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Perspective: What’s the difference between Christian nationalism and healthy patriotism?

Watch for three signs that suggest a healthy love of God and country may have turned into something else

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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Recent events including the Buffalo shootings and the leaked Supreme Court decision on abortion have rekindled conversation about “white nationalism” and “Christian nationalism.” It’s becoming more common to see all the words combined into “white Christian nationalism” and even used interchangeably with “white supremacy.”  

In all this, it’s often taken for granted that people should know what’s being talked about, even though definitions are hardly ever given. What exactly is being referenced by these terms? And what’s the difference between a patriotic attachment to one’s country that is healthy and something else — and how do you know when you’ve shifted into that place?

Millions of Americans have a deep love for their country, including many who are not religious.  And among people of faith, it’s a fairly common belief that God has blessed America throughout its history and used the country in ways that bless the world. Similar convictions have been shared by virtually every American president over the years, on both sides of the political spectrum.  

Yet there’s a growing sense in public discourse that the “blessings” in America’s past and present are actually worrisome “privilege” and that talk of American exceptionalism is inherently prideful, and a bad thing. In this narrative, America’s influence and wealth is ill-begotten, and more deserving of anguish and shame than gratitude.

In “How Nationalism Can Destroy a Nation,” Kenyon College professor Lewis Hyde argues that attempts to consolidate national identity too often obscure other meaningful demographic differences that should not be forgotten. Yet in “The Virtue of Nationalism,” by contrast, Israeli-American political theorist Yoram Hazony makes the case that nationalism is a “safeguard of liberty” in the world today by uniquely providing “the collective right of a free people to rule themselves” and a national identity based not on race or biological sameness, but on “bonds of mutual loyalty.”

More than competing views of nationalism alone, I suspect we may be talking about two very different things. Although there are plenty of nuances, there are at least three signs that a healthy love of God and country may have turned into something else, reflecting instead a grievance-based nationalism. 

1. Casting opponents as dangerous enemies. Can people love our country in different ways, and hold very different ideas about what it needs? 

Healthy patriotism says yes; unhealthy nationalism says no and goes even farther:  If someone doesn’t share my view of what’s best, they’re clearly a threat to the country. 

Such sentiments are crystallized vividly in the prayer by one Capitol protestor standing before the House rostrum on Jan. 6: “Thank you, Heavenly Father, for being the inspiration needed to these police officers to allow us into the building, to allow us to exercise our rights, to allow us to send a message to all the tyrants, the communists and the globalists that this is our nation, not theirs.”

Meaningful debates can be had about both the religious roots of America and the current threat of different ideologies. But there can be no dispute that united self-government by a people harboring endless disagreements is one of the most striking legacies of the past two centuries of this nation’s history. At no time in America’s history have its leaders and citizens agreed on everything.   

2. A total fusion of religion and politics. Jesus told Pilate that his kingdom was “not of this world.” Yet his followers have been encouraged to pray, “Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.”  So it’s only understandable that modern disciples feel a nudge to get involved in many civic issues of the day. 

That’s a good thing, as is sharing the gospel message openly in the public square. But when distinctions between politics and religion dissolve completely, other challenges arise.

Take, for example, the GOP-nominee for Pennsylvania governor, Doug Mastriano, with his wife hinting that opponents were not just challenging another candidate but God: “When you’re against God’s plan, there is nothing that will stop it.”  When there is “no distinction between political argument and spiritual warfare,” as one history professor noted, culture war and holy war become one in ways that can overwhelm healthy political discourse and intrude into Sunday worship.

3. Aggressive public engagement driven by anger and fear. Of course, there are good reasons to be frustrated and concerned about America today. Yet it’s easy in our hyperpolarized atmosphere to get worked up to a boiling point — goaded by incessant digital content seemingly designed to invoke outrage or panic.

Whether or not we allow darker emotions — such as rage and contempt — into our political engagement matters a lot.

It’s at the heart of why there really are fundamentally different kinds of liberals and conservatives: those who are seeking to “proclaim truth with love,” as President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encouraged college students last week, and those who increasingly deride Christian ideals (including civility itself) as naive. 

Far beyond philosophical differences, this choice plays out in whether liberals and conservatives alike are willing to respect the space of political opponents in order to continue engaging in the American experiment — or alternatively, demand that other perspectives be silenced in the public square.

In this sense, perhaps a legitimate “white Christian nationalist” is merely the opposite of “social justice warrior”:  ideological zealots bent on winning their respective crusades.  

To be clear, there’s nothing toxic about believers working to pass laws that reflect their view of what is good, since all citizens can and should influence policy in line with their convictions and conscience. 

That won’t stop some from applying these pejoratives to any such religious influence — using “white Christian nationalist” to refer to all missionary activity or perhaps even as a synonym for any person who is conservative or religious or white (or all three).

And don’t be surprised to see anyone standing against a progressive agenda (or Republicans as a whole) portrayed as somehow deserving the same label. It’s just too politically advantageous to blur these definitional lines, portraying everyone on the other side with a broad brush stroke as bent on our “country’s destruction,” much like some religious conservatives have done in the past by casting everyone with concerns about their agenda as “immoral atheists.” 

Don’t be fooled by the hyperpartisan trance. As Utah politicians know better than most, there are thoughtful and good people on both sides of the political spectrum, as well as fear-driven, angry crusaders.

And no, they’re not the same thing ... even if they do get slapped with the same label.  

Jacob Hess is the editor of Public Square Magazine and served on the board of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation. He has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since the publication of “You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)” with Phil Neisser. With Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, Hess also authored “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”