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A schism seems to be emerging among Evangelicals, one that may be fateful for the future role of Evangelicalism in American politics. 

Exhibit A: During his address to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Vice President Pence called America a “nation of faith” and claimed that the phrase was a favorite of President Trump’s. Pence praised Southern Baptists for working “to bring about renewal of America, and new beginnings,” and confessed his belief that “our nation is in the midst of a time of renewal. And we are in the midst of a new beginning of greatness in America.”

There was a time when Pence’s boilerplate Christian Americanism would have been an easy applause line among Baptists. It was a Baptist pastor, Jerry Fallwell, who founded the Moral Majority, and for decades the SBC has had a reputation for being a branch of the Republican Party at Prayer.

Even in 2018, Pence’s Christian Americanism worked as an applause line, which may be one reason the new SBC President, J. D. Greear, felt the need to tweet his ambivalence about Pence’s speech, and perhaps Pence’s very presence at the Convention: “I know that sent a terribly mixed signal. We are grateful for civic leaders who want to speak to our Convention—but make no mistake about it, our identity is in the gospel and our unity is in the Great Commission. Commissioned missionaries, not political platforms, are what we do.”

In his own speech to the Convention, Greear emphasized the subordinate place of earthly politics. Baptists renounce Messianic politics and Messianic politicians, because they

believe that Jesus is the lord of the whole earth. He is the king of kings and he is the lord of lords. We believe that he, not any version of Caesar, is the Messiah. [We believe that he] is the Christ, the son of the living God, that salvation is found in him, not in the Republican platform or the Democratic platform, and that salvation did not come riding in on the wings of Air Force One. It came cradled in a manger.

Greear’s message echoes that of Russell Moore, who has used his platform as head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission to insist that we live not in Christian America nor in post-Christian America, but in the mission field of pre-Christian America. The emerging Evangelical generation, Moore observes, rejects “social gospels of the Left and the Right” that tailored “a transcendent message for decidedly this-worldly, and sometimes downright cynical, purposes of pulling the levers of political power.”

Evangelical leaders are distancing themselves from the nationalist rhetoric that was near the heart of the older religious right.

Exhibit B: At the same time, many Evangelicals are still taking their cues from the religious right’s playbook, seeking to use elections to protect or restore Christian America.

In a study titled “Make America Christian Again” (reported in the Washington Post), sociologists Andrew L. Whitehead, Samuel L. Perry, and Joseph O. Baker argued that adherence to “Christian nationalism” was a more important factor in the 2016 presidential election than racial and sexual attitudes, economic discontent, immigration, or xenophobia. Christian nationalism overlaps with these other attitudes—and especially with fear of the growth of Islam—but it’s an independent variable. Irrespective of political or denominational affiliation, Trump voters believed that Christian America was in decline and that electing Trump would arrest the decline.

According to the authors’ definition, Christian nationalism fuses Christian and American identity. It’s “a set of beliefs and ideals that seek the national preservation of a supposedly unique Christian identity.” It often links America with Old Testament Israel and decouples the crusade for Christian America from the political aim of preserving Christianity as a defining national culture. Christian nationalists want to restore a Christian identity “irrespective of the means by which such a project would be achieved” (emphasis in original). A playboy President is OK, so long as he defends Christians’ freedom of speech and worship. (American Christian nationalism is similar to what Rogers Brubaker describes as European “Christianism.” 

The schism may be one between leaders and the led: Whereas spokesmen like Greear and Moore want to open a gap between Church and nation, the fusion remains strong enough among the rank and file to determine a presidential election. Maybe the line is a generational one. 

Wherever the fault line runs, it may prove politically critical. If Whitehead, et. al. are right, we can’t help but speculate: If the Greear-Moore view had been more widely held, would Trump be president today. 

Theologically, it’s best to split the difference. Like many Evangelicals, Southern Baptists have an underdeveloped ecclesiology that allows America to replace the Church as the primary bearer of God’s kingdom. In the past, American Protestants were quick to suspect Roman Catholics of dual loyalty—to the foreign pope and to America. Evangelicals like Greear and Moore have moved closer to Catholics, recognizing that Christians are always citizens of two cities, the heavenly city of God and the earthly city of America, the ecclesial polis and the nation. The two citizenships don’t always conflict, but when they do, our heavenly citizenship trumps. They’re exactly right on this point, and it’s heartening to see Baptists resisting a heretical nationalism that fuses Christian and national identity. 

The theological trick is to affirm the primacy of ecclesial identity without abandoning the ambition to see the gospel invade and transform American life. No nation will ever become the kingdom of God; no people will ever replace the Church as the people of God. Yet the gospel announces Jesus’s kingship over everything. The Church proclaims the gospel so that the world will acknowledge Jesus. We hope for an America that honors the Church, an America whose manners express the golden rule and the second great commandment, whose laws respect God’s law by protecting the vulnerable, whose arts and entertainments glorify rather than degrade human beings, whose children learn that Scripture and prayer are essential to education. We hope for an America conformed to the reality that Jesus is Lord.

A Church isn’t proclaiming the full biblical gospel unless it calls kings and nations to acknowledge and serve the king of kings. To abandon hope that America—and every other nation—might become Christian is to abandon the gospel.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute

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