A Note from the Editor: Since Matt is from Fresno, I assume that he knows very well what a Double-Double is. So, paying my respects to In-And-Out Burger, we launch our 2021 blog! Matt provides us with two pieces. First, the ubiquitous Getting-To-Know-You primer. He said something here about publishing a book, so you know I read the his piece VERY CAREFULLY. Second, a thought-piece on Christian Nationalism. It’s worth one’s close reading. The points were well-made in a timely way. Read on, friends. (As always, I’m welcoming blog posts on a variety of topics. Please consider writing a book review, a sermon reflection, a discussion about a ministry, a thought-piece on an issue dear to you. I would love to hear your ideas!) — Jennifer
Getting To Know Matthew Maler
Where did you grow up and how did you end up here?
I grew up in the middle of California: a city called Fresno. Fresno is like the Nazareth of California, of which Nathaniel asks, “Can any good thing come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46). I hope I am a good thing that came from Fresno. After graduating high school in 2013, I went to Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, which has a much better reputation for scenic beauty than Fresno, where I studied philosophy and church history alongside extracurriculars like playing violin in the college symphony, singing tenor in the choir, and dabbling in theater. I also got to spend a semester studying philosophy abroad at the University of Oxford in England, where I was able to sing in the Wadham College choir.
I graduated December 2016, moved back to lovely Fresno, taught as a long-term substitute math teacher, met my future wife, Lexi, in a coffee shop and started dating, and moved to San Francisco where I began a Masters program in philosophy at San Francisco State University in August 2017. I taught philosophy courses at the University, tutored for a college test prep company, and graduated spring of 2019. That summer, my wife and I married and moved to Phoenix so I could start law school at Arizona State University’s College of Law, but she returned to Fresno after a month to finish her final semester of nursing school. She returned after graduating December 2019, and soon after started as a Registered Nurse in Phoenix Children’s Hospital’s Emergency Department.
What’s your job?
Currently, I am halfway through law school, so my job is to read and study a whole lot. Right now, it’s winter break, and I’m working on a project for an attorney who works in-house, managing a pediatric dental group. I’m reading, summarizing, and analyzing a bunch of commercial leases for their dental offices.
Why are you at Roosevelt?
When my wife and I knew we were moving to Phoenix, we did some online research into local churches. We knew we would live in downtown Phoenix, and we wanted a church that was within the same community we’d inhabit. After agreeing we could get behind Roosevelt’s stated beliefs, we attended once, loved the community, and we never once tried a different church.
How long have you been here?
Approximately a year and a half.
How long have you been a Christian?
I’ve been a Christian my whole life. I used to caveat that statement with a “Well, actually, I was raised in a Christian family, but I really didn’t become a Christian, etc.,” but, as I’ve grown—little by little—in faith and wisdom (I hope), I’ve realized that I believed from a very young age, thanks to God’s faithfulness and mercy toward me through my faithful parents and a loving church. That doesn’t mean I understood everything, nor did it mean I was spiritually mature. And that story of spiritually maturing—sanctification as the theologians call it— is a much longer story, the end of which I haven’t yet reached (nor will I until, you know, I’m before the face of God and maybe not even then if you ask the right philosophers).
What are your hobbies?
I enjoy making music in a variety of ways: violin, bass guitar, guitar, voice. I love reading fiction, history, theology, and philosophy. When I have the time, I’d love to return to writing philosophy again. My wife and I also enjoy running, walking, and playing with our golden retriever, Sawyer, who is the goodest boy.
Name two things on your bucket list.
1. Take my wife to England and share all my favorite English things with her.
2. Publish a book. I have a few projects in mind: (a) a manual on argumentation for Christians (especially geared to our politically divisive climate); (b) a philosophical work on the autobiographical function of the imagination; (c) a philosophical-theological work on intellectual disability and human identity.
What are your favorite books?
I changed the question so I wouldn’t have to choose a single book because, if there’s any question I dislike, it’s a question about which book (singular) I most enjoy. It’s so unfair and limiting. Because I listed four categories in my “hobbies” answer above, I’ll give you my favorite books in each category.
1. Fiction: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
2. History: A Secular Age by Charles Taylor (which could also count as philosophy and theology)
3. Philosophy: The Sickness Unto Death by Soren Kierkegaard
4. Theology: Luther On Vocation by Gustaf Wingren
What is your favorite movie?
While technically three movies, you can’t watch one without watching all three: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
What Is Christian Nationalism?
Christian Nationalism. It’s a term made popular during Trump’s presidency as some conservative, largely Evangelical, Christians have claimed Trump and America as a special vehicle for God’s purposes on earth. But it’s an ideology that has long existed in the U.S., especially in the conservative Moral Majority movement beginning with Jerry Falwell Sr. among others.
You can read a lot online about Trumpian Christian Nationalism. Thoughtful conservative voices who, I think, take a sober approach to it include David French, Michael Horton, and Peter J. Leithart.
For what follows, I’m going to borrow sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry’s definition of Christian Nationalism from their book Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States: “a cultural framework—a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems—that idealizes and advocates a fusion of [a particular sort of] Christianity with American civic life.”
In July 2020, Vice President Mike Pence spoke at First Baptist Dallas’s “Celebrate Freedom Sunday” service. The church was decked out in patriotic regalia, and congregants waved American flags and wore MAGA apparel. A choir with robes bearing stripes of red, white, and blue sang patriotic national hymns including the Armed Forces Medley. Pence spoke from a “pulpit” adorned with the Vice President’s seal. Secular symbols and liturgies blended with sacred symbols and liturgies.
Pence began by talking about freedom: “The Bible tells us it was for freedom that Christ set us free, and I cannot think of a better place to celebrate freedom than here at First Baptist Dallas.” The sacred freedom—from sin and death given through Christ’s blood— becomes the secular freedom we enjoy under the U.S. government.
“We will never stop fighting for the sacred values that bind us together as America. We believe that faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, is the true way of life. [T]he foundation of America is freedom, and the foundation of freedom is faith,” he said later on. Faith and family—a mix of sacred and secular—are the ‘sacred values’ that bind us. But who is us? Those who share our faith and vision of family? Which faith is the foundation of freedom?
Consider the December 12, 2020 Jericho March staged in Washington D.C. to “march around the U.S. Capitol seven times to send a very clear message to national and state leaders as they hear patriots and people of faith roar in support of election integrity, transparency, and reform.” Setting aside claims of election fraud, nothing is unusual about people gathering to protest in D.C. What’s striking is the religious fervor that undergirds the cries for election integrity, transparency, and reform—the mingling of radical patriotism and Christian identity.
But here’s a quote you likely didn’t expect: “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? … To him, your celebration is a sham… your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.” That’s an excerpt from Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.”
Or from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” where he writes that he “has heard many ministers say: ‘Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern,’” that many churches make an “un-Biblical distinction between… the sacred and the secular,” and that “the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo Christian heritage.” Sacred values—the American dream and our Judeo-Christian heritage; it’s not so dissimilar from Pence’s language, though the connotations are different.
All of these examples fit the definition of Christian Nationalism cited above: they fuse a particular sort of Christianity with American civic life. For First Baptist Dallas, Vice President Pence, and the Jericho March attendees, that Christian Nationalism is politically conservative, emphasizing the freedom(s) given us from government as synonymous with the freedom Christ bought for us on the cross, and the special role the United States has as a vehicle of Christ’s freedom.
For Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., that Christian Nationalism is politically progressive, emphasizing the obligations we have to others, especially the poor and oppressed, and the gospel’s direct bearing on social and economic inequality as a critique of our nation’s immoral practices and a call to action.
My point is one that hasn’t really been made in recent discussions of Christian nationalism, probably because conversations are so focused on Trumpian Christian Nationalism, but it’s one worth making: there are different Christian Nationalisms.
This shouldn’t be surprising. If the Gospel affects how we live out our civic lives, then we will inevitably bring a particular sort of Christianity—myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, value systems— to bear on our civic lives.
In fact, insofar as Christians should care about the flourishing of our neighbors, then Christians should be concerned with civic life. Given that our deepest convictions are, or should be, influenced by our faith, it is hard to see how we could do anything but fuse them with our civic life, especially when our civic life makes claims about those same convictions.
But not all Christian Nationalisms have equal worth. What we need are some guiding principles to judge what’s good or bad in any particular form of Christian Nationalism. So, I want to lay out a couple guiding principles (there are definitely others) I think are Biblical and important:
1. Healthy Christian Nationalism requires a rightly ordered hierarchy of allegiance.
When we lose grasp of a robust ecclesiology—the doctrine of the Church and the Kingdom of God— we leave a vacuum in our lives for other sources of identity like national identity. We live in a society that preaches individualism. As a result, many Protestants do not often locate their identity in the Church as an institution in the here and now, nor do we conceive of the Church as an institution with its own political capital. But worship is political.
Early Christians made radical political claims when they proclaimed Jesus as universal Lord. Economically and socially, Caesar’s claim to divinity meant all people, including Christians, were to worship the emperor as divine. Though Christians paid respect and honor to the emperor (see 1 Peter 2:11-17), any imperial claim to divinity had to be false if there exists only one Triune God and Jesus is the only Son of God.
John symbolically deals with these claims in Revelation. When I read Revelation 1:16, which describes Jesus as holding seven stars in his hand and his face shining like the sun, I think of a coin issued during the Roman emperor Domitian’s reign (AD 81-96), who likely ruled when John wrote Revelation. The coin pictures Domitian’s son seated on a globe (they knew the earth was round) holding up seven stars with his hands. It is Jesus who holds the heavens in his hand, not Domitian or his son.
When our allegiance to Christ and his Kingdom is foremost, we reject any claim by individuals, systems, or institutions that replaces or claims to fulfill the role of Christ and his Kingdom. But when we celebrate the freedom we enjoy in the United States as the same freedom Christ gives us through His blood, we do more than make an idol of our nation, we claim our nation is the Kingdom of God, which alone is built on the cornerstone of Christ’s blood and faith.
So, we must reject any Christian Nationalism, such as Trumpian Christian Nationalism, that views a political leader and this nation as specially chosen by God for divine purpose. It is true, as Paul says in Romans 13:1-7, that those in authority are placed there by God as ministers of justice. But this equally applies to Obama and Biden as it does to Trump. When our president or our nation, not Christ and His Kingdom, invade the center of our devotion, we lose our prophetic voices as ambassadors of a Kingdom that is not of this world.
As the Reformer Martin Luther wrote in his On Temporal Authority: “To rebuke the authorities is certainly not a revolutionary act when it is done at the Divine command and in accordance with the Law of God, openly, fearlessly, and honestly. It would, in fact, be much more dangerous to the public weal if a preacher were not to rebuke authority for its injustices.”
2. Healthy Christian Nationalism operates for the sake of all people and does not grab worldly power in the name of the gospel.
Martin Luther, in that same writing, differentiates between two kingdoms: the earthly kingdom and the spiritual, heavenly kingdom. Gustaf Wingren, in Luther On Vocation, summarizes the two kingdoms nicely: “The spiritual and the earthly governments constitute two kingdoms, but both of these are God’s. They are not in opposition to one another, but, side by side, both contend against the devil, one guided by the gospel, and the other by the law.”
The gospel compliments but is opposed to law. While law condemns and brings guilt and punishment to restrain sin, the gospel forgives and brings righteousness and a changed heart, freeing the conscience from sin. But the law only restrains outward sin by threat and force; it cannot change hearts, which is why the gospel is necessary. As Paul writes to Timothy, “the law is not for a righteous person, but for the lawless and rebellious.” (1 Timothy 1:9).
In setting this framework, Luther has in mind two different opponents from his time who confuse the two kingdoms. The first is the medieval Roman Catholic Church, which tried to maintain worldly power for the sake of the gospel, and, in doing so, threatened the gospel by warping it into a law. The second is those he calls “fanatics” who believed Christians should try to rule society by the principles of the Sermon on the Mount and so warped the gospel into a law.
We can see in various contemporary forms of Christian Nationalism similar themes. Many conservative Christian Nationalists believe that our civic life should be ruled by Christian values and principles. Some churches have cozied up to political leaders, charging their political careers with claims of divine mandate.
More progressive Christian Nationalists believe that either our faith is merely a private, individual affair or that, if it is public, the powers of government—to improve welfare, enforce equality— are synonymous with a social gospel that brings salvation to the poor and oppressed through systemic change. Both sides comingle the two kingdoms in a way that jeopardizes the gospel.
We must resist the temptation to grab earthly power for the sake of the gospel. As Jesus said to Pilate, “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight, so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” (John 18:36). Christ rejects earthly power to establish his kingdom, for he rules by the gospel: freedom from sin and the law; justification and sanctification brought about in our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit.
We must also recognize that earthly government has divine purposes: to restrain sin and provide for the poor and needy. A healthy Christian Nationalism seeks to hold government accountable to these purposes, not for the sake of ruling others by the gospel, but for the sake of our neighbors who need protection and help.
As the Psalmist writes: “God stands in the divine assembly; he pronounces judgment among the gods [the kings]: ‘How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Provide justice for the needy and the fatherless; uphold the rights of the oppressed and the destitute. Rescue the poor and needy; save them from the power of the wicked.’” (Psalm 82:1-4).
When we conflate the gospel authority of the Kingdom of God with the worldly authority of earthly government, we put our gospel witness in jeopardy by trying to coerce the consciences of others to submit by force to what must be accepted joyfully by faith. But when we fail to recognize that earthly authority is purposed by God for our good and the good of our neighbor, then we risk isolating ourselves and jeopardizing our witness by silence.
Healthy Christian Nationalism resists these dual temptations. By recognizing God’s spiritual and earthly rule by distinct means for different purposes, we can work within the bounds of civic life for the purpose of loving our neighbors—ensuring that all are protected, fed, clothed, educated, healthy—while resisting the temptation to rule with the gospel. At the same time, we can speak out when earthly authority is unjust because the gospel is not bound with earthly authority.
To conclude, I hope these two guiding principles help you think about what the Church’s relationship to the government should look like. That’s really what Christian Nationalism seeks to define: how we relate to our government and civic life. As we pass into a new year and leave the Trump presidency behind, I do not believe we will soon leave behind the radical conservation Christian Nationalism that has budded beneath Trump’s presidency.
So much ink has been spilled criticizing that brand of Christian Nationalism, and that’s important. Christians need to speak out against ideologies that conflate the gospel and earthly authority, that verge on or engage in outright idolatry, not only for the Church’s internal health but for our external witness. Our prophetic voice as ambassadors of the Kingdom of God shrivels when we comfortably nest ourselves in political regimes on the Right and the Left as substitutes for the work we are called to.
But on top of criticizing unhealthy views, Christians need a positive framework to think about how to live faithfully as Christians and American citizens. My hope is that this encourages you to start thinking about what that looks like for you, your family, Roosevelt Church, and the Church at large.
As a last word, I want to end with encouragement. These issues are challenging and thinking through them is even more daunting (believe me). The temptation is to either shrink from the challenge or think that the burden rests with us to figure it out. We should resist both temptations because we know that God has gone before us and works both through the Church and the world. What’s more, we have a promise: one day this world—all its pain, suffering, and death—will pass away: God is making all things new. (Revelation 21:5). So, we needn’t fear; rather, because we are free before God from sin and guilt and part of a new nation, a new kingdom, we can bend down toward the earth and love the neighbor that God has placed before us.
If you have questions or would like to discuss this, please feel free to email Matt at mattcmaler@gmailcom.