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.

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.

Why the MyPillow Guy?

At the Reawaken America event in Batavia, Mike Lindell – “The MyPillow Guy” – was a star. When he came to the stage as a final presenter, the audience gave him a raucous standing ovation. Why? Most of us never heard of him until he became a public supporter and donor of Donald Trump. Now he’s almost a “hero” to people who follow this tour and the Christian Nationalism movement.

Mike Lindell with Donald Trump at the White House

MyPillow infomercials on late night TV since 2011 and national media attention helped him build a 1,500-employee manufacturing business of pillows, linens, slippers, and more in Chaska, Minnesota. Never one for politics until 2016, his meeting in Trump Tower that August made him a staunch supporter of Donald Trump, which is why most of us now know who he is.

As Lindell tells his own story, he was a gambler and cocaine addict for 30 years until 2009 (just two years before his company “took off”). As he tells it – mostly the only way we “know” much about his life – he prayed to be free of the addiction and the desire left. Maybe so, but he remains a man willing to lie and to use people to be in the spotlight. He did not publicly profess to be a Christian until 2017, yet now he is acclaimed as one used by God to help bring what he called “the greatest revival for Jesus Christ in history.”

Liberty University in 2019, while Jerry Falwell, Jr. was still president, invited him to speak and awarded him an honorary doctorate (a man who dropped out of college after a few months). Falwell said about him: “I can’t think of anybody else who epitomizes the principles that built this school more than Mike.” And in his speech, Lindell said, that “he sees his success in the business world simply as an afforded opportunity to share his Christian faith. … The pillow is just a platform for a much bigger thing. …. My calling is to speak out the word of Jesus.”

Mike Lindell at Liberty University

As he spoke in Batavia, I jotted down this question:

How can Christians lie so much?

In his presentation, Lindell spoke in detail about “the stolen election.” He blames cyber technology which he calls “an evil threat in our nation.” He says it is the work of the “deep state” and a “unigovernment.” He referenced the Georgia primary and how “one precinct reported no votes for one candidate until they looked in the machine” to find the votes (whatever that means) and told similar stories. He claimed that “54 countries have lost everything due to machines.” This wild, nonsensical claim got applause when he followed it with “machines have to go.” He also claimed that “a New York Citizens Audit found huge discrepancies between Secretary of State and County Boards of Elections … that names and identities have been changed … that people serving are not who the people elected.” Stuff and nonsense, as the saying goes.

When nonsensical claims, conspiracy theories, and fact-checked lies are believed and applauded at these events by people who claim to be Christians and Patriots, our nation is threatened and the reputation of all Christians is dishonored. Here’s more of what Mike Lindell said at a 2019 CPAC conference:

“Donald Trump invited me to meet him at Trump Tower in New York City. I walked into his office with high hopes on August 15, 2016. I walked out of that office after meeting with him, and I knew God had chosen him for such a time as this. … God answered our prayers, our millions of prayers, and gave us grace and a miracle happened on November 8, 2016. … We were given a second chance and time granted to get our country back on track with our conservative values and getting people saved in Jesus’ name.”

Even some on the far right are backing away. Lindell bought three hours of airtime on OANN – One America News Network – “to broadcast Absolute Proof, a documentary that makes false claims about the election.. … OANN broadcast a lengthy disclaimer before the program saying the claims were Lindell’s alone, but that the 2020 election results ‘remain disputed and questioned by millions of Americans.’” That’s not much, but it’s a start.

In January 2022, “Lindell claimed that he possessed ‘enough evidence to put everybody in prison for life, 300-some million people’ for their part in the alleged 2020 election fraud, which, at the time, was about 91 percent of the U.S. population.”  Stuff and nonsense.

When I began to follow the growth of this movement 15 years ago, most people thought “the religious right” was losing its power. Now a far more extreme version of this Christian Nationalist movement holds events with thousands of people around the nation. They have a powerful network of social, broadcast, and print media. They know how to dominate the news and spread their “message” farther every day.

And here we are. Too many people still want to dismiss the “nonsense” and trust that enough people will recognize lies for what they are. Yet “election deniers” are elected to state offices and the U.S. Congress where they will hold power to manipulate election results. What can we do?

Know the facts.
Speak up.
Challenge lies.
Vote!

It is not too late. Do it now.

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.”

Saving America from Evil

Two Saturday speakers at the Reawaken America Tour in Batavia NY acted out a specific form of Christianity at the heart of Christian Nationalism. Amanda Grace, founder of Ark of Grace Ministries, claims to receive prophecies directly from God. So did Hebrew prophets. So have many people through time. As we hear words of “prophecy” from people who claim a spiritual gift and “a window into the supernatural,” even for those of us who accept that such mysteries can be reality-based, the question is whether it “rings true” or “comes true.”

Amanda Grace

She spent much of her 15 minutes on stage “speaking words of prophecy,” sometimes with speaking in tongues and mostly in a loud voice. One claim was that there is “a spirit sitting on the Empire State Building” and that New York State “wants to destroy Trump and anyone who loves this nation.” As if they are one and the same.  Since such a supernatural being would necessarily be invisible, no one can prove it’s not there anymore than she can prove it is. Many people in the audience under the tent evidently believed her claim and applauded what she had to say about New York wanting to destroy both Trump and “those who love this nation” – meaning, of course, people like them.

Another of her prophecies was that there would be “a complete overthrow of the system in the next three months.” Putting a deadline on a word of prophecy does make it easier for other people to know if “came true,” but how does anyone know what “overthrow of the system” actually means. It’s open-ended enough to deny the meaning someone else might give the phrase to say it didn’t happen. This kind of “word,” though, spoken to a receptive audience of thousands of like-minded people stirs up their antagonism toward “the system” (however they define it) and their hope that it will be destroyed.

Christian Nationalism combines two historical traditions in the Christian religion. One tradition believes that if “true” Christians are in charge of the nation, it will become the nation God wants it to be. The other tradition builds on the image of the ark – Noah’s ark – as a place of refuge from the evil world to be destroyed by God – or by the “people of God.” These two speakers build their work especially on the foundation of this second tradition. The world is full of evil when Christians – in their particular, limited view of that faith – are not in power. Until they are, God cannot be in control, and evil and darkness will continue to destroy the nation. While that continues to happen, “we” must stay in “the ark” together for safety.

Amanda Grace proclaimed that “God is not done with this evil nation.” She also called it God’s covenant nation – a core tenet of Christian Nationalism. The next speaker carried that theme further. Bernadette Smith, co-pastor with her husband of The Eternal Word Church in Grandville, MI, said that “we are God’s anointed people … to eradicate the darkness in this nation.” She urged the audience to “be liberated with the truth.” One danger of this movement is that their “truth” is very specific and limited to what they are convinced is a “biblical worldview” – which a great many Christians deny as truly “biblical,” rooted in Scripture and the Gospel. The danger comes out of the merging of that “worldview” with an authoritarian, political power, willing to use violence if necessary.

Several speakers, including this African-American speaker, attacked CRT (Critical Race Theory) as an attempt to divide “us.” Pastor Smith embraces the idea that “we are all one people” and that anti-racist education that talks about systemic racism is wrong because it divides us – as if our nation has not been divided. A third of the speakers at the event were Black and understandably denied charges of white supremacy against this movement. Systemic racism, however, is undeniably a historical reality of our American history. It is also a reality of the role of the Christian Church in this country because it supported slavery in the South and separation of races in the North. It still does in many places. To dismiss the evil of racism as an attempt to divide us is a willful denial of these realities.

This reversal of historical realities characterizes the movement. People in the audience and all of the speakers were absolutely convinced that they are being persecuted. For two days, we were told that a nebulous “they” want to destroy them, to rob them of their freedom. Liberals, the “woke,” Democrats, progressive Christians, social justice advocates – everyone considered to be part of these groups – are part of the “they.” People at this event feel deeply that “they” are destroying our nation, and they must stop it and change it and make Christian America great again.