The March massacre of 50 Muslims during worship in New Zealand was first and foremost a human tragedy, one felt deeply around the world. Unfortunately the massacre also signaled a political tragedy, displaying the logical end to a type of engagement increasingly defining the public square: identity politics.
As British columnist Brendan O’Neill put it, “Increasingly, it feels like the New Zealand atrocity is what happens when the politics of identity, the reduction of everyone to cultural or racial creatures whose relationship with other cultural and racial cultures must be monitored and managed, comes to be the only game in public life.”
The simplest definition of identity politics is summarized at Wikipedia: “a tendency of people sharing a particular racial, religious, ethnic, social, or cultural identity to form exclusive political alliances, instead of engaging in traditional broad-based party politics, or promote their particular interests without regard for interests of a larger political group.” Adherents have no interest in broad-based politics because they believe that no other group can empathize sufficiently with them to truly understand their group. Only one born into the group identity, or who becomes “woke” through a kind of revelation, truly knows the score.
Without genuine understanding between groups, the only way to gain political influence is through the raw use of power. Political power for those who are patient. Violence for those who are not. But the bottom line is the same: It’s about and only about gaining power for the benefit of your group and at the expense of other groups. This is not to suggest that every current advocate of identity politics champions violence. Definitely not. But it is where identity politics will end up if something doesn’t come along to check it.
Not all terrorist attacks are based in identity politics (it’s still too early to know if this was the case with the recent synagogue shooting in California, for example). But as is now well known, the New Zealand murderer identified himself as a champion of “European culture,” by which he clearly meant white, Christian culture, which he believed is threatened especially by Islam. This form of identity politics is a version of Christian Nationalism. While we think identity politics as a whole should be eschewed, this brand of identity politics we find particularly repulsive.
Christian Nationalism comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s coupled with race, sometimes not. It usually includes a fierce protection of national borders, a deep distrust of those who are not Christian or citizens, a belief in special divine favor for one’s homeland, an excessive dependence on military power, and an attraction to brutal, authoritarian leaders. Versions of Christian Nationalism can be found in nations including Poland, Brazil, Russia, and the US.
To be fair, some of the ideology’s broad principles are reasonable, with qualification. Yes, a nation is better served by laws influenced by Christian ethics, and yes, we are obliged by love to persuade others of the wisdom of Christian ethics; but we cannot “insist on our own way” (1 Cor. 13:5) by forcing unbelievers to submit to our morals. Yes, borders should be secure, but they can go hand in hand with a generous immigration policy. Yes, every nation is graced with favor from God but also is subject to God’s judgment.
This latter notion seems to be completely absent from the Christian Nationalist vocabulary. They complain loudly about liberals or socialists or Muslims or Mexicans or this group or that. They never consider that they are complicit in the nation’s woes, that they of all people should be the first to repent of their personal and political sins and stop casting the first stone.
Their unrepentant hearts blind them to the desperate who knock on our nation’s doors to escape persecution, poverty, and drug wars at home. Their blindness prevents them from seeing that, except for angry terrorists, the vast majority of Muslim men and women seek to know the true God, and thus Christian Nationalists fail to see the opportunity to share with them the merciful love of Jesus.
Let us be clear: To believe that members of other religions are to be feared instead of loved and, yes, sensitively evangelized—that is a denial of the power of God. To believe we should secure borders at the expense of welcoming the sojourner—that is immoral. To believe that America is a divinely chosen nation, to be privileged at the expense of other nations—that is idolatry.
To the degree that any Christian subscribes to such beliefs, to that degree is the Christian called to repent and believe in the gospel.
Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today. This article, originally appearing in print, has been revised to include one reference to the recent synagogue shooting in California.
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