Time for Discerning the Counterfeit Gospel

If the gospel is the most powerful force for good ever unleashed on the world, would it not follow that the most powerful force for evil is a perverted gospel? Isn’t it the case that in the wake of Christianity there has been an intensification of both good and evil, ever increased possibilities for the preservation and destruction of life, such that humankind has taken its longest strides simultaneously in both directions? The works of healing, the spread of agencies and individuals that would relieve suffering and poverty, the heightened focus on humaneness and preservation of life, has been shadowed by systemic genocide, systemic disregard for life, wanton destruction of entire civilizations, and an ever-increased capacity and willingness for global destruction. Passing over objections for the moment (which might argue either that the religion has only produced good or evil), if the best of times and the worst of times have their genesis in Christianity, this would mean that the seemingly internecine disputes within the New Testament pertain universally.

The disputes about eschatology, the nature of salvation, the nature of authority, the diagnosis of sin and its remedy, will turn out not just to pertain to those within the church but will ultimately be of concern to the world. That is, the Jews killed by Germans, the natives slaughtered all over the world by Portuguese, Spanish, English, and American Christians, the Palestinians being displaced on a daily basis due to the support of Christian Zionists, or on this Thanksgiving Day – the natives subjected to Christian’s theft of their food, land and lives, had or have a vested interest in whether Christians see salvation in terms of an “inward spiritual peace” or actual nonviolence.

It turns out that evangelical eschatology is of profound consequence to Palestinians, and that notions of Church unity such as that of Pope Boniface VIII (“it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff”) would result in the death of millions of native peoples. The “Christian Doctrine of Discovery” sought to subjugate indigenous peoples through a combination of military power and conversion to the Christian religion. Pope Nicholas V theologically supported the taking of land and the subduing of all non-Christians, so that Muslims, infidels, and other enemies of Christ could be reduced to perpetual slavery and their lands and goods seized to support the Christian religion. Colonialism, slavery, and genocide developed from the movements and decisions that, in the beginning might have seemed to pertain only to the church. Just war theory, for example, traces its origins to the manner in which Augustine dealt with Christian heretics in North Africa, and future generations would extrapolate from his advocacy of coercion in the church to coercion outside of it. Forced compliance with orthodoxy within the church led to forced conversion and crusades without.

 The people inhabiting “discovered” lands were counted as enemies of the faith so that conquest meant dominion over the land, which as it would develop in Manifest Destiny in the United States, did not allow for Indian ownership of land or any sort of humane self-determination. As late as 1946, Supreme Court Justice Stanley Reed, upheld the notion that sovereignty coincided with being Christian:

This distinction between rights from recognized occupancy and from Indian title springs from the theory under which the European nations took possession of the lands of the American aborigines. This theory was that discovery by the Christian nations gave them sovereignty over and title to the lands discovered. While Indians were permitted to occupy these lands under their Indian title, the conquering nations asserted the right to extinguish that Indian title without legal responsibility to compensate the Indian for his loss. It is not for the courts of the conqueror to question the propriety or validity of such an assertion of power. [1]

The genocide of native peoples, the taking of their land and their lives, became the legal precedent or proof of Christian sovereignty which continues to undergird white supremacy and Christian nationalism. This presumption of a Christian nationalism, of Christian privilege, of equating being a good American with being Christian, overlaps with racial subjugation, showing itself in this political moment.

The fusion of right-wing politics and Christian nationalism pervades evangelical Christianity and has a history reaching back to the Puritan notion that the United States was a “city upon a hill,” which easily morphed into American exceptionalism or “America First.” World War I may have served to permanently forge the notion of America as a Christian nation, as Woodrow Wilson could equate the American cause against Germany with humanitarianism and evangelist Billy Sunday equated the war with Hell against Heaven.

Though there is a long history of ties between the Republican Party and Christian nationalism (see here), Donald Trump has tapped into this understanding with his consistent themes of God and country, calling the U.S. “a nation of true believers” which constitute “one people, one family, and one glorious nation under God.” Echoing his evangelical supporters, he has repeatedly argued that if America remains true to its faith, God will bless the country and defeat its foes. The conclusion of many evangelicals is that the loss of Donald Trump to Joe Biden marks the spiritual demise of the Nation.  

On the other hand, the forces opposing evil can often be traced to a Christian impetus, including resistance to Christian nationalism. Early Christian opposition to violence, abortion, euthanasia, warfare, also had a worldwide impact in the gradual abolition of slavery, the rise of world-wide peace movements, the rise of anti-colonialism, and a trend to a recognition of a universal humanity.  If slavery and colonialism had their Christian justification, it is also true that abolitionist movements and anti-colonialism also had their Christian justification. The famous stories of William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King Jr., women’s liberation, black liberation, third-world liberation, can be matched by less well-known stories of Eastern Christians such as the Thomas Christians of India, the Nestorian Christians who travelled the silk road as far as Japan some 1,400 years ago (long before Xavier’s arrival in the 1500’s), all of whom put the lie to the notion that Christianity is Western, colonial, or tied to national sovereignty.

During the same period in the 1930’s in which Christian nationalism was arising, a counter understanding arose among American Protestants who began to think of Christianity as a global community. This was a natural outgrowth of the global missions movement and the recognition of an international Christian community which was intertwined throughout the world. Even the Presbyterian hawk, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, began questioning nationalism as it portrayed itself in the League of Nations, which he had helped establish. Dulles would mobilize American churches in the 1940’s on behalf of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by which he hoped to curb Christian nationalism. Though he backed American involvement in World War II, it was on the condition that the United States begin building a permanent peace “along internationalist lines of global interdependency, as a nation among nations.”[2]

With the election of Donald Trump, it is Christian believers who have most clearly resisted evangelical, Trump-like Christian nationalism. American clergy united to issue the “Reclaiming Jesus” manifesto which has declared that we are indeed in a fight for the soul of the nation, but claiming Trump’s “America First” is “a theological heresy for followers of Christ.” The statement reads in part,

It is time to be followers of Jesus before anything else—nationality, political party, race, ethnicity, gender, geography—our identity in Christ precedes every other identity. We pray that our nation will see Jesus’ words in us. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).[3]

Michael Curry and 22 other clergy reminded Americans: “Our churches and our nations are part of an international community whose interests always surpass national boundaries.” They went on to say, “We, in turn, should love and serve the world and all its inhabitants, rather than seek first narrow, nationalistic prerogatives.”

As the group Christians Against Christian Nationalism have put it,

Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian. It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation. We reject this damaging political ideology and invite our Christian brothers and sisters to join us in opposing this threat to our faith and to our nation. [4]

Nationalism and globalism, colonialism and anti-colonialism, slavery and abolitionist movements, or a full range of modes and means of oppression and liberation, might claim a Christian impetus. There is no sorting out the vast movements of history without turning to the New Testament to discover whether it is primarily promoting inward peace or holistic world peace, a violent or non-violent God, a violent or non-violent atonement.

 This puts a renewed importance on one of the major goals of the epistles of the New Testament and on the work of Forging Ploughshares, to clearly delineate the Christ from the anti-Christ and the gospel from its counterfeit, as Christianity has been deployed to promote the worst sorts of evil and the greatest of the good. The problem may be in discerning the difference and developing the tools for discernment, but this seems to be a time in which discernment is made easy.

Forging Ploughshares is committed to the belief that the key mark of an authentic Christianity and Church is its dedication to nonviolence and peace and that the false gospel does not know the way of peace (Romans 3:17). It may be that the false form of the faith has never been made more evident than at this moment in which thousands have been sacrificed to mammon under the guise of Christian nationalism. There is no question that we are at this moment overwhelmed with a false gospel promoting violence and pledged to narrow nationalistic interests. The false church reigns and bears the mark of the nationalistic beast it serves, but there is at the same time a clear exposure of the motives and means of this false religion.

Is it not now more evident than ever that Christian belief might be put to serving evil apart from taking up the cross and implementing the true peace and love of Christ?  


[1] United States v. Alcea Band of Tillamooks, 329 U.S. 40, 67 S.Ct. 167, 91 L.Ed. 29(1946). “United States v. Alcea Band of Tillamooks Et Al.,” The University of Tulsa College of Law, http://www.utulsa.edu/law/classes/rice/ussct_cases/US_v_Alcea_Band_Tillamooks_329_40.htm. Newcomb, “The Evidence of Christian Nationalism in Federal Indian Law,” 315. Quoted from Ruehl, Robert Michael, “THOREAU’S A WEEK, RELIGION AS PRESERVATIVE CARE: OPPOSING THE CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE OF DISCOVERY, MANIFEST DESTINY, AND A RELIGION OF SUBJUGATION” (2014) at file:///C:/Users/Paul%20Axton/Downloads/Thoreaus_A_Week_Religion_as_Preservative.pdf

[2] Gene Zubovich, “The Christian Nationalism of Donald Trump,” in Religion and Politics (July17, 2018) https://religionandpolitics.org/2018/07/17/the-christian-nationalism-of-donald-trump/

[3] The Statement can be found here: http://www.reclaimingjesus.org/

[4] https://www.christiansagainstchristiannationalism.org/statement

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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