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.

Michael Flynn’s “Holy War”

Associated Press reporters and a PBS Frontline crew were at the Reawaken America event in Batavia, NY. They reported in a PBS Newshour story that “The AP and Frontline bought tickets for the Batavia event after Clark invited ‘Frontline’ to attend one of the tour’s shows. Reporters spent two days listening to speakers and observing the events from inside. On the second day, security escorted a ‘Frontline’ reporter from the grounds because, he was told, Flynn believed he intended to cover the event unfavorably. When an AP reporter began interviewing people attending the event at the end of the second day, she was also reported to security.”

PBS Newshour

Since I bought a ticket and stayed quiet, I was able to experience the full two days so that I could write these posts. The article’s summary statement is absolutely true: “ReAwaken acts as a petri dish for Christian nationalism and pushes the idea that there’s a battle underway between good and evil forces. Those who are considered evil include government officials and Democrats.”

Michael Flynn

Their story is part of an ongoing investigation from The Associated Press and the PBS series “Frontline” that includes the upcoming documentary “Michael Flynn’s Holy War,” premiering Oct. 18 on PBS and online. I encourage you to watch it. I will. The AP article and the PBS documentary both describe how Michael Flynn is raising “an army of God”:

“The tour serves as a traveling roadshow and recruiting tool for an ascendant Christian nationalist movement that’s wrapped itself in God, patriotism and politics and has grown in power and influence inside the Republican Party. In the version of America laid out at the ReAwaken tour, Christianity should be at the center of American life and institutions. Instead, it’s under attack, and attendees need to fight to restore the nation’s Christian roots. It’s a message repeated over and over at ReAwaken — one that upends the constitutional ideal of a pluralist democracy. But it’s a message that is taking hold. A poll by the University of Maryland conducted in May found that 61% of Republicans support declaring the U.S. to be a Christian nation.

The article quotes Katherine Stewart, author of “The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism,”who attended a March 2022 ReAwaken America show at a church in San Marcos, California. She said it was like entering a “parallel messaging universe.”

“The leaders of the ReAwaken America tour are really driving people into a fact-free echo chamber,” Stewart said. “They have been persuaded and manipulated into believing they’re doing what’s right for their country. But all of their good intentions are being harnessed in service of an agenda that’s dividing our country as never before and, frankly, leading to the potential destruction of our democracy. ”

Katherine Stewart

On Sunday, October 30 at 6:30 pm ET, I will moderate a public webinar with Katherine Stewart, sponsored by Rochester, NY organizations who share this concern for our democracy. You can find the event information and required registration link here. Anyone is welcome to register and join us for the evening.

This article and documentary are focused on the role of Michael Flynn in this movement. Here’s what I wrote in an earlier post of mine on Flynn:

Michael Flynn posted a video on the Fourth of July in 2020 where he recited an oath to the QAnon conspiracy theorists . After the election, Flynn “called on Donald Trump to suspend the constitution and declare martial law for the military to run a new election … and ran a full-page ad in The Washington Times that claimed the extraordinary executive actions were necessary to avoid the alternative of an imminent ‘shooting civil war’.” All of this qualifies him for hero status in this movement.

What can we do to oppose this movement and minimize its power in our nation? First – learn as much as possible about Christian Nationalism and the larger anti-democracy movement. Read my posts. Watch the PBS documentary. Read the many articles available online. Attend the October 30 webinar. That’s a start. Second – talk with people in churches and community organizations. Tell them what you’re learning, and encourage them to find out more. And third – Take action. Vote for people at every level of our government who are not part of this movement, who are publicly opposed to it – people who will deny it the power it seeks to destroy democracy as we’ve known it. Together, we can do it.

Intrigue of the Movement

Patrick Byrne intrigued me as one of the final presenters at the Reawaken American Tour in Batavia, NY. He stirred my curiosity. Byrne holds graduate degrees in Philosophy from Cambridge and Stanford. He founded a company (Overstock.com) with $2.5 billion in 2020 revenue. His father and Warren Buffett (a rare multi-billionaire who lives humbly in Lincoln, Nebraska) are friends and in business together. His manner of presentation drew me in to listen, but what he said appalled me.

Patrick Byrne

His 15-minute talk focused on Frederick Douglass, a former slave and abolitionist, and referred to Douglass’ famous Fourth of July speech on July 4, 1852, in Rochester, NY. Why would he do that, I wondered. How does Frederick Douglass fit the context of this event? He didn’t quote the speech, directly, of course – or anything Douglass said. Rather, he abused his legacy of fighting for true freedom and misconstrued the meaning of his words to make Douglass sound like he belonged to the MAGA movement. Douglass, he said, “urged us to protect our rights.” Byrne claimed that “we are about consent – the consent of the governed” and called him a “defender of constitutional rights.” He even styled himself to be “a Frederick Douglass Republican.”

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass would be appalled at this abuse of his name and legacy. Some of his words might sound to this crowd as if they meant the same thing:

“To side with the right, against the wrong,
with the weak against the strong,
and with the oppressed against the oppressor! …
With brave men there is always a remedy for oppression.”

That’s only because the MAGA movement twists reality and the meaning of language to claim they are on the side of “the right, the weak, and the oppressed”! They speak of tyranny of government as if it is 1776, and they are patriots fighting against the British, when they actually are fighting on the side of the Confederacy in 1860. And that’s what Douglass would say to them.

Byrne claimed that systemic racism is nonsense, that U.S. “history is the exact opposite of what people demonstrating (and CRT) are claiming,” and that “there is not a shred of white identity in this movement” – and the crowd applauded. I can imagine the crowd’s angry, vitriolic, even violent reaction Douglass would invoke with his actual words:

“American justice is bound by the law to hear (only) the side of the oppressor. Let this damning fact be perpetually told. Let it be thundered around the world, that, in tyrant-killing, king-hating, people-loving, democratic, Christian America, the seats of justice are filled with judges, who hold their offices under an open and palpable bribe, and are bound, in deciding in the case of a man’s liberty, to hear only his accusers!” … For my part, I would say, Welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything—in preference to the gospel, as preached by those divines. They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny, and barbarous cruelty. …. All this we affirm to be true of the popular church, and the popular worship of our land and nation—a religion, a church, and a worship which, on the authority of inspired wisdom, we pronounce to be an abomination in the sight of God.”

Intrigue has a second meaning, other than curiosity and fascination. It also can refer to people making secret plans which are illicit and detrimental to others. The second meaning describes the leaders of these events and of The America Project, and would-be leaders of this nation – Michael Flynn and Patrick Byrne, for instance. Claiming to be patriots working to “save America,” they boldly and publicly undermine all trust in our elections and elected officials. They praise the January 6 insurrection. They threaten violence in the streets if the FBI and DOJ – and Congress and the Courts – continue to investigate Trump for criminal behavior. And all the while, they cloak themselves in the language and symbolism of the Christian religion. But what I experienced at this event is in the words of Frederick Douglass: “a religion, a church, and a worship which, on the authority of inspired wisdom, we pronounce to be an abomination in the sight of God.”

Cloaked in Religion

Michael Flynn drives the movement behind the Reawaken America Tour, organized by Clay Clark. General Flynn’s military career, including counterterrorism and special operations in the Middle East, positioned him to start the Flynn Intel Group in 2014 that provided intelligence services globally. In 2016 he became national security advisor to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and in January 2017 was appointed National Security Adviser. Three weeks later, he resigned and eventually pled guilty to lying to the FBI about his communications with the Russian Ambassador to the U.S. – and was pardoned by President Trump a few weeks before he left office.

Michael Flynn

To some in this movement, Michael Flynn is a hero – “America’s General” – and he plays that role well. On Saturday of this event, inside the church building next to the vendor displays, Flynn held what he called a press conference. Positioned in front of a huge backdrop with his image and the U.S. flag, and joined by a few other speakers, he was “interviewed” by The Epoch Times. Flynn said “our purpose is education for people with hope, helping them to be involved in our country. America has been reawakened, and we will continue with our mission.” Flynn was joined in this press conference by three men: Patrick Byrne, Kash Patel, and Aaron Lewis.

Together their “mission” became clear – to oppose the “tyranny” of an “out of control” government. “Even the Republican party is being infiltrated by the enemy,” Patrick Byrne said. “Our elections are junk. Both parties are corrupt.” On his website (https://americaproject.com), he talks about the Deep State and the stolen 2020 election. He claimed that “DHS just released a report saying election machines are flawed, casting real doubt on the 2020 election.” In fact, DHS has said the opposite.

Kash Patel

Kash Patel’s first comments included the debunked claim that the government will hire 87,000 armed IRS agents. He talked about how “the federal government cannot decide how our elections are run because of states’ sovereign rights,” and added that “people don’t trust our election system.” That’s true for some people, of course – people in this movement where everything they hear undermines any remaining confidence in our government. His attack includes writing children’s books like this one – The Plot Against the King, which Trump just this week said should be read by every schoolchild.

Aaron Lewis, a Black pastor from Connecticut, more subtly challenged the government. “Martin Luther King is my hero because the FBI deemed him an enemy – for the same reason we are being opposed.” In his 15-minute spot later in the day, he continued his theme. “The overwhelming majority of leadership needs to be replaced,” he shouted, and “we refuse to co-sign a narrative that does not work for our people, for humanity.” He meant the narrative of Critical Race Theory which he says claims this movement is white nationalist,, white supremacist, racist. “They use lies against us,” he shouted.

All of this was captured on video by staff from The Epoch Times. They say that their “mission is to bring you a truthful view of the world free from the influence of any government, corporation, or political party. We aim to tell you what we see, not how to think; we strive to deliver you a factual picture of reality that lets you form your own opinions.” A quick review of their website or their ubiquitous newspaper will tell you otherwise. They operate in 35 countries with a media group including TV stations and YouTube channels, through which they have spread QAnon and other conspiracies, including anti-vaccine misinformation and claims of fraud in the 2020 election. That, of course, is why they were there, prominently involved.

Michael Flynn posted a video on the Fourth of July in 2020 where he recited an oath to the QAnon conspiracy theorists . After the election, Flynn “called on Donald Trump to suspend the constitution and declare martial law for the military to run a new election … and ran a full-page ad in The Washington Times that claimed the extraordinary executive actions were necessary to avoid the alternative of an imminent ‘shooting civil war’.” All of this qualifies him for hero status in this movement.

This side-event avoided religion, but the whole event was cloaked in it. Aaron Lewis is a pastor. Michael Flynn publicly claims to be a Christian. Patrick Byrne says he wants to protect “religious freedom,” a code word in this movement for traditional conservative Christianity. Kash Patel seems to be someone who uses this Christian Nationalist movement for his own purposes. These are sad times for those of us who are Christians who choose to follow the teachings of Jesus. They are dangerous times for this nation when 61% of Republicans (according to a story released today) favor “declaring the U.S. a Christian nation.” Join me in standing up to challenge this movement.