The contemporary Christian musician Andrew Peterson provocatively laments “the second coming of the Pharisees” when he witnesses Christians behaving contrary to their teacher (Come, Lord Jesus, 2000). I heard this song playing repeatedly in my mind as I read Katherine Stewart’s recent book, The Power Worshippers, on the rise and danger of Christian nationalism.
As a number of recent publications are drawing our attention to these days, Christian nationalism is a radical anti-democratic agenda that misuses scripture and theology to gain broad support among conservative evangelical Christians (along with others). While the spoken goal is securing “religious liberty,” behind the scenes it is the strategic pursuit of political, economic, and religious power to control others and unfairly privilege a subset of the population and their religion.
My experience with university students is relevant to this. When I ask non-Christian students about their perceptions of Christianity, they tell stories of how Christians seem breathlessly intent on political manipulation, economic affluence, and religious establishment in law. I then ask them to read Luke 4:1-12 with me. They are astonished to discover that the three things that Christian nationalists today are most concerned about are the very things that Jesus explicitly refused prior to launching his public ministry: political, economic, and religious power.
In Jesus’ ministry and the first decades of the early church (recorded in Acts and Paul’s letters), it is only at Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness by Satan when these three elements (political, economic, and religious power) converge. Jesus immediately rejects them while the Christian nationalists, the Pharisees of today, pursue them with gusto.
The first-century Pharisees were, publicly, the religious leadership who were meticulous about their devotion to God by putting on grand demonstrations of their pious prayers and offerings. Meanwhile, in private, they made underhanded deals with their Roman occupiers which secured their sneaky political power, shocking economic affluence, and coercive religious influence. Their religiosity was only a smokescreen for their radical unfaithfulness to God and their abuse of other people. When it became obvious that Jesus saw right through their hypocrisy, they knew he had to be eliminated.
The situation is uncomfortably similar today. Christian nationalists, like the Pharisees of the first century, pursue political, economic, and religious power over others through a distorted version of (Christian) faith. One element of this distortion is especially relevant for Reformed Christians: the misuse of Kuyper’s understanding of Christ’s lordship over all spheres of life – what’s often called a Christian worldview.
Christian nationalism weaponizes this element of Kuyper’s thought. Rather than Christ’s lordship being an encouragement to Christian believers to patiently and lovingly use their gifts and abilities for serving the common good in a diverse society, it is used as a justification for dispensing with the democratic process and, instead, imposing Christian morality through political coercion.
Christian nationalists misuse Kuyper’s work today by being unfairly and narrowly selective. Taking a wide view of Kuyper’s whole life and work, one immediately recognizes a reason for why Kuyper’s early work was so fruitful but why he was ultimately unsuccessful as a political leader of a diverse society: once he held the reigns of political power as prime minister (1901-1905), he failed to truly appreciate how the deepest principles of the Christian faith should have directed him towards a shared vision of the common good that was negotiated among diverse parties (which is the path that the Scandinavian Lutheran pietists like P. P. Waldenström took). This alone, without even getting into his attitudes towards race and gender, should be enough to give one pause.
Stewart is an insightful guide through the last half century. Her work provides Christians with an opportunity to reflect on whether our efforts, our methods, and our goals (in the political, economic, and religious spheres of life) are truly leading us in the way of Jesus. If we find the way of the cross too costly, there are always those who are happy to step in and lead us towards becoming a power worshipper instead. Jesus knew that political, economic, and religious power are ever-present temptations. But it is not the path he would take. And it is not the path his followers are to take, either.