As a late-night comic, Bill Maher has made a living making jokes at the expense of politicians, movie stars, and society’s elite. As an avowed atheist, Maher has also routinely turned his comedic ire on people of faith. But after a recent monologue in which he referred to the recent attack on the U.S. Capitol as a “faith-based initiative” and described Christian theology as “magical religious thinking” and a “mass delusion,” not many people are laughing.
Last Friday, the host of HBO’s “Real Time” closed his show by discussing former President Trump’s impeachment trial, which began earlier this week in the U.S. Senate. But rather than discussing the merits of the trial, Maher decided to vent about Christians. “The events of January 6 were a faith-based initiative and Trumpism is a Christian nationalistic movement that believes Trump was literally sent from heaven to save them,” Maher claimed. He added, “We need to stop pretending there’s no way we will ever understand why the Trump mob believes in him. It’s because they’re religious. They’ve already made space in their heads for [expletive] that does not make sense.”
Of course, no one should expect insightful or nuanced reflections on American religion or cultural trends from Bill Maher. But the comic’s claim that “Christian nationalism” is behind the January 6 assault deserves attention because of a larger misconception that needs refuting.
Recently, there has been an increasing amount of talk about “Christian nationalism.” But what is it, exactly, and why is it being portrayed as something subversive? As I explained to Tony Perkins yesterday on Washington Watch, it is important to define terms. First, “Nationalism is affinity or advocacy for one’s own nation, for the culture and heritage of one’s country.” While there is not an agreed-upon definition of Christian nationalism, generally speaking, “Christian nationalism, as explained in the literature, is this idea that Christianity and American identity are one and the same.” In other words, Christian nationalism believes that America is defined by Christianity and that governments should take active steps to keep it that way. More extreme adherents of Christian nationalism conflate their Christian and American identities and ideologies, believing that their American identity is inextricable from their Christian one.
While the topic of Christian nationalism deserves a lengthier discussion than this article allows, it can be stated that the overwhelming majority of American Christians love their country and do not subscribe to the “Christian nationalism” that seeks to marginalize other Americans based on theological differences. Most American Christians do not embrace the excesses of the political ideology that may have motivated some of the protestors on January 6. This is not surprising. After all, the Bible explains that Christians are “sojourners and strangers” in whatever country they reside.
But what is most troubling, and why Bill Maher’s comments matter, is that by lumping all conservatives under the radioactive label “Christian nationalism,” those on the left are seeking to cast doubt on the motives and beliefs of Christians. If Christians are under a “mass delusion,” as Maher argues, why should they be allowed to participate in society? By equating Christians with fanatics and conspiracy theorists, Maher and others are seeking to silence and sideline Christians from participating in the political process. By radicalizing the term “Christian nationalism,” they want to imply that Christian political engagement is somehow nefarious and subversive.
As Tony Perkins explained, “This is designed to do one of two things. One, to drive Christians from political and cultural engagement because they don’t want to be tainted with one of these labels, or two, it will cause some to shrink back from their faith, hiding the fact that they are Christians.”
In short, Bill Maher offers a refreshingly clear view of how many nonbelievers view people of faith. Since only six percent of Americans have a biblical worldview, Christians should expect their faith to be belittled and dismissed. This is exactly what Jesus predicted would happen (John 15-16). But in the face of lies about us and our beliefs, we shouldn’t back down. Rather, as citizens of the City of God and City of Man, we must recommit to speaking the truth in love and loving our neighbors by engaging in the public square. Now, more than ever, our witness is needed.