Some Georgia pastors push back against spread of Christian nationalism

The way the Rev. Will Dyer sees it, if pastors aren’t speaking out against Christian nationalism, then they’re making a huge mistake.

Dyer, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Augusta, has addressed the ideology in his sermons and in private conversations with members, cautioning against the philosophy that some say calls for the blending of religion and government.

His stance cost him about 10 members from his congregation, which has an average Sunday attendance of 1,000.

“It’s something I had to do,” Dyer said of his decision to speak on the issue. “It’s a reality in all of our churches and pulpits.”

Christian nationalism has been increasingly showing up in politics and pulpits, polarizing voters and worshippers. Its supporters believe that the U.S. was formed as a Christian nation and the government should work to defend its Christian tenets.

But some take their beliefs to extremes, advocating a weakening or elimination of the separation of church and state.

The nonpartisan Pew Research Center on Oct. 27 released results of a survey of 10,000 U.S. adults on attitudes about religion’s role in public life. It found many supporters define Christian nationalism in broad terms, as the idea that the country is guided by Christian values.

But definitions vary greatly from person to person and can be very complex and nuanced, according to Greg Smith, one of the lead researchers at the Pew. The survey found of those who had heard of the term Christian nationalism, 24% had an unfavorable view; 5% had a favorable view and the rest had no opinion one way or the other or had never heard of it.

“That doesn’t mean though, that there aren’t a larger number of people who might adhere to the beliefs associated with Christian nationalist beliefs,” says Smith.

First Baptist Atlanta senior pastor, the Rev. Anthony George said he prefers to call himself a “patriotic Christian instead of a Christian nationalist.”

A patriotic Christian means “You’re proud of our country and proud of the things your country stands for,” George said.

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WHAT’S IN A NAME?

For Georgia’s religious leaders, the variety of definitions for Christian nationalism has made the topic difficult and risky to address.

The Rev. Troy Bush, senior pastor of Rehoboth Baptist Church in Tucker said because of the lack of a clear definition, he has not used the term Christian nationalism specifically in his sermons or classes. But he has said that Christians should be devoted first to Jesus.

While he sees no problem with people being patriotic or voting based on their values, he doesn’t think the founding fathers intended for the U.S. to be an exclusively Christian nation.

“Jesus has not called us to establish a theocracy in our city, state, or country nor are we to make the White House or Congress a church house,” he said.

The blurring of those lines was clearly on display on Jan. 6, 2021 when protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol in an effort to stop the election results from being certified.

The use of Christian imagery that day by extremists left Dyer and others stunned.

Some participants proudly carried crosses and others knelt in prayer. One was photographed clutching a Bible. Another carried a poster of Jesus in a red “Make America Great Again” cap. One banner read “Jesus is My Savior, Trump is my President.”

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“I felt grief and shame that anyone could intertwine Christianity and politics in that kind of way,” said Dyer of First Baptist in Augusta.

Further complicating any discussion is the entanglement of white supremacy sentiment with the movement, which some call the “white Christian nationalist” movement.

It’s clear cut for Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. She calls the ideology a “perversion” of the U.S. Constitution, a danger to democracy and an affront to Christianity.

“It says that to be a true American, one has to be a Christian and a particular kind of Christian: white, culturally and politically conservative, and holding a certain position on a number of hot button, culture-war issues,” said Tyler, referring to LGBTQ rights, abortion and gun rights.

Many Southern Baptist churches have members who are conservative or Republican and support the idea of a nation rooted in Christianity. But pastors who spoke to the AJC said they reject being lumped in with racist and extremist leanings.

But all denominations need to address white Christian nationalism because any church can serve as “vectors for its spread,” adds author and speaker Jemar Tisby.

“It is not merely an issue for Southern Baptists or even white evangelicals more generally,” he said. “White Christian nationalism is an ideology to which anyone — Catholic, mainline, Methodist, non-denominational, Latter-Day Saints, and more — can adopt.”

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Politics and God

Some politicians have tried to benefit from tapping into the political unrest of many in the pews.

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Rome, may be best known for proudly identifying as a Christian nationalist during her campaign in the run-up to the Nov. 8 election, which she won.

“We need to be the party of nationalism and I’m a Christian, and I say it proudly: We should be Christian nationalists.”

She isn’t the only one using such rhetoric.

Defeated GOP gubernatorial candidate for Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano said that the U.S. is a Christian nation and dismisses the separation of church and state as a myth.

U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Greensboro, a former pastor, takes a softer approach, saying he doesn’t know a lot about Christian nationalism. He describes himself as a Christian who is involved in his nation.

“The whole issue of separation of church and state was keeping the government out of the church, not keeping religious people, regardless of their faith, from being involved in our system of government,” he said in a recent interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The truth is our system in America does not work without involvement of the people with a Judeo-Christian worldview.”

But, Hice said, increasingly attacks are being made on religious liberties, discouraging Christians from engaging politically. “But all people of faith have the right to be involved. And that’s the issue that needs to be protected.”

Sociologist Samuel L. Perry, an expert in evangelical Christianity and politics calls the ideology a perversion of what it means to be a Christian.

Perry said Marjorie Taylor Greene wants to twist the definition of what Christian nationalism means: ‘I’m a nationalist. I’m a patriot. I’m a Christian nationalist.’ She tries to make it sound more innocuous.”

As for churches endorsing politicians who have supported Christian nationalism, Pew’s survey on religion found 77% said churches and other houses of worship should not endorse any candidates for political offices.

Andy Stanley, founder of the nondenominational, Alpharetta-based North Point Ministries and one of the most prominent religious leaders in the nation, writes in his book, “Not In It To Win It: Why Choosing Sides Sidelines the Church” that during the 2020 elections he felt pressured to “politicize” his church.

“Dozens of families reached out to me to let me know they were leaving our churches because I had bought into the Democratic narrative,” he wrote.

When a local church becomes preoccupied with “saving America at the expense of saving Americans, it has forsaken its mission,” Stanley wrote.

A loaded term

The Rev. Catherine Renken fielded numerous calls last year when she posted messages on the marquee at Kirkwood Presbyterian Church in Kennesaw saying “Christian Nationalism is an oxymoron” and “White Supremacy is a sin. Black Lives Matter.”

“Pastors who speak out against the heresy of Christian nationalism must be prepared for backlash,” said Renken. “Love of country has become so intertwined with love of God that untangling that theological knot threatens to unravel a person’s faith. And so, there is a survival-like instinct to hold on to Christian nationalism as if you were protecting Jesus himself.”

The Rev. James Brewer-Calvert, senior pastor of First Christian Church of Decatur, recently addressed the issue of Christian nationalism for his congregation. He said Christian nationalism is a threat. “The drive to yoke church and state endangers our republic’s foundation of liberty to practice — or not to practice — religion, and governmental autonomy from faith-based organizations.”

Brewer-Calvert said he felt it is necessary to “educate and prepare folks because it’s a serious and very present threat to both our country and our collective faith journey.”

The Rev. James Conrad, senior pastor of Towne View Baptist Church in Kennesaw, for instance, says he avoids directly addressing political issues or taking partisan stands in his sermons.

However, he does address themes that may weave their way into certain issues, including those found in Christian nationalism.

Earlier this month, for instance, Conrad preached about Jesus loving all people regardless of gender, race, sexuality or faith.

“That’s my way of addressing it,” he said. “I’ve been reluctant to this point to name Christian nationalism in a sermon,” worried that it is too loaded of a term in this politically charged environment.

“I’m very aware of what’s going on around us — in society and in the news — but to respond to every issue doesn’t leave much room to keep our focus on Jesus.”