Culpability and Christian Nationalism

 I've been grateful to see more widespread national media coverage of the troubling trend toward Christian Nationalism in white American Christianity, and the use of Christian symbols and slogans in the midst of the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Image Courtesy: Religion News Service

Seeing signs that say Jesus Saves next to throngs of armed would-be insurrectionists storming the Capitol, posing for photos with Bibles, are uncomfortable images for American Christians, who would rather avoid discussion of the ways Christianity has been warped in America, to support power and whiteness and violence over the peace, justice and love of our purported Savior, Jesus, who, it bears repeated, was a brown-skinned, Middle-Eastern Jew.

The cozy comfort of church and right-wing American politics, in the midst of such violence and hatred, has to be called into question. And yet a quick, cursory study of American history reveals that such corruption of Christianity is nothing new for white America, partisanship aside. The Southerners wearing white hoods and burning crosses on the lawns of Black families were proud Protestants, praising Jesus on one side of their mouth, and on the other cursing Catholics, Jews, and African Americans.

Christianity has long been used as a gloss by those in power, typically wealthy white men, to keep and hoard power for themselves, and while slaveowners cited Scripture to justify enslaving Black men, women and children; later on segregationists started so-called "Christian schools," in order to keep their white children out of schools with Black children, and preachers talked about riots in the inner city, and law and order, in order to excuse their reluctance to support Civil Rights, much as they did this past summer as Black Lives Matter protesters rose up against the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police.

In America, the Bible has been idolized and glorified such that it can support any sort of political theory at all, even the godlessness of capricious capitalism that excuses the deaths of poor children and vulnerable seniors. Without the fear of God, the author of the sacred text, the sacred text itself is merely putty in the hands of charlatans and salesmen, who would wring money anew out of a book written to honor a Savior who died poor, convicted, and condemned.

As Ecclesiastes 1 says, "nothing is new under the sun," and the same is true of today's Christian Nationalism, a new form of the same old white American Christian supremacy, passed around on social media and in boardrooms instead of in parlors and drinking halls.

What is also not new is the tendency of most of us to pick the speck out of our neighbor's eye before dislodging the hulking log out of our own, particularly when it comes to entrenched societal sin, like racism and white American Christian Nationalism.

That's the issue I want to write to you about today, because it has the potential and the ability to distort the conversation about Christian Nationalism and racism away from the potential for repentance, reparation and healing, and into a destructive cycle of blame, shame, and no change.

I see a troubling but not surprising tendency in much of the national reporting about Christian Nationalism, and it happens in much the same way as it does when white reporters and writers attempt to write about racism, I'm sure myself included.

Too often, our first reaction, after noticing a disturbing trend of racism or Christian Nationalism leading to violence, hatred, and fear on a grand scale, is to disassociate that trend from ourselves. We can call this the "But I'm not racist," reaction. This reaction arises from a natural human desire for self-preservation, but it lodges our response in preserving our own feelings and dignity, rather than engaging with the systemic problems of racism and Christian Nationalism. The problem then becomes personal and individual, instead of communal and universal. 

I see this reaction, thinly veiled, in stories like this one, from our local paper last weekend. The story leads with the sensational, albeit limited audience, story of a fringe rural Minnesota pastor who suggested that a national Democratic platform involved murder and molestation. Coupled with lengthy quotation from another fringe rural Minnesota pastor, who urged his congregants to "arm up" ahead of the assault on the Capitol, the takeaway from much of the story was that Christian Nationalism is fringe, whacky, and totally out of step with regular white American Christian life, particularly if it's urban and liberal.

Readers could see it and think, "gosh, my Pastor never talks like that," and I'd never storm the Capitol. They'd be left with the suggestion, which reporters and Christian leaders have made to me many times, that Christian Nationalism and racism are somehow always someone else's problem, easily identifiable by language and dress and age and look and location and education level. 

This has nothing to do with me! 

This kind of reporting screams of a certain sort of privileged and also natural desire to separate oneself from whatever is uncomfortable or painful. It allows you to imagine that because your ancestors did not own enslaved men, women, and children; because your grandparents didn't support segregation, because you never used the N word, that you have nothing to do with the problem of racism in this country.

It allows you to imagine that because you've never stood and saluted the American flag as part of a worship service, or hung posters with American flags festooned with crosses in your house or place of worship, that you have nothing to do with Christian Nationalism. 

That kind of thinking brings to mind Pontius Pilate, the most powerful man in Jerusalem, washing his hands before the crowd, as he commands his soldiers to crucify Jesus. Or any other recent leader who, after inciting violence, claims he had nothing to do with it, because he was too rich or too powerful or too educated to do such a thing.

Even the Bible writers, persecuted by the Roman Empire, allowed Pilate to escape culpability. Those with power always wish to blame society's problems and society's sins on those with considerably less power and less ability to blame others for their sins. 

When you imagine that Christian Nationalism and racism are only a problem for people who are somehow not like you, you are part of the problem. 

Maybe this idea and this kind of writing, which "other-izes" Christian Nationalism and racism and all sorts of societal sins, hits me harder because as a Pastor of a rural congregation, I see the ways in which fringe speakers and leaders are granted wide width to speak for entire communities, so that liberal white Americans in urban centers reading articles about white American Christian Nationalism can absolve themselves of thinking it's a problem they themselves might have to confront as well. 

A few weeks ago, myself as well as another pastoral colleague and our synodical bishop were interviewed on multiple occasions about Christian Nationalism and how we understood it as rural Christian leaders and pastors. We spoke about its dangers and about where we'd heard Christianity in our own experience being twisted to support violence, hatred, and power. But each of us also spoke with conviction about the complexity and beauty and love of the rural places and people whom we serve (though none of these quotes or ideas made it into the article, unsurprisingly). Each of us deeply love where we are. We understand that grace and love always dwell close to anger, fear, and hatred -- and those of us who want to follow Jesus are called not to run away from confronting the places where Christianity has been replaced by idolatry, but instead run towards the Cross, so that God might work through us to transform relationships and transform despair and death into hope and life.

None of us would do this kind of work if we didn't see that kind of powerful, Holy Spirit-driven work happening each and every single day across rural Minnesota, and by extension, across America. God's change and transformation is always at work long before we catch it and try to be a part of it. But we cannot participate in that work of transformation unless we first acknowledge that we are also part of the work of sin and death. Particularly for white American Christians, like myself, it is a cowardly and unproductive work to, like Jonah, attempt to claim a path away from Nineveh, and imagine that because your congregation might have historically taken liberal political positions, that you are not culpable in white American Christian Nationalism and racism. Like Jonah, you will only end up in the belly of the fish - screaming and distraught and frustrated and not ever being heard.

Christian Nationalism at its root is an idolatry, an idolatry that claims a certain vision of America is worthy of being worshiped and glorified. But Christian Nationalism is also broader than that. Christian Nationalism is the seductive belief that the American government can serve as a substitute for the will and work of God. To be a Christian is to know that God's most powerful work is always done by those granted the least power among us, to be a voice shouting in the wilderness, and if the Gospel is ever preached by the powerful, it is done so fleetingly, before the world is right-sized again, and Christianity takes its rightful place as an outside agitator, a resistance force to the greed and godlessness of the human condition.

It is not too late for American Christians to take this moment and use it as another Reawakening: a moment of Reformation and renewal, as we crawl through the wreckage of the year of COVID-19, to claim this moment as a time of repentance and reparation. I believe that Jesus has been and will continue to be a powerful force for good in the United States of America, and that the church can again, as it was, at least in part, during Civil Rights, and abolitionism, and as it is in care for the sick, the bereaved, the hungry, and the imprisoned; the church can participate in God's work of liberation and love. 

I wonder how much more powerful that work might be if we approached the problem of Christian Nationalism as one requiring repentance and not shame? If instead of writing about the extremes, we wrote about ourselves, the places where we chose power and alignment with power over love and alignment with Jesus? If we located ourselves within the problem as well as the solution? If we didn't always suggest that the societal sin was lodged in someone else's eye?

I'm writing this because I know, dear friends, of Christians and leaders and pastors and parents and teachers and friends and kids across this great country who are already doing that important work. They - and you - give me hope.

Read more from me on this topic here:

In my book, Red State Christians, I wanted to tell stories of ordinary people - and how their lives were shaped by politicized religion and power-hungry Christian leaders. It is their stories, not the ones of from people who've made the most headlines, that I find most compelling and important in my book.


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