329 Years Later…
Last week Elizabeth Johnson Jr. was finally exonerated for her 1693 conviction for witchcraft.
The Salem Witch trials (1692-1693) were a Puritan inquisition that resulted in the deaths of 25 men and women, 19 of whom were hanged, five died in jail and one was crushed with rocks.
Johnson was 22 when she was accused and convicted, perhaps because of a mental disability or because she never married or had children. The governor of Massachusetts granted her a reprieve from hanging because of “shadowy evidence.” She died in 1747 at the age of 77. But her conviction was never overturned. It came as the result of a three-year effort by the eighth-grade civics class at North Andover Middle School and their teacher, Carrie LaPierre.
So, what might we learn from Elizabeth Johnson’s story today?
The Evil of “Christian Nationalism”
After 329 years, haven’t we learned how badly things can go wrong when Christians use the power of the law to impose their theological convictions on their community? Make no mistake: the witch trials were a deadly result of the merger of religion and government.
One of the sad ironies in our history is that Christians who came to America to escape persecution quickly became persecutors. In setting out to create a Christian community, they used the power of the law to force others to deny their conscience in order to obey their Puritan interpretations of scripture.
I highly recommend John M. Barry’s powerful book, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.
That’s why Christian nationalism is an oxymoronic label for a political movement that is just as damaging to Christianity and it is to the nation. You’ll find an excellent series of articles at “UM Insight.”
But the evil of “Christian nationalism” is very much alive among us. It was viciously on display during the January 6 insurrection. We saw it this weekend in CPAC’s celebration of Hungary’s anti-democratic, Christian nationalist dictator, Viktor Orbán. It’s on the ballot with candidates like Marjorie Taylor Greene and in the election of local school boards.
The “Five Freedoms” enshrined in the First Amendment — freedom of speech, religion, the press, assembly, and the right to petition the government — guarantee that as a follower of Christ my voice can be heard in the public debate, but they do not guarantee that my voice will drown out other voices or that my convictions should be imposed by law on others. Democracy means that the freedom I claim for myself is measured by the freedom I protect for others. It means that sometimes I win, and sometimes I lose, but we keep on working together to become “a more perfect union.”
I’m convinced that I can be a Christian or I can be a “Christian nationalist,” but I can’t be both.
The Difference We Can — Must — Make
Go back to that civics class at North Andover Middle School. It’s the story of the difference a public school teacher can make when allowed to confront some of the ugly stories in our history, whether Florida’s Governor and Legislature like it or not.
It’s also the story of the difference we can make. Senator Diana DiZoglio, who added the amendment that exonerated Elizabeth Johnson to a budget bill, said, “These students have set an incredible example of the power of advocacy, and speaking up for others who don’t have a voice.”
The Bill of Rights calls all of us to participate, to lift our voice, to vote, and to do what we can to make a difference. It’s why I joined over 25,000 Christians who have signed the statement released by Christians Against Christian Nationalism. It is one of the criteria I use in choosing the candidates I support. It’s one of the ways I celebrate the Bill of Rights.
That’s what Elizabeth Johnson taught me. May she rest in peace.
Grace and Peace,
I’m looking forward to being back at Lake Junaluska, NC, August 14-16. I’ll preach by the lake on Sunday morning (9 AM) and lead discussions of my book, “Finding Your Bearings: How Words that Guided Jesus Can Guide Us,” on Monday and Tuesday morning with the exaggerated title, “Theologian in Residence.” If you’re in the area, or if you’ve never visited the Lake, it’s a beautiful place to be this time of year!
12 thoughts on “Christian Nationalism vs The Bill of Rights”
Thank you, Jim. I have signed and commented on this vital initiative.
Best regards, Dan STEDING
This is so good! With your permission, I am going to post if as my Monday Memo, giving you credit, of course.
Good morning, Jim.
This blog article is excellent and so needed today.
Thanks for the links to Carrie LaPierre and her 8th grade civics class, the link to John Barry’s book on Roger Williams and the other valuable resource links.
These are difficult times in so many ways.
Thank you for your clear voice of justice and for trying to keep us on the right path.
Peace, grace and love,
Thanks for your consistent witness and faithful encouragement! I saw your name on the “statement” list!
Thank you for this prophetic word that is SO needed in these days of peril and promise!
History is filled with egregious examples of when the oppressed become oppressors. And with the way many are(falsely) claiming the “victim” label in today’s conversations, we need to pay close attention.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that today’s “Christian Nationalism” is a variation of “Civil Religion” Dean Kelly write about some 50 years ago. Today’s incarnation strikes me as more dangerous because it’s been embraced by one of our National parties and leaders/followers.
Again, Jim, thank you for your consistent witness.
You’re correct! It’s an extreme distortion of “civil religion” which had a somewhat different meaning back when…
Thank you for this, Jim. Especially in light of the recent primary victories by folks who would probably describe themselves as Christian Nationalists, it is good to read some common sense. It gives me ethical ammo. Yes, I CAN be a Christian and still have a balanced and fair view of the world in all its diversity.
Where to begin…
You bemoaned how badly things can go when Christians use the power of the law to impose their theological convictions on their community. I would ask how badly can things go when so-called Progressive Christians literally abandon Biblical teaching, either by embracing the lies of secular culture, or not sharing the truth of the Bible and Jesus Christ to the world?
As I listen and consider the beliefs of Progressive Christians, I see little difference between their beliefs and the those of the culture at large. Consider the list of divisive issues in our country today: abortion, same-sex marriage, LBGTQ clergy, refusal to acknowledge biological sex, legality of transgender female athletes to compete in female sports, adolescent gender mutilation, age-inappropriate sexual and gender indoctrination in elementary schools, bail reform, and illegal immigration (there are many more). Do your views and beliefs vary from those of the progressive political class? If you insist on condemning conservative and evangelical Christians as Christian Nationalists, what title should we assign to Progressive Christians? Secular Nationalists? Progressive Christian Secular Nationalists? Can you be both one of those AND a Christian?
Back to your original question: “How badly things can go when Christians use the power of the law to impose their theological convictions on their community.” That is exactly what Progressive Christianity, in concert with the secular culture, attempts to do every single day: Impose YOUR theological convictions on our community, including on your Christian brothers and sisters who hold deep convictions about OUR theological convictions.
Have a great time at Lake J, Jim! Wish I could get down there and hear you.
Thanks, Rob! We’ll find another time to connect.
That’s an amazing teacher! Kids can do a lot more than we give them credit for! 😊