February 2024 Church & State Magazine - February 2024

God & Country: A major new documentary examines the rise, power — and threat — of Christian Nationalism

 

This month, a major documentary examining Christian Nationalism, “God & Country,” will be released in select theaters nationwide. Directed by Dan Partland and produced by Rob Reiner, “God & Country” is based on Katherine Stewart’s 2019 book The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism.

“God & Country” features interviews with two Americans United staff members Church & State Editor Rob Boston and Vice President for Strategic Communications Andrew L. Seidel.

Other experts for the film include: the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, pastor and social justice advocate; Anthea Butler, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, author and expert on the threat of Christian Nationalism; Sister Simone Campbell, former executive director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice; David French, New York Times opinion columnist and former staff writer for National Review; Russell Moore, editor in chief of Christianity Today; the Rev. Rob Schenck, a former Christian Nationalist leader; Jemar Tisby, author and professor of history at Simmons College of Kentucky; and Andrew Whitehead, author and associate professor of sociology at Indiana University.

In press materials produced for the film, Partland discussed what inspired him to make “God & Country.”

“Trying to understand how so many well-meaning Americans could get swept up in this current wave of Christian Nationalism led me to make the film ‘God & Country,’ a documentary examining the alliance that has developed between religion and American politics.” Partland said. “With ‘God & Country,’ I want to draw attention to this dangerous moment in a way that respects the millions of Americans who are inadvertently subscribing to some subtle forms of Christian Nationalist belief. ‘God & Country’ is a window into the pervasive problem driving conflict and division in today’s political and religious institutions. Ironically, Christian principles may offer the best way out.”

Reiner, an actor and director whose career in Hollywood spans decades, remarked, “It is said that when Benjamin Franklin walked out of Independence Hall in Philadelphia in 1787 and he was asked what had transpired at the Constitutional Convention did we have a republic or a monarchy? He responded, ‘A Republic if you can keep it.’ Today we’re asking the same question. Not since the Civil War has our country been so divided. ‘God & Country’ throws a spotlight on the role that Christian Nationalism has played in stoking that division.”

“God & Country,” which is being distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories, was screened at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center on Jan. 11. AU President and CEO Rachel Laser attended, along with Boston; Courtni Burleson, AU’s director of foundation relations and the Legal Academy; and Chelsea Collings, senior manager of donor relations and development operations.

For more information, visit the film’s website at godandcountry themovie.com or on the following social media platforms: Instagram: @godandcountrymovie; Facebook: @godandcountrymovie; X (formerly Twitter): @godcountrymovie.

Partland discussed the film in a recent Q&A with AU’s Boston.

Boston: What is this film’s origin story?

Partland: Exposing Christian Nationalism

Partland: I’ve been concerned about the increasingly polarized and dysfunctional state of our politics for some time now. As a filmmaker, I’m always looking to amplify important perspectives that aren’t getting the attention they deserve.

When producers approached me about making a film that would explore the current rise of religious nationalism in the U.S., I was skeptical; I felt like it was an important topic, but I would never want to do anything that would add more division to our already inflamed politics, and I feared this topic was too hot to handle. Knowing how sensitive it is to talk about faith, I didn’t want to risk offending people who are deeply devout by broaching the topic at all.

But the more I understood about it, the more I saw that Christian Nationalism proliferates precisely because Christian Nationalists want everyone to conflate their political agenda with the Christian faith. We have to stop that in its tracks. When they successfully confuse people into thinking that this political agenda is synonymous with Christian faith, they make that agenda off-limits to criticism. In a healthy society, no one’s political agenda can be beyond criticism.

What’s more, the idea that this political agenda is in any way connected to the Christian faith is obviously a complete farce. The more I learned about where this agenda really comes from and how deeply contrary it is to centuries of Christian teaching, the more it was apparent that the crisis in American Democracy was paralleled by an equally dire crisis in the American church. From that point on, the film proceeded with parallel goals: to put a spotlight on the ways in which Christian Nationalism is sowing division and violence in an effort to undermine our democracy and to put that same light on the ways in which Christian Nationalism distorts and misrepresents the Christian faith.

Jan. 6 insurrection: An event infused with Christian Nationalism (Getty Images)

Boston: What do you hope viewers take away from “God & Country”?

Partland: This film is one of the toughest assignments I’ve ever taken on so many things are difficult about it, but to begin with, just explaining what Christian Nationalism is, is a challenge! At minimum, I want audiences to leave the film with an understanding of what this phenomenon of White Christian Nationalism actually is, and that’s pretty hard to do!   

If you are just listening to the words, the term “Christian Nationalism” sounds like it’s describing something that merges Christian values with love of country. It sounds completely benign and maybe even complimentary to any proud American Christian but this couldn’t be further from the truth. It has nothing to do with Christian faith. Instead, it’s a political identity masquerading as faith, and it’s wholly un-American. But to understand the ways in which Christian Nationalism flies in the face of core Christian principles and core American principles requires a deeper dive into both American history and into Christian theology than most people are going do on their own.

So, the challenge of the film was to take the audience as deep into this complex terrain as possible in 90 minutes with the hope of starting a new discussion about the intersection of faith and politics in America one that isn’t framed by antiquated debates about school prayer, abortion and the teaching of evolution. The new discussion we need to have is about how to renew our commitment to religious freedom for a modern, pluralistic country that is growing ever more diverse with each passing year. But first we need to get unstuck from predominant culture war framing.

To be clear, religious nationalist movements are on the rise around the world. It’s not just the U.S., and it’s not just Christianity. But religious nationalism does tend to be a majority faith seeking to become a privileged class of citizen under the law, and that’s inherently problematic in a democracy because you can’t have democracy when you have different classes of citizens the fully empowered and the marginalized. That isn’t democratic.

In the United States, however, Christian Nationalism has an additional level of complexity that other Christian Nationalist movements don’t share: In the United States, there is a widespread belief among many American Christians that the United States itself has a special God-ordained role in human history, that the flourishing of the U.S. as a “Christian Nation” is part of God’s ultimate plan for humanity. With the overlay of this messianic role for the U.S. itself, Christian Nationalists have been able to justify the unimaginable paradox that overthrowing American democracy may be the only way for America to be “saved” as a “Christian Nation.”

Jesus of Washington, D.C.? A Christian Nationalist flag on display

Boston: What did you learn while making “God & Country”? Was there anything that surprised you?

Partland: Learned all of this and more! And so much was surprising. I had been familiar with the ’80s era Religious Right in America, but in today’s siloed media environment, if you don’t make an effort, you will only be aware of what’s happening in your own community. After reading several great books on the modern Christian Nationalist movement, I then really immersed myself in that media ecosystem wow, it’s hard to describe how massive and monolithic it is. It’s absolutely enormous, and we tried to show that in the film because you can’t really understand the challenge of confronting the political, social, cultural behemoth of White Christian Nationalism without understanding its scale.

The interesting thing that happened to me, and that will happen to anyone who really immerses themselves in this culture, is that you begin to see the world through the lens they are looking through. That confused me, then horrified me and then, ultimately, I think, made me much more empathetic to the millions of good, well-intentioned Americans who have been swept up in this movement. They are just trying to be good Christians and good Americans, and their leadership is prescribing a very attractive path for that. It’s a path that puts all of the faithful in the role of defenders of their God and country, and it understands their fears and grievances against the rapidly changing modern world and affirms those fears. It reassures them that there is a path out of this moment of great political and social upheaval and that this path has been prescribed by God.

I have to be honest, the more I immersed myself in it, the more I felt the pull. I wasn’t pulled to believe in their political goals, but I was pulled toward thinking of the U.S. as a special place for Christians and an understanding of why they would feel an obligation to protect it for God.

From within the siloed information bubble that so many American Christians are living in, their worldview makes some sense. The problem is, that bubble is supported by a massive disinformation system that knowingly repeats untruths, as if on a loop, cross-referencing and quoting other sources of disinformation as ballast for each new falsehood it puts into the silo and on and on.

Like so much disinformation, it all has a shred of truth to it. For instance, Christian Nationalists are focused on impeaching the concept of the United States’ commitment to a separation of church and state by saying that it isn’t in the Constitution. Well, the phrase “separation of church and state” is not in the Constitution; it came from a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to a Baptist Congregation in Danbury, Connecticut, in 1802 during his presidency, when he said that we built a “wall of separation between church and state.” So, the disinformation seems true because the phrase isn’t in the Constitution, but they neglect the real point, which is that the principle of having this separation very clearly is in the Constitution!

Boston: Christian Nationalists began attacking “God & Country” even before it was released. They often insist that any criticism of their political agenda is an attack on their faith. How can we best respond to that?

Partland: The attacks have been horrific to see. They have also been revealing of the Christian Nationalist ethos and tactics. Christian Nationalist groups mobilized immediately upon release of the trailer, and they began attacking the filmmakers and all of the interviewees as being anti-Christian, trying to deny people their religious freedom. They also activated their counterparts in conservative media circles to publish stories with different strategies to discredit the film.

Did I mention that none of them have seen the film?  It takes a deep and pervading dishonesty to mobilize a campaign to discredit a film and all of those associated with it when no one has ever seen this film. But that speaks to the fragile hold on power that Christian Nationalists feel they need to crush dissent of any kind and not allow it to be heard, for fear that criticisms will undermine their advancing political power.

But the Christian Nationalists saved their most cruel and vitriolic personal attacks for the most prominent Christian voices in the film, making clear that any Christian who dares to depart from their political talking points will be similarly cast out of their community, will be regarded as an apostate to the faith and will have their very personal safety threatened. I’m struggling to hear the Christian principles at work in this turning the other cheek? Doing unto others? Loving your neighbors? This is a movement that is as bereft of decency as it is of a Christian ethos.

I feel so deeply honored that so many brilliant and courageous Christian voices participated in this project, and I’m upset at the vitriol that has been leveled against them. I sought them out because I found their insights to be so essential to understanding this phenomenon, and they gave their time and their thoughts generously and out of deep commitment to both American democracy and their Christian faith. They are, all of them, heroes in my view, standing up for truth in the face of ugly and unfounded rage.

Boston: Other than watch the film, what do you think is the best thing Americans can do to oppose Christian Nationalism?

Partland: Honestly, I think that all Americans need to take the time to reconnect with our core American values. I know that has become hard to do in recent years, as the country is in the midst of a Great Reckoning one that was long overdue, one where we reckon with our truly complicated history and all of the ways in which we have fallen short of our commitment to equality and justice over the years.

My concern is, in our collective zeal to acknowledge the mistakes of old, have we accidentally done some damage to the whole American experiment in the process? What I mean is, many Americans are no longer sure that we ever really believed in anything. That’s beyond tragic, and it’s costing us dearly. In the past we might shout, “That’s not who we are!” when we see Americans being openly hostile to different faiths. Now, people are reticent to make such declarations because they are unsure of who we are. Again, it’s terribly tragic because we really do stand for the ideals of truth and justice and equal rights under the law, and we always have, even when we’ve fallen short.

We’re great at religious liberty in this country. It was a founding principle for which we should be proud.  As George Washington said, “The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation.” And the world has imitated it, across the globe. He went on to say, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights … the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens….”

Boston: Any final thoughts?

Partland: I told the producing team that if I were going to take this on, it was important to me that the film be a celebration of Christian faith and values, at the same time it was unmasking the idolatrous nature of Christian Nationalism. Without doing both, I thought the film would be unfair to the countless millions of deeply devout Christians who want nothing to do with this movement. Christianity has been such an immense source of goodness in the world. It’s fair for critics to point out the many times over the centuries that it has been co-opted to devastating and destructive ends but that hardly obliterates the goodness it has also brought.

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