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.

Who Are We, Anyway?

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 comes from the 2011 book “American Religion: Contemporary Trends,” by sociologist Mark Chaves.

Why the dramatic increase in religious “nones” [since 1990]? … The best explanation for the acceleration of that trend is that it represents a backlash to the religious right’s rising visibility in the 1980s. As Claude Fischer and Michael Hout put it, “the increasing identification of churches with conservative politics led political moderates and liberals who were already weakly committed to religion to make the political statement of rejecting a religious identification.” The basic idea is this: if I was raised, say Catholic or Baptist, and I am a social and political liberal who is not particularly religious, before 1990 I still would be comfortable enough with my religious background to tell a pollster that I am Catholic or Baptist. But after Jerry Falwell’s and Pat Robertson’s rise to prominence, heavy Catholic church involvement in anti-abortion activism, and extensive media coverage of the religious right’s campaigns against feminism, evolution, and homosexuality, I am less comfortable affiliating with the religion in which I was raised. Now I am more likely to respond to a religious preference question by saying “none” because that is a way to say, “I’m not like them.” After 1990 more people thought that saying you were religious was tantamount to saying that you were a conservative Republican. So people who are not particularly religious and who are not conservative Republicans now are more likely to say that they have no religion. [pp. 20-21]

The second reading is from “Why I am a UU: An Asian Immigrant Perspective,” by Kok Heong McNaughton.

“I am an ethnic Chinese born and raised in Malaysia…. I first heard the word ‘Unitarian’ in 1976 from a Taiji student of mine who was a member of the Unitarian Church of Los Alamos…. I followed the activities of this church through their newsletter for several months before attending my first service.

“This was a service about Amnesty International. It blew my mind. Back home in Malaysia, I grew up without political freedom. As students, we were told to avoid any involvement in politics. Our job was to study. Leave politics to the politicians. Accept the status quo. Don’t rock the boat. You’ll be OK. Try to make trouble? You’ll mysteriously disappear and rot in a jail somewhere. Here I was flabbergasted because here’s a group of people whose passion was to free political prisoners in third world countries! I never knew about Amnesty International. I suddenly felt this connection of humankind for one another, that there are people here in the free world who care enough to fight against injustices in the world. I never knew of a church that would take a stand on human rights issues. I had thought that all one does in a church was to sing hymns, praise the Lord, pray for one another’s salvation, and put money in the collection basket.

“After that first service, I returned again and again. The more I found out about Unitarian Universalism, the more it fitted. I particularly appreciated the use of science and reason to explore and to determine for oneself what is the truth, what are myths, what to accept and what to reject in building one’s own unique theology. I didn’t have to take everything on blind, unquestioning faith. Another aspect of Unitarian Universalism that makes me feel special as an Asian American is the emphasis on cultural, ethnic and religious diversity. I didn’t have to check a part of me at the door and to pretend to be who I wasn’t. My ethnic differences were not only accepted, but they were affirmed and upheld. People were interested in what I had to share: I teach Taiji and Qigong, I taught Chinese cooking classes, I bring ethnic foods to our potlucks, I even share my language with those who were interested. I am often consulted about Taoist and Buddhist practices and readings, and asked if I thought the translations were accurate. My opinion mattered. This not only gives me pride in my culture, but it also encourages me to dig deeper into my own heritage, to find out more in areas where my knowledge and expertise are lacking. It helps me to look at my heritage with fresh eyes.”

Sermon: “Who Are We, Anyway?”

Fifteen or so years ago, back when I was working at First Unitarian in New Bedford, an old college friend who became a rabbi paid me a visit. He brought his children along to see the church building, a big old stone pile built when New Bedford had the highest per capita income of any city in the United States. I pointed out the huge Tiffany glass mosaic behind the pulpit, and a few other historical objects that I figured visitors would be interested in. Then my friend the rabbi wanted to point out a few things to his children. “In a Christian church,” he began. “Well,” I said, not wanting to contradict him in front of his kids, “We got kicked out of the Christian club more than a century ago. So I’m not sure you could call us Christians.”

My friend the rabbi looked surprised. From his point of view, of course we were Christians: we met on Sunday, we had a church building, our services are almost identical to typical mainline Protestant church services. “Then what would you call yourselves?” he said. “Um,” I said, “Maybe Post-Christians? That probably describes us best.” While I said it, I realized that the term “post-Christian” would have little or no meaning to his children, then aged about 5 and 7 years old. Nor would the term post-Christian mean anything to the vast majority of adults in the United States.

This trivial anecdote gets at a big question: Who are we, anyway?

On the one hand, there’s a pretty good argument to be made that we are, in fact, Christians. So what if the other Christians didn’t let us into the Christian club when they formed the National Council of Churches, and later the World Council of Churches? Christians are fairly notorious for saying that other Christian groups aren’t “real Christians.” At various times, other Christians have said this about the Mormons, the Christian Scientists, the Seventh Day Adventists… and right now the United Methodists are splitting apart because the conservatives among them say that “real Christians” would never allow same sex marriage. Christians are pretty notorious for saying that other Christians are not Christians. So just because Unitarian Universalists got kicked out of the Christian club doesn’t mean that we’re not Christians.

On the other hand, while there are many Christians among us, I’ve met Unitarian Universalists who think of themselves as atheist, Pagan, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, or nothing in particular. I’ve been to a number of Unitarian Universalist Pagan services that had absolutely nothing to do with Christianity. I’ve hung out with Unitarian Universalist Jewish groups, who are quite firm about absolutely not being Christian. Then there are the many sub-groups among us who don’t do any kind of deity — the atheists, the non-theists, the humanists, the apatheists (people who are apathetic about the concept of God), the religious naturalists, and so on. Among the atheists there are Christian atheists, atheists who want to retain the cultural aspects of Christianity. And then there are people like me, the wild-eyed mystics who don’t fit neatly into any of these categories. We have way too much religious diversity to be considered Christians.

Part of the problem is that Christians are generally allowed to have just one religious identity. You are either one thing, or another. You can be a Christian or a Jew, but you can’t be both. It gets even narrower than that: You can be a Roman Catholic or a Protestant, but you can’t be both. Christianity presents a distinct contrast to some East Asian cultures, where it can be completely acceptable to feel affiliated (to for example) Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and folk religious practices all at the same time.

Another part of the problem is that Christians generally think of religion as being all about correct belief. You believe in God, you believe in the Trinity, then you’re a Christian — and then the Christians try to impose that criterion onto other religious traditions. However, any comparative religion scholar can tell you that there are plenty of other religious traditions that are not focused on belief.

A third part of the problem is that our Christian-dominated culture assumes that religion has only a few big categories. There’s Christianity, which is assumed to be the paradigm against which all other religions are measured. There’s Judaism, which is sort of like Christianity without Jesus. There’s Islam, which is sort of a branch of Christianity with another prophet. There’s Buddhism, which is sort of like Christianity because Buddha is a reformer like Jesus. There are some other major religions which kind of resemble Christianity. Then there are lots of “primitive religions” which are primitive because they don’t resemble Christianity. When you put it like this, it all sounds like nonsense, and yet a great many people in our society really do think that other religions are honest-to-goodness religions only insofar as they resemble Christianity.

In light of our societal prejudices, no wonder it’s hard to explain Unitarian Universalism. We don’t have a problem with multiple religious identities, like Unitarian Universalist Buddhist or Unitarian Universalist Christian. We don’t have one correct belief, but expect that we will all be open and searching. We don’t feel that Christianity is the paradigm against which all other religions are measured. By our society’s standards, we are not, in fact, a “real religion.”

And honestly, many of us are just as happy that we’re not considered a “real religion.” The religious right has created a climate where to be religious means being sexist and homophobic. The religious right has created a climate where to be religious means rejecting evolutionary science, rejecting climate science, and maybe even rejecting all science that comes up with inconvenient conclusions. The religious right has even begun to create a climate where to be religious means being a Christian nationalist. No wonder that a growing percentage of Americans, when asked to identify their religious affiliation, choose “none.” So if the Christian right claims that we Unitarian Universalists are not a “real religion,” that may be the best thing that could happen to us.

I’ve now spent much of this sermon in explaining, not who we are, but who we are not. This is the reality of being a Unitarian Universalist in our society: we don’t fit into the neat little box of American religion. I’m afraid we just have to get used to the fact that we’re going to have to explain over and over again that we don’t require people to believe in God, that we are not Christian nationalists, and that by American standards we are not a “real religion.”

For a positive statement of who we are, we can turn to the second reading, the excerpt from Kok-Heong McNaughton’s essay “Why I Am a UU.” A few things stand out for me in Kok-Heong’s essay.

First and foremost, as Unitarian Universalists we care enough to fight against the injustices we see in the world around us. Our religion does not exists only to support our personal spiritualities. We also come together to make the world a better place. While this might seem to be a characteristic of many religions, our approach is slightly different. Rather than having a pre-determined notion of what we should do to make the world a better place, we look at the many problems around us and use reason to determine where we might make the most difference.

The use of reason is an important part of who we are. Rather than relying on blind, unquestioning faith, we ask questions and and use our reasoning powers to try to answer those questions. Since we know how easy it is for us human beings to deceive ourselves, we also come together as communities to try to get closer to the truth. In other words, we use the principles of scientific method. Scientific method requires a community of peers to examine each other’s hypotheses and conclusions. You have to be willing to rethink your conclusions if other people show you evidence that you might be wrong.

We also attempt to value the cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity among us. This actually goes along with our search for truth: we know from science that all human beings have biases that we’re not really aware of, and in order to get through our biases to the truth, we need to constantly check with other people who may lack our biases. I will also say that this for me is the most exciting part of being a Unitarian Universalist. As a straight white provincial male from west of Boston, it’s way too easy for me to think that Boston is the Hub of the Universe and that there is no life west of the Connecticut River; which means it’s way too easy for me to take for granted things that I should really be questioning. Our religious, cultural, and ethnic diversity is one of our greatest strengths.

One of the ways we celebrate our diversity is by allowing the various individuals in our community to share their individual talents and expertise. You can see that here at First Parish. Our members teach our religious education classes to our children. One of our members with expertise in Buddhist practice leads a meditation class. Our circle ministries are planned and coordinated by our members. Our social justice programs are planned and led by our members. And while a minister leads a little more than three quarters of our Sunday morning services, close to a quarter of all our services are led by lay people. Each one of us represents a source of knowledge and wisdom, and we encourage each other to find out more where our own knowledge and expertise is lacking.

Our religion does not provide certainty. Instead of saying, “We have the one true answer so you better come join us,” we say, “We’re trying to figure all this out, why don’t you come join us?” Can we sum all this up in a single simple positive statement? There used to be a push for Unitarian Universalists to come up with an “elevator speech,” a ten-second spiel on Unitarian Universalism that we could spit out if someone asked us to explain our religion while sharing an elevator with someone. The format of an elevator speech tends to push people to try for certainty: we are this, or we are that. But if we’re a faith without certainty, then an elevator speech will most likely misrepresent who we actually are.

So it is that if someone asks me — Who are you Unitarian Universalists, anyway? — I don’t have a set response. I may say that we don’t care much about what you believe, but we do care what you do with your life. I may say that we believe the search for truth is ongoing, and that searching for truth works best in a community where a diverse group of people can help you challenge your unquestioned assumptions.

Sometimes, someone is insistent to know exactly what it is the Unitarian Universalists “believe.” So here’s what I might say to give a positive statement of what Unitarian Universalism is all about. We care enough to fight against injustice; we use science and reason to help us find the truth; we need community to help us find truth; we value cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity; we all take responsibility for teaching and learning together.

And if I meet someone who seems genuinely interested in our congregation, who seems like they’re maybe thinking about becoming a part of our congregation, then I won’t spend a lot of time explaining who we are, or what we “believe.” When Kok-Heong McNaughton started asking about her local Unitarian Universalist congregation, the person she talked to didn’t waste time in explanations: “When I indicated an interest,” said Kok-Heong, “instead of giving me an earful, she simply called up the church office and put me on their newsletter mailing list.” If we’re more about deeds than creeds, the newsletter is a pretty good way to introduce someone to our actual deeds.

And maybe that’s the best short answer to the question, “Who are you Unitarian Universalists, anyway?” Read our newsletter. Look at our website. Know us by what we do.