how to participate in the love of Christ through embodied action, vulnerability and humility (Lk 7:36-38); Cornelius, a gentile, encouraged Peter to let go of former dietary customs (Acts 10:9-33). Perhaps we should listen more to the concerns of all of our neighbors to embody a more authentic image of God—more authentic because it is ever more expansive and inclusive, as is the eternal, transcendent, incarnate God.

Fear of Christian political power 

If our fellow citizens are wary of Christianity—or at least, of a movement that purports to be Christian, such as Christian nationalism—the church should take it as a wake-up call. In the 2020 presidential election, 57 percent of white non-Hispanic Catholics (and 50 percent of all U.S. Catholics) supported the candidate backed by Christian nationalists, including some speakers at the recent “Catholic Prayer for Trump” event at Mar-a-Lago. Catholic leaders should warn against the dangers of Christian nationalism emphatically. Such warnings should acknowledge the complexities inherent in abortion as a political issue, assuring Catholic voters that prioritizing the right to life does not necessarily require them to vote for the party currently pursuing a Christian nationalist agenda that threatens democracy. As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops notes in the most recent edition of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” “a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.”

The fact that so many of our neighbors fear Christians acquiring political power should challenge Christians, especially our leaders, to denounce authoritarian factions and bear witness to a God who is transcendent love itself.

God, the source of all life—from whom flows our dignity and corresponding rights and responsibilities—is not authoritarian but invitational. As the theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J., puts it, it should be “impossible to say the word ‘God’ without honoring how the bounteous God loves the world into being as a free partner in its own making.”

Indeed, the theologian Diana L. Hayes reminds us, in And Still We Rise, that “theology emerges from a people’s efforts to understand themselves in relation to God. Yet God is always and everywhere incomprehensible mystery. As St. Augustine realized, if we have understood, then what we have understood is not God.” It is our responsibility as Christians to offer the world a sense of the divine that will invite all into deeper relationships and more holistic justice. If we are worried about anti-Christian bias, we should reflect on whether we are, in fact, following Christ, an act that is always characterized by humility. Pride can prevent us from acknowledging the log in our eye.

When given a challenge such as that posed by Mr. Ward and Ms. Pryzbyla, let’s forgo a victim mentality and instead dismantle the idols we have made of our conception of God. Let us take seriously our conviction that human rights are not issued by human decree, even by those who identify as Christians, and bear witness instead to the transcendent, eternal love of the divine that invites all to co-create a better world.

[Related: “Trump, the ‘religious right’ and white Christian nationalism”]

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