The Dangers of Christian Theology

“The violent ideology of Christian nationalism”

If you’re as old as I am—born in 1942—you may remember Dinah Shore singing the famous car commercial on television in the 1950s. The song includes these lyrics


“See the USA in your Chevrolet, America is asking you to call, drive your Chevrolet through the USA, America’s the greatest land of all…” 


We had no doubt that America was the greatest land, a sentiment that fueled our patriotism at the time. But we didn’t really think about it. As kids we also played “cowboys and Indians”—however, it never dawned on us that it was through massive genocide of native Americans that European descendants took possession of what is now the USA. Nor did we give much thought to the role that slavery played in the unfolding of American history. Slavery impacted how the US constitution was written; it provoked a bloody civil war, and left an ugly legacy of racism, which still poisons our society.



Just how does the USA rank as the greatest land of all? It never occurred to us, listening to Dinah Shore: by what criteria do we rank our nation in comparison with other nations? One of our assumptions, of course, was that we must come out on top because we’re a Christian nation. In my hometown in northern Indiana in the 1950s, there were three mainstream Protestant churches, and a Catholic one as well. In 1954, “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance; in 1955, “In God We Trust” was added to our currency. We were paying attention to God—unlike those godless communists.


But it turns out that Christianity itself diminishes our status. We fail as the greatest land of all because of Christian nationalism. This phenomenon is described by Elicka Peterson Sparks in her essay, “Christian Nationalism Is Criminogenic,” in John W. Loftus’ 2021 anthology, God and Horrendous Suffering(This essay is based on her book, The Devil You Know: The Surprising Link Between Conservative Christianity and Crime, 2016) She writes:


“…a distinctly American brand of conservative Christian ideology called Christian nationalism has both a direct and indirect impact on the crime problem in the United States.” 


The problem has become more acute in recent years:


“Christian nationalists have long been in search of an idol to advance their ends, with little regard to whether that idol was false. While Donald Trump is the antithesis of most of their brands of religiosity, he has emerged as their idol due to his willingness to advance their agenda in the service of his own. The impact of his term—and the violence he and his followers incited—will undoubtedly affect the movement, but whether it will swell or further deplete their ranks remains to be seen. One thing that is certain is that it has enhanced, encouraged, and mobilized the more violent ideology of Christian nationalism. The insurrection at the Capitol by a mob largely self-identifying as patriotic and Christian that killed five people should surprise no one. Christian nationalism is not patriotic, though, it is fascist. Its very root is the desire to replace democracy with a coarse theocracy.” (pp. 371-372)


For such a long time we have believed that America’s democracy has set an example for the world. As a young man I could never have imagined that I would see the day when one of our major political parties would allow Confederate and Nazi flags at its rallies, that outright viciousness toward minorities and immigrants would be embraced. 


There are several elements that enable Christian nationalism/fascism.


One: Arrogant and Aggressive Ignorance 


Sparks points out that a variety of prejudices are “mostly due to lower levels of educational attainment.” (p. 381) There is no effort to counter or overcome this deficiency in the process of religious indoctrination practiced by the churches: they don’t want their parishioners to be educated to the point of seeing the incoherence of the theology they peddle. I have known Christians who flatly refuse to think about their beliefs. They are sustained emotionally by holding on to what priests and preachers have taught them. How alarming it is to think they might have been fooled or lied to. This amount to believing in belief, with no commitment whatever to verifying the belief. John Loftus has pointed out:


“Belief has no method for acquiring objective knowledge. Faith is folly. Reasonable people should all think exclusively in terms of the probabilities by 'proportioning their conclusions according to the strength of the evidence', as philosopher par excellence David Hume said. When you do that you’ll see why religious faith is unreasonable.”  (Debunking Christianity Blog, 14 Nov 2022, the full version of the Foreword he wrote for Robert Conner’s book, The Jesus Cult: 2000 Years of the Last Days.)


This refusal to think means that theology gets away with its lack of grounding in reality: no theology has ever been verified. Thousands of theologians disagreeing with each other about what god is like, how he/she/it wants to be worshipped, testifies to this sorry state of affairs. “I feel it in my heart” is evidence for what you’re feeling—nothing more, unless there is verification by objective data. Christian nationalists seem incapable of grasping that committed believers in other religions are equally as certain of their very different dogmas and doctrines. This is what I mean by arrogant and aggressive ignorance.   


Two: The Bible Justifies Vindictive Violence


If you feel the urge to get even with people, if you get off on seeing sinners—imagined or otherwise—being punished, the Bible is the book for you. Preachers and priests, from the pulpit at least, tend to favor the feel-good, god-is-love scripture texts. But Sparks notes the whole picture:


“Christian nationalism is steeped in the ethos of violence and conquest, but certain concepts, such as punishment, righteousness, and vengeance, have a disproportionate impact on criminal violence. The concept of punishment is particularly pervasive. For example, punishments meted out in the Bible include death, burning eternally in hell, stoning, being destroyed, raped, being thrown into a lake of fire (fire and sulfur, in some passages), garden variety smiting, ripping up pregnant women, being cut up with a sword, general wrath and fury, spreading dung on people’s faces, eye-plucking, beheading, physical tribulation and distress, cutting off the hands and feet of the dead, dashing children to pieces, and eternal destruction, to name but a few.” (p. 384)


Jesus-script in Luke 12:49 sets the tone: “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Especially in his role as apocalyptic prophets—as depicted in Mark’s version of the story—Jesus anticipates widespread punishment and suffering at the coming of his kingdom. So anyone hankering to wield a terrible swift sword against those perceived to be acting against god’s will, e.g., abortion supporters and marriage equality activists, find justification for their wrath in the Bible. Justifiably, Sparks keeps pressing the point:


“The Bible is rife with violent passages, along with the notion that some people deserve to be victimized in violent ways and that it is godly to heap such retribution on them…The Bible is something of a vigilante handbook…”. (p. 384)


Three: Fear of Death Anchors Theology


One devout woman I knew a few years back would tolerate no criticism of the Catholic Church (she even downplayed clergy sexual abuse of children) because—she frankly admitted—she wants to see her mother again in heaven. She wanted nothing to dislodge her faith. Of course, the concepts of heaven and hell are totally unverified, especially the idea that heaven will be a place to find mother again. But once escape from death is one of the products pitched by (any) religion, there can be anger and alarm when the promise is questioned or denied.


Sparks describes what can happen:


“Christian nationalism promotes vengeance-seeking, righteousness, and violence in the protection of the belief system because it insulates followers from fear of death. There is a large body of research on a phenomenon called mortality salience (reminders of our own mortality) that strongly suggests that people react with hostility, and even violence, when beliefs that insulate them from fear of their own death are threatened. Fear of death is generally an unconscious fear, but there is significant evidence to support the rather obvious contention that it is powerful and primal. If someone adopts a belief that insulates them from this fear—and that is a primary function of religion—any threat to that belief has been shown to result in a strong, aggressive reaction.” (pp. 376-377)


It is such a toxic mix that has produced Christian nationalism/fascism. It is by no means clear that our “greatest land of all” will be able to defuse and disarm this growing political threat. We might be facing unprecedented damage to our political system and way of life. Well, not unprecedented. Last year I reread William Shirer’s Berlin Diary and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It’s not unprecedented at all for evil, crazy people to end up on top, especially when they achieve control of the media. Sparks notes that Christian nationalists…    


“…tend to get their information from sources that can fairly be characterized as propagandist, leaving little room for doubt—or facts in common—to spur true debate, calling other sources of information ‘Fake News.’ When what passes for debate occurs, Christian nationalists tend toward a vitriolic style rather than fact-based discourse. Conservative politics in the United States have become a bastion of distortion, and Christian nationalists are among the groups eagerly sucking down this misinformation masquerading as news. 


“Media sources who pander to this audience use a formula to hit talking points they want to hear, while avoiding or distorting unpopular information. As a result, the divide between what people think has grown so wide as to make thoughtful conversation about some of the most important issues facing the United States nearly impossible.” (p. 383)


“But not all Christians are like that!” Yes, we can all agree they aren't, since there are so many different brands of Christianity. Many moderate and liberal Christians oppose the nationalists/fascists as much as we do. But damage is one of the primary legacies of Christianity, as any glance at history reveals, e.g., the Inquisitions, crusades, the New Testament fueling of anti-Semitism, the Thirty-Years War. But the damage goes far beyond that. Three items come to mind, especially.


One: The Catholic Church has condemned birth control and abortion, even in the poorest countries of the world, bringing misery to countless people. It’s opposition to these common-sense measures increases poverty and spurs population growth, now at a time when too many people on planet earth has become an acute problem. Women are the primary victims, but why are we not surprised? The Catholic Church remains proudly, defiantly, aggressively misogynistic: despite expanding the role of women at the Vatican, Pope Francis has made it clear that women will never be accepted into the priesthood. What is the message there?


Two: All Christian brands have been obsessed with building. How many millions of churches have been built on the assumption that the Christian god demands/expects to be glorified, which supposedly can be achieved by putting up churches. I recall the wonderful story of Saint Francis (not pope Francis), who upon returning from a trip to minister to the poor, found his fellow monks putting up a building. He climbed up on the roof and began throwing tiles to ground: “We don’t need buildings to do God’s work!” As long as there is suffering and poverty, money put in to building churches to “glorify” god is misspent. We suspect ecclesiastical egos play a bigger role in building more churches than any desire to glorify god. 


Three: The more we have learned about the Cosmos and how it works—thanks to the scientific revolution—the more ancient superstitions deserve to be abandoned. But these are precisely the ideas that the church was founded upon and still promotes, e.g., believing in a human sacrifice to win salvation (most famously Romans 10:9). As long as billions of humans are held back in their understanding of the world, the result can only be ongoing damage. Ancient superstitions, no matter how comforting (supposedly), are not the way to improve to world. This is not to deny the countless acts of love, mercy, and compassion that Christians do. But non-religious folks do these as well: no belief in god(s) is required. 


Christian nationalism/fascism is currently a clear and present danger. However, we can add it to a long list of things we deeply regret Christianity has brought to the world. 

See also, my article on this blog, Christian Theology Can Be Part of the Problem of Evil.  




David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.


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