I’m going to start off this week by making a statement that would not have seemed the least bit controversial a few years ago and, in fact, would have been considered self-evident (“duh,” as we used to say when I was a kid): Words matter, context matters, and history matters.
Now, though… a lot of people tend to disagree with those thoughts. Definitions of words, meanings behind phrases, actual historic events, and even the most basic scientific facts are now routinely tossed aside if they conflict with what certain people “feel” is true. This makes it hard to reason with people (which is, I suspect, the point).
I’ve been trying for years to help people understand the real meaning of words like nationalism and fascism and still meet resistance. And now a lot of people are proudly proclaiming themselves to be Christian Nationalists… without knowing what that actually means. “Well,” some folks seem to reason, “I’m Christian, and I’m proud to be a Christian… I’m American, and I’m proud to be an American… so I guess I’m a Christian Nationalist. And if you tell me Christian Nationalism is a bad thing, you must be saying I should be ashamed to be a Christian and an American.”
Let me tell you a couple of things about myself. First: I love my little hometown of Sparta, and I am proud to be from here. I love Tennessee, and I love the United States of America. I am proud of what this country can be when it’s at its best and of what it was meant to be and could be and should be. This is why I am willing to work hard to do my part to make it closer to that ideal. I get teary-eyed when I talk about what America is supposed to be and of how we need to all make sure it is. I am a patriot. But I am not a nationalist.
I have studied a lot about various religions and spiritual approaches - I respect them and find things to learn from them. I will take a firm and unyielding stand on behalf of anyone in this country believing and worshipping in whatever way they choose. That said, I am a Christian. When I was the age my students are now, I was doing mission work in South Florida and in New York City, working with Haitian immigrants and serving in French-speaking congregations. Both places were very dangerous in the 1980s. I walked in on drug deals in Florida, I was working in Brooklyn neighborhoods torn by racial strife, crime, and riots. My life was (very credibly) threatened on many occasions, but I believed I was helping people and doing God’s work. For the last 11 years (since my return to Sparta) my family has attended the Sparta First United Methodist Church - come visit us or listen to our service on the local radio station Sundays at 11. Point is: I am patriotic, and serious about it, and I am a Christian, and serious about that. But I am not a Christian Nationalist.
Christian Nationalism is the belief that America is and was meant to be a Christian country, with other religions tolerated at best (and maybe not even that), as long as they understand their subordinate position. It is the belief that America is, in fact, God’s chosen country - and allowing other religions equal standing is therefore betraying God (and weakening the country). It is the belief America should be a theocracy, with the government enforcing that.
That is not democracy, it is not freedom, and it is not Christian. Such thinking is, in fact, condemned by most mainstream churches. It is, though, authoritarian hyper-nationalism. That is also, by the way, the definition of fascism.
It is also not historically accurate. Which is why its ardent supporters would rather you not learn actual history.
More to come.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.
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