Christian Nationalist Is Incompatible with Mormonism

Yesterday, this piece on Christian nationalism ended up in my Twitter feed. In it, Amanda Tyler, the Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty explains why it is absolutely critical for Christians to step up and expressly denounce Christian nationalism.

What is Christian nationalism? The BJC describes it as explicitly promoting the idea that Christianity should explicitly infuse the U.S.’s “public policies, sacred symbols, and national identity.” Implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) it also holds that the only true Christians/Americans are white, conservative, and born in the U.S.A.

It is critical to point out here that there’s a difference between saying (as a voter or a politician), “My values influence my policy preferences” and saying “The laws of the country should codify [my version of] Christianity.” The former, Tyler points out, allows for some work across the aisles, some vision of a better society. She points to Georgia Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock, a Baptist pastor, and Oklahoma Republican Senator James Lankford, a former Baptist youth pastor, among others.

But Christian nationalism seems to be ascendant, with some members of Congress embracing both the label and the exclusionary ideas of the movement.

So as a believer, let me join with Tyler in saying, Christian nationalism (of any form) has no place in my religion.

Now, as an abstract matter, Mormonism risks devolving into Christian nationalism. We preach a divinely-inspired Constitution. Church leaders simultaneously governed Nauvoo and Deseret. Joseph Smith put together the Council of 50, a “theodemocratic” shadow government, ready to step in when the elected government collapsed.

But look a little closer at all of these and you can see church leaders expressly rejecting the idea of privileging Mormonism (or Christianity more broadly) and, in fact, expressly adopting a division between civil and religious authority and governance.

I’m currently writing a book about Mormonism and taxes; I’ve spent a lot of time with both Nauvoo and Deseret and one thing that has stood out to me is that in both, church leaders recognized and accepted a difference between their roles as religious leaders and as civic leaders. I’m not saying that there was an always clean divide; in fact, Joseph Smith was not against using his status as prophet to quash legislation he didn’t like (most notably, in my mind, when he rejected a dog tax). Still, when they were dealing with secular issues like taxes or the police force, they went through civil processes.

And Smith was explicit about the inclusiveness of his vision of government. He explained that:

The Saints can testify whether I am willing to lay down my life for my brethren. If it has been demonstrated that I have been willing to die for a Mormon, I am bold to declare before heaven that I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist or a good man of any other denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter day Saints would trample upon the rights of the other denomination <​Roman Catholics​> or of any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves. It is a love of liberty which inspires my Soul, civil and religious liberty to the whole of the human race, love of liberty was diffused into my Soul by my grandfathers, while they dandled me on their knees; and shall I want friends? No.

And this inclusiveness was not just rhetorical. Nauvoo enacted an ordinance guaranteeing religious liberty in the city:

Be it ordained by the City Council of the City of Nauvoo, That the Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Latter-Day-Saints, Quakers, Episcopalieans Universalits Unitarians, Mahommedans, and all other religious sects and denominations whatever, shall have free toleration and equal Privilieges in this city,

Honestly, the ordinance goes a little far imho: it criminalizes “ridiculing abusing, or otherwise depreciating another in consequence of his religion or of disturbing, or interrupting any religious meeting,” and offenders faced a $500 fine, six months of imprisonment, or both.

But the ordinance expressly rejects any claim to Christian nationalism: it not only implicitly, but explicitly includes non-Christians in its list of denominations that enjoy equal rights in the city.

Even the Council of Fifty, the theodemocratic shadow government that Smith established, included three non-Mormons (Edward Bonney, Uriah Brown, and Marenus G. Eaton).

It is important, Tyler says, for believers to loudly reject Christian nationalism. If only non-Christians reject the ideology, it plays into the idea that you have two choices: you can have Christian nationalism or you can have no religious expression at all. And that is decidedly untrue.

(FWIW, I suspect that many Christian nationalists would reject Mormons’ claims to be Christian. Which, whatever. The BJC is rejecting their claims to represent Christianity and the United States. Even if that movement doesn’t recognize my claims to Christianity, I want it to be clear to other members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other Mormon movements that the idea is equally incompatible with our history. And that’s leaving aside the racist components of the movement, which have been explicitly and aggressively condemned by church leaders.)

Comments

  1. The Other Brother Jones says:

    I think the Church’s history of teaching about an inspired constitution is not a bad thing, but the church is leaning away from that as it transitions to a more word-wide view. But I do see individuals leaning towards a religious zeal in their patriotism. I agree that it is not compatible with the gospel. It may not be a bad thing, depending on context, etc, but some conflate their patriotism, their pride in military service, their understanding of the constitution, and their religion, their hope for a better future, . . . And that can get mixed up and get expressed in odd ways.
    I think we all need to spend some time understanding all these doctrines, gov’t policies, family heritages so they get expressed appropriately. Maybe sometimes they need to stay separated.

  2. Sam, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    I never bought into an “inspired” Constitution. If it was inspired, the founders perhaps would have skipped the Articles of Confederation, provided for equality for all under the law, not enslaved millions and kindled a fire that cost the lives of nearly 700,000 men (and about 500 women) some 80 years later.

    Christian Nationalism is nothing more than a movement to marginalize those that don’t fit into their definition and mold of Christian. We’ve seen this movie many times. It doesn’t end well.

  3. Mortimer says:

    I’m afraid that we’re entering a perfect storm. As Christian nationalism is on the rise in the country, we are shifting into mainstream Christianity and waving our Christian banner high. The “on point” message from SL is for all GAs to say “Christian” and “Christ” as many times as possible every time they open their mouths.

    I’m afraid that as we try to cling to our evolving Christian (not “Mormon”) identity, we’re going to somewhat innocently fall into Christian Nationalism. Gone are the days when we would unify with others under a non-denominational Universal God- relating (like Joseph did in the quote above) to Hindu, Muslim, Jewish persons. We’re beating the Christian drum at deafening decibels.

    Point in case- when Elder Uchtdorf spoke at the Stadium of Fire in Provo for a *city-wide* (not church) 4th of July celebration, he emphasized our role as Christians upholding goodness in the country. I’m sure that even as an immigrant, he is aware of the importance of religious freedom and choice in this country, and could have spoken about our country’s universal shared allegiance to a universal concept of divine providence and Divinity. He could and should have drawn a patriotic circle that enveloped all Americans – Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish and others who believe in love and goodness. Certainly, we as saints and the country need reminders about this- especially after torches in Charlotte and the Muslim Ban. But, Uchtdorf instead chose to emphasize the importance of our Christianity in patriotism.

    It’s a bad storm, bad timing and the “underground” (wink and nod) message that many saints will read into the timing and convergence of the PR message and current events is- that we align with (gulp) Christian Nationalism.

    Lord help us.

  4. lastlemming says:

    This post deserves more than three comments, so I will just add my voice to Sam’s in agreement.

  5. Schwyyz says:

    The problem is in whose definition of so-called Christian Nationalism is being used, and how it is interpreted. For the most part, in recent months, I have seen the term largely defined by people on America’s political left to conflate the term with white supremacy. If THAT is what Christian Nationalism means, then by all means it is to be denounced. And let’s be clear, the overwhelming majority of Christians in the United States regardless of ethnicity will readily renounce white supremacy without the slightest hesitation. But if the term merely represents, as it does to others, that the Judeo-Christian values which formed this imperfect union are worthy of continuing to positively inform our politics, then attempts to paint this perspective as white supremacy is an evil abomination in its own right and deserves to be smacked down.

    The author of another piece which is cited in this column refers to Georgia Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock as one who would say, “My values influence my policy preferences.” What that author is REALLY saying is that a good Christian in her eyes can give lip service to Christian views so long as he cannot be convicted of it. President Biden and Speaker Pelosi also give lip service to their Christian values while rubbing contrary policies in the faces of their respective archbishops. I’m not impressed.

  6. Hey Schwyyz, I appreciate your dropping by to illustrate a number of the real problems with Christian nationalism. Most notably, the “Christian” part of “Christian nationalism” is, frankly, a misnomer: Christian nationalist put forward a normative Christianity, and anything that doesn’t fit their version of Christianity, denying that other ways of being Christian are. So you deny the Christianity of Warnock, Biden, and Pelosi, because the way they engage their religion isn’t the way you think it should be engaged. And they’re Christian; Christian nationalists deny the right of non-Christians to bring non-Christian values into governance.

    You present an imagined history of the country; at the formation, there was no *Judeo*-Christianity. And, in fact, many of the Founders were not recognizably Christian, much less Christian-nationalist.

    There is also no question that Christian nationalist is white Christian nationalist. Which is itself yet another problem with Christian nationalism, and yet another reason why we who are religious must roundly and unequivocally reject Christian nationalism.

  7. Another good article Sam.
    I remember when I was a new hire at my first post-BYU job, a coworker talking about how non-religious the US Founding Fathers were. I was at first confused by her stance, because I was under the impression that it was very much the opposite. While thinking about it later, I realized that my point of view was taken from church talks, and not from history books. Since then my views have evolved. The Founding Fathers were – on average – deists. They proclaimed a belief in God, but didn’t seem to be passionate about it, and it was more like to be a way to fit in with the current society more than anything else. No real convictions towards one denomination over another.
    Of course we can find anecdotes of religious conviction amongst the group, but those are more of the exception than the rule.
    Given the Wilford Woodruff about the Founding Fathers wanting their temple work done, it’s possible that most of them would have been LDS if born later in life, but that’s speculation and not something that can be brought up in any non-LDS setting.
    As religious as the Puritans were, their decedents understood the importance of the religion of others not imposing corporal punishment on others.

  8. stephenchardy says:

    Schwyyz: please try to do better! President Biden and Speaker Pelosi and Senator Warnock are reduced, by some people, to shallow stick figures with no depth. I truly don’t think that you know any of them well enough to pass judgment on their religious convictions. You simply don’t know. Hillary Clinton ran a bible study group when her husband was a governor. Jimmy Carter is probably the most sincerely religious president of the last hundred years. I think that it is OK to be a critic of the policies of all of these democrats. I can understand that. But I don’t think that you can nor should you decide the sincerity of their belief that Jesus of Nazareth is their Savior and Redeemer. Which is what a Christian is. Do better. Please. We all need to do better.

  9. You down play the nationalism of early Mormonism too much. From the Book of Mormon’s “this land is choice” to the Council of 50, with or without non-Mormon members, to Joseph Smith’s presidential candidacy, to Brigham Young’s state of Deseret, Mormonism was very much about its own brand of nationalism.

  10. I’m mostly commenting to endorse Sam’s post as well, but I’ll add that I think the Church as an institution agrees today.

    I don’t really disagree with Mortimer: there’s a lot of overlap between language used by Christian Nationalists and language used by Christians, including us, and if people aren’t careful a message can have a plausible Christian Nationalist interpretation even if that was not the intent. (Given the Uchtdorf family’s contributions to Democrats, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t his intent.) Church leaders, like most of us, should be more careful and more inclusive.

    “Religious Freedom” is another example. Many people, including some Supreme Court Justices, seem to use it to mean “Christians should be free from government efforts to limit their ability to dominate society.” But if you actually read what Church leaders, especially President Oaks, say about religious freedom it’s clear that’s not what they mean. A key quote from Elder Oaks’ recent speech in Rome:

    “Even religious rights cannot be absolute. In a nation with citizens of many different religious beliefs or disbeliefs, the government must sometimes limit the rights of some to act upon their religious beliefs when doing so is necessary to protect the health, safety, and welfare of all. In addition, some other citizens may even have competing constitutional rights against which some religious liberties must be balanced.

    Our efforts to resolve challenges to religious liberty will be strengthened if we do not always seek total dominance for our own positions. Some accommodations may be necessary as we strive to honor legitimate laws and respect other persons’ highest ideals and human experiences. Conflicting claims are best resolved by seeking to understand the experiences and concerns of others, and by good faith negotiations.”

    “Competing constitutional rights” is probably a nod to his talk at the University of Virginia where he talked about the conflict between religious freedom and fighting discrimination–and advocated for compromise between them. He also quoted Elder Soares:

    “Religious freedom is as much a duty toward others as it is a right for oneself. … We gain freedom by supporting the freedom of those we deem to be our adversaries. When we see that our interests are tied to the interests of everyone else, then the real work of religious freedom begins.”

    That’s definitely not Christian Nationalism.

  11. Nationalism in any form is frightening. It is a fake, faulty and often destructive substitute for patriotism. It is the opposite of being either a “true” American or a “true” Christian. It is why millions lost their lives fighting against one form of it in the 1940’s.

  12. purple_flurp says:

    This discussion is relevant but also a bit late in warning against Christian Nationalism, it has been part and parcel, part of mormonism since the get-go, it just takes a back seat sometimes given the circumstances.

    The fact that Utah’s Pioneer Day is an overtly patriotic holiday—despite celebrating a time when mormons were fugitives form the US government and fled to what was then Mexico to pursue religious freedom—kind of tells you all you need to know about mormonism and christian nationalism.

    Like Sam said, the early rhetoric from the BoM about a ‘choice land’, the figure largely interpreted to be Columbus, the thing about ‘kings shall never reign over…”, and the enshrining of the US constitution as a divine document, etc. All of this stuff kind of got it going from the get-go. And sure, occasionally those sentiments were put on the back-burner when the church was at loggerheads with the government in the 19 century. But even then, it was only the backburner, the fact that even JS would get volunteers to support the US in an over war of conquest against Mexico shows that even when out of favour with the USA just shows how baked in nationalism was in mormonism.

    You could argue that the nationalism cooled a little bit from the late 19th to mid-20th century, J. reuben Clark Jr. did, after all, publicly denounce US war crimes in WW2. But it creeps back up again, certainly by Bensen’s tenure and especially once all those former servicemen started aging into the ranks of church leadership the nationalism was brought back in full force. You had stuff like Bens Monson’s ‘we follow the flag’ comments, Eyering’s black-hawk down talk, and Oaks banging away on constitution rhetoric again. And overall white mormons in the USA are kind of known as being perhaps more profusely patriotic and more prone to military service in comparison to other religious groups.

    So I think nationalism always been part of mormonism, and it’s a unique variant of overall Christian nationalism movement, but it’s always been there. Luckily I think we hit the peak and we starting to very slowly shift down, an inevitable result from having an increasingly international leadership. Let’s hope it continues.

  13. purple_flurp and Sam, while I understand what you’re getting at, I’m going to disagree slightly, but that disagreement highlights one of the reasons Christian nationalism is particularly dangerous—it’s easy to conflate with other things. Because I agree that the church has, at times in its history, been overly U.S.-patriotic, almost deifying the country.

    But Christian nationalism differs from this kind of excessive patriotism. It’s the (false) idea that the U.S. is a fundamentally (white) Christian country and, not only that, but that the government should keep it that way, enshrining and privileging white Christianity in law and in power. Mormon historically has taken the opposite tack. Yes, we’ve created our own governments (generally when we’ve felt the U.S. government hasn’t done a good enough job protecting our rights), but our vision of government—even the most theocratic version—has always been radically inclusive, especially of religious minorities.

    That doesn’t mean we’ve been perfect, of course. We have racist and sexist history (and, in some cases, present). We’ve elevated patriotism well above where we should (though I agree with purple_flurp that it’s on the downturn). And I’m entirely sure you can point me to people in the church who have adopted Christian nationalist ideals. But I don’t think Mormonism accepts Christian nationalism, and I don’t think our history leads there, though I do think, given the popular political leanings in the church, we do have to doubly guard against it right now.

  14. Thanks, Sam. We have a responsibility to speak clearly against Christian nationalism.

    The comments illustrate how easy it is to confuse nationalism with Christian nationalism. There are long discussions to have somewhere else about problems with nationalism, but it is not the same as Christian nationalism.

    As commenters have noted, patriotic nationalism has a lot of history among Mormons. Most members of the Church, at least in the United States, have a strong patriotic nationalist sentiment. When Church leaders speak about religious freedom, as they have been doing in recent times, it becomes easy for some people to draw the disastrous conclusion that “religious freedom,” combined with patriotism, means installing Christian beliefs as the law of the land. That makes it especially important for us to clarify that neither our religion nor our system of government can accommodate Christian nationalism.

    In my view, members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve who have spoken about religious freedom have not done an adequate job of making this distinction. They want to stay above the fray with relatively abstract statements about the principle of religious freedom rather than its applications. I understand why they would want to do that. However, like or not, they are playing with fire by wading into this debate. If they think it’s important enough to speak about religious freedom, then they must speak in a way that their message is clearly heard, even by those who might prefer not to listen very closely. Elder Oaks and other apostles have spoken about religious toleration as a legal principle. The quotations in RLD’s comment above are an example. But I sense that the apostles are not being clear enough or forceful enough about the dangerous extremes to which many members of the Church are inclined in dealing with the mixture of religion and politics.

  15. purple_flurp says:

    my previous comment is riddled with weird typos, apologies to everyone trying to read it

    Sam Brunson, I think that the definition of Christian nationalism you’re working with is a bit to narrow in scope. I think Christian nationalism nationalism is simpler than that, if one’s Christian worldview holds that a particular nation (in this case, the USA), is somehow more important than other nations, more involved in God’s plan, and even just the existence of said nation is the result of divine intervention and its continued existence at the expense of others is something God wants, then that is Christian nationalism. And that, as I said before, was baked into mormonism from the get-go.

  16. Thanks for this post. Christian Nationalism has been on my mind a lot recently. I am very concerned about how it bleeds into our faith, especially with so many white militias flourishing in our LDS heavy states. I hate to think white nationalists are finding cover for their beliefs in our church. My brother in law has a cousin under house arrest for participating in the Jan 6th insurrection, for crying out loud.

    Sidenote: I just finished reading Andrew Seidel’s The Founding Myth, which is about how the US was specifically not founded on Christian principles. It was mind blowing to me, who grew up hearing about how pious and religious inspired the founding fathers were. One of the things I learned was that the famous George Washington’s Prayer at Valley Forge is a fabrication: it didn’t happen. It was a scene invented by a historiographer and stuck. And now it’s hanging in half of the LDS homes.

  17. I agree with Sam that something new and uniquely dangerous has crystalized out of existing elements of the right wing during the Trump years. I would add to his definition that Christian Nationalists believe anyone who does not fit their definition of a “Christian” is not a “Real American” and is not entitled to the privileges of an American.

    They don’t deserve a voice in the country’s decisions, so it’s okay to gerrymander their voices away or overturn elections they won.

    They’re not entitled to have their own beliefs and live according to them, so it’s okay to criminalize their conduct.

    They do not need to be accommodated or even tolerated; they need to be defeated.

    Christian Nationalism is not about a set of policies, it’s about how our country will decide its policies and how it will deal with people who disagree. It’s very possible to agree with Christian Nationalists on many issues without being one at all.

    I’ll also note that some on the left would treat people who disagree with them in the same way.

    Loursat, I think Church leaders have been pretty clear about where they stand, but they haven’t given that message enough bandwidth for people to realize that it doesn’t actually match their preconceived notions or what they’re hearing from the political world. “President Oaks Speaks on the Importance of Religious Freedom” definitely will not do that. I think it’s mostly a matter of priorities, and we’ll see if that changes as the 2024 election draws nearer. It reminds me of masks and vaccines, where message was pretty clear but members could ignore it–right up until the First Presidency took steps to make sure they couldn’t.

  18. Jeremiah S says:

    I think it’s far too late in my county. Unless the FP explicitly defines it and denounces it, the folks around me will never come back from their true religion–politics, specifically a Christian Nationalist approach. As a gay man who is pretty much stuck here for the next forty years, I am terrified for the future.

  19. From early on, Latter-day Saints have insisted that the U.S. Constitution is divinely inspired (it’s scripture, after all), but my observation is that our current interpretation of that claim focuses not on the body of the document itself but on one particular amendment: the one that guarantees religious freedom. But the Constitution is primarily a document that establishes a division of powers in government. And that is something the early Latter-day Saints were not really committed to. They set up theocracies instead and allowed religion to control local government. Now, we still don’t hear much about the actual Constitution—you know, the three divisions of government that check and balance each other. This may be why many Latter-day Saints are so susceptible to authoritarians and demagogues.

  20. Matthew Bowman, an LDS scholar from Claremont University, makes a good point about this divinely inspired idea about the constitution. He points out that the two scriptures from the doctrine and covenants that mentioned the constitution (98 and 101) are really just talking about the founders and that they were wise men raised up for the purpose. The constitution itself being inspired is not really in there. We’ve morphed those scriptural teachings into saying “The Constitution is a divinely inspired document”, and to some, “akin to revelation.” If the men were wise then you have a good start to the constitution. But to say that slavery, women not having a vote etc. was inspired to be in the constitution, no. The Constitution is as wise as the men and women administering it.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Saints who believe their faith and its top leaders support the cause of Christian nationalism, By Common Consent blogger Sam Brunson has this blunt […]

  2. […] Saints who believe their faith and its top leaders support the cause of Christian nationalism, By Common Consent blogger Sam Brunson has this blunt […]

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