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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

Political Therapeutic Deism

April 3rd, 2024 | 6 min read

By Michael Wear

The moniker of “Christian Nationalism,” a term that is still being defined and debated in academic circles, is now a common subject in elite discourse. The term is regularly referred to by news outlets with little to no explanation, just an assumption that good people will oppose it. Members of Congress host documentaries about the subject made by big-time Hollywood producers. We should be wary of the use of this term. The concept of “Christian Nationalism” has questionable utility as an interpretive tool--it obscures and evades more than it elucidates--but what should be most clear is that it is a counter-productive frame that risks empowering the very forces it seeks to oppose.

Leave aside the matter that Christian Nationalism has become a vehicle for carrying out a whole range of niche political and theological disagreements that mostly failed to gain traction under other banners—while also serving as a convenient excuse to evade accountability for Religious Right politics prior to the presidency of Donald Trump—Christian Nationalism is a strategically disastrous term that has gained currency among partisans because it feeds the worst instincts our divided, polarized politics promotes.

You don’t undermine a “movement” that a small percentage of Americans have even heard of by attaching to it two words (“Christian” and “nation”) which vast majorities of Americans still have positive feelings toward. A majority of Americans want religion to have more influence in this country than they believe it currently has. Some lectures in political theory might disabuse someone of thinking well of nationalism, but to the unindoctrinated, a “nationalist” just sounds like someone who believes in the nation—that is not exactly a death blow accusation to a national presidential campaign, for instance.

Indeed, in addition to the substantive confusion related to the term, the strategic sensibility is bewildering: Only five percent of Americans and seven percent of Republicans have a positive view of “Christian Nationalism,” but we’re going to combat “Christian Nationalism” by defining it based in part on beliefs of the sort that are held by half of Americans spanning the political spectrum? Many who use the term identify Christian Nationalism with the events of January 6th, but the definitions of the term are based on beliefs such as “U.S. laws should be based on Christian values,” or, infamously now, that human rights “come from God.” We should want to do everything in our power to ensure the choice people make is between supporting political violence or not supporting political violence, rather than a choice between something we call “Christian” and an alternative to that. Christian Nationalism is too wide a net to cast in our politics, and there is far too little caution among people who should know better about the costs of such a strategy.

The use of the term becomes even more ludicrous when considered in the context of the man the term is primarily directed toward: Donald Trump. It was Trump, of course, who as president stood up at the National Prayer Breakfast to express he doesn’t quite buy into the whole “love your enemies” business. We must not confuse Trump making a business out of the Bible with Trump making the teachings of the Bible his business. I see no reason to apply the adjective Christian to a group of people who are supposedly defined by a man who tells them over and over again that the actual teachings of Jesus have no place in politics.

In my new book, The Spirit of Our Politics, I introduce a new term, Political Therapeutic Deism, inspired by the term Moral Therapeutic Deism which was coined by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton.

Political Therapeutic Deism is a system of beliefs which invoke religious terms for the purposes of affirming one’s politics. It includes beliefs like:

  1. God is on my political party’s side.
  2. My views on political issues are a leading indicator that I am a true Christian.
  3. My actions in politics are justified in light of God’s general approval of my politics.
  4. I do not understand how other “Christians” could vote for my candidate’s opponent.
  5. It is clear and obvious which political issues are most important to God.

Political Therapeutic Deism makes sense of why we’re seeing sorting in churches by politics, over and above theology or other factors. It makes sense of why we’ve seen steep declines of religious affiliation among Democrats over the last several decades, and why growing numbers of Trump supporters identify as evangelical, even if they don’t share evangelicals’ theological beliefs. It makes sense of political scientist Michele Margolis’s contention that politics shapes our social identities and that partisan forces are responsible for shaping religious divides along partisan lines. It is why a pastor who is merely reading the assigned Scripture from the lectionary can be accused of partisan motive if the Scripture happens to run crosswise of the political needs of the moment. God, Scripture, theological precepts—these are not desired to refine one’s politics, but rather to provide supplemental support for one’s politics. It is why they are valued.

Political Therapeutic Deism does not do all of the work that boosters of “Christian Nationalism” try to do with that term, but that is largely because Christian Nationalism has been made to serve a variety of personal and political ends that have little to do with the essential work of opposing and undermining the real elements of political extremism that actively promote violence and the use of political power to harm political opponents. Just as we should not concede “Christian” to this kind of politics, why would we even suggest that this kind of politics is even conceivably in the interest of the nation? The problem with what is being referred to as Christian Nationalism is not that it’s too Christian or that it is too pro-America, but that it is neither.

Political Therapeutic Deism has the benefit of making clear what we are seeing is the misappropriation of religious language and symbols for political ends. It also harkens to a term (Moral Therapeutic Deism) which has been thoroughly rejected by some of the very kind of people “Christian nationalists” seek to persuade to their way of thinking. They want to equate opposition to their political proposals as opposition to Christianity itself. Why would we help them?

There is one more reason that using the term “Christian Nationalism” is strategically foolish: by using the term to apply to behavior and beliefs that are actually harmful to the nation, we make it that much more difficult to recognize and contribute some of the very things our nation needs right now and which can be resourced by the Christian faith: forgiveness, mercy, gentleness, charity, joy, hope, love. These are the very things that are needed if we are to stem the impulses of what has been called Christian nationalism; but to defeat Christian nationalism, we must call it something else.