There’s no doubt that today’s armed insurrection was driven by white supremacy. The well-publicized photo of a white man smiling as he carried a Confederate battle flag through the Capitol building makes that clear, if we hadn’t already figured it out.
There’s also no doubt that today’s treasonous actions were driven by the idolatrous heresy known as Christian nationalism. This New Religious Movement — maybe we should use the pejorative term, and call it a cult — followers of this cult of Christian nationalism believe that their god is somehow specially aligned with the United States.
The white supremacy, and the heretical idolatry, helped drive these white terrorists. But I think economic desperation is also driving the broader movement that thinks the election was stolen from their populist hero Donald Trump. There’s too much economic desperation, and that desperation is increasing as the pandemic drags on. There’s a growing number of people who can’t work from home, whose businesses have gone under, whose jobs have disappeared. The divide between the haves and the have-nots has been getting bigger for decades; the pandemic has accelerated this trend.
If we’re going to turn our country away from the treasonous armed terrorists, we absolutely have to address white supremacy. We absolutely have to address the idolatry of the cult known as Christian nationalism. And we also must deal with the economic desperation in the U.S.
Let’s hope today will be the end of Trump’s influence. But even if Trump goes away, the underlying problems will still be there. We have learned that white supremacy, idolatry, and economic desperation are a toxic mix, and we must address all three.
The answer, of course, is “yes.” Many prominent white evangelical pastors continue to support Trump, and are now issuing statements accusing Joe Biden of stealing the election.
While these pastors doubtless think they are doing the Lord’s work, sadly what they are really doing is undermining organized religion. The many American citizens who are not white evangelicals are going to watch this kind of behavior — tweets that undermine democratic process, statements that deny reality — and begin to wonder about Christian churches. And by extension, wonder about the purpose of all organized religion — read the comments, and you’ll find someone calling for an end to tax-exempt status for religious organizations.
I’m a bit resentful because even though I’m about as far from these white evangelical pastors as you can possibly be (OK, I am white, too, but there aren’t many other similarities), as a minister I’m going to experience an erosion of trust because of the way they come across as hypocritical (Christians implicitly inciting violence), violating the separation of church and state, and out of touch with reality.
Sadly, these “court evangelicals” will not drive away the white evangelicals who fill their churches — but they will reduce the overall number of people who are willing to have anything to do with organized religion. So I predict an upwards tick in the “nones,” those with no religious affiliation, following this election.
Equally sadly, I’m increasingly convinced that what these “court evangelicals” do is really politics, not religion. So they’re destroying organized religion, but not actually doing religion themselves.
A short (5 min.) talk for an adult class in which I talk about some stereotypes of Christians, and then suggest listening to the wild diversity of Christian music as a way to get past the stereotypes to begin to understand something of the wild diversity of the Christian religion….
Below is the uncorrected text that I was reading from (I diverged from the text a bit, but this is most of it):
At the literal level, here’s what I see: a White presidential candidate kneeling in front of half a dozen Black men, at least one Black woman, and another White man. I see pews and a crucifix, so I assume that this is in a church, probably a Black church. It looks like a standard presidential campaign photo opportunity. I do wish they had practiced adequate social distancing, to set a good example.
As it turns out, according to Religion News Service (RNS), this is a video still from a video taken when Joe Biden visited Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Wilmington, Del., not long after the death of George Floyd. According to RNS, Biden was at the church to talk about “racial injustice and police brutality before praying with those assembled.” So my literal reading of the photo wasn’t far wrong.
Campaign staffers for the Donald Trump presidential campaign would like to have you see this image in a different light. RNS reports that this video clip has been used to conclude a Trump campaign video which equates Joe Biden with civil unrest. I didn’t have the stomach to watch the video myself, so I will trust RNS when they tell me that immediately following the video clip showing Biden in a Black church, “words appear on the screen reading ‘stop Joe Biden and his rioters’ as Mike Pence declares ‘you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America’.”
Thus it appears that what the Trump campaign staffers who created this ad would have you see is something rather different from what I saw. It appears that what they want you to see is that Joe Biden and Black church leaders are dangerous. However, when the RNS asked this question of Donald Trump’s press secretary, this interpretation was categorically denied:
“Asked whether the ad meant to suggest there was something unsafe about Black churches or meeting with Black leaders in a church, Trump campaign deputy national press secretary Samantha Zager replied, ‘That’s absurd and it’s shameful to even make the allegation.’ When Religion News Service followed up to ask what, exactly, footage of the church visit was meant to imply, Zager did not respond.”
In spite of Zager’s denial, it’s clear to me that the intent of this advertisement is to allow people to complete an equation in their mind: dangerous rioters equals the Black church equals Joe Biden. There is also a clear effort to equate Joe Biden with rioters, and with those athletes who kneel during the national anthem. It also seems likely that this advertisement wants to imply that this White man, Joe Biden, will kneel down before Black men and women.
I had quite a few years of training in the visual arts, and I’m always impressed at the multi-layered messages that visuals in political campaign ads can evoke. And I’m cynical enough that it doesn’t surprise me that the Tump campaign is using racial fears to motivate voters; American politicians have been doing that for centuries now, often with great effect; why would a politician who’s hungry to be re-elected give up a tried-and-true campaign strategy?
But I am troubled that a good portion of the American electorate is still so susceptible to political manipulation through their racial fears that it makes it worth the while of unscrupulous politicians to manipulate the emotions of susceptible voters in this way. Someone thinks this may be a winning strategy for the Trump campaign, and they may well be right. All the elegant theories of White privilege and White fragility and White supremacy — these theories haven’t change the emotional make-up of a great many White Americans. Anyone with training in the visual arts knows that a few well-crafted images can easily bypass the most elegant of theories….
I suspect there’s a role here for artists, illustrators, film makers, video game designers, and other visually skilled people. The visual impact of a movie like “Black Panther” may make more of a difference than your average street protest. There may be a role for amateur artists, too, in flooding the interwebs with imagery that equates Black Americans with patriotism, honor, intelligence, serving the public good, and other politically positive messages.
A group of Christian evangelicals have published a book titled “The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump.” In an interview with Religion News Service, the editor, Ronald J. Sider, founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, answers the question, “So what is the spiritual danger of Donald Trump?”
“I would summarize it this way [Sider says]: Trump lies constantly. He has repeatedly demonstrated adulterous sexual behavior. He fails to make justice for the poor a concern in his policies. He constantly stokes white racism. His response to COVID-19 was dreadfully weak in the first couple of months. His position on climate change is simply disastrous. And his constant attacks on the fake media undermine democracy.”
Most Unitarian Universalists don’t like Donald Trump, but rarely do we speak about why he is a spiritual danger; mostly we focus on why he’s a political danger. I’m obviously not an evangelical Christian, and therefore not the target audience for Sider’s book or his remarks, but I think this summary of Trump as a spiritual danger is spot-on.
Another interesting point Sider makes in this interview is in response to the question of why white evangelicals supported Trump so strongly in 2016. A part of Sider’s response is particularly relevant to Unitarian Universalism:
“It’s partly because, let’s be honest, there’s a left wing fundamentalism as well as the right wing fundamentalism. And there’s a part of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, which is really, I think, hostile to Christianity and certainly to evangelicalism. White evangelicals feel that, and don’t like it.”
This describes too many Unitarian Universalists: we can indeed come across as left wing fundamentalists who refuse to acknowledge that intelligent people can disagree with us on religious issues. For example, there are Unitarian Universalists who are convinced that global climate change is one of the top two or three most pressing issues facing humanity, who claim they’ll do everything they can to arrest global climate change, yet who are condescending and dismissive when they hear the term “creation care.”
There is no doubt that Donald Trump represents a pressing spiritual danger: he’s a liar, a racist, a misogynist, and he’s going to let the world go up in flames. It would be wise for us Unitarian Universalists to figure out how we can work effectively with all those who want to stop this clear and present spiritual danger.
Ralph Drollinger, former professional basketball player and now the leader of Capitol Ministries in Washington, D.C., leads Bible studies for old white guys in power. He can boast that 11 of the 15 members of Trump’s cabinet attend his Bible study. According to the journalist Katherine Stewart, Drollinger should be identified more with politics than religion; specifically, with a political movement Stewart calls “Christian nationalism.” In a recent interview, Stewart quoted Drollinger on the subject of responsibility to the poor:
“The responsibility to meet the needs of the poor lies first with the husband in marriage, secondly with the family, and thirdly with the church. Nowhere does God command government or commerce to support those with genuine needs.”
This sounds to me as though Drollinger is telling rich men that if they will only support their wives and family and maybe give something to their church — beyond that, Drollinger is giving them permission to ignore the poor. Which reminds me of a story in the book of Mark about someone very like Ralph Drollinger who went to Jesus to ask a question:
“As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.”‘ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
If Ralph Drollinger will go and sell everything he owns, and give the money to the poor, then I’ll be willing to listen to his thoughts about supporting poor people. Until then, I’m going to ignore his cold-blooded and heartless words, and I’m going to continue in the tradition of my New England forebears who believed that one of the key roles of government was, in fact, to support those in need.
In an interview on the Religious Studies Podcast, journalist Katherine Stewart points out that it’s wrong to identify all Christian evangelicals with the Trump White House. Stewart’s research shows that the Trump White House uses religion to mobilize voters to support them — specifically, mobilizing voters around abortion and opposition to same sex marriage and LGBTQ+ rights. She calls this a political movement, which she names “Christian nationalism.”
When pressed by the interviewer, David McConeghy, Stewart elaborates on why Christian nationalism is fundamentally about politics, not about religion. Speaking of one of the leaders of the movement, Ralph Drollinger, Stewart says:
“The policies he’s promoting are: deregulation; sort of a compliant workforce; a lack of basic workers’ rights; I think he’s called the flat tax something like ‘God’s form of taxation.’ And you know, this is all music to the ears of the funders of the movement. Many of the funders are these members of plutocratic families … the DeVos and Prince families, the Green family. And these very hyper-wealthy families rely on minimal workers’ rights, and economic and environmental deregulation to maintain and increase their profits. So the movement is promoted to the rank-and-file as being about these culture war issues. But when movement leaders are talking amongst themselves, or to political leaders, the message is much more expansive.”
Stewart also believes, based on her research, that Christian nationalism as a political philosophy is basically opposed to representative democracy; yet the Christian nationalists are also very sophisticated at manipulating the electorate to get their supporters into positions of leadership and power.
For these and other reasons, Stewart asserts that this is a political movement, one that uses religion for its own ends. I think this is a helpful way of looking at electoral politics in this election year: rather than being distracted by the red herring of Christian evangelicals getting involved in politics, we would do better to pay attention to the manipulation of the electorate by the political force of Christian nationalism.
I don’t do Lent — I guess I’m too deeply rooted in the New England Puritan tradition to feel comfortable with such a practice — but I really like what some liberal Christians have come up with for this year’s Lenten season.
These liberal Christians have issued “A Call to Prayer, Fasting, and Repentance Leading to Action” for this Lenten season. It’s a strongly-worded statement that includes phrases like these:
“We reject the resurgence of white nationalism and racism in our nation on many fronts, including the highest levels of political leadership…. “We reject misogyny, the mistreatment, violent abuse, sexual harassment, and assault of women that has been further revealed in our culture and politics, including our churches, and the oppression of any other child of God…. “We strongly deplore the growing attacks on immigrants and refugees, who are being made into cultural and political targets…. “We reject the practice and pattern of lying that is invading our political and civil life….”
You can read more at their Web site, ReclaimingJesus.org, and if you’re a liberal Christian, or in sympathy with their aims and practices, you can sign the pledge and join this season of national prayer and fasting.
As for me, though I won’t be signing their pledge, I’m in sympathy with their aims. I can feel the viciousness in the air these days, and I do feel we’re all complicit in promoting that viciousness — yes, even us religious liberals, who are (in my opinion) too ready to badmouth people we disagree with, too willing to pick fights even with potential allies, too proud of our own self-proclaimed virtuosity. I’ll cop to all those vices. Maybe I’ll do a day of fasting myself, like the old New England Puritans, a day to reign in pride and engage in a little spiritual humility.
In an opinion piece published on Religion News Service, historian John Fea, a progressive Christian evangelical and an expert on evangelical history in the U.S., offers some pointed commentary on right-wing evangelicals like Robert Jeffress and Franklin Graham who are warning of “civil war” should Donald Trump be impeached. In response, Fea offers a historian’s view of why right-wing evangelicals like Jeffress and Graham might welcome a new civil war:
“[Robert] Jeffress’ own First Baptist Dallas, with its long history of segregation … was built upon a Civil War fracture that has not yet healed. Under his leadership, it has failed to confront its long-standing commitment to racial injustice in any meaningful way.”
We live in times when it is worth looking at the way old white guys in power cloak themselves with words. They also surround themselves with expensive ties, expensive watches, expensive haircuts — but their words are the primary tools they use in wielding power.
Rev. Robert Jeffress, evangelical Christian and senior pastor of First Baptist Church, a megachurch in Dallas, Texas, told Fox News in a televised interview: “If the Democrats are successful in removing the President from office (which they will never be), it will cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.” Donald Trump quoted Jeffress in a series of Twitter posts, which Jeffress then retweeted. What did Jefress mean by talking about a civil war? When interviewed by CBN News, he said, “Well I was very careful in the words that I chose, I was not predicting and I was certainly not advocating an actual civil war.” And, he went on, if anyone thought he was in fact advocating for a civil war, they must be “too stupid to understand what we [he and Trump] are saying.”
When you are an old white guy, it’s so easy to surround yourself with the sound of your own words, so you don’t have to hear anything beyond your own words.