Is It Religion? (part 2) — Christian Nationalism

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading is an excerpt from a poem written in 2007 by Margaret Atwood:

The Last Rational Man
in the reign of Caligula

The last rational man takes his old seat in the senate.
He’s not sure why he’s still here.
He must be on some list or other.
Last year there were many more like him,
but they’ve been picked off one by one.
He bathes daily, and practises slow breathing
and the doctrines of Stoicism.
Lose your calm, he reminds himself,
and you will lose everything.
Nevertheless he’s getting tired.
The effort of saying nothing is wearing him down….

The second reading is from The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism by Katherine Stewart. In this excerpt, the author has just attended a meeting of the Family Research Council, a Christian nationalist group, with Rev. Chris Liles, a Bible-believing Southern Baptist preacher. As they leave the meeting, Rev. Chris begins speaking:

“‘It’s ten degrees hotter than normal, and these people don’t believe in climate science,’ he grumbles. Then his words start tumbling out like a waterfall.

“‘Do we not owe people more than simply reducing “pro-life” to one issue?’ he says. ‘I mean, no one wants babies to die. No one is “pro-abortion.” That is a false dichotomy. Do we not owe people more than to force them into one box or another? As much as abortion is a pro-life issue, so is affordable health care, access to contraceptives, and real, comprehensive sex education. Minimum wage. Fighting poverty. These should all be part of the “pro-life” conversation.’

“Chris falls into silence for a few minutes, then speaks again.

“‘And shouldn’t we show compassion to people regardless of how they identify? They, too, are made in God’s image. We find in Scripture the imperative to love our neighbors and care for the least of these. That is by far one of the clearest messages we receive.’

“I feel bad for Chris [says Katherine Stewart]; he seems dismayed by the event precisely because the Bible is his greatest source of comfort and moral direction….. Stopping at a red light, Chris picks up his Bible and turns to the Old Testament book of Amos.

“‘Here, for instance, in chapter five, the prophet says, “You, Israel, you were supposed to take care of the poor and you’re not doing it,”’ Chris says. ‘“You’re using power and wealth to tilt the system in your favor.” For society to be just, it was necessary for everyone to be seen as equal.’ He falls silent for a few moments. ‘Sometimes,’ he adds, ‘it’s almost like people are reading a different Bible. That’s the trick with Scripture. You can make the Bible say just about anything you want it to.’”…

Sermon: Is It Religion? (part 2) — Christian Nationalism

So. Is Christian Nationalism a religion, or not?

Probably everyone in this room wants to believe that Christian nationalism is NOT a religion. We want to be able to say that Christian Nationalism cannot be a religion because it so clearly violates the teachings of the Hebrew Bible. We want to be able to say that Christian Nationalism cannot be a religion because it so clearly violates the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. How can a movement that treats poor people as less than human be considered Christian? How can a movement that demonizes immigrants be part of the (to use their term) “Judeo-Christian tradition”? We would much prefer to say that Christian Nationalism is not a religion, but a political movement that uses religion as a cover.

As much as I’d like to say that Christian Nationalism is just politics, I believe it is in fact a religion. Mind you, it is a very different religion from ours. Christian Nationalism is the kind of religion that relies on unquestioning acceptance of authority. Christian Nationalism values hierarchy and submission over individual conscience. Christian Nationalism does not welcome dissent, nor is it tolerant of other worldviews. When we list all these attributes, Christian Nationalism looks very much like one of those creepy cults we used to hear so much about — the cults that suck people in and modify their way of thinking so that converts cut ties to the rest of society. And like some of the worst of those creepy cults, the Christian Nationalists want to remake society in their image.

Let’s not begin by calling it a creepy cult, though. At the end of the last century, scholars who study religions mostly stopped using the term “cult.” When you begin studying a religious movement by calling it a “cult,” that terminology tends to stop you from thinking clearly. When you call something a “cult,” you have already made a strong judgement about it, and often you feel like you don’t have to think any further about what it is you’re studying. Christian Nationalism may be a cult, but calling it a cult isn’t going to help us address the threat it poses to our democracy. Instead, we’ll use the appropriate term from religious studies and call it a New Religious Movement.

Once we call Christian Nationalism as a New Religious Movement, we begin to think more clearly about it. First, we realize that it’s not all that new. In its current incarnation, its roots go back to the middle of the last century. A decade after the Civil Rights Act extended full rights to Black Americans, the Internal Revenue Service began threatening to take away the tax exempt status of Bob Jones University, an all-White college that was committed to segregation as a religious principle. The conservative Christians who ran Bob Jones University got together with other White conservative Christians and began to come up with strategies to maintain what they saw as their religious right to segregation. Journalist Katherine Stewart tells what happened to these conservative Christians:

“…They had a problem…. Building a new [political] movement around the burning issue of defending the tax advantages of racist schools wasn’t going to be a viable strategy on the national stage. ‘Stop the tax on segregation’ just wasn’t going to inspire the kind of broad-based conservative counterrevolution that [they] envisioned. They needed an issue with a more acceptable appeal. What message would bring the movement together?… School prayer worked for some, but it tended to alienate the Catholics, who remembered…that for many years public schools had allowed only for Protestant prayers…. Bashing communists was fine, but even the Rockefeller Republicans could do that. Taking on ‘women’s liberation’ was attractive, but the Equal Rights Amendment was already going down in flames. At last they landed upon the one surprising [issue] that would supply the key to the political puzzle of the age: ‘abortion.’”

So writes journalist Katherine Stewart.

In other words, the core religious belief of these White conservative Christians was that White people should not be forced to mix with non-White people. They felt that U.S. society was changing such that they were unable to practice their religion properly. They felt there was another competing religious point of view that had come to dominate the United States, threatening their very existence. Those White conservative Christians called that other religious point of view as “secular humanism,” choosing what was to them the most pejorative term possible.

But the true opponent of these conservative Christians was not secular humanism. The true opponent was actually a broad coalition of religious groups, including mainline Protestants, liberal Catholics, liberal Jews, and a smattering of other religious groups like the Unitarian Universalists. Back then, most presidents, senators, congressional representatives, and Federal judges belonged to one of the religious groups in this broad coalition. While this coalition of religious moderates and religious liberals included both political liberals and political conservatives, on the whole they mostly agreed that racial segregation was an evil that must be ended.

The White conservative Christians who wanted to keep their schools and universities segregated did not want to fight the battle of re-segregating society. So they used the abortion issue as a political strategy to build support. And they took the battle beyond the political realm, into local congregations, where they helped their supporters turn abortion into a key theological question.

I’d say it was at this point where they became a New Religious Movement. Their earlier focus on racial segregation was nothing new, for segregation was part of American religion from the beginning. (Even our own First Parish was segregated during its first hundred years — African Americans and Native Americans were not allowed to sit on the main floor of our Meeting House, they had to sit in the gallery.) But to put such a strong emphasis on abortion — that was new. And, as we heard in the second reading, they emphasized abortion to the exclusion of other issues that formerly had been important to most American Christians — things like helping the poor, showing compassion to others, and recognizing that all persons were created in God’s image.

This emphasis on abortion was a radical reworking of American religion. Prior to the 1970s, about the only religious group to explicitly ban abortion was the Roman Catholics — and the Catholic ban on abortion only dates to 1869. Even considering the Catholics, abortion simply wasn’t an important religious issue for most Americans. When religious Americans thought about social issues, they were most likely to focus on things like poverty, hunger, and so on. So it was a dramatic change when, in the space of just a few years, abortion became a central issue in American religious life.

Since the 1970s, those conservative White Christians added other issues to abortion, such as opposition to LGBTQ rights and opposition to feminism. At last they came up with this notion that the United States should become a Christian nation (by which they seem to actually mean a White Christian nation). So now we have a name for this New Religious Movement — we can call them the Christian Nationalists, and indeed some of them have begun to use this very name to describe themselves. Just remember that they started out as a segregationist group, so a more accurate name for this New Religious Movement might be White Christian Nationalists. But for now, we’ll stick to the name they seem to prefer, and we’ll call this New Religious Movement the Christian Nationalists.

Now, some New Religious Movements have no interest in seeking out money and power; I think of the Neo-Pagans, whose groups mostly seem to operate on a shoestring. Most other New Religious Movements have other priorities besides money and power. So, for example, many scholars consider the Unitarian Universalism and the Reform Jews to be New Religious Movements, and when I look at myself and my friend the Reform rabbi, we don’t spend much time seeking out money and power. So most New Religious Movements aren’t concerned with money and power. But a small minority of New Religious Movements make money and power one of their top priorities. One example is Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church (sometimes called the “Moonies”) which has been in the news recently because it obtained unprecedented access to the halls of power in Japan. That’s the goal of the Christian Nationalists — like the Moonies, they want to obtain unprecedented access to the halls of power here in the United States.

As you can see, we have learned quite a lot by thinking of the Christian Nationalists as a New Religious Movement.

First, we have gotten some clarity about their core religious beliefs. They were founded to maintain racial segregation, to keep Black people out of their all-White institutions; while that original purpose is somewhat hidden today, that remains one of their core beliefs. We can also see that they believe a rigid hierarchy — most obviously the hierarchy of White people over Black people, but also the hierarchy of men over women, the hierarchy of heterosexual people over homosexual people, and so on. Because they believe in a rigid hierarchy, their support of democracy is going to be limited. They claim to be Christian, but as we heard in the second reading, people like Pastor Chris say that Christian Nationalists interpret the Bible very differently from more conventional Christians.

Coupled with these core religious beliefs, we learned that they are extremely effective at organizing. In the political realm, they have begun to wield unprecedented power. In the religious realm, they have used wedge issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights to cause schisms in moderate religions like the United Methodist Church, and they have used this power to effectively immobilizing their primary religious opponents. They have even managed to fragment American Catholicism by converting several key bishops to their cause, bishops who have become emboldened enough to openly defy Pope Francis.

Their organizational effectiveness extends to the individual level. They’re very good at spreading their religious message. They still mostly hide their core religious belief of racial segregation, and instead focus attention on issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights. At this level, they prefer to organize using diffuse networks; scholars call this strategy “network Christianity.” This clever organizational strategy allows them to have their people infiltrate other religious groups, without having to found new local congregations.

Thinking of the Christian Nationalists as a New Religious Movement helps us to take them more seriously. I hear people talking about Christian Nationalists using terms like “crazy whackos” and “nut jobs” and “idiots.” These are inaccurate terms. The Christian Nationalists are smart, sane, and well organized. They’re quietly spreading their religion everywhere, and indeed they’re here on the South Shore. They’re here, and they’re not going to go away any time soon.

So how do we take back America from the Christian Nationalists? This is not a time for Stoicism; this is not a time to say nothing and to do nothing; this is a time to actively engage with other people. Remember that a core religious belief of Christian Nationalists is hierarchy. They are inherently anti-democratic. So one of the most important things we can do is to strengthen democracy.

We can strengthen democracy by participating in democracy, and in democratic institutions. It may be more comfortable to sit at home and play video games, or watch NetFlix, or whatever you prefer — but we have to get out of the house and do things like attend meetings of local government bodies; volunteer at democratically-run nonprofits; and so on. When it comes to our online lives, we have to do more than post cute cat pictures or engage in flame wars with political opponents — we can build up our own networks to spread our own messages of inclusion and love.

We already do this here at First Parish. We use democracy to run this congregation, and this congregation is a great place to learn how to do democracy, a great place to teach kids how to do democracy. In addition to running our congregation by democratic principles, we serve as a clearing house for information about democracy: we tell each other about what’s going on in our local governments, we raise up social issues that need to be addressed. We’re also quite good at building face-to-face networks, an essential skill for keeping democracy strong. And we’re not bad at building our online network to spread our messages of inclusion and love — and with that in mind, thank you to all of you who “like” the First Parish Facebook and Instagram posts, helping spread our message.

The nice thing about all these efforts is that they feel good when you do them. We’re not just fighting the Christian Nationalist power grab. Doing democracy here at First Parish feels good. Building face-to-face networks feels good. Building positive online networks to spread positive messages feels good. And once we manage to restore manage to democracy to health once again — once we help it recover from diseases like Christian Nationalism — we just keep on doing democracy, which means we can keep on feeling good.