Angela Denker is a Lutheran pastor and veteran journalist. This article is adapted with permission from “Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump,” to be published in August from Fortress Press. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.
I first became aware of the power of Christian nationalism last year, during an interview at the Evangelicals for Life Conference in Washington, D.C., a gathering that coincided with the March for Life, a large, predominantly conservative Christian rally to oppose abortion and urge the reversal of Roe v. Wade.
My conversation partner that morning was Dean Inserra, a prominent conservative evangelical pastor, the founder of City Church in Tallahassee, Florida, a Liberty University grad and an advisory member of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Inserra told me about a term from Southern Baptist theology that describes the current moment in American politics and religion. “In this linking of nationalism and Christianity, we are forgetting about the message of Jesus. … When we do that, we have a gospel distortion.”
A gospel distortion is the idea that another ideal is impeding the truth of the gospel. Inserra said the gospel distortion in the SBC during and before Trump’s presidency has its roots in Christian nationalism.
“We have to be Christian first. If you are American first, Jesus will be at odds with you,” he said. “Patriotism is not a fruit of the Spirit. It’s idolatry on the Fourth of July.”
Inserra pointed to national holidays that receive as much attention in the SBC as Christmas and Easter. “I say there are different high holy days in the Southern Baptist Church. Some churches have Pentecost and Epiphany. We have the Fourth of July, the Sunday closest to Veterans Day, the Sunday closest to Sept. 11. You go to a Southern Baptist Church on the Fourth of July, you’d think you were at a baseball game, eating a hot dog.”
I believe — with my conservative Christian brothers and sisters — that Christians have an essential role to play in modern-day America and that the Bible has something to say about politics.
But what Inserra said had stunned me, and to learn more I determined to go to a Southern Baptist church in Dallas on Fourth of July weekend. I wanted to hear which would speak louder: Jesus or America.
In my years as a pastor and churchgoer, I’ve attended my share of impressive megachurches, so at first glance, Prestonwood in Plano didn’t look too different. The massive worship center and surrounding buildings rose like a mirage miles from the interstate, down the broad roads of suburban Texas.
Still, as I turned into the enormous church parking lot, I noticed a distinguishing feature. In front of the worship center, off the main road, was a football stadium as large as any high school stadium I’d reported from as a sportswriter in football-crazy South Florida. “Five-time state champions,” read the banner: 2017, 2015, 2010, 2009 and 2005. In Friday Night Lights territory, this was no small feat.
Prestonwood Christian Academy also boasts seven state titles in boys basketball (including three recent years in a row) and eight in competitive cheerleading. NBA power forward Julius Randle attended Prestonwood before heading to Kentucky for a one-and-done scholarship year, and former Philadelphia Phillies catcher Cameron Rupp is also a Prestonwood Academy grad. Prestonwood likes winners.
When I got there for Saturday night worship, I found out that Prestonwood had a big Fourth of July celebration planned for Independence Day. Pastor Jack Graham promised at the beginning of Saturday worship that they’d be “celebrating our freedoms as a country … and singing patriotic songs,” as well as offering a pastor dunk tank, games and refreshments in the Dallas summer heat.
When I walked in, I noticed that the arena-style worship space that seats 7,000 had been covered with red, white and blue American flag bunting. Flags festooned the stage, and most of the screen designs and backgrounds were red, white, and blue.
As Graham concluded his welcome for the evening service, he said, “We’re going to start with the Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem and honoring our service members.”
I had not said the Pledge of Allegiance since elementary school, and I could not help but think of the Ten Commandments — ostensibly as influential here as the pledge. The First Commandment, as found in the Book of Exodus, warns against worshipping and pledging allegiance to a flag and not to God, but no one around me seemed to mind, so, feeling a compulsion to conform, I put my hand on my heart and mouthed the words.
We then sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and sat as the songs for each branch of the armed forces played, and veterans and active-duty soldiers were invited to stand when their branch was called, and we applauded.
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Source: Religion News Service