I first encountered the phrase “biblical citizenship” last year, when I heard about the Biblical Citizenship Barnstorming Tour sweeping through Georgia ahead of the Senate run-offs. I attended one of the affiliated rallies, which was held at a Baptist church.
As I listened to the speakers, including former Texas state legislator Rick Green and former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, I puzzled over the words emblazoned on a red banner on the stage. What, exactly, is “biblical citizenship”? And what are the steps that conservative activists are asking Americans to take in order to live it out?
In hopes of finding out, I recently enrolled in Green’s free, eight-week course on biblical citizenship, which explores the relationship between biblical values and constitutional rights — emphasizing Americans’ duty to uphold both.
Thousands of people, including scores of pastors, have participated in the class or been exposed to its ideas, either individually or through congregational events. Green has also taken the concept directly to churches with in-person lectures.
According to Green and his supporters, growing interest in biblical citizenship is good for the whole country. They believe the U.S. will be at its best when Christians and non-Christians alike understand and respect the wisdom of the Bible and Constitution.
“A constitutional republic works best when citizens follow the biblical commands on everything from obeying just laws, proper taxation, work ethic, loving your neighbor, freedom of choice, free market principles and so many other issues that affect our daily lives,” Green told the Deseret News in an email.
But critics, including some religion scholars, say these claims are exclusionary and toxic enough to undermine the country’s democratic institutions. The teachings behind biblical citizenship and other forms of Christian nationalism helped fuel the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, they said.
Christian nationalism — loosely defined as the belief that America and its institutions should be overtly Christian rather than secular — is “absolutely a threat to a pluralistic democratic society,” Andrew Whitehead, co-author of “Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States” said earlier this year at a webinar hosted by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.
How to be a biblical citizen
During the introductory session of Green’s course, the Rev. Jack Hibbs of Calvary Chapel Chino Hills describes biblical citizenship as a form of stewardship, a way for Christians to ensure their country is healthy.
“God has given us this republic to be stewards over,” he says.
The course emphasizes the idea that the Founding Fathers, as well as the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, were divinely inspired and that religious liberty is an important value to protect. It seeks to increase Christian engagement in the public square, in general, and the political process, in particular.
For too long, American Christians have kept quiet about their values, Green and other speakers claim. Now, it’s critical to bring a biblical worldview out of the four walls of the church.
The first step in this process is to educate people. Then, Green explains, the newly educated should become “force multipliers” who go out and share their knowledge with those around them.
“After you apply it to your own life, start educating those around you,” Green says during the course, which is formally titled “Biblical Citizenship in Modern America.”
Religious liberty is the linchpin of all of this, Green says in the seventh class.
“For us to be able to live out biblical citizenship we need religious liberty,” says Green. Some of the freedoms included in the Bill of Rights, Green and others argue, come from God and, therefore, can’t be altered.
“Government has forgotten that there is a power higher than itself,” says David Barton, an evangelical Christian author, in the seventh class.
“Freedom of religion is not freedom from religion,” is a tagline repeated by numerous speakers. During a deep dive into the Bill of Rights, Green also makes the argument that separation of church and state is not actually part of the First Amendment but was an idea that Thomas Jefferson articulated later in one of his letters.
With the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers “were trying to prevent a single national denomination,” Green says. He argues that they weren’t trying to shut religion out of our institutions altogether.
In “Being Salt and Light” — the eighth and final session — Green offers the faithful tips for stepping into the public square. The advice goes beyond obvious and already common methods like registering people of faith to vote and distributing voting guides. Green and others are promoting a deeper engagement.
“Get inside the mixing bowl of our (political) process,” says Green. The first step, he says, is, “knowledge.” Next, he says, Americans of faith should attempt to “influence (the) pool of candidates.”
“Maybe you in this room — running (for office). Maybe asking some people you know that have been good leaders in business or education or in church ... if they’ve shown leadership skills, ask them to run for school board or the legislature or Congress,” says Green, echoing what numerous speakers said — that it’s important to get Christians who are not afraid to bring their faith to conversations about policy running for all levels of office.
Next, the faithful should rally on behalf of candidates whose values reflect their own by “knocking on the doors, making the phone calls, contributing to the candidates, giving of our time,” says Green.
“It’s easy to agree what the good policy is, the hard part is getting into the system,” Green acknowledges. He draws a parallel to the story of Joshua and Caleb spying the land of Israel, full of fearsome giants but not backing away from the task.
“It’s going to be hard but we can take the land little by little,” Green says.
Bringing the course to churches
Green is trying to help Christians take the land by taking this political message out to churches — which is a return to the country’s roots, he claims.
Speaking at Awaken Church during a lecture on Biblical Citizenship in Modern America — an image of an American flag resting on a Holy Bible on the screen behind him — Green remarked to congregants that they have “great pastors” for bringing him. He added that those pastors “understand the importance of ... influencing government with the word of God.”
“There are not enough churches in America doing that anymore,” he continued, explaining that he believes pastors’ attempts to infuse government with religion constituted a return to the country’s historical roots. “It used to be the role of the church; we used to even call pastors in the Revolutionary War the ‘Black-Robed Regiment’ — the British hated them because they were actually so engaged in the culture.”
Historians argue, however, that Christian nationalists have misappropriated the idea of the Black-Robed Regiment. They say the phrase was actually rejected by America’s revolutionary era pastors since it was coined by the British and used to discredit the colonists as “religious fanatics whipped into a seditious frenzy by a conspiracy of militant, politicized religious leaders,” write Thomas Lecaque and JL Tomlin in The Washington Post.
Lecaque and Tomlin go on to explain that while the term presents America’s early pastors as a monolith, there was much disagreement around the topic of whether or not to separate from the British. Those who did support the revolution were generally politically liberal.
“It is profoundly ironic, then, that modern conservative Christians in the United States have claimed the mantle of this imagined, reactionary label for themselves,” write Lecaque and Tomlin. “Eighteenth-century patriot religious leaders would have found this crass, opportunistic and at least marginally blasphemous.”
Nonetheless, Green and other speakers argue that, today, America’s pastors shouldn’t shy away from political issues but, rather, should address them from the pulpit, as they claim the country’s earliest religious leaders did.
Green and others also urge Americans to become so-called “Constitution Coaches” — an option that is available on the website and that is free — who share this content widely, including in their churches. Not only does Green offer materials to lead biblical citizenship courses, he also offers materials so Christians can take a deep, faith-based dive into the Constitution, as well. And in the Constitutional Defense of Your Family and Freedom course, participants also “learn how to shoot handguns,” Green told conservative Christian author and blogger Connie Albers during an April interview.
Sitting on stage alongside Green during the final session of his biblical citizenship course, one Constitution coach — Ken Davis — offered a story of how, in 2012, he decided to start a class on the Constitution at his church. Shortly thereafter, he came across Green’s “Constitution Alive!” materials and led his first class — which had only three participants and took place in a closet, he joked.
But as the ideas and the terminology have caught on, his classes have grown. Now he offers three 10-week classes a year; his last course had 60 enrollees and took place in his church’s auditorium.
Scarlett Lani, who has also led Green’s courses, sought to dispel viewers’ fears that they need to be fluent in the ideas and history in order to conduct a biblical citizenship class. All coaches really need to do is set up the equipment and press play, she said, so students can view Green’s materials.
However, not all Americans are so enthusiastic about the new term and the popularity of Green’s course. Though the phrase “biblical citizenship” suggests, perhaps, that the term comes from antiquity, Gershon Shafir, a sociology professor at University of California, San Diego, explained it as a “neologism” that is completely contemporary.
The term is “misleading since citizenship is an inclusionary term whereas biblical citizenship isn’t,” he said.