We see the Bible being misused and abused for political gain all the time, and the rise of Christian Nationalism is making things even worse. But does that mean the Bible should never be mixed with politics? Not necessarily. American political history is full of examples of the Bible being used positively. Kaitlyn Schiess walks through some of that history and gives us two ways to spot the misuse of the Bible by politicians and pundits today.
This video is adapted from Kaitlyn Schiess' book, "The Ballot and the Bible" (available August 22, 2023). You can order it here
As the 2024 election approaches, there are a few familiar Bible verses you might start to see more regularly. Things like:
2 Chronicles 7:14 – “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
Or maybe Jesus’s words from the Sermon on the Mount: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.”
Or Galatians 5:1: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”
And it’s the Bible, it must be good, right? But, these verses will probably be quoted on the backdrop of a waving American flag, printed in red, white, and blue, or accompanied by: “God Bless America.” You might find them shared on social media, as wall art in people’s homes, or proclaimed from pulpits or political campaign stages.
More American Christians are concerned about “Christian nationalism” after seemingly innocuous ideas like these verses were used to inspire the violent January 6th insurrection. Many of us saw friends and family share patriotic Bible verse graphics on social media along with racist or xenophobic articles, frightening conspiracy theories, and outright hatred for political opponents.
It feels gross to see the Bible used in this way. It’s unsurprising that many of us have gotten queasy at any combination of the Bible and America. Sometimes the misinterpretations of Scripture are easy to spot: Promises to the nation of Israel cannot be transferred to America. When Jesus is talking about a city on a hill, he was talking about the people of God—not any modern nation. And the “freedom” Paul wrote about in Galatians is not equivalent to the freedom we value in our modern liberal democracies.
So, that settles it, right? The Bible does not talk about America (ever, trust me), so any combination of biblical passages with American images or ideals must be Christian Nationalist and completely rejected.
Well, not so fast. What about Maria W. Stewart?
She was an African American abolitionist, women’s right’s activist, and evangelist. In 1831, she gave a speech, “Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality,” in which she combined biblical and political claims, drawing on the authority of both the Bible and American ideals. Like many other abolitionists in this era, Stewart argued that America needed to live up to the biblical standards of morality the country claimed to believe. This use of Scripture feels very different than the way Christian Nationalists use it. In defending the dignity and value of Black Americans, she said, “He hath crowned you with glory and honor; has made you but a little lower than the angels;” citing Psalm 8, and then immediately added, “and according to the Constitution of these United States, he has made all men free and equal.”
Or what about the 19th and 20th century social gospel theologians and preachers who often spoke about the need to “Christianize” the nation? They usually had economic justice in mind, not conservative politics. The “father” of the movement, Washington Gladden, preached a 1909 sermon in which he turned to the prophet Isaiah to exhort American Christians to establish a “Christian social order.” He admitted that America was not quite a Christian nation yet, but a new era was dawning. His idea of a “Christian nation”? Strong unions and social safety nets.
Suffice it to say: there has been a lot of blending of Christianity and American ideals in our history—and not just from the conservative end of the political spectrum. What are we supposed to do with this history - discard all of it because of our concern to avoid Christian nationalism? Declare all of it good and faithful? How can we judge between all these different uses of Scripture in the context of the American nation?
Ass the election approaches, here are two signs that the Bible is being misused, or even abused, in politics.
#1: Scripture is only FOR America and never AGAINST America. (Have you ever seen one of those social media graphics that has a verse condemning America?)
Martin Luther King Jr., also blended biblical and national ideals. In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, King said his dream was “deeply rooted in the American dream,” and blended American ideals like the claim that “all men are created equal” with biblical descriptions of justice and restoration. He quoted Isaiah 40, “one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight.” He mixed biblical with patriotic identity in a way that I don’t usually hear people object to, when he said that in his dream, “all of God’s children” would be able to sing “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty.”
But what made King’s use of scripture different from Christian nationalism was his use of the Bible to both encourage America towards greater goodness and condemn her failures. As Maria Stewart said decades before him, “Oh America, America, foul and indelible is thy stain! Dark and dismal is the cloud that hangs over thee, for thy cruel wrongs and injuries to the fallen sons of Africa.” There are lots of places that the Bible speaks to the way nations should be ordered —and many of those places provide searing condemnations of America’s past and present failures.
This helps us clarify what we mean by “Christian nationalist.” While the term has exploded in recent years, scholars have given more precise definitions. It is not Christian nationalism merely to combine biblical references with American ideals or apply Scripture to the American political context. Many scholars agree that the “Christian” in “Christian nationalism” is a distinct form of Christianity that is bound up with racism and sexism. In other words, it’s not just committed to a “Christian nation” but to a very specific idea of what “Christian” supposedly means.
This is where we need to listen to the word of the Lord that might come against us–our nation, our communities, even our cherished values or beliefs. The Bible does not critique America on the terms we prefer. Christian nationalists might agree that the Bible should critique America, but only because we aren’t living up to a certain vision of American superiority. But the Bible does not promise America economic prosperity or military might. God does not value the same things we value. It is not just that the Bible critiques America, but that the word of the Lord confronts our very standards of what is good and right.
That takes me to the 2nd sign scripture is being misused:
#2: Scripture condemns sin in others, never in ourselves.
Martin Luther King Jr. had his own concerns with the social gospelers of his era who also melded Christianity with America. He said of one social gospel theologian that he was overly confident that things would get progressively better and that he had come “perilously close” to conflating a particular political system with the kingdom of God. Unlike many of the social gospel activists who came from privileged backgrounds, King and other civil rights activists were under no illusions that America was a “Christian nation.” A truly “Christian nation” would not enslave, oppress, and kill human beings made in God’s image. King could see the blind spots the social gospelers missed: for all their desire to “Christianize” the nation, they were often paternalistic, xenophobic, and ignored (if not perpetuated) racism and sexism in America.
King was concerned that the social gospelers did not have an adequate account of sin. They may have identified it in others, and even in social systems, but they failed to see it in themselves.
This is something that the social gospelers of the past strangely share with the Christian nationalists of the present. They had great optimism that they could reshape society according to Christian principles, and great confidence in their own goodness. The social gospelers were convinced that humans were capable of fixing the problems in the world. But in the aftermath of two world wars, the Holocaust, and the devastation of nuclear weapons, many theologians in the 20th century started reevaluating some of that optimism.
Today’s Christian nationalists are often so confident in the righteousness of their cause that they are willing to trample over other perspectives and concerns. We don’t need to work with people of different faiths or political viewpoints, they might say, because we have direct divine revelation that should guide America. The problem in either case is not that Christians want to apply biblical truth to political life, but that we have had undue confidence in our ability to reshape the world according to God’s will. We have to remember that it’s not just the world that is sinful–we are too.
The rise of Christian Nationalism is a real problem. But the right response should not be the complete removal of the Bible from our political life. And we shouldn’t stop working to see biblical standards for justice and human flourishing enacted in the present.
History should chasten our ambitions, however. The task of bringing Christian convictions to bear on political work is always difficult and potentially dangerous. We risk baptizing our culture’s values, elevating ourselves into positions of power without the character to use it well, and harming other people on the way to our own warped version of a Christian nation.
Ultimately, there is no simple list of interpretive principles that can stop the misuse of Scripture in political life. Instead, it will require both careful biblical interpretation and a commitment to spiritual formation: the practices and habits that can help us investigate our own motivations, identify our blind spots, and practice discernment, patience, and hope.