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Dangers of Nativism in the Religio-Political Sphere

By Jeff Ziegler
Published March 1, 2001

It is a common occurrence in the history of nations that when faced with certain cultural stresses, national malaise, or moral declension, a nativistic urge arises which naively promises a return to the halcyon days of a bygone era. Nativism is not confined to great national or social trends but is also evidenced in churches, political and civic organizations, families, and individuals.

Nativism can be defined as a strong desire to return to that which is most familiar and conducive to a sense of security and safety. The vision produced by the nativistic urge may have some basis in fact. However, such visions are presented with overly romanticized, revisionistic, and nostalgic themes which contrive illusory imagery, or if enacted in some fashion, become antithetical to futuristic designs. By definition, nativism is not anchored in a biblical hope for the future, but is instead enamored with past glories, real or imagined, and hence becomes a hindrance to positive, constructive, and forward looking reformation.

In the church, we see many modern examples of the nativistic impulse. For some the “industrial revolution” is to be blamed for familial chaos and hence a quest for simplistic, agrarian life-styles emerge. Rather than seeing industry, invention, education, and material progress as a natural outgrowth of the “Puritan work ethic,” it is instead viewed as impersonal, humanistic, complex, and driven by greed. Hence, a call for withdrawal from the culture, a return to the “honesty” of the land, and the myth of simplicity becomes the intoxicating elixir.

The Pietistic movement and its modern strains such as Dispensational theology are natural seed beds for such semi-agrarian utopian visions of nativism, and work to eviscerate an intellectually relevant, robust, and virile expression of the Faith. Unfortunately, such anthems have found a lodging within Reformed ranks as well.

Reformed pastor and city councilman Rev. Greg Hogan makes an excellent illustration pertaining to nativism in a forthcoming article when he asserts:

In 1979, I published my first article for a Christian Education journal. The idea of the. article was to move the exploding Christian School movement from what I called a “Little House on the Prairie” mind-set to a more mature concept of Christian Education. Since that time I have noticed that same “Little House on the Prairie” mind-set in other facets of Christian endeavors.

As a Reconstructionist, I find much to admire in pioneers of the 19th Century or the Little House generation. They had a vision for the Dominion Mandate that compelled them westward. They wanted to conquer a continent for Christ. Entire congregations, pastors and all, moved to the frontier. They saw this as Kingdom building for God and providing a rich heritage for their children. These men and women in their log cabins and sod houses were subduing a continent for the Lord Jesus Christ.

Yet we have romanticized their lives to an idyllic concept, hence “Little House.” We picture a brave man, his strong wife, and their children working the land hard during the day then reading the Bible by candle-light by night. We see that picture and yearn for that experience instead of taking up their quest of conquering a continent for Christ.

As Rev. Hogan points out, the goal of conquering a continent for Christ was at the expense of great personal hardship. However, the pioneers’ long-term vision did not revolve around the development of the primitive, but, instead, they sought improvements, innovations, and inventions that would alleviate the day to day fight for survival and provide a foundation for greater affluence for their children. Hence the premise of civilization, domestication, and pro-gress were common expectations.

This is why so many of these same families sent their children “back east” for more formalized education with the hope that their children would return to the frontier with the intellectual tools to make the “wild west” bend to their vision of productivity and prosperity. That is, no romanticized aura existed because of the hardship, poverty, and toil. The children were trained to break out of that model with advanced instruction and education relevant to the advances of that day.

Political Nativism

Just as nostalgic nativistic strains arise within the church, so too, such anthems sound their siren song in times of cultural and political uncertainty. These movements sometimes have temporary and seemingly positive results, at times marshaling a national conscience toward a great sense of purpose, or even slowing or halting moral atrophy. But, nativistic impulses are never engaged in foundational, long-term reformation. They are, by definition, expedient populist movements and are fashioned to redress an immediate need. Consequently, even if some short-lived benefit is derived, if the cultural, social, and political foundations remain unaltered, such beneficial outcomes will soon fade. This is especially true if the same untouched societal underpinnings remain disconnected from biblical orthodoxy and law.

Theodore Roosevelt is but one example of the nativistic impulse in American political life. His vision of an expansionist American empire rested on the creation of a central rallying point that would inculcate patriotic fervor leading to a singular, identifiable, and unified American culture. In the post Civil War era, this was especially important to help heal the wounds and bitterness still very evident between north and south. While under secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt found his “rally point” in maneuvering the United States into war with the collapsing “Old-World” colonial power of Spain. His “nativistic moment” was the formation of the all-volunteer “Roughrider” regiment that led the assaults upon Kettle and San Juan hills in Cuba. From this uniquely American crusade followed Roosevelt’s presidency and the ascendency of America as a world power.

This kind of powerful imagery and symbolism are hallmarks of political nativism. President John F. Kennedy used rhetorical flourishes delivered with a crisp, staccato New England accent coupled to the imagery of powerful American rockets, intrepid astronauts, and the race for the moon to rally Americans around his other agendas. This was also the case with President Ronald Reagan who continually appealed to nostalgic patriotic symbols and allusions to further his neo-conservative policies. The prominent theme for his regime was, “It’s morning again in America,” and while no one knew for sure what was meant by that phrase, it did give us a warm fuzzy feeling that all was well and that America had recovered from the 70s decade of malaise.

With the rise of religio-political activism in the 1980s-90s came conservative “Christian” organizations such as the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition. Both of these movements were right in their recognition of the moral decline and statist socialistic designs that had befallen our nation. Both organizations were successful in rallying grass-roots activists to combat such evils. Both were inherently patriotic in their fervor. Unfortunately, both had only nativistic symbolism as the overriding political social theory, and, hence, the respective organizations have either ceased to exist or are on the decline. Indeed, one cannot reconstruct our lawless culture with pseudo-ethics based on fuzzy notions of a vacuum-tubed, black and white television culture which never existed in the first place.

Herein is the danger of all nativism. It gives a sense of what’s wrong and perhaps some nice feelings that can for a time sustain desires and actions for social reformation. Yet, without an anchor in biblical orthodoxy and law such movements will at best fall short of the righteous ideal, and at worst can lead to utter ruin. For it was Adolph Hitler’s nativistic primitivism, his appeal to Germanic mythology, and the stirring of Teutonic pride that led to one of the most heinous and demonic regimes in the history of man.

The National Reform Association repudiates the nativistic populist impulse of neo-conservative thought. We affirm foundational, and, hence, long-term reformation. A reformation based not on whim, fancy or expediency but upon the immutability of Christian orthodoxy, biblical law, and the national confession of Christ Jesus as the Lord over the civil realm. We ask you to rally around our cause and not be taken in by the marketing techniques of nativistic thought.

Please affirm, pray for, and disseminate our proclamation of Christian principles. This is the same proclamation that we are distributing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Let us build toward real reformation—an explicitly Christian reformation.

Proclamation

Whereas: The Mission of The National Reform Association is to maintain and promote in our national life the Christian principles of civil government, which include, but are not limited to, the following:

Resolved: Jesus Christ is Lord in all aspects of life, including civil government. Jesus Christ is, therefore, the Ruler of Nations, and should be explicitly confessed as such in any constitutional documents.

Resolved: The civil ruler is to be a servant of God, he derives his authority from God, and he is duty-bound to govern according to the expressed will of God.

Resolved: The civil government of our nation, its laws, institutions, and practices must therefore be conformed to the principles of biblical law as revealed in the Old and New Testaments.

Rev. Jeffrey A. Ziegler, the president of the National Reform Association, is also founder and president of Christian Endeavors and Reformation Bible Institute, and co-founder and moderator of The Association of Free Reformed Churches. He has lectured in over 600 churches and ministerial conferences in North America, Great Britain, and Germany. Jeff is also president of The Continental Group, a think tank for political activism. His articles have appeared in the Chalcedon Report, and The Christian Statesman. He can be reached at 35155 Beachpark Drive, Eastlake, Ohio 44095. E-mail: ceejz@ncweb.com.

Your comments are welcome!

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The Silent Scream (DVD) Eight Languages

“When the lives of the unborn are snuffed out, they often feel pain, pain that is long and agonizing.” – President Ronald Reagan to National Religious Broadcasters Convention, January 1981

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