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Some of those jingly jangly camp songs still pop into my head from time to time (this one, in the tune of ‘The Old Grey Mare’):
I may never march in the Infantry
Ride in the Cavalry
Shoot the Artillery
I may never zoom over the enemy, but I’m in the Lord’s Army
I’m in the Lord’s Army…YES SIR!
I’m in the Lord’s Army…YES SIR!
I recall there were ‘fun actions’ to perform in this song, such as zooming around, marching, saluting, and pretending to ride a horse. I also recall miming the shooting part. As a kid, I don’t remember asking much about what it meant to be in the Lord’s Army, but I suspect it was connected to a session about Ephesians 6 and putting on the full armor of God to do battle against evil.
In this current moment, it seems much more reminiscent of Christian nationalism. Why are many of today’s Christians lumping themselves with conspiracy theorists, non-Christians and unbiblical ideas? The trends that include stolen elections, culture warriors, dangerous secularism, and satanic-conspiracies are now sounding more like a crusade than a punch line. Scholars and critics are using the term ‘white Christian nationalism’ to describe this movement. However, the problem with this term is that much of what it describes is secular, not religious. Cable news channels are not funded by churches but network organizations. Authors Whitney Phillips, Mark Brookway, and Abby Ohleiser prefer the term ‘shadow gospel’ to define “decades of conspiratorial, self-reinforcing messages propped up by densely overlapping secular and evangelical media. The zealotry inspire by the shadow gospel is religious in nature. But this is a religion untethered to any of the structures or restrictions –of formal Christianity, including the Bible, church leaders, and even belief in God.” The shadow gospel is ‘us’ versus ‘them’ and imagines the ‘real America’ is under attack from un-American people on the left.
Phillips, Brookway and Ohleiser trace the origins of the shadow gospel to two 20th century contexts: anti-communism and parachurch evangelicalism. Anti-communism divided the world into real America, that was good, and communism, that was evil and included all manners of leftist causes such as civil rights, labor organizations, and feminism. The rise of parachurch evangelicalism harnessed evangelical messages, media, and leaders outside of formal church institutions. Parachurch evangelicals are particularly threatened by secularism and humanism and the subversive infiltration of leftist ideas. “Understanding this history is key to understanding how the shadow gospel, turbocharged by social media, is able to spread messages with all the power and emotional resonance of religion but with none of the pesky tethers to religious theology.” Pesky tethers, indeed.
Historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez discusses white Christian nationalism in her book, Jesus and John Wayne, and in a recent substack, “Is White Christian Nationalism ‘imposter Christianity’?” Du Mez considers that yes, this shadow gospel is American Christianity, wedded to both power and white privilege long before the United States even existed. But Du Mez is also clear that the shadow gospel is not the whole of American Christianity. There is also the American Christianity that disrupted the status quo and challenged systems of privilege, power, and inequality. Du Mez asks this key question: “why are these Christians, in this moment, choosing this version of the faith?”
What are today’s Christians supposed to do? Phillips, Brookway, and Ohlheiser conclude the only way to combat the power of the shadow gospel is to expose it. Du Mez concludes that Christians need to invite more critique, not less, and should question the core biblical teachings of this shadow gospel.
Perhaps all of us should consider the role of our own beliefs and legislating them into our Constitution. How should a democratic system uphold the rights of all its citizens, when its citizens subscribe to different beliefs and values?