Here is what I presented today as a panelist at a webinar sponsored by the New York State Council of Churches:
The question I hear the most about Christian Nationalism is “what can we do?” What can we do about a movement that believes in authoritarian power and mis-uses the Christian faith to get power and keep it? The first action is to learn all we can and seek to understand why. This is personal for me for two reasons: Some family members are part of it – And I have spent over 50 years as a Christian minister; I am both angry and sad with what is happening. So I want to understand.
By birth I belong to a group that has always been a minority in this nation – white European heterosexual male and protestant Christian. Historically, this minority believed that privilege, power, and wealth were our birthright, even the divine order. This is the story we told, the narrative we crafted, the myth taught to our children. When we were challenged, we passed laws and used the courts – and violence if “necessary” – to enforce that privilege and power. It is not new.
The great replacement theory is rooted in this historical narrative. Do these words sound familiar? … “Civilization is going to pieces. … If we don’t look out, the white race will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff. It’s been proved. It’s up to us who are the dominant race to watch out, or these other races will have control of things.” – That’s from The Great Gatsby in 1925 (p.11) The historical roots of this theory go back at least to Virginia in the 1600s, with their slave laws, and to Reconstruction after the Civil War when Black men could first vote.
Robert P. Jones, in White Too Long, describes what became the southern myth: “Reconstruction… was generally represented as a time when white southerners were victimized by vengeful occupying federal forces who supported black politicians primarily as a way of humiliating their defeated enemies. Southern whites were victims who were dishonorably treated after fighting a noble war.” – They had lost the war, but they would not lose their culture and their home. They would not have Black people replace them or their enemies govern them.
The Reawaken America Tour, rooted in Christian Nationalism, continues that persecution narrative. In Batavia, NY in August, I heard one speaker after another build on that story of being victims who are being treated unfairly by “the enemy,” shouting that their culture, religion, and nation are being destroyed, and they must defend themselves and their country.
The language of one speaker was typical: “The storm is upon us…We win, they lose … We are at war, on a wartime basis … They are evil enemies of freedom… War has been declared….The media is aiding and abetting the enemy.” … This was a call to arms – to rise up and fight for freedom. The organizers and leaders of this movement deny that they encourage violence, even though speakers regularly use the rhetoric of warfare and enemies and “the mission.” The main speaker and organizer was always referred to as “the general” – Gen. Michael Flynn – who PBS Frontline describes as raising “An Army of God” to fight “a holy war.”
Christian Nationalism threatens our democracy by calling for “real Americans” – that is Christians who accept their “biblical worldview”- to get control of every level of government and every sphere of life …. all while saying “we the people” will take “our nation back.” – The language of “we” and they”, “them” and “us” is all I heard. The rhetoric and “jokes” and casual references to specific groups of people all made clear who does not belong – LGBTQ folks, Jews, liberals, Democrats – and “BLM” – that is black activists, or what some white people have called “uppity blacks.”
Many speakers challenge the charge against them of promoting white supremacy and violence. They point out that a third of the dozens of speakers are Black (although 95% of the audience was white) and that there was no violence in and around the event (although there were personal bodyguards and armed security). However, the myth of a Christian nation, chosen by God, dominated the whole event – and this nation, of course, has historically been controlled by white men.
The ideas and language of systemic racism and white supremacy are anathema to this movement. Only individual responsibility matters to them, and racism only exists (in their minds) if an individual consciously hates a person of another color. That same core belief leads to a denial of “hate” being part of their movement. In their minds, they don’t “hate” their enemies – liberals, Democrats, LGBTQ folks, for instance – they just oppose them because “they are evil.” Strange reasoning to us, perhaps, but there it is.
So what are we to do? Perhaps most importantly, we must change the narrative and tell a story that persuades. In a NYT article, AnandGiridharadas (gi-re-de-ha’-das), author of a new book, “The Persuaders,” wrote these words: “The right understands that the more one’s ideas are repeated, the more they seem to millions of people like common sense.” (5) Again … the more a story is told, the more it seems like “common sense.”
That’s why so many people watch Fox News. Their staff repeat the same thing so often that viewers are convinced it is true. For instance, a recent story spun the narrative that Critical Race Theory is being taught in public schools, although denied by “Democrats and the Media.” (6) And, of course, with the assumption that it is bad for our children and our country. And what do they say is being taught?
- Systemic racism, unconscious bias
- White people have white privilege …. And, also ….
- America is a patriarchal society
- Gender is an identity choice
My response was to say “and…?” They know their audience believes all those things are wrong – evil – because they have told them so repeatedly. … The dark narrative of Christian Nationalism and the larger authoritarian movement offers a false hope rooted in a false history. They want to go back to an imagined golden time when everything was good, but it never was – not for most people – not for those who never enjoyed the privilege, wealth, and power of white, heterosexual men, often professing Christians. It was never as good for them.
Our country will soon be majority non-white and non-Christian, and this movement stirs the fear and anger many people feel in this changing world. The leaders use this reality to persuade people it’s “common sense” that they must save themselves and their country, whatever it takes – including violence. People who have now experienced some freedom and privilege refuse to go back. That’s what Christian Nationalists fear and fight against – the very idea of a true democracy in a diverse, empowered nation.
The power of persuasion lies in telling a story that will win the heart and soul of people. For us, it must be a narrative that instills hope in a better future because people do need hope. – We need to learn how to do what leaders of this movement have been doing for a long time – craft a story that motivates people and repeat it so often that it “sounds like common sense.” For us, though, it will be a story that inspires hope for a better future for everyone.
How can we do that? – Let me highlight three things we can do:
First: Listen and learn – Refuse to argue (It does no good) – Do not attack the person – Ask questions that demand thoughtful response (expect them to think and explain) – Learn (in order to understand) what this movement is all about
Second: Challenge the movement – Vote and elect people willing to speak out – Be public and confident in confronting lies and speaking truth with respect and compassion – refuse to be their “enemy”
Third: Tell a story of hope – Craft an alternative narrative, a story that includes them without excluding others – tell it repeatedly everywhere until it “feels like common sense.”
Listen and learn – challenge the movement – tell a story of hope. This is what we can do.