Andrew Whitehead, who grew up an evangelical Christian, is now associate professor of sociology at Indiana University and Purdue University Indianapolis. In an opinion piece on Religion News Service, he writes:
“After years of examining Christian nationalism as a social scientist, I’m convinced the greatest threat to Christianity in the United States is not outside forces [i.e., feminism, divorce, homosexuality, Secularism or non-Christian faiths]. Instead, it is white Christian nationalism. Over and over, I find evidence that the practical fruit of Christian nationalism is not love; it is power, control, domination, fear and violence.”
Whitehead then identifies the three chief “idols” that White Christian nationalists worship: “Power, Fear, and Violence.” He concludes with a call to “confront” Christian nationalism.
This is one of the best brief summaries of Christian nationalism I’ve seen. Definitely worth reading.
Are you a Christian nationalist? If you’re reading this blog, I sincerely doubt you are. Nevertheless, if you strongly agree with all of the following statements, according to PRRI you are indeed a Christian nationalist:
U.S. laws should be based on Christian values.
If the U.S. moves away from our Christian foundations, we will not have a country anymore.
Being Christian is an important part of being truly American.
God has called Christians to exercise dominion over all areas of American society.
That last statement is the one that really creeps me out. Unitarians and Universalists got kicked out of the U.S. Christian club a century ago, when the National Council of Churches wouldn’t let us join. So even if you’re a Christian Unitarian Universalist, the Christian nationalists want to exercise dominion over you…tell you what to believe, probably.
I finally watched the BBC’s video clip showing the moments when the Republicans heckled Democratic president Biden’s “State of the Union” speech. Looks like heckling has now become a normal part of the “State of the Union” speech.
What interests me is the hecklers shouting about lies and lying. The first such heckler, if you remember, was the fellow who shouted out that Obama lied. This tradition was upheld this year by the Christian nationalist shouting “Liar!” at Biden.
Knowing what is true is a major concern for U.S. society right now. And those who are within a traditional Christian worldview seem to suffer most from a sense that truth is under attack. Traditional Christians who believe that non-Christians will go to hell are often troubled by the multi-religious landscape of the United States today; those non-Christian people are going to hell, and yet our legal system protects them. This must be extremely disconcerting to certain traditional Christian worldviews.
So it is no surprise that one of the people shouting about lies during this year’s “State of the Union” speech was Christian nationalist Marjorie Greene. I suspect that Greene, who’s a bit of a drama queen, prepared herself in advance for her moment in the spotlight: she wore a dramatic white coat with a big furry ruff, which must have been dreadfully hot but was clearly meant to set off her blonde good looks. And she so obviously enjoyed the moment when she made the audience turn and look at her. She seems to have forgotten, however, that when you shout, it distorts your mouth and face and throat, and it brings out all the little lines in your face making you look older than you are. (This is why I hate seeing videos of myself preaching.) No matter: she made her truth claim in a very public manner, that she knows the truth, and unless the rest of us agree with her she will shout us down as liars.
Back in 2005, philosopher Richard J. Bernstein argued that there were two prevailing mentalities in the United States. On the one hand there is a “mentality that neatly divides the world into the forces of good and the forces of evil.” On the other hand, there are those of us who “live without ‘metaphysical comfort,’ … live with a realistic sense of unpredictable contingencies” (The Abuse of Evil: The Corruption of Politics and Religion Since 9/11 [Malden, Mass.: Polity Press, 2005], pp. 12-13).
Greene and other Christian nationalists belong to the mentality that neatly divide the world into good and evil; they long for comfort and fear the unpredictability that pervades the world. Because of their fear, they cling to whatever certainties they can manufacture, and call those manufactures divine revelation.
But they should remember that when they shout, it distorts their faces….
Unitarian Universalist congregations are receiving guidance from the denominational headquarters and regional staff to stay away from their buildings tomorrow, Sunday, January 17. The guidance says that right wing extremists are expected to be targeting state capitols with violent protests, and there’s a very small but non-zero chance that violence might spill over on to other targets. Regional staff says:
“If you have staff in your buildings over the weekend — perhaps to record your worship service — you may want to consider staying away for the weekend.”
Similar guidance has been offered for Wednesday, January 20, Inauguration Day. So if you were going to go down and sit in your congregation’s garden, or walk your congregation’s labyrinth — consider doing it on another day. Chances are really slim that your congregation’s building or campus will be targeted, but why take chances.
And probably best to not editorialize about this on your favorite social media outlets. The guidance we’re getting is — don’t engage in any way with the extremists. For that reason, I’ll disable comments for this post.
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):
Several sociologists have found a characteristic that seems to predict with some accuracy who will flout social distancing restrictions designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19: Christian nationalists.
“Samuel Perry (associate professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma) and his colleagues, such as Andrew Whitehead of Indiana University and Joshua Grubbs of Bowling Green State University, argue in a series of new papers that Christian nationalism is either the single best predictor or a top predictor of whether a person will flout social distancing recommendations, be skeptical of science, find nothing racist about calling COVID-19 the ‘China virus’ or argue that lockdown orders threaten the economy and liberty — all while de-prioritizing the threat to the vulnerable.” — as reported by Religion News Service.
At the same time, the ideology of Christian nationalism apparently has only a weak connection to the Christian religion:
“In fact, religious devotion of any kind often had the opposite effect to Christian nationalism, and was the leading predictor of whether someone would take precautionary measures. ‘We found religious people were more likely to wash their hands, to use hand sanitizer and to avoid touching their face — all the things that were recommended,’ [Perry] said. ‘We find religious people are more likely to say, “If we have the decision between individual liberty and protecting the vulnerable, we’re going to protect the vulnerable”.’…He added: ‘In other words, (religious people) tend to look like pretty good neighbors.'”
Perry explains the trend as an “emerging crisis of authority.” Not surprisingly, Christian nationalists believe in conspiracy theories and distrust both scientists and the media. Christian nationalists feel that their country is being taken away from them; not surprising, then, that they are more likely to trust people like Donald Trump, who they think is going to save their country for them.
I wonder if the rise of Christian nationalism correlates in any way to the rise of the “Nones,” people who have no affiliation to organized religion. I’ve often thought that what really underlies the rise of the “Nones” is a rise of hyper-individualism and a distrust of authority; the Christian nationalists would certainly match that description. And we know from surveys that most of the “Nones” believe in God; might some of the “Nones” in fact be Christian nationalists? But this is entirely speculation on my part.
Remember that neither Trump nor most Christian nationalists actually belong to a church: they are too individualistic to want to submit to the demands that organized religion makes.
Whereas those of us who do participate in organized religion tend to make “pretty good neighbors.”
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.