Freedom – mine or ours?

Binary thinking – all or nothing, black or white, right or wrong – undergirds the worldview of a global authoritarian movement which includes Christian Nationalism. We’ve all heard the language:

  • My way or the highway.
  • You can’t have it both ways.
  • We can’t both be right.
  • Those are the rules.
  • It’s the principle of the thing that matters.
  • Love it or leave it.

    This way of understanding the world leaves little room for complexity or nuance. It’s about following the rules, and there is little room for empathy. It’s about principles, not people. Justice means people getting what they deserve, not setting people free who don’t deserve what they are getting in life.

    George Lakoff’s family model for understanding the morality of politics – all of life, really – makes sense of the deep divisions we experience. You can find more research than you want on his website or by just searching for Strict Father and Nurturant Parent, which are his terms for describing two foundational worldviews at the heart of our divisions, one based on Authority and one on Compassion.

    At first glance, this seems binary in itself, as if each one of us sees the world as “strict fathers” or as “nurturant parents.” Lakoff, however, reminds us that life is a continuum. It’s not either/or. Sometimes we act more as strict fathers and sometimes more as nurturant parents, depending on the context. Still, he insists – and I agree – most of us strongly favor one more than the other in how we view the world – how the world “should” be.

    One primary difference is whether we see responsibility as primarily individual or systemic. For instance, if I don’t feel that I’m better than someone of another race, does that mean I’m not racist? Or do I – as a white man – acknowledge the privileges and freedoms I have simply because of the color of my skin? Is racism only a matter of individual responsibility or is it a systemic reality in which we all participate, either having or being denied those privileges? And so I share responsibility for changing it?

    Or consider poverty. Are people poor primarily because they don’t individually take the initiative and work hard enough? So they don’t deserve any help from the government? Charity from a religious or nonprofit agency is okay, but not any publicly-funded programs? … Or does poverty have multiple, interrelated causes – including racism, poor education, sexism, low wages, and a system designed to keep people poor? Does government (at all levels) share responsibility for such a system, and do we as citizens in a democracy also share responsibility to change it?

    For people with a Strict Father view of the world, individual freedom is most important. Freedom from “the burden” of paying taxes. Freedom from “government control” of just about anything, such as education, guns, business. However, an exception to government control is made if it’s a matter of what they consider to be moral issues, such as reproductive freedom or LGBTQ rights, because those are matters of individual responsibility that must be limited for the sake of the nation. Or so the reasoning goes.

    For people with a Nurturant Parent view of the world, a desire for everyone to enjoy freedom is tied to justice – and all of it is systemic. What’s good for the greatest number of people – the common good – requires a democratic government (of the people, by the people, for the people) to use its resources to help people who have been denied freedom and justice by the system. We pay our taxes and pool our resources to provide education, enhance infrastructure, build better neighborhoods and housing, improve healthcare, and regulate corporations for the well-being of our communities. As many have said, no one is free until all are free. Individual responsibility ties directly to systemic responsibilities. One without the other reinforces injustice and denial of freedoms for many people.

    Lakoff’s paradigm helps make sense of our divisions. Christian Nationalism, more political than religious, can best be understood in this way as well. Does it seem at times like we live in different “worlds”? We do – and this is why. If we can understand both “worlds” better – though we might disagree vociferously – we can learn to “tell the story” of the kind of world we want to live in so it makes sense to more people.

    Call it hate

    The first headline I saw yesterday morning was “Gunman kills 5 at LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs.” An unknown motive so far. Being investigated as a hate crime. Was it? People wonder – and argue.

    Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert tweeted: “The news out of Colorado Springs is absolutely awful. This morning the victims & their families are in my prayers. This lawless violence needs to end and end quickly.” Many were quick to point out how public condemnation of LGBTQ folks from “the right” is one reason for such violence. She is not alone in this, but her words are an example. She has repeatedly used language like …. perversion, monstrosity, mutilation, butchering, grope young children – and how such people are “spitting in God’s face.”

    Does that not sound like hate? Yet she – and millions of other people who share her views – deny that they hate anyone. At Reawaken America Tour events, the same language dominates the rhetoric with words like enemies, demonic, perverted, evil. If you heard all of this in reference to people like you, would you not experience it as hate? I would. I do.

    People who claim the name of “Christian” direct such violent, hate-filled words toward the LGBTQ community, but not to them alone. Liberals and Democrats and “woke” people are public targets of the same language of hate and the violence it provokes. BIPOC communities (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) are openly attacked, not just with hate-filled language, but with violent acts, such as the shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde and the ongoing abductions of Indigenous girls and women.

    As they have been for centuries, Jews also bear the brunt of this hatred. Antisemitism has been on the rise for several years, with attacks on synagogues, schools, cemeteries, and Jewish centers. About 10 days ago, FBI Director Wray said that “…antisemitism remains ‘a pervasive and present fact,’ and vowed to protect American Jewish communities against unyielding threats of violence. ‘Jewish people continue to face repeated violence and very real threats, from all kinds of actors … simply for being who they are.’”

    Confronted with the hate-induced violence so pervasive in our country, how do people respond when challenged about their hate? They deny that they hate anyone or that their language is hateful. The ideas and language of anything systemic are anathema to this movement. Only individual responsibility matters to them, and hate only exists (in their minds) if an individual consciously hates another person. In their minds, they don’t “hate” their enemies – liberals, Democrats, LGBTQ folks, Jews, or Blacks – for instance – they just oppose them because “they are evil.”

    None of this is new, especially in the context of Christian Nationalism, a movement led by people completely convinced they are the defenders of morality, of what God wants, and of what they call “a Christian nation.” Historically, religious certitude of what is true and moral has divided tribes and nations for centuries. More recently, founders of this modern movement in the U.S., like Jerry Falwell, claimed absolute knowledge of God’s will according to their interpretation of “God’s Word.” And their “interpretation” includes what they see as the “evils” of abortion and homosexuality, the “destruction” of marriage and family, and the undermining of white male supremacy (although they deny that term).

    Someone asked me recently (as a Baptist minister) what this movement does with the teachings of Jesus. For the same reason, I’ve often asked aloud: “how can Christians act like this?” At the core of this movement is a worldview that allows little space for difference of opinions or empathy for people. It is a rules-based, authoritarian movement, firmly entrenched in one version of traditional Christian religion where the power rests with those who defend “the truth” and oppose “evil”. And in that tradition, there is no room for people outside the boundaries they have set. Far too often, people on the outside become the target of hate-filled language and sometimes the literal target of deadly violence. Let’s call it what it is. Call it hate.

    How do people change?

    Why and how do people change? My doctoral thesis began with those words. My research led me to define imagination as the human ability to interpret what we experience in a meaningful way. How do we imagine the world to be? How do we see it?  That’s what gives meaning to our experience of life. If we can imagine it differently – see it another way – we change our experience of it and live in a different way.

    Many people see Christian Nationalism as scary and terrifying, and they often equate people caught up in it with the movement itself and its leaders. Perhaps, though, many of those people are themselves afraid. Afraid and confused – and listening to movement leaders because what they say seems like common sense. If that’s true, then why not give them another way of seeing the world and making sense of what’s happening?

    In The Persuaders, Anand Giridharadas tells stories of a dozen people whose work focuses on changing the way people see the world and, as a result, making different social and political choices. Anat Shenker-Osorio, a messaging consultant, uses the term “persuadables” for people who are moderates. Why? Because, she says, “they toggle between competing views of the way the world works, and whatever they hear repeated most frequently becomes ‘common sense’ and ‘what everybody thinks.’” This 50-year-old movement has done that for a long time.

    Giridharadas summarizes her approach to persuasion this way:

    “If Shenker-Osorio is right that persuadables aren’t looking for an average of two positions but rather for what is normal, common sense, how the world works, then the way to persuade them of your view is by making it ubiquitous around them, inescapable. …. Repetition is a really big deal. More familiar messages are rated more convincing. Never mind the content. Repetition creates cognitive ease, so people rate familiar ideas as more favorable, more convincing, and more positive.”

    One of her slogans is “Painting the beautiful tomorrow.” Don’t argue with people. Don’t debate issues and policies and “truth.” Help people see a better world.

    “People aren’t stirred to reduce harm. They’re motivated to create good. As many have remarked, Martin Luther King did not get famous for saying, ‘I have a complaint.’ He certainly did not get famous for saying, ‘I have a multi-bulleted list of policy proposals.’ There has to be a dream. …You’ve got to sell people on the beautiful tomorrow.”

    Shenker-Osorio also gives a word of caution: “When you open with anger, what you can’t achieve is the second step—the hope. It’s not that people don’t think our ideas are right. It’s that they don’t think our ideas are possible, and so why bother?”

    Do we? – Do we believe our ideas are possible? That a world of empathy and compassion for people is possible? If we can see such a world, then we must learn to describe it. To talk about what it’s like and how it can “work” for everyone. The movement drives people with fear. We want to empower people with hope. We do that by telling a different story –  helping people “see” the world we want everyone to live in – and living together in that world.

    Moving from fear to hope

    Scary and terrifying! Common words people use to express their reactions when they learn about Christian Nationalism, but is that what we want? Do we want people to be afraid? I don’t. Fear is what this movement uses to drive people, to get them to do what is necessary to gain power. A global authoritarian movement, of which Christian Nationalism is one part, heightens fear and anger already present in people to gain their loyalty and increase their power.

    I oppose Christian Nationalism because I don’t want to live in a world it wants to build. Where they see the world through the lens of authority and rules, I see the world as a place of compassion and empathy. In that world, people with the power make the rules and enforce them with little mercy. In the world I imagine, power is shared, people take priority over rules, and compassion leads toward a healing, restorative justice. [Image below suggested by George Lakoff’s model of Strict Father/Nurturant Parent]

    People often say, “It seems like we live in different worlds.” We do. One values authority, rules, and power over the well-being of people. The other values compassion, empathy, and mutual care and working together for “the common good.” They are very different worlds, and I want to live in a compassionate world. That’s why I work against this movement.

    Movement leaders deny it, but their anger comes from fear of losing property, privilege, and power from 400 years of white men (mostly nominally protestant Christian in the U.S.) having the authority to make and enforce the laws. This nation will soon be majority non-white and non-Christian, and people are afraid and angry of losing what they had. Women and people of color who benefitted from that historical reality share the fear and anger as movement supporters.

    How do we challenge the movement and change the narrative? How do we move from fear to hope? Is it possible to persuade people in this movement to see a different world and to value a world of compassion and empathy over authority and power?

    I’m reading a book by Anand Giridharadas, The Persuaders, that stirs a hopeful “yes” in me. An interview with Loretta Ross, a pioneering activist and theorist in the Black radical feminist tradition suggests a path in that direction. One conclusion from the interview says what I’m experiencing:

    “In the realm of electoral politics, these are people on the diametrically opposite side from you. They don’t share a vision with you, nor even a basic worldview, nor even necessarily fundamental values or language. They may use the exact same words and mean completely different things by them.”  

    (Giridharadas, Anand. The Persuaders (pp. 49-50). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition)

    All of life is a continuum, and some people do share elements of both worldviews of authority or compassion. Too many seem to be on “diametrically opposite sides,” and most do seem to mean different things even when we use the same words. What can we do? How can we challenge and persuade at the same time? Loretta Ross reminds us that most people see themselves as good people, so we can use that:

    “…Help them lean into an internal exploration of themselves and show them how to bolster that self-perception of them being good people by walking them through examples: ‘Well, if you saw a Black person that needed a kidney donation and you were a match, would you do it?’ That kind of thing. Make them really question that interior set of values that they think they have and see if they’re willing to actually go down that path of exploring those values.”

    Giridharadas, Anand. The Persuaders (p. 50). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

    Then Ms. Ross challenges us to do our own personal work if we hope to persuade others to see the world differently. Here is an excerpt from the interview:

    She told them that before they worry about those they were trying to win over, they should look at themselves. “You have to be in a loving, healing space to call anybody in,” Ross told me. “You can’t do it from anger, because it’s just going to end up badly. So you have to assess why you’re doing it. What’s your motivation? Are you trying to help this person learn, or are you actually trying to change them?” It was a striking distinction—helping a person learn versus trying to change them. When we speak of changing someone’s mind, winning someone over, aren’t we attempting both at once? Not for Ross. “You can’t change other people,” she told me. “You can’t even change the person you’re married to. You can help people. You can expose people to different information and help them learn—if you do so with love.”

    Giridharadas, Anand. The Persuaders (p. 55). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

    With over 50 years as an activist, working especially with Black women (one of the most oppressed groups in our nation), Ms. Ross has every reason to be angry and combative in her work, but she speaks of love. She reminds us that we must do our personal work first, assessing our motivations, and then “help the person learn” – not try to change them, but help them to learn.

    Back to the two worldviews – ways of seeing the world and imagining that this is how it “works” … This is not either/or, just one or the other. People are at different places in life. Some may be so enmeshed with the movement that they remain “diametrical opposites” to us, but not everyone. Some are tired of living with fear and anger driving them, and there may be an openness to learning – to a new way of seeing the world. This is where we begin.

    The next day

    “The next day” sounds better than “ the day after,” don’t you think? The voting is behind us, but all the races are not yet decided. Even the control of the Senate or the House is not clear as of early the next day. What happens going forward? And going forward is our goal.

    My morning email brought the word of the day – Democracy: a government of the people, by the people, for the people, as Abraham Lincoln phrased it. More than many people anticipated, democracy “won” yesterday. We are still divided. Most races were very close, and some may not be decided for several weeks – but no single party dominated. That’s democracy in action.

    What now? Yesterday I voted. Today I speak out – and keep on learning.

    At 1:30 pm ET today, I will attend a webinar sponsored on “Countering Christian Nationalism,” sponsored by Faithful America. Nine prominent faith leaders and issue experts will discuss providing a true Christian show of force for democracy and will respond to Christian Nationalism’s role in the election, demand that every vote be counted, and talk about what comes next. (Register here if it’s not yet happened, and find the video if it has.)

    Tonight at 6:30 pm ET, I will present a workshop on Christian Nationalism: Freedom, Faith, and Family at the Batavia Presbyterian Church. It will be streamed on Facebook Live on the church’s page, and the video will be accessible later. In part, we will discuss my experience at the Reawaken America Tour event in Batavia in August. If you’ve missed my posts reporting on that event, you can find them here on my blog.

    Today is launch day for Imagine: a learning community working together to build a better world. You can find tonight’s presentation as an extended course with a range of resources: Introduction to Christian Nationalism: What Can We Do? Imagine community members will also find a growing “library” of interviews, resources, and weekly updates on what’s happening in our world and with this movement. (Membership is only $10/month.)

    For more than 15 years – since I taught a seminar on the dangers of the religious right, I have kept learning, doing the research, following the growing power of the movement. I don’t share their “biblical worldview,” and I don’t want to live in the authoritarian world they are working to build. I imagine a world very different – one with compassion and empathy and working for a restorative justice for all people.

    Will you join me on this journey? Imagine the world you want, and learn how to build it, working with other people who imagine the same kind of world.

    What about antisemitism?

    Joyce Herman, in Rochester NY, responded to what I have been posting about Christian Nationalism. She focuses, especially, on White Nationalism and the antisemitism that accompanies it. Her comments deserve a wider audience than a “reply” at the bottom of a post. With her permission, I am posting what she wrote:

    Thank you for adding your voice to the conversation about the radical White Nationalist Christian Right. As we know, they have morphed from what seemed like a fringe group into a large force that is tolerated, if not embraced, by the Republican Party.

    Comparisons to the tactics and rhetoric of Germany in the 1930’s are hard to ignore. (See Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny, written originally in 2017, Graphic Edition 2021).  As we look at the underlying and sometimes slyly hidden bedrock of their beliefs, antisemitism is more than the elephant in the room. In their intergroup communications they explicitly blame Jews as the all powerful force promoting the “Great Replacement” plan.  This Great Replacement narrative, actually a version of the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion, now serves as code for directing blame onto Jews for white people’s feared loss of power.

    Eric Ward, senior consultant for Southern Poverty Law Center and the founder of the Western States Movement opened a lot of eyes, including mine, as to just how central antisemitism is to the White Nationalist movement in Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism I highly recommend his article for anyone seeking to understand the underlying dynamics.  Also, you can read about Eric Ward here.

    As antisemitism has exploded in the last couple of years, and until this week, I had noted the curious dynamic of invisibility that had muffled antisemitism reports. In retrospect, even after Charlottesville, where marchers carrying tiki torches yelled “Jews will not replace us” as they went back and forth in front of a synagogue on shabbat, most media reported that they were “racists,” as if that covered it … without mentioning antisemitism. I find even folks who want to be allies to Jews tend to talk about “hate” without specifically mentioning anti-semitism, or Jews.

    I was pleased to see that you did mention antisemitism early in your talk, although Jews were only assumed included when you report that speaking of “the enemy” was central to their talks.  White Nationalists vitriol for the hated “enemy” is likely to conjure an image of Jews in their followers’ minds.  Barbara Love, another Black liberation leader (Ward is Black) has pointed out that failure to talk about antisemitism is part of the problem and increases the chance of it escalating. 

    Invisibility and erasure are indeed part of many oppressions. Our Black siblings speak of “erasure,” when their obvious and horrendous history is not taught. LGBTQ+ folks history and treatment has been hidden.  It seems to me that allies not naming and condemning acts of antisemitism is a similar hurt.  Further, as Ward understands, not exposing the various ways antisemitism is perpetrated is ultimately a threat to everyone. He says that racism will never be solved so long as antisemitism is unaddressed.  The “oldest hate” has long been used by tyrants to derail progressive movements.

    I am aware that even as I write this, the picture is changing, with more coverage of the most egregious antisemitic rants, which then cite the huge rise in antisemitic incidents. New York Times columnist Bret Stevens “thanks” Ye (Kanye West) for bringing antisemitism out in the open.

    I appreciated your thoughtful suggestions about how to proceed If we are to meet the challenges that our country and the world face now and in the near future. God knows we need to be vigilant and active on many fronts as our society is collapsing. I’d like to suggest adding the following strategies against the rising threats.

    1. Stay awake and aware.  Notice both what is in plain sight and what is lurking beneath the surface.  Do not allow yourself to be hoodwinked by insinuations and dog whistles and other tricks that are designed to point blame and scapegoat Jews or others.
    2. Do not go silent:  Be vocal about what you see 
    3. Seek ways to build alliances across identities. Reach out to those who are different. Form common cause with them. 
    4. Stay in the room with allies even if if gets uncomfortable.  This is not a time to be defensive, compare oppressions, or leave if things get tricky.
    5. Affirm goodness, kindness, connection, beauty… and love …  and bring them into relationships as widely as possible.

    What is a Conservative?

    How do we define “conservative” in 2022? Depends on who we listen to. Compared to today’s conservative movement, Ronald Reagan was “center left,” and Dwight Eisenhower was “liberal.” At the National Conservatism Conference in Miami, Florida in September, prominent speakers promoted a new conservative worldview. Here’s a promo for their conference:

    Promo for National Conservatism Conference

    The Heritage Foundation, founded almost 50 years ago, leads the way. As perhaps the #1 conservative Think Tank for decades, their power to impose conservative policy was apparent when Donald Trump was president. In the 1980s the Reagan Administration used the Foundation’s policy series, Mandate for Leadership, to guide its work. Under President Trump, the Foundation placed its own people in positions of power to enact conservative policies.

    Heritage Foundation President, Kevin Roberts, spoke at the conference about “the betrayal by the Republican Party of the families, community, and nation it exists to serve.” He went on to clearly distinguish the Republican Party from the “national conservatism” he was advocating for. Today’s conservatives are no longer Republican in any traditional sense.

    A report on the conference in The Daily Signal, the foundation’s media arm, puts the new conservatism on full display in the language and ideas of Kevin Roberts:

    “I come today to this convention as president of The Heritage Foundation to extend my gratitude for the ideas and energy national conservatives have injected into the national debate, and my fellowship with principles you advance to rescue America from the barbarians inside the gates of our very own institutions.”

    Roberts “commended the national conservative movement for restoring a ‘proper’ public orientation of virtues like patriotism, courage, honor, loyalty, wisdom, religion, and family in American society.” And he spoke of “the rot coming from within: The tragedy of our universities, the stratification of our economy, the gelding of Congress, the farce of our news media, the weaponization of government against its people, and the popular culture against their values; these were all inside jobs.”

    Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., spoke at the conference as an advocate for Christian Nationalism, part of the larger movement:

    “The left is engaged in a project to undo the American Revolution and separate the nation from its biblical, Christian moral heritage. We are a revolutionary nation precisely because we are the heirs of the revolution of the Bible. This is a revolution that began with the founding of the nation of Israel, of Zion, and continued with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth in the days of ancient Rome.”  

    Sen. Hawley’s words do not fully explain what he envisions as the “revolution of the Bible,” but he continues in the same direction:

    “Without the Bible, there is no modernity. Without the Bible, there is no America. The Bible’s centrality in our politics is the question of the age.  The ‘woke left’ is desperate to unseat its influence in American life, to ‘remake’ this nation. It’s doing this by making Americans believe that the country is ‘irredeemably racist and oppressive,’ that men can become women, and that the family is repressive. Their real target in all this, I submit to you, is the inheritance of the Bible. What they particularly dislike about America is our dependence on biblical teaching and tradition. What they particularly dislike about our culture is the Bible’s influence on it. And now they want to break that influence for good.

    The conference program included Balasz Orban, political director for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (no relation to Viktor Orban). He represents a global conservatism. With intended humor, he said their language has no word for “woke” and added that “we are lucky enough to not have to come up with a word. Obviously, we’re doing anything we can do to ensure that it stays that way.”  

    He attributed a widespread practice of “kneeling” at sports events as a “woke” influence in their country. And he continued, saying “the radical left further tried to influence Hungary by targeting the country’s children, similarly to what the left does in America. The turning point came when we realized that the woke propaganda was being used against our children. They started targeting our children, brainwashing young kids with ideology.” He “concluded his speech by encouraging leaders and conservatives across the world to stand strong against wokeness coming from America.”

    Where will this new conservatism take our nation? Leaders of the movement make no apology for seeking power to change the laws and impose their understanding of morality upon everyone. They like to claim they are the “victims” of “the woke left” – their favorite new term for the rest of us – through the media, arts, education, business, and government, which are all controlled by this imagined “left.” If we do not want that future for ourselves, we must act now to change it.

    What Can We Do?

    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.

    Charlotte United the Right Rally 2017

    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.

    Book Cover

    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.”

    Mark Burns

    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.

    Another Account of the Tour

    Rev. Jennifer Butler, founder in residence at Faith in Public Life, wrote about her experience at the ReAwaken America Tour in Batavia, NY, in a recent article published in The Philadelphia Inquirer. The tour is in Mannheim, PA, for two days this weekend, and her words are a call to action for Christians to stand against Christian Nationalism.

    Rev. Jennifer Butler

    “The ReAwaken America speeches touted antisemitic, racist, sexist, and homophobic beliefs in the name of Christianity. Speeches were rife with apocalyptic and polarizing predictions of God’s vengeance befalling a wide range of opponents, including the founder of the World Economic Forum, President Joe Biden, and New York Attorney General Leticia James, who had written a letter to the tour’s local host, Pastor Paul Doyle, voicing concern that this event could spur violence. In the parking lot, I spotted a bus painted with the words “Patriot Street Fighter,” along with an image of a man in body armor with a bludgeon in his hand and the words “Get in the Fight” written in the red font of horror movies.

    “Booths outside the tent played to peoples’ appetite for conspiracy. As a mother, I was disturbed by a display selling a children’s book called The Plot Against the King — named “King Donald,” who is trying to “Make the Kingdom Great Again.”

    Plot Against the King

    Tour organizers and speakers deny charges of racism and violence. A third of the speakers in Batavia were African-American, and they point to that as they scoff at the idea. Yet the nation they imagine as a Christian nation was always governed by white men who made the laws to hold their privilege and power over anyone who was not white and male. And they resorted to violence if the laws failed them.  That’s the reality of our history as a nation. There was no actual violence connected to the event, and I think that has been true everywhere it has gone. However, as Jennifer points out, the “apocalyptic and polarizing” language of all the speakers and their demonizing of people they call “enemies” and blatant warnings of warfare kept a threat of violence at the core of the event. And as she writes in her article:

    “Its recycled conspiracy theories have motivated recent deadly domestic terrorist attacks that targeted Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue, African Americans at a bible study in Charleston, S.C., and a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., Latinos shopping in El Paso, Texas, and Sikhs at worship in Oak Creek, Wisc.

    Rev. Butler acknowledges the appeal of this movement to “people in real pain,” but I agree with her that Christian Nationalism offers “a false sense of solution.”  As she says, “politicians and pastors under the ReAwaken America tent are touring the country, preying on the fear and anger of people — often white — who feel like today’s country is leaving them behind.” What they offer is a mix of religion and politics once touted as a movement of “values voters” and the “Moral Majority” which now lacks any coherent view of moral values supported by the Christian scriptures and the Gospel they claim to believe in.

    Who Stole My Bible?

    For people who reject the “biblical worldview” of this movement and wonder if the Bible can be taken seriously, Jennifer Butler has written a book called Who Stole My Bible: Reclaiming Scripture as a Handbook for Resisting Tyranny. One summary of the book says:

    “Scripture is replete with stories of those who followed God’s call to resist oppression and fearlessly pursue compassion, justice, and human dignity. Chapters focus on the liberating God of the Hebrews, the authoritarianism of King Solomon, the dream team of women in the Bible, and how Jesus came to bring truth and expose the lies of rulers. Each chapter illustrates the lessons of scripture with true stories of courageous religious communities countering authoritarianism and white supremacy in America today.”

    Here is Rev. Butler’s call to people who call themselves Christians:

    “As the Christian nationalist movement continues to expand, it is critical for Christians to speak out against this misrepresentation of faith, perhaps by joining the Christians Against Christian Nationalism movement. But we can’t do this work in isolation. We must demonstrate commitment to pluralism by building strong alliances across faith communities. …. Communities are being intentionally manipulated, divided, and conquered along lines of race, religion, and inequality in Christ’s name. This is not what Jesus stood for.”

    Reporting on Reawaken America

    Renee Ricco, local “citizen journalist,” posted a video report of her experience at the Batavia, NY Reawaken America Tour. We experienced the same event, but her report differs significantly. She saw it as “a diverse group of speakers on different topics from God, love of America, health and wellness, and politics. … and that there was a time in this country when we could agree on God and love of country.” Here is the video:

    Renee Ricci, Citizen Journalist

    The 3,000 participants likely agreed with her views. I did not. Ms. Ricco presents as a rational, unbiased journalist, but she is not. Her website link doesn’t work, and her YouTube channel seems limited to reports on this event and an earlier revival at the same church, with some recent interviews with the GOP candidate running against NY Congressman Joe Morelle. Her interviews highlight themes of Christian Nationalism and are filled with the language of a movement that sees itself as representing God and truth against people who reject it.

    Her report begins with a dismissal (if not direct attack) on all other media reports. She says that “content was enlightening and provided a different perspective from the same old daily news.” She found “no basis in reality from the articles I read prior to this event,” and wondered “if anyone writing this stuff ever attended an event.” And “I wonder if those assigned to cover this event from the media are even allowed to present the truth….It is low-level reporting…and just stirs up people’s emotions.” As if that’s not what is true of her.

    Interview with Pastor Doyle

    Ms. Ricco interviewed Paul Doyle, pastor of the Cornerstone Church that hosted the event. His words are unapologetic Christian Nationalism. Here are some excerpts:

    “I’m tired of events being cancelled because they have a conservative Christian bent to them. ….

    “I hope to see the fear come out of the Christian community, that they don’t have to be intimidated by the cancel culture. … The Christian voice gave the input to found this country … and it’s being cancelled out. … Get back to believing in God, get back to believing America was God’s idea in the first place. Why would we want to cancel the very voice of the One who started this country?”

    “America is a welcoming, tolerant nation because of Christianity. It’s why there’s so many multiple different ethnicities in America. … Churches are resistant to this idea because of fear. There are churches that have bought into the narrative of mainstream media, big tech, and Hollywood that owns the narrative. … We don’t have a voice of Christianity anymore. We have a voice of the culture.”

    Ms. Ricci then shifted the interview to talk about the idea of the Separation of Church and State:

    Ricci: “It was intended for the state to stay out of the church, not the other way around.”

    Doyle: “It’s almost like a sound bite. They take it of context and don’t read the rest (of Thomas Jefferson’s letter)….They want the church to be quiet.”

    Ricci: “Would you ever be associated with anything that would ever denigrate any group of people?”

    Doyle: “Our church is multi-ethnic … ‘browns, whites, blacks’ … We are a church that loves people.”

    On Renee Ricci’s YouTube channel, you can find three other interviews with speakers at the event. All of them follow the same style of unabashed admiration for the interviewee and asking leading questions. One is with Aaron Lewis, pastor and candidate for governor of Connecticut, fairly low-key. The other two are with unabashed Christian Nationalists.

    Lance Wallnau, a self-proclaimed apostle, prophet, and movement leader who coined the term “Seven Mountain Mandate,” had “a vision”  in 2016 that the next president would be like King Cyrus in the Hebrew scriptures – a man who did not believe in God but was chosen by God to rebuild the nation of Israel. That man, of course, was Donald Trump whom he has met with and prayed over. In his interview, he claims that churches opposing Reawaken America and this movement are” agreeing with the slander and are on the wrong side of God.”

    Lance Wallnau

    Rev. Leon Benjamin, pastor, “apostle,” and candidate for Congress in Virginia pastors two churches, one in Virginia and one in Tulsa. He is “Clay Clark’s pastor” – the organizer of this tour. He spoke of “freedom,, unmasking the lie, telling the truth” and of “election fraud, mask tyranny, religious tyranny, economic tyranny.” He listed areas of influence in society that this movement seeks to dominate, and they are the “Seven Mountains of Influence” of Lance Wallnau and many in this movement. He said about Reawaken America that “the message is unity and there is no racism. … (and) we have to choose what’s right, either good or evil.” The clear implication, of course, is that anyone opposing the Tour and this movement chooses evil.

    Leon Benjamin

    The language and values of Christian Nationalism embedded in these interviews require much more “unpacking” than I can do in one post. I will continue to write on it as we seek not only understanding but answers to what we can do to challenge it. Follow my blog (if you have not yet), and watch for announcements of a new online course available around Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, watch the videos and follow the links in my posts. Learn all you can. Be confident and assertive in your knowledge as you speak out against this threat to our democracy.