Staying awake to the threat of Christian nationalism

(RNS) — During Holy Week, Christians remember the final hours before Jesus’ arrest, when he and his disciples went to the Garden of Gethsemane and he asked them to stay awake and alert as he prayed — perhaps so he would not be alone in his darkest hours.

To Christ’s dismay, the disciples repeatedly fell asleep. “Could you not keep awake one hour?” he lamented.

Two millennia later, too many Christians are still falling asleep and abandoning Jesus, turning their backs on his teachings of love, truth and peace and instead embracing the cruelty, conspiracy theories and Jan. 6-style violence of far-right Christian nationalism. Others are closing their eyes as our faith is hijacked, and sleeping while this ideology threatens both American freedom and the church itself.

Three years after the Jan. 6 insurrection, common-good Christians cannot give in to complacency or to believing that, because former President Donald Trump has been indicted, all will be well. Trump’s support among white evangelical Christians is surging. Indeed, it was a key piece of his swift victory to become the Republican presidential nominee.

The insurrection was a far-right Christian nationalist affair, waged under crosses and Christian flags with the blessing of some conservative pastors. A study released last month by PRRI further indicates that religious groups most associated with the Republican Party —especially white evangelical Protestants — are the most likely to hold Christian nationalist views, which include viewing “political struggles through an apocalyptic lens of revolution and violence.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s supporters, unlike Jesus’ followers in the garden, have certainly stayed alert. While many Americans focus on holding Trump accountable for past actions, his allies and lieutenants have been hard at work preparing for a return to office. 

In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, a man holds a Bible as supporters of then-President Donald Trump gather outside the Capitol in Washington. The Christian imagery and rhetoric on view during the Capitol insurrection sparked renewed debate about the societal effects of melding Christian faith with an exclusionary breed of nationalism. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Michael Flynn, Roger Stone and Trump’s two oldest sons, Don Jr. and Eric, have been touring the country for two years, headlining the ReAwaken America Tour, forming groups like Pastors for Trump and Catholics for Catholics while mobilizing clergy to spread violent Christian nationalist lies from their pulpits.

Others have weaponized their faith to generate support for the Christian nationalist agenda, MAGA’s conspiracy theories and Christofascist political tactics. Lance Wallnau, a self-proclaimed “prophet” who inspired millions of evangelicals to support Trump in 2016, is partnering with Charlie Kirk and TPUSA Faith to mobilize thousands of churches for Trump.

Purveyors of Christian nationalism are also in back rooms preparing their agenda and identifying potential personnel should they win the White House this year. Led by the Heritage Foundation, a presidential transition project dubbed Project 2025 has published a 1,000-page detailed playbook to take revenge on political opponents and usher in what they call biblically based government. 

Supporters and advisers to Project 2025 are also behind the Convention of States, a scheme to rewrite the U.S. Constitution. They hope to organize two-thirds of states to pass legislation calling for a constitutional convention that would recast our founding document, in part to disable the separation of church and state. Many of its backers are leading conservative Christians, including David Barton, a well-funded pseudo-historian and intellectual architect of the modern Christian nationalist movement. Of the 34 states required to pass resolutions to activate the so-called Article V convention, organizers to date have secured the passage in 19 states, with more pending. 

We can’t sleep on these developments as some sort of fringe movement: The Convention of States project has also been endorsed by such figures as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

Yet for all this bad news, there is also hope. Across the country, local Christians have stood up to Flynn and his Pastors for Trump friends everywhere they go. The organization I run, Faithful America, has mobilized Christians to speak out against both Convention of States Action and Project 2025, while also publishing a helpful guide for pastors called “A Preacher’s Toolkit for Confronting Christian Nationalism.” 

Other Christian groups doing important work on this front include Faiths United to Save Democracy, Christians Against Christian NationalismSojourners, Network Lobby for Catholic Social JusticeVote Common Good and many, many more.

This is a good start, but those of us who call ourselves Christ-followers must do even more to build on these examples so that we do not drift off as the disciples did in Gethsemane, nor abandon Jesus as modern false prophets have done. We cannot allow Christian nationalist leaders to gut the Constitution and dismantle democracy in Jesus’ hijacked name. 

(The Rev. Nathan Empsall, an Episcopal priest, is executive director of Faithful America. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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