Is Christian nationalism “heresy”?

Rev. William J. Barber III calls it heresy. He tells people he is “a conservative, liberal, evangelical Christian.” I know, I know. Conservatives and liberals alike generally think you can’t be both, but he claims that he is both. You may have seen his 10-minute speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, where people were on their feet in celebration of his call to “national moral revival.”  Or you may be aware of what he calls “Moral Mondays” in North Carolina, which have gone national and merged with a new Poor People’s Campaign.

This excellent CNN report by John Blake on his interview with Rev. Barber highlights Barber’s use of the term “fusion politics,” with historical roots in North Carolina politics and in the new conservative movement. He reclaims it for his own movement, saying it can create “political coalitions that often transcend the conservative vs. progressive binary.”

In his 2016 speech, he claimed that some things are not just being conservative/liberal or left/right, but right or wrong. Rev. Barber sometimes uses similar language to what we hear in the new conservative and Christian nationalism movement – like moral and right – and gives them meaning that creates a foundation for his work. For instance, his fusion politics looks like this:

“A coalition of the ‘rejected stones’ of America—the poor, immigrants, working-class whites, religious minorities, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community can transform the country because they share a common enemy. … There is a sleeping giant in America. Poor and low-wealth folks now make up 30% of the electorate in every state and over 40% of the electorate in every state where the margin of victory for the presidency was less than 3%. If you could just get that many poor and low-wealth people to vote, they could fundamentally shift every election in the country.”

When Barber describes himself as a conservative, liberal, evangelical, biblicist Christian, he undermines the political and religious divide we experience and challenges us all to rethink the meanings of language we use. This may be one reason Yale Divinity School made him the director of their new Center for Public Theology and Public Policy.

In the Christian nationalism movement, people boldly claim they are following their moral and religious values. So does Rev. Barber. In addressing the question of economic inequality in our nation, for instance, he says:

“To have this level of inequality existing is a violation of our deepest moral, constitutional and religious values. It’s morally inconsistent, morally indefensible, and economically insane. Why would you not want to lift 55 to 60 million people out of poverty if you could by paying them a basic living wage? Why would you not want that amount of resources coming to people and then coming back into the economy?”

When discussing Christian nationalism, here’s how he answers this question: “What’s wrong with saying God loves America and that the country should be built on Christian values?”

“God doesn’t say it. That’s what’s wrong with it. The scriptures say God loves all people and that if a nation is going to embrace Christian values, then we got to know what those values are. And those values certainly aren’t anti-gay, against people who may have had an abortion, pro-tax cut, pro one party and pro-gun. There’s nowhere in the scriptures where you see Jesus lifting that up.

Jesus said the Gospel is about good news to the poor, healing to the brokenhearted, welcoming all people, caring for the least of these: the immigrant, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned. Christian nationalism attempts to sanctify oppression and not liberation. It attempts to sanctify lies and not truth. At best, it’s a form of theological malpractice. At worst, it’s a form of heresy.”

In this interview, Rev. Barber indirectly highlights what I consider to be at the heart of challenging this new conservative, Christian nationalism movement. What are our values and where do our values lead us? Do we imagine the world to be about authority and power, rules and laws and enforcing them on everyone, discipline and punishment based on retribution? Or do we imagine the world to be about compassion and empathy, equality and freedom for all, nurture and restorative, healing justice?

We need to name and define what we value, what we believe is most important in this world. For people like Rev. Barber, as a Christian pastor and theologian, as well as a social activist, his values come from what Jesus said about “caring for the least of these: the immigrant, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned.” Whatever our faith – whether religious or secular, perhaps we can agree that we want to live in a world built on values of empathy, compassion, nurture, equality, freedom, and healing justice. Then we can work together to build that kind of world.

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You may have read some of my posts in the fall about the Reawaken America Tour in Batavia, NY last August. You can read all of them now in a free eBook, “Inside the Reawaken America Tour.” Click here and download your copy today.

https://mailchi.mp/c0ceca0553ef/reawaken-america

Making sense of it all

On Christmas morning, the Washington Examiner (a radical right newspaper) ran an unsigned editorial calling for “a return to shared ideals and the possibility of civility in disagreement” in 2023. We all want that, so I read on to hear their ideas for achieving it. What I heard blamed all our national troubles on a decline in church affiliation and attendance – what they termed faith, but which meant traditional Christian religion.

The writer claims that “unbelief…dimming of conscience…toxic ideologies” all come out of “woke ideology, a form of religion itself” which has replaced “traditional religion with a much darker religion — that excludes redemption.” And what are some of the consequences for our nation?

  • Lack of “love, respect, and common ground”
  • A “divisiveness” in our nation
  • Destruction of “a sense of community”
  • “Polarized and caustic national political conversation”

By faith and religion, this writer clearly means Christian faith and religion – and a specific version that comes from a worldview not all Christians share. If that’s not plain early in the editorial, it is clear by the end:

“Christmas is supposed to generate feelings of respect and kindness for others — the impulse to treat others as they would wish to be treated. Indeed, this impulse is one originating in the Golden Rule that Jesus later propounded as an adult. Where the world says to treat friends well and enemies poorly, and to take revenge on those who have wronged you, the child born on this day taught that vengeance belongs only to God. You, on the other hand, are born for something better: to love your enemies, to forgive offenses from the bottom of your heart, to bless those who curse you, and to love others not just as you love yourself but as he loves you.”

The language the writer uses to talk about “the woke” – substituting that for “liberals” which they use in the same way – seems just the opposite of what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, which is quoted in this paragraph. The writer even claims that “the woke”:

“Debate whether it is OK to mutilate or sexualize children”
“Exacerbate racial tensions”
“Drive people out of restaurants and give them no peace”

How do we make sense of it all? I grew up learning the teachings of Jesus and have spent more than 50 years as a Christian minister, seeking to follow the teachings and life of Jesus in all I do. My worldview – the way I imagine the world I want to live in – focuses on compassion and justice, empathy and equality, and shared responsibility. Yet this writer, I’m confident, would say that I am “woke” in many ways the editorial condemns.

There is no single definition of the term, but on Facebook today, I found this description of what it means to be “woke”:

“Woke means awakened to the needs of others. To be well informed, thoughtful, compassionate, humble, and kind. Eager to make the world a better place for all people.”

The “shared ideals” this writer refers to seem to come from a different worldview – the one shared by Christian nationalists. They imagine the world as a place where it is good to possess authoritarian power and dominance in family, church, society, and government – where “rugged individualism” (every man for himself) is a core value for the laws and rules in this world. Their “shared ideals” come out of their nostalgic longing for the tradition they inherited – of a white Christian America operating from this worldview.

To make sense of it all, we must acknowledge that the majority of citizens in this nation never enjoyed the privileges and freedoms of that world, nor did the people in power in that world govern it on the basis of the teachings of Jesus. We must understand that authoritarian worldview desires a different world than a compassionate worldview. Therein lies the fundamental differences among us. Can we build bridges between both worlds and be willing to cross over or at least meet in the middle? I don’t know, but I’m willing to try.

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Another resource you may want to explore is a free eBook called “One thing YOU can do,” available for download here. Learn the 2 ways to do that one thing and when and how to do it. … Once you’ve downloaded it, please visit Imagine and learn how you can be part of a growing community committed to opposing religious nationalism and building a better world. … Join us today and get a 30-day free trial subscription.

Challenge or Persuade?

I gave up “bridge-building” years ago – at least with people who will never choose to cross over or even meet in the middle. When we are in direct conflict with our goals and values, I can challenge it, but not persuade anyone to change. When it comes to the movement now called Christian Nationalism, I have decided to challenge the movement with a goal of minimizing its power but without a goal of changing it.

At the same time, a new book (Anand Giridharadas, The Persuaders) tells stories of social activists and political leaders who have learned that some people – the “persuadables” – can be persuaded to see another way. Loretta Ross – activist, public intellectual, professor – says that we can do more than “call out” someone with whom we disagree. We can also “call in” with love. Here’s what she says:

“For me, calling in is a callout done with love. You’re actually holding people accountable. But you’re doing so through the lens of love. It’s not giving people a pass on accountability—like you don’t have to pay attention to the fact that they said something racist or that they caused harm to another person. No. It’s not ignoring it. But it’s about seeing a pathway or multiple pathways for addressing accountability through the lens of love.”  (p.47)

Ms. Ross reminds us that most people see themselves as good people with good motivations. Rather than challenge their self-image (if you don’t agree), she says, “help them lean into that internal exploration of themselves and show them how to bolster that self-perception of them being good people by walking them through examples” of how they would choose in certain situations to do what is good. That’s where we find common ground. And she continues:

“You have to be in a loving, healing space to call anybody in. 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?” … “You can’t change other people. 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.”  (p.55)

Her story and approach to persuasion with people who seem to be opposed offer a core strategy for engaging people in a movement we oppose. Whether our goal is to CHALLENGE or to PERSUADE, empathy and compassion for the person – even if their words or actions appall us – are necessary. To be in that “loving, healing space,” refusing to let anger motivate us, we engage the person with concern for their good (which is what love is). And our goal is to “expose people to different information and help them learn.”

George Lakoff’s model of Strict Father / Nurturant Parent values – with its moral and political impact – has been a major influence on my thinking and practice since I discovered it 15 years ago. Sometimes I think “these people live in a different world.” In a way, we do live in different “worlds,” with different worldviews – ways of understanding how the world “works” – when we operate out of one set of values or the other. There is always overlap, of course, but it’s important to understand the basic difference. Here’s his summary:

The strict father is moral authority and master of the household, dominating the mother and children and imposing needed discipline. Contemporary conservative politics turns these family values into political values: hierarchical authority, individual discipline, military might.

The nurturant parent model has two equal parents, whose job is to nurture their children and teach their children to nurture others. Nurturance has two dimensions: empathy and responsibility, for oneself and others. Responsibility requires strength and competence. The strong nurturing parent is protective and caring, builds trust and connection, promotes family happiness and fulfillment, fairness, freedom, openness, cooperation, and community development. These are the values of strong progressive politics.

You can find much more detail about Lakoff’s model on our Imagine learning community site, along with an introduction to Christian Nationalism, interviews with national leaders, and other learning resources. I hope you will take some time to see what’s there and decide to join our learning community working for a better world.

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.