Saturday, August 7, 2021

Why Do Christian Nationalists Embrace Authoritarianism?

It has been clear for a while now that the movement in this country away from democracy and towards authoritarianism is being welcomed primary by Christian nationalists (both Protestant and Catholic) — even as they pretend to embrace the American flag and our Constitution. Katherine Stewart, author of The Power Worshippers, once wrote this:

This isn’t the religious right we thought we knew. The Christian nationalist movement today is authoritarian, paranoid and patriarchal at its core. They aren’t fighting a culture war. They’re making a direct attack on democracy itself.

As someone who was raised in a fundamentalist Christian family, church, and community, I've grappled with questions about what it is that makes authoritarianism attractive to so many of the people I grew up with. I've reached the conclusion that it all comes down to their belief in original sin: the idea that all humans are born sinners. 

As an example of how pernicious the theology of original sin can be, John Piper—who was a theology professor at the evangelical Christian college I attended—once told those of us who were social work majors that, when working with non-Christians, we shouldn't try to build up their self esteem. That is because they are sinners and should feel guilty. I heard the same thing from my father, who told me that my work at a secular drug treatment program for chemically dependent youth was a waste of time. Unless I shared the gospel with them, I was simply paving the way to hell for them more comfortably. 

Piper recently wrote a piece about Christian disapproval of gay pride. His views about homosexuality are abhorrent. But he also captured the evangelical view of redemption from original sin. He starts by suggesting that homosexual desires are no different than his own sinful desires (emphasis mine). 

[T]hese sinful desires arise unbidden and fully formed in my heart. I do not choose them. I do not plan for them. I do not want them. I am ashamed of them. They simply present themselves in ways that I strongly disapprove of and regret. Not just because I am prone to coddle them, but also because of the sheer fact that they are there. They are part of my natural condition. Apart from Christ, they are who I am...

By God’s grace, I turn against them. I renounce them. By the blood of Christ, and by the power of the Spirit, and for God’s glory, I seek to obey Colossians 3:5: “Put to death . . . what is earthly in you."...I take hold of long-tested strategies of spiritual battle and make war.

Piper comes back to the idea of putting your "earthly" self to death when he writes about how the death of Jesus provides redemption.

The cross of Christ declares my depravity, and delivers me from it. The Christian heart is a broken and forgiven heart.

But something else happened when Jesus died. All his people died with him. When we are united to Christ by faith, his death becomes not only the punishment of our sins, but also the death of our sinful nature. Our old, rebellious, selfish, arrogant nature dies.

You might notice a bit of a contradiction. One the one hand, Piper says that our sinful nature dies when we become "united to Christ by faith." But on the other hand, he talks about continuing to make war against what is earthly in us. In the end, he is suggesting that Christians face an ongoing spiritual battle to put to death our sinful nature — this is who we are. We do that by obeying God's laws.

From a psychological standpoint, that view of human nature makes it extremely difficult to mature developmentally. For example, it means never getting beyond Kohlberg's second stage of moral development.

Notice that the stage of "authority and social order," requires "fixed rules." In other words, morality is based on laws, making obedience to forces outside ourselves the foundation of morality. For people like Piper, that is where moral development ends. Our own human nature must die and be replaced with obedience to God's laws. 

The question becomes: who gets to define God's laws? That is where authoritarian leaders emerge and denominational splits come into play. For example, most Christian nationalists believe that God is pro-life, so they are against abortion. But is birth control against God's laws? How about assisted suicide? Or the death penalty?

Former Attorney General William Barr outlined how all of this plays out politically during his speech at Notre Dame two years ago. Here is how he talked about human nature and original sin.

Men are subject to powerful passions and appetites, and, if unrestrained, are capable of ruthlessly riding roughshod over their neighbors and the community at large.

No society can exist without some means for restraining individual rapacity.

Barr suggests that religion (read: Christianity) is necessary in a free society because it is the only means for "restraining individual rapacity."

[T]o control willful human beings, with an infinite capacity to rationalize, those moral values must rest on authority independent of men’s will – they must flow from a transcendent Supreme Being.

In short, in the Framers’ view, free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people – a people who recognized that there was a transcendent moral order antecedent to both the state and man-made law and who had the discipline to control themselves according to those enduring principles.

For Barr, the alternative is secularism.

I think we all recognize that over the past 50 years religion has been under increasing attack.

On the one hand, we have seen the steady erosion of our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system and a comprehensive effort to drive it from the public square.

On the other hand, we see the growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine of moral relativism.

By any honest assessment, the consequences of this moral upheaval have been grim.

Virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground.

Note that for Barr, the only two options are (1) adherence to "our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system, or (2) moral relativism. You hear that a lot from evangelical Christians. That is because, outside obedience to their definition of God's laws, they believe that human beings are incapable of being moral. So Barr goes on to blame the absence of "our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system" for everything from illegitimacy to drug addiction.

To sum up, the reason Christian nationalist are inherently authoritarian is because they believe that:

  1. Human beings are inherently evil
  2. Our human nature must die 
  3. Morality is defined by obedience to God's laws
People who believe that need to have God's laws identified for them to obey. As such, they are susceptible to what their leaders define as "a biblical world view." In her book, The Power Worshippers, Katherine Stewart identifies some of what that has come to encompass:
  • opposition to public assistance to the poor as a matter of principle—unless the money passes through church coffers;
  • opposition to environmentalism and, as a matter of theology, denies the science that human contributions to greenhouse gases causes global warning;
  • opposition gun regulation;
  • support for strong national borders;
  • privatization of schools;
  • a gender hierarchy in both the home and church, with women being submissive to men;
  • the use of corporal punishment when discipling children;
  • government deregulation of business and minimal workers rights; and
  • capitalism and property rights.
In other words, these are no longer political beliefs, but are part of God's law. That is just one of the ways that religious and political identities have been merged for Christian nationalists.

Perhaps it becomes clear then, why Christian nationalists embrace authoritarianism in ways that threaten our democracy. Human beings can't be trusted with self-government because they are, by nature, sinful. They want a Christian nation that obeys God's laws — as they define them. 


  1. Fair enough, but Trump's America is not just Christian fundamentalists, and neither is the authoritarian populism of Hungary and, alas, others. Nationalism and conservatism in general, too, think in terms of us versus them, which tends to mean demanding the authority to put them down. They manage, then, simultaneously to look up to the guy in the pulpit or presidency, grant him authority, and identify with him.

  2. It's not Christianity, or even a religion, it's a secular power grab.
    Kings claimed power from God to extend their influence and power. We overthrew a King.


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