American Idolatry: How Christian Nationalism Betrays the Gospel and Threatens the Church

The New Testament is laced with simple directives to guide Christians in living out our faith in the world: Care for your neighbor as yourself. Tell people about Jesus. Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Advocate for justice for all since, red or yellow, black or white they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world — and the adults they grow into.

According to Andrew L. Whitehead, author of American Idolatry: How Christian Nationalism Betrays the Gospel and Threatens the Church, white Christian nationalists would likely say, “Not so fast!”

References to and concerns about Christian nationalism are cropping up everywhere. Whitehead defines it as “a cultural framework that idealizes and advocates for a fusion of a particular expression of Christianity with American civic life. It holds that this version of Christianity should be the principal and undisputed cultural framework in the United States….” In other words, with white Christian nationalism, it’s “my way or the highway” when it comes to politics, religion, and culture in general.

White Christian nationalism is marked with a high need for power and control, the use of fear as a justifiable means to a self-serving end, and a ready willingness to employ force, and even violence, to assert authority. These are tools aimed at increasing influence for a privileged few, and marginalizing those viewed as “other.”

“Others” are delineated by race, religion, ethnicity, politics, and place of origin. Favor falls to white, politically conservative, natural-born citizens. White Christian nationalism is primarily a white, male-driven, authoritarian, might-makes-right, hierarchical club of homegrown gun-toting citizens.

They tend to scorn the ideas of putting others first, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, and other traditionally accepted aspects of the Christian life. In fact, what’s surprising is that many who lay claim to the label of Christian nationalism have no truck with Christianity at all.

Whitehead explains, “White Christian nationalism is not primarily a theological category but a cultural framework intent on privileging a conservative ethno-cultural and political orientation — one draped in religious rhetoric.” It demands allegiance in ways that makes power, fear, and violence into idols, thus setting up a direct conflict with the example and teachings of Jesus.

In the preface of his book, Whitehead gets right to the point stating, “to faithfully follow the teachings and example of Jesus of Nazareth, [we] must work to disentangle Christianity from Christian nationalism. The two cannot coexist.”

Countering the impact of white Christian nationalism, while requiring “a concerted effort” is actually straightforward: do what Jesus calls us to do. We must serve the marginalized. Set aside acts of violence. Seek justice for everyone. Act with mercy instead of power. And, when engaging in political activity, which is fine, do so with a servant’s heart aimed at benefiting all, and not as a grab for self-serving power. Whitehead points to the reminder offered by Martin Luther King, Jr. that “The church…is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.”

As Whitehead clarifies, “Throughout the biblical narrative, God consistently calls people to trust in him alone rather than in kings, weapons, or other gods.”

How did things go so awry? Whitehead references a quote by Jerry Falwell that hints at the heart of the problem. Falwell stated, “We [meaning the Church] have a three-fold primary responsibility: number one, get people saved; number two, get them baptized; number three, get them registered to vote.”

This is counter to the Great Commission, wrongly conflating the Gospel with partisan politics. While registering people to vote is a fine activity for a church to support, political activity is not and never should be a “primary responsibility” of the church. What the church is commanded by Christ to do is “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20, NIV).

Whitehead explains that white Christian nationalism “makes us bad Christians.” It encourages us to be selfish rather than selfless, to build a human empire instead of growing the Kingdom of God, and to shift trust from God onto the idols of power, politics, and personal privilege.

This is an important book with an important message.

Stephen R. Clark is a writer who lives in Lansdale, PA with his wife, BethAnn, where they attend Immanuel Church. His website is He is a member of the Evangelical Press Association and managing editor of the Christian Freelance Writers Network blog. He is also a news writer for The Baptist Paper and his writing has appeared in several publications. A longer version of this review appeared in the Englewood Review of Books and is used with permission.

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