Troublesome times are here, filling men’s hearts with fear. Freedom we all hold dear, now is at stake.”
Recently I found myself humming those lines as I worked on the magazine I edit—Liberty. The mission of Liberty magazine is the same today as it was back in 1906, when the first issue rolled off the presses. It exists to promote a freedom that Seventh-day Adventists, in the words of the old gospel song, “hold dear”—the freedom to live and worship according to our deepest convictions, and the ability to share our faith without fear.
Moreover, this freedom is now “at stake,” if we’re to believe the urgent messages that surround us in headlines and social media feeds.
The result? For some of us there’s a sense of looming threat that’s “filling our hearts with fear.” It’s a fear that the cultural tide has turned against traditional Christianity. A fear that a secular majority that neither understands nor respects our beliefs has become hostile toward people of faith.
Christianity is declining as a social force in the United States, although for now it still holds a numerical and cultural majority. In 1999, 70 percent of Americans surveyed reported that they belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque. Last year it was 47 percent.1 In 1998, 62 percent said religion was “very important” to them; in 2023 that number had fallen to 39 percent.2 It’s hardly surprising, then, that each year in the United States between 6,000 and 10,000 church buildings are shuttered, either to be demolished or repurposed.3
The narrative (or story) Christians talk about themselves is also changing. Where once American Christians casually presumed a cultural dominance, recent surveys show that they’re now more likely to see Christianity as a “cultural underdog.”4
This new narrative has become a lucrative fundraising theme for many Christian ministries and advocacy organizations. In emails and social media posts, these cultural warriors highlight new outrages and new dangers facing Christians in America. They call the faithful onto the political battlefield, not just to defend religious freedoms, but to defend the identity of America itself as a “Christian nation.”
The Original Anti-Christian Nationalists
Christian nationalism is a term that’s thrown around a lot these days, and it has acquired an unhelpful political veneer. Yet it’s a relatively simple idea. When one’s sense of national identity and Christian identity become tangled up, it seems logical to believe that the levers of national power—political, judicial, and cultural—should be in Christian hands.
Christian nationalism, however, is theologically and historically “un-Adventist.” In fact, the archives of Liberty magazine show that Seventh-day Adventists developed an anti-Christian-nationalism message many decades before “Christian nationalism” was even a twinkle in the eye of political theorists.
Throughout our history as a church we’ve walked a unique path when it comes to relating to the political “powers that be”—one that clearly separates civil and religious authority. As Alan Reinach describes in his article in this issue of Adventist Review (p. 28), this approach has been shaped by prophetic insights and a clear-eyed understanding of end-time events. It has been shaped, also, by practical experience. From the mid-1800s through to the late 1920s, Adventists learned firsthand what can happen to religious minorities when America’s Protestant majority wields too great an influence on laws. Under state-level Sunday laws (or “blue laws”), many Adventist church members were arrested, prosecuted, fined, or jailed for doing secular work on Sunday.
Another wedge issue between Adventism and Christian nationalism is the question of America and its identity. On one side are Christians who believe America is divinely chosen, akin to a modern-day nation of Israel, with a special role to play in human history. In 1630 Puritan John Winthrop, soon to be leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, spoke to the men and women preparing to leave England to settle in the New World. Winthrop referenced Christ’s words in Matthew 5:14. He spoke of entering a covenant with God to establish a “city on a hill” that would be a beacon to the world. It was a powerful, poetic image, and one that centuries later was revived and repurposed in an entirely different context. In the 1950s, as the cold war took hold, this idea of a special covenant between God and America became part of a deliberate government effort to bolster national patriotism in the face of the Communist threat.5
In stark contrast, however, are those (including Adventists) who understand that one’s earthly nationality is something entirely separate from fealty to Christ and His kingdom. We don’t view America as a divinely favored nation, whose prosperity depends on Americans keeping a special “covenant with God.” We prayerfully exercise our citizenship rights and responsibilities—voting, advocating on public policy issues, defending religious freedoms. We understand that we’re called to reflect the values of God’s kingdom, not to establish a literal kingdom in the here and now.
It’s a mistake to imagine that Christian nationalism is always obvious, like patriots waving flags and calling for theonomy, a fusion of Christian and civil law. In fact, I’d suggest that the most seductive political temptation Seventh-day Adventists face today isn’t blatant Christian nationalism. It would be a rare Adventist who surveyed the political and cultural landscape and said, “Now is the time for church and state to join forces to defeat the anti-religious hordes at the gates.” That would be too much of a red flag for any church member even remotely familiar with Adventist eschatology.
No, the temptation for many of us is fear. We see society’s norms changing. We hear other Christian leaders talking in grim tones about the rise of secularism. We understand the challenges—both existing and potential—of living in a society in which respect for traditional religion is waning. And so we drift into a Christian nationalist mindset of “us” versus “them,” “Christian” versus “other.” Almost unconsciously we find ourselves on the battlefield, supposing that we need to defend America as a “Christian nation.”
I’m profoundly grateful for the prophetic message of our church in part because it provides perspective. It allows us to look beyond the urgency of the here and now. In Revelation 12:7-12, for instance, John pulls back the veil of the universe and shows us a stunning vision of a battle that has raged since before the beginning of earth’s history and one that forms the backdrop to what is happening in the America of 2023. This passage begins with words we know well: “And there was war in heaven” (Rev. 12:7, KJV).
The Greek word used here for war is polemos, which provides the root for our English words “polemical” or “polemics.” The implication seems to be that this is a battle not of swords but ideas; a question of whose truth will ultimately prevail.
We know what happens. Michael and His angels fight against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fight back, but they’re not strong enough. They lose their place in heaven and are hurled to earth, where they continue even today to hold sway over human affairs.
In allowing us to glimpse this epic battle, Scripture places all human history against a backdrop of divine proportions. We gain an eternal perspective. It’s a perspective that releases us from fear. It releases us from the need to defend truth with human power by planting a political flag for Christianity. We’re playing the long game, and we know how it ends.
“Troublesome times are here, filling men’s hearts with fear.” That’s how the song starts, but it ends on a different note. It’s a note shaped by an eternal perspective. “Rising up in the sky, telling this world goodbye. . . . Going where no one dies, heavenward bound.”
1 Jeffrey M. Jones, “U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time,” Mar. 29, 2021, news.Gallup.com.
2 WSJ/NORC poll conducted March 2023 by NORC at the University of Chicago.
3 Statistics from a newly released book, which also claims to provide empirical evidence that secularization theory is correct in predicting the decline of religion: Isabella Kasselstrand, Phil Zuckerman, and Ryan T. Cragun, Beyond Doubt: The Secularization of Society (New York: NYU Press, 2023).
4 The 2016 PRRI/Brookings Immigration Survey, for instance, found that almost 50 percent of Americans surveyed believe discrimination against Christians is on par with discrimination against other groups, including Blacks and minorities.
5 This is well documented by historians. See Daniel T. Rodgers, As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).