Seeking Broad Appeal to US Christians, ‘God & Country: The Rise of Christian Nationalism’ Glosses Over Critical Context

Still from 'God & Country: The Rise of Christian Nationalism.' Image: Oscilloscope Laboratories/YouTube

I wanted to like God & Country: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, the new Rob Reiner-produced documentary on “the dangerous implications” of Christian nationalism. I wanted to like it in spite of the trailer’s focus on the ostensible “threat” of Christian nationalism to Christianity itself, a framing I’ve consistently objected to because the equation of “Christian” with “good” is false and harmful to both religious minorities and the nonreligious.

Still, in spite of the filmmakers’ use of the old evangelical “WWJD” fad in promotional materials—thanks for the not-at-all annoying reminder that I wore those cringe cloth bracelets in the 1990s, my dudes—I hoped the film itself would focus less on efforts to “save” Christianity and more on the very real threat to our democracy from authoritarian Christians. Unfortunately, the WWJD invocation was a tell.

At the end of the day, God & Country is more concerned with laundering the reputation of Christianity than it is with providing an honest historical and sociological accounting of how Christian nationalism both led to the January 6, 2021 insurrection and continues to threaten democracy.

While it’s unlikely that the whitewashing of Christianity was director Dan Partland’s primary goal, it is certainly the film’s primary impact. When you allow numerous “respectable” conservative evangelicals, including Christianity Today editor-in-chief Russell Moore, the cheap grace to distance themselves from their Christian nationalist coreligionists without interrogating the authoritarian aspects of their own theology, you inevitably fail to fully account for the causes of January 6. Those causes very much include common and inherently authoritarian evangelical beliefs like the theology of male “headship” and female submission, of which Moore has always been a staunch defender. While Moore tries to hold these beliefs in a “kinder, gentler” way, some who share his patriarchal views—views that devalue women and everyone who believes differently—will inevitably prove willing to assert them with violence.

Fortunately, the “honest historical and sociological accounting of how Christian nationalism led to the January 6, 2021 insurrection” mentioned above is very much present in the film. Interviews with legal scholar Andrew Seidel and historians Anthea Butler and Kristin Kobes du Mez are interwoven with compelling archival footage and interviews with other public figures. Yet this honest accounting is incomplete and consistently undermined by the repetition of talking points from numerous Christian voices, some that actually support inclusion and social justice and others that very much do not—although the film makes no distinction between them.

These Christians make attempts to distance Christianity from Christian nationalism, thereby portraying “real” Christianity as essentially benign. Christian nationalism is “politics,” we are told time and time again, and not “theology,” as when Skye Jethani, an evangelical pastor, and cohost (with Phil Vischer of VeggieTales fame) of the podcast “The Holy Post,” nonsensically claims that evangelicalism merged with politics “over the last couple of years” and has now become about “politics” instead of “theology.” 

In reality, Christian nationalism has been a significant component of American evangelicalism for decades, and, as many have argued, there’s no sharp dividing line between complex social phenomena like religion, theology, culture, and politics. For example, when this distinction proliferated in the run up to the 2016 election, religion scholar Daniel Miller wrote here on RD, “Any analysis of the ‘Trump phenomenon’ in its relation to evangelicalism is off from the start if it begins with the assumption that evangelical support of Trump is rooted in a wrong ordering of religious and political identities.” Jethani’s convenient binary is thus, in Miller’s words, “off from the start,” but it’s one echoed repeatedly in God & Country.

Shortly after Jethani is introduced, a voice behind the camera asks Catholic religious sister and social justice activist Simone Campbell, “Is Christian nationalism Christian?” to which she replies, “No, it isn’t.” The movie then cuts back to “moderate” evangelical Jethani saying, “It’s not biblical; it’s not Christianity. It’s a perversion of the Christian message.” After this, we hear Campbell add, “Being a Christian is about the values of inclusion, working for the needs of the marginalized. It’s peace-building.”

How Campbell can make such claims as a member of a church devoted to keeping pregnant and queer Americans from accessing needed and often urgent medical care boggles the mind. But as a veteran activist and genuinely kind and inclusive person she can, at least, credibly claim that this is what Christianity should be. Campbell has publicly supported marriage equality and even once said, “I don’t think it’s a good policy to outlaw abortion.”

A statement like that is of course, a nonstarter among all but the tiniest handful of even those evangelicals who crave respectability, and the anti-choice Jethani is no exception. By the same token, Jethani is clearly not LGBTQ-affirming, even though he tries to be “nice” about it by calling for the dialing down of “culture wars” and “identity politics” as he pooh-poohs “both sides.”

But God & Country gives us none of this context. Precisely because some interpretations of Christianity do harm to the marginalized while others do not, these distinctions matter greatly, yet God & Country elides them at every turn. The most egregious example of dishonest editing occurs when the film cuts from conservative evangelical David French—no friend to LGBTQ and especially transgender Americans—lamentinghow “partisan” Christians have become. The film then cuts to an interview with Bishop William J. Barber II, who says:

There’s no way you can look at Jesus and the gospel and put him on the side of greed, on the side of injustice, on the side of wrong. And oftentimes what you end up with is people who are so loud about what God says so little about, and so quiet about what God says so much about. So they’re so loud against gay people. They’re so loud against a woman’s right to have an abortion.

The clear implication is that these two Christians, French and Barber, agree more than they differ, since we’re shown both passionately speaking out against Christian nationalism. But if both Barber and French, whose politics and views of women and queer Americans are worlds apart, can be portrayed as similar because they’re both opposed to “Christian nationalism,” then the term “Christian nationalism” itself is all but meaningless. In God & Country’s view, at least, beliefs about LGBTQ people and women have no relationship to Christian nationalism despite ample evidence to the contrary. We’re erased as irrelevant and thrown under the bus so that David French can be praised as one of the “good” evangelicals.

I will say this about French: he’s clearly much more committed to democratic political processes than either the Republican Party or conservative evangelicals are overall. But that is a low bar, and the views that he holds on LGBTQ people and abortion remain authoritarian. To paper over the differences between someone like him and authentic social justice Christians like Barber is wildly irresponsible, but it’s a choice—made over and over again in varying iterations—that characterizes the representation of “real” Christianity in God & Country. The “good” or “real” evangelicals are as opposed to Christian nationalism as Christian liberals and leftists, so let’s all sing “Kumbaya” and celebrate how great Christianity is as trans adults lose their healthcare in Florida and Ohio at the hands of Christian politicians who are simply acting on the very same theology that guides most of the conservative Christians in the film. 

Given the assertion that the film “speaks directly to the almost 200,000,000 Americans who identify as Christians,” it’s pretty clear that the people behind God & Country hope to specifically reach the kinds of Christians who support such theocratic laws and to persuade them that Christian nationalism is “un-Christian,” but the goal is deeply naïve; authoritarian evangelicals and their fellow travelers are not reachable at scale and will be quick to denounce the film as “woke.” In addition, considering that God & Country highlights figures like French and Moore, we can only conclude that opposing Christian nationalism is perfectly compatible with supporting draconian laws restricting the rights of women and LGBTQ individuals. 

Above all, trying to make a case that “authentic” Christianity can do no wrong is a goal that gets in the way of the goal of warning the American public about the danger of Christian nationalism, both because it detracts from the coherence of the film’s storytelling and because it reinforces the Christian privilege that pervades American society and ultimately benefits authoritarian Christians.

Now, in addition to its high production value, God & Country has its moments. Seidel’s debunking of Christian nationalist claims about the US Constitution and Founding Fathers is educational and engaging. Butler, the author of White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, not only provides sharp analysis, but also unequivocally states that theocracy in America is possible and refreshingly rejects the narrative put forth by the vast majority of the documentary’s Christian interviewees. 

“One of the biggest fallacies about religion and especially Christianity in particular is that somehow it’s going to make you meek, and docile, and understanding,” Butler says flatly. “Christianity has always been associated with violence. It’s not just Islam; it’s Christianity too.” Sadly, the filmmakers don’t give Butler or exvangelicals or anyone else who could credibly counter the false narrative that “Christian nationalism isn’t Christian” sufficient screen time.

Meanwhile, sociologist Andrew Whitehead, who is one of the scholars who first introduced the term “Christian nationalism” into American popular consciousness highlights his data linking Christian nationalist views to racism as du Mez, Butler, Christian historian and author Jemar Tisby, and Katherine Stewart (whose book The Power Worshippers inspired the film) locate the origins of the modern Christian Right in the fight of White Americans against desegregation. Unfortunately, Tisby and du Mez are also at pains to distance Christian nationalism from Christianity, which distracts from their valuable historical analysis. 

To her credit, however, du Mez gives a powerful account of how Hitler rose to power in Germany with massive Christian support as part of the film’s warning about how bad Christian nationalism could get. Also sounding the alarm is evangelical pastor and former elite Christian Right activist Rob Schenck, who recounts how one of the theologians who was most frequently cited and recommended when he was studying theology, the Lutheran Gerhard Kittel, was an avid believer in Nazism and produced theological justifications for it. “Why didn’t we ever know that one of the theologians we consulted most often justified genocide?” Schenck laments, his eyes tearing up. He then turns around and bewilderingly refers to Christian nationalism as “what I no longer even pretend is evangelicalism,” even though he has just given us the perfect illustration of the compatibility of evangelicalism with the most vicious racism and nationalism imaginable.

Admittedly, making the case that Christian nationalism is a threat we should take as seriously as Nazism is a risky effort, since so much of the public refuses to countenance that, if Trump gets a second term, America is headed toward fascism, plain and simple. I appreciate the willingness of those behind God & Country to take that risk, but that they otherwise perpetuated all the common media fallacies about Christianity and politics in the United States is deeply disappointing.

One of their aspirations was that these “prominent and well respected voices of Christianity…[would] be a powerful tool in persuading Christians to watch.” But they wouldn’t have had to muzzle their Christian interviewees to provide a more accurate, more balanced narrative, though the film absolutely could have done with fewer evangelical interviewees. In addition to bringing a few well informed exvangelicals or similar critics of evangelicalism into the conversation, all they needed to do was focus more on the historical and sociological, and on the threat of Christian authoritarianism to democracy, and less on the denunciations of Christian nationalism as “un-Christian.” Merely outlining the contours of this debate would have significantly boosted the film’s positive impact.

More than anything, what I walked away from the film with was the overwhelming sense that “Christian nationalism,” while certainly a real phenomenon, is an insufficient category for a comprehensive assessment of the dangers of authoritarian Christianity. Denouncing “Christian nationalism,” narrowly defined, is a great way for evangelicals like Jethani, French, and Moore, who still hold oppressive theological views, to deflect valid criticism of their theology or any exploration of the ways that those same patriarchal and anti-LGBTQ views actually fuel movements like Christian nationalism. 

America sorely needs an honest unpacking of these points, and we will be hindered in the fight against Christian nationalism until elite journalists, pundits, and filmmakers are willing to take that risk.