Christianity, Nationalism, and Democratic Pluralism—Before, During, and After Populism | A Response by Slavica Jakelić

February 8, 2022

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of five responses to Philip Gorski’s American Babylon: Christianity and Democracy Before and After Trump.

Philip Gorski’s American Babylon considers Christianity and democracy as “complex social structures” (8) that have influenced and transformed one another through historical encounters and collisions to give rise to multiple theological, cultural, and political configurations. Gorski begins by considering how democracy in its various forms (republican, representative, liberal, and social) relates to different expressions of religion—to show, for example, why some forms of Protestantism are conducive to liberal but not social democracy, or why American evangelical Christianity is not inherently opposed to democracy. He surveys the complicated politics and political theology of the Bible demonstrating, among other things, how it is possible for contemporary Christian nationalism to be reconciled with the imperial theology of Eusebius, and for liberal democracy to have certain resonances with Augustine’s theological thought; his survey also shows how some Catholic thinkers charted a middle way in their theological approaches to democracy while others moved in “a decidedly more authoritarian direction” (41). From this airplane view of elective affinities between Christianity and democracy in Western history, Gorski zooms in on the complex trajectories of both Christianity and democracy in the history of the US. What connects the two parts of the book is the argument that “there are no constants in political chemistry” because the elective affinities between Christianity and democracy change over time (97).

As a short, 132-page book that is theoretically precise and historically subtle, American Babylon is a true feat of historical sociology. It offers a nuanced yet accessible account of how we got where we are today—the populist phase of the culture wars in which American Christians who affirm strong collective attachments often do so in the name of a “white Christian nation,” and Americans who confess progressive Christian or secular visions of public life are often implicated in modernist, secularist, or class biases toward those who do not share their cosmopolitan or meritocratic values. It is here, at the end of the book, where I want to begin my engagement with the author: at the point at which Gorski wonders not only how we got where we are, but also where we might be going. I want to propose that this is also an important scholarly crossroad, a point at which we should carefully probe the long-accepted approaches to the relationship among Christianity, democracy, and nationalism, and consider some new, less charted, and possibly more productive modes of thinking about it.

In the last chapter of his book, in his discussion of the alliance between white evangelical Christians and Trump, Gorski stresses that this phenomenon is driven not by race, class, or religion alone, but by the combination of all three. At the same time, what emerges at the heart of the story about the evangelicalism-Trumpism coalition is “white Christian nationalism” (WCN)—the term that some authors have recently used in unhelpful ways, but which in Gorski’s treatment acquires both conceptual clarity and historical perspective. And, precisely because I concur with much of the argument Gorski advances in this part of his book, one statement in that account gave me pause: the idea that white Christian nationalism in the United States is “a genuine puzzle” because Christianity is “a universalistic religion” that “makes no racial distinctions,” has “followers of all colors,” and “tells us that all human beings are God’s children, made in His image, and Jesus died for all sinners” (108). In what follows, I want to propose several reasons why we should want to move beyond the idea of the 21st century American instantiation of white Christian nationalism as a puzzle because Christianity is a universalistic humanist religion.

As a student of religion normatively committed to deep pluralism, I appreciate the theological arguments for the idea that Christianity’s universalistic character, even essence, can be a powerful tool against racist and nativist configurations of Christian nationalism. As a historical sociologist, however, I cannot but point to the problems entailed in an account of Christianity as a this-worldly humanist project of inclusion. This is an account suggested in Gorski’s statement quoted above; it is also an account of Christian humanism that does not acknowledge the dark sides of that project—the deployment of Christian humanism to dehumanize the indigenous peoples during the Western European colonial and imperial conquests, or the twentieth century Catholic theology of personhood and the accompanying political endeavors that ascribed dignity to Catholics only, to mention only two trajectories. As Edward Said powerfully demonstrated in his last book Humanism and Democratic Criticism, if the history of universalistic humanisms tells us anything, it is that humanist ideas grounded both acts of exclusion and of inclusion, of enslavement and of liberation. Recognizing such complexities as also constitutive of Christianity’s universalistic humanist impetus would not diminish its forcefulness in rejecting the ideology of white Christian nationalism; it would simply underscore that no expression of Christianity is ever innocent of history or above it.

On the other hand, if the history of Christianity and nationalism reveals anything—a history that involves, among others, the role of the Deutsche Christen in Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the place of Christian theology in configuring the Afrikaner racist nationalist ideology in South Africa, and the complicity of Christian leaders in shaping the nationalist ideologies in former Yugoslavia—it is the multiplicity of forms this relationship can take as well as their frequency. On my reading, the question at the heart of our inquiry should not be “How is it possible for Christianity to be linked to nationalism?”, but “Why are we still surprised when those connections appear?” Or, to add an even more provocative note: in light of the sheer number of historical instances in which Christianity was associated with various expressions of nationalism, why should we think that these cases are more about nationalism and less about Christianity? Aren’t such instances also part of the complex, complicated, and changeable politics and political theology of Christianity, which Gorski himself so eloquently examines?

As a scholar of religion and collective identity, I concur with Gorski’s commitment to case-by-case analysis of religious actors as they reveal their agency in shaping the narratives and politics of particular group attachments. It is in this sense—in relation to the singularities of various local stories and histories—that I see any religio-national phenomenology as a puzzle. But it is precisely because of this empirical perspective that I want to end my response with an invitation—that we do not a priori relegate Christianities linked to national attachments to the domain of intolerance and exclusion, but instead consider collectivistic Christianities in all of their manifestations. Ours is a moment, it seems to me, that compels us to sharpen our conceptual and analytic tools so that they can distinguish between those configurations of Christian and national identities that seek to exclude or abolish everyone perceived as other, and those that are conducive to democratic pluralism—those collectivistic Christianities that can powerfully reject the challenges of the populist anti-pluralist politics by grounding the most noble of our universalistic humanist impulses in our attachments to concrete political communities.

Slavica Jakelić is the Richard Baepler Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Valparaiso University’s honors college, and a Senior Fellow of the Luce Project on Religion and its Publics.