Christian nationalism in the neighborhood
On the politics of Ottawa County
I’d tried to dodge this one for a while.
I’d been following the local stories out of Ottawa County for several weeks, watching as a well-organized group of Ottawa county residents orchestrated what essentially amounted to a takeover of the county commission to “restore the constitutional rights of the people,” “to defend their piece of America, to protect their individual freedoms, parental rights and freedom of religion and conscience.” But I’d declined invitations to comment, thinking that people closer to the ground should be the voices to frame the story. As coverage expanded, however, and questions were raised as to how the agenda of Ottawa Impact connects to a larger Christian nationalist movement, I agreed to give a few interviews.
Today a well-reported and perceptive piece by Sarah Leach published in the Holland Sentinel: “Christian nationalism is gripping the nation—has it arrived in Ottawa County?”
I won’t weigh in on whether Christian nationalism is indeed “gripping the nation,” but I will say (and did say) that it is alive and well in Ottawa County, and that it’s nothing new there.
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Leach reached out to me after attending county board meetings. She noticed that much of the rhetoric she was hearing from Ottawa Impact supporters wasn’t about particular issues—although they did have thoughts on things such as Covid restrictions (they’re bad) and the 2020 election (allegedly stolen).
But again and again she heard religious language:
“The power you have has been delegated by Christ.”
“You were chosen for this.”
“The Lord says he will bless all who serve him and the enemies will lie beneath his feet.”
And that’s why she reached out to me, and to other scholars and pastors. Here’s some of what I said:
“It’s the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and should be defended as such,” said Kristin Kobes Du Mez, an American historian, author and professor of history and gender studies at Calvin University. “It’s a modern manifestation of this mythical idea that God has a special plan for America — if it responds obediently.”
…Du Mez said the avoidance of a full accounting of American history and a fixation by staunch conservative groups to target concepts such as Critical Race Theory in schools is actually part of a strategy to ensure their own political power.
“Christian nationalism has this myth that America is a good country, from its founding,” Du Mez told Pete Dominick this week on his “Stand Up with Pete Dominick” podcast. “And so when you get something like the 1619 Project that says, ‘Well, wait a minute here. Explain how a 'Christian' nation can decimate Native Americans, can enslave Black populations or African populations — explain again how that’s Christian?’
“That strikes at the heart of that primary identity that we are God’s chosen people and that this is our country,” Du Mez said. “And so education disrupts that. History disrupts that — just plain old history. You don’t need CRT — nothing against CRT — but you don’t need it. All you have to do is read basic American history and it will mess with any myth of Christian America.”
…“There’s such a rhetoric of embattlement,” Du Mez said. “There’s this idea that we’re restoring something that was lost and that to secure God’s blessing, you need 'real' Americans in charge — people who adhere to Christian nationalism have a lot of views that correlate to that.”
“The antidemocratic nature of militant Christian nationalism was on full display on Jan. 6, 2021,” Du Mez wrote in the Spanish newspaper el Pais.
“On the day insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol in an effort to overturn the presidential election, participants marched with crosses and carried signs that read ‘Jesus Saves, Trump Leads’ and ‘Jesus is King, Trump is President’ and a group of Proud Boys knelt in prayer."
Although insurrectionists might qualify as extremists, recent surveys reveal that more than a quarter (26 percent) of white evangelical Protestants believe “true American patriots might have to resort to violence in order to save our country,” Du Mez said.
The entire piece is worth reading. Leach brings in multiple perspectives that help explain what is happening locally and nationally.
What strikes me most about this story is the sense of sadness I’m left with whenever I follow the latest developments out of Ottawa County. This political divisions there do reflect some genuine differences, to be sure, but this extreme polarization is also the result of a national political culture that is actively deepening divisions between neighbors. Residents against residents, Christians against Christians. In the past, county-level government has focused on things like improving services, building parks, strengthening schools, and growing businesses. Now it’s focused on advancing a particular agenda while battling fellow residents who are accused of advancing some sort of “woke” agenda, attacking families and destroying freedoms.
Talk radio, polarizing pundits, and party politics preoccupies residents with grandiose claims about freedom and persecution and presumptions claims of enforcing a divine plan while distracting good people from the things that they share in common with each other. Things that matter.
What is the solution? How does one fight against this sort of polarization and right-wing takeover without further stoking animosities?
As a historian, my specialty is tracing the roots of what we see around us. When it comes to proposing solutions, I admit I’m at a loss. Ideologies do matter. Politics matters. But somehow, we have to find a way to deescalate, to listen to one another, to remember that we are more than our ideologies, and to trust each other enough to find ways to work together.
But I don’t know how this works if both sides aren’t willing to try.
Hard to avoid the realization that the two original sins of the United States are stolen land and slave labor. And Jesus has nothing to do with these.
Ironically the most honest and fair disagreement I've encountered personally has come from blue collar friends (which is perhaps understandable since class seems like a neglected variable in the whole mess), while the selfishness craziness comes from the suburban class.
I know it's a small factor, but I think theology has a role. A decade ago I was a gun-collecting, Pat Buchanan reading suburbanite who thought "getting the gospel right" really was the most important thing. If I had to put my finger on the one factor that started to unravel that whole worldview for me - it would be the work of NT Wright (and then also Rikki Watts, Gordon Fee, and Scot McKnight).
So many (sorta) friends at our old church are hunkered down waiting for us good patriotic Christians to get raptured away. But if Christianity is not just about escaping to a disembodied heaven - then much of evangelical theology needs a reset!