Wesley on Christian Nationalism

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Does John Wesley have anything to say about the modern American political climate? Does he specifically have anything to say about Christian Nationalism? It can be difficult to take the words from past leaders and apply them to modern-day issues. However, Wesley did have some very important things to say about Christian Nationalism.

It’s impossible to erase the images from January 6th, 2021 from our minds. Christian slogans mixed with American symbols scattered in the halls of a national sanctuary while gallows of hate wait outside. The treasonous act was fueled by lies and misinformation. Mostly stemming from an online phenomenon called Q. It’s easy to blame Q, but the truth is there was already a fear brewing before the first Q drop fell.

This fear had been brewing in American Christian media for decades. Before the days of Amazon, Christian bookstores were full of fear-driven products. Books, CDs, T-shirts, and more sold unaware consumers a fuel that would keep them coming back for more. This fear was that the government was out to get them, that they were secretly being persecuted, that the next president could be the one who unravels everything we’ve come to hold so dear.

Even though this wasn’t based on a Biblical understanding or a good understanding of current events, the fear made money. And lot’s of it! However, something else began to grow in the murky waters being pushed out for pure profit. This fear began to blend perfectly with the fear conservative political action groups had also been spreading. It was easy for the two to cross paths and merge.

Christian Nationalism became the kool-aid of the Protestant Christian culture in the latter part of the twentieth century. January 6th was the culminating event of what many politicians and Christian leaders had been teaching for decades.

What is Christian Nationalism and what sets its followers apart? Joseph Willimas from Rutgers University says, “Christian nationalists insist that the United States was established as an explicitly Christian nation, and they believe that this close relationship between Christianity and the state needs to be protected—and in many respects restored—in order for the U.S. to fulfill its God-given destiny.”

There are many more definitions by several intelligent and well-educated individuals. They all seem to have two things in common. First, is the belief that America is a “Christian Nation.” Second, Christianity’s status within the government and its authority must be defended and/or advanced.

These are the two points Wesley directly speaks to. His words may not be what you’re assuming.

John Wesley knew what many Americans seem to be clueless about. This isn’t the first time in history people have claimed their nation is “Christian.” When Wesley was alive England was thought of as a Christian Nation by many. The King was thought to be divinely appointed by God. Christianity was the official religion of the country. In fact, the country had its very own church. The Church of England. John Wesley was an ordained minister in this church. He was very familiar with the complexities of religion mixing with a political system.

Wesley held England and the Church of England in very high regard. He absolutely didn’t think they were perfect, but he did see a lot of good in them. Even with that in mind, Wesley had strong words for this idea of a Christian Nation, or as he put it, a “Christian country.”

 

A Christian Nation

It is thought in churches and even in many schools that the United States of America was founded as a Christian Nation. Memes with quotes from the founding fathers litter the internet in support of this idea. Legal battles keep the courts occupied with arguments about prayer in school, ten commandment displays, and “In God We Trust” phrases printed on government documents.

There are a few historical gray areas when it comes to the religious nature of the American past. First of all, the religious nature of the founding fathers may not have been as “Christian” as we suppose. Figures like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson acknowledged there was a God, but the rest of their beliefs strayed from the orthodox faith passed down from the apostles.

Many people aren’t aware that the phrase, “In God We Trust” wasn’t printed on our money until 1955. The founding fathers had absolutely nothing to do with that. To add to this, the phrase, “One Nation Under God,” wasn’t in the pledge of allegiance until 1954.

Several historical studies show early church attendance was not nearly as common as we have been led to believe. Some show that only about 17% of the population were members of a church. If you fast forward to 1920, Pathfinder magazine reported less than half the population of the US were members of a church. Church attendance spiked around the middle of the twentieth century, however, this spike has left subsequent generations to believe life was always that way.

But let’s say this data is skewed or even irrelevant for some reason or another. Wesley would still argue against the idea of a Christian Nation idea and even preached about it. Remember Wesley was around during the colonies and the American revolution. He was not a stranger to any of the ideas the founding fathers had in mind. In fact, John Wesley was one of the most influential and intelligent men of his day.

In “Scriptural Christianity,” Wesley argues that there is no such thing as a Christian Nation. He uses the Scriptures for his definition of Christian and then argues that no country has ever lived up to those ideals. Wesley put it this way, “Where does this Christianity now exist Where, I pray, do the Christians live? Which is the country, the inhabitants whereof are all thus filled with the Holy Ghost –are all of one heart and of one soul cannot suffer one among them to lack anything, but continually give to every man as he hath need; who, one and all, have the love of God filling their hearts, and constraining them to love their neighbour as themselves; who have all ‘put on bowels of mercy, humbleness of mind, gentleness, long-suffering’ who offend not in any kind, either by word or deed, against justice, mercy, or truth; but in every point do unto all men; as they would these should do unto them With what propriety can we term any a Christian country, which does not answer this description Why then, let us confess we have never yet seen a Christian country upon earth.”

let us confess we have never yet seen a Christian country upon earth

Wesley had specific problems with the colonies in America who claimed they were entitled to more liberty than they were already afforded but stripped liberty from an entire race of humans in slavery. He absolutely did not consider America to have been founded on “Christian” principles. But he also didn’t think any nation was capable of making such a claim.

 

Status

Maybe you’re thinking that America doesn’t need to be a “Christian Nation” in the sense Wesley describes it. You may ask shouldn’t Christianity still be at the forefront of politics? Shouldn’t Christianity be aligned with the powers of the government? Wouldn’t that be the best possible scenario? In other words, is Christian Nationalism correct in arguing that Christianity’s status within the government and its authority must be defended and/or advanced?

Wesley has a strong response to this idea. In “The Mystery of Iniquity,” Wesley spends a great amount of time breaking down the progression of Christianity. He covers the early days as described in the Acts of the Apostles. He talks about the growth of the faith throughout the world, the early persecution, and the later adoption as an officially recognized religion. Wesley says, “Persecution never did, never could, give any lasting wound to genuine Christianity. But the greatest it ever received, the grand blow which was struck at the very root of that humble, gentle, patient love, which is the fulfilling of the Christian law, the whole essence of true religion, was struck in the fourth century by Constantine the Great, when he called himself a Christian, and poured in a flood of riches, honours, and power upon the Christians… A Christian nation, a Christian city, (according to the scriptural model,) was nowhere to be seen; but every city and country, a few individuals excepted, was plunged in all manner of wickedness… the whole world never did, nor can at this day, show a Christian country or city.”

Wesley sees the government’s acceptance and support of Christianity as the thing that “plunged” us into “all manners of wickedness.” He has several arguments for this in his sermon. One idea he promotes is that by giving power to Christianity in a human and earthly government, it allows many sins by leaders to be ignored or even in some cases celebrated. We can absolutely see that on display in our current political climate.

Party Lines

Much of Christian Nationalism in America happens on one side of the political spectrum. That’s not to say it can’t be found on both sides of the aisle, it most certainly can. However, research has shown these ideas and values lie predominantly in the Republican party. In fact, this research has shown an increase in the number of conservatives who say they would justify political violence against fellow Americans to “save our country.”

Wesley very specifically spoke to this as well. In “National Sins and Miseries,” Wesley said that we needed to purge ourselves from what he called “party-zeal.” He saw party-zeal as something that would drive people mad “foaming with rage against their quiet neighbours, ready to tear out one another’s throats, and to plunge their swords into each other’s bowels.”

Sound familiar? Studies show that’s exactly where Christian Nationalism is driving us.

Wesley didn’t come up with the arguments against this madness. He was simply following the teachings of Jesus. Jesus told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44), lay down our swords (Matthew 26:52), love our neighbor (Matthew 22:39), and lay down our selfish ambitions (Matthew 16:24). The way of Jesus stands in direct opposition to party-zeal and Christian Nationalism. Wesley knew this and he preached about it.  He would not remain silent and didn’t worry about offending those who lived in their privilege and power. He did not care if these words made him less popular. Wesley echoed the truth taught to us by our Lord. We should be doing the same.

 

Go In Peace

I don’t want to leave anyone reading this disheartened or dismayed. We believe in the ancient mystery of our faith. Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.

Let me leave you with some words from Wesley. This comes from “The Mystery of Iniquity.”

“Allowing that ‘the whole creation now groaneth together’ under the sin of man, our comfort is, it will not always groan: God will arise and maintain his own cause; and the whole creation shall then be delivered both from moral and natural corruption. Sin, and its consequence, pain, shall be no more: Holiness and happiness will cover the earth. Then shall all the ends of the world see the salvation of our God; and the whole race of mankind shall know, and love, and serve God, and reign with him for ever and ever!”