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Dr. Robert Bishop

Christian Nationalism and Human Dignity 

Robert Bishop, Ph.D. Professor of Physics and Philosophy

My initial interest in the CACE seminar on Christian nationalism was motivated by thinking about how I should address our contemporary moment in the classroom with students. Our discussions were centered around the book Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. I discovered how Christian Nationalism is a cultural identity and very much an ethno-centered traditionalism, meaning that it is a way of finding communal identity and belonging drawing powerfully on both Christian and American patriotic symbolism tied to a questionable historical narrative. As such it’s tied deeply to white power and privilege as well as racial and gender hierarchies. 

This drew me into further questions. For example, physics departments across the nation struggle with recruitment and retention of female and minority faculty and students. Research has shown that much of this struggle is due to often unintended regular verbal, behavioral or other environmental indignities that communicate negative, derogatory or hostile attitudes towards women and minorities. In the Christian college and university context, how much of our struggle with recruiting and retaining female and minority faculty and students is intertwined with and reinforced by Christian nationalist attitudes? 

On a related front, I’ve been working on understanding what human dignity is and why it seems so fragile. One piece of this puzzle is that American society–and Western societies more generally–conceive of human dignity as an individualized property that each of us has. This is driven by how pervasive liberal individualism is in social theory, philosophy, the social sciences as well as our political and economic order (Bishop 2007). Such individualism treats agents as individual atoms interacting with each other in ways that respect each other’s rights but resembling how atoms attract and repel each other via their electric charges. 

Human dignity is very vulnerable when conceived of this way as is illustrated by a story told by Correta Scott King. In the summer of 1945, Martin Luther King, Jr., “went with several other Morehouse [University] men to work in the tobacco fields of Connecticut. Though it was hardly a glamorous job, my husband would later talk of the exhilarating sense of freedom he felt to be able to eat in any restaurant and to sit in the orchestra at the movies in Connecticut. Then, when the train on which he was coming home reached the southern states and he went to have a meal in the dining car, the waiter ushered him to a rear seat and pulled a curtain down in front of him. ‘I felt as though that curtain had dropped on my selfhood,’ Martin said.” That’s human dignity lost. It is terribly easy to de-dignify and dehumanize another person particularly if they are other than us in skin color, ethnicity or social status. 

But there is another problem with conceiving of human dignity as an individualized property. The Bible presents a picture of humans as relational beings. Paul’s image of the body in 1 Corinthians 12 shows that each of us is intimately related to each other. Just as Paul argues that the foot cannot be what it is without the rest of the body, I can’t be who I am in Christ apart from the rest of my brothers and sisters. More generally, each of us is who we are because of the other persons in our lives. You grew up in a particular family, in a community, had a variety of teachers, friends, competitors and colleagues throughout your life that have shaped who you are. You have read books, watched movies, listened to music, gone to plays and concerts that have shaped who you are. 

It seems clear that we have to think of human dignity as relational, something we all share or participate in with each other (Bishop in press). If this is correct, then the waiter who ushered King to the back of the dining car and drew the curtain down not only de-dignified King, treating him as less than human, but the waiter also de-dignified and dehumanized himself–and everyone else in the dining car. My dignity rises or falls to the degree that I promote or undermine your dignity; in turn, your dignity rises or falls to the degree that you promote or undermine my dignity. 

As I participated in the seminar I began to wonder: How does Christian Nationalism affect our dignity? If Christian Nationalism participates in and reinforces racial and gender hierarchies, then is it a cultural identity that de-dignifies and dehumanizes women and minorities further marginalizing them? By the same token, is anyone caught up in Christian Nationalism de-dignifying and dehumanizing themselves? 

These are questions I want to explore because they are matters of the Gospel. The truth is that we are all created in the image of God. Christ’s liberation of all of us from sin banishes racial, gender and social hierarchies because it is inclusive instead of exclusive (Galatians 3:26-29). We are all called to spur one another on to good works (Hebrews 10:24-25). This all matters for Christian community and witness. God’s Gospel plan all along was to unite people from every tribe and tongue through Jesus into the Kingdom of God which has no national ties (Genesis 12:1-3; 1 Kings 8:43; Ephesians 2; Revelations 7:9). 


Robert C. Bishop, The Philosophy of the Social Sciences (London: Continuum, 2007). 

Robert C. Bishop, “Human Dignity, the One and the Many,” in Robert Bishop (ed.), Hermeneutic Dialogue and Shaping the Landscape of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology: The Work of Frank Richardson (Routledge in press). 

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