Missing and wanted: Christian voices against nationalism in the age of Trump

April 27, 2017

Missing and wanted: Christian voices against nationalism in the age of Trump

Mike Thompson

My fellow columnist Dan Anderson rightly pointed out in a previous column[1] that the Trump moment reveals the lack of a transcendent framework in public discourse that undermines our ability to compromise. While I don’t disagree with him on this, I see the moment as revelatory also of another kind of malaise: an evangelical and Protestant aphonia.


Defined by Merriam-Webster as ‘loss of voice and of all but whispered speech’, I use aphonia here to characterise the striking absence of clear, oppositional (and in my view faithful) theological articulation of Christianity’s relationship to the nation-state as an entity, to civil-religious nationalism as a phenomenon, and to the contingent tangle of racial and religious identities. The aphonia is there to be heard loudest—or not heard!—from Protestant, especially evangelical, Christian leaders in the US and Australia. 


When I look back at the sweep of twentieth century US history, the present era appears both striking and frightening for the ideological captivity and aphonia of evangelical Protestants.


The pattern is more pronounced now than it was even in the 1980s—the moment when the Religious Right is popularly remembered to have been born. Then there was far more contingency over where evangelical political weight would fall, and a conceptual space remained open in evangelical discourse for critical engagement with the ethics of nationalism and borders.[2]


In my own book, I go back even earlier, and find the contrasts all the more striking.[3]  Among the network of prominent Protestant internationalists I researched, there was a rich and intentional cultivation of anti-nationalist and anti-racist theologies—a sense of contrition and repentance over the collective aphonia that had allowed churches to endorse all sides as advancing the cause of Christianity in the recent Great War. Their greatest concern was what they, as early as 1926, called ‘the cult of the National Being’.[4] One well-known preacher was typical when he called nationalism ‘a competing religion.... the most dangerous rival of Christian principles on earth’.[5] Most prescient, however, was the highly significant ‘Universal Christian Conference on Church, Community and State’, held under the shadow of Nazism’s threat in Oxford, 1937 (often called simply ‘Oxford 1937’). Members of almost all Protestant denominations from every region of the world, including American luminaries such as Reinhold Niebuhr, T. S. Eliot, and John R. Mott, gathered to consider a Christian response to the rise of nationalisms and racisms.


Recognizing the need for a clear and unified voice, they achieved a consensus that is well worth revisiting. 

As with every divine gift, the gift of national community has been and is being abused by men and made to serve sin. Any form of national egotism whereby the love of one’s own people leads to the suppression of other nationalities or national minorities, or to the failure to respect and appreciate the gifts of other people, is sin and rebellion against God, who is the Creator and Lord of all peoples.[6]

The same report might well have been describing 2017. They argued that in an effort to reintegrate a social life disintegrated by the fracturing forces of modernity, modern cultures elevated the nation to a ‘supreme good’, amounting to no less than a ‘deification’ of the nation. Not only intrinsically idolatrous, this was also politically dangerous, they warned, for ‘a false sacred, a false God, merely adds demonic power to the unredeemed passions of men. Though bringing about temporary and local unity it prepares for mankind an even worse and wider conflict.’[7]


Writing in 1937 they were right about the wider conflict to ensue in 1939. I only hope they are wrong about the 2020s.



[1] https://www.case.edu.au/blogs/case-subscription-library/last-trump-or-the-revelation-of-compromise

[2] David R. Swartz, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (University Of Pennsylvania, 2014).

[3] Michael G. Thompson, For God and Globe: Christian Internationalism in the United States between the Great War and the Cold War (Cornell University Press, 2016). 

[4] Francis P. Miller, ‘These Sovereign United States’. The World Tomorrow, November 1926, pp197f.

[5] Harry Emerson Fosdick in Christian Century, Jan. 19, 1928. Cited in Kirby Page, National Defense: a Study of the Origins, Results and Prevention of War (Farrar & Rinehart, 1931), p204.

[6] Report of the ‘Church and Community’ Section in J. H. Oldham (ed.) The Churches Survey Their Task: The Report of the Conference at Oxford, July 1937, on Church, Community and State (George Allen & Unwin, 1938), pp71f. This work is Vol. 8 of the published series of preparatory papers and final reports produced before, during and after the conference. It is now available in the public domain on archive.org

[7] Ibid., p68.

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