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

Done turning the other cheek

“I’m a Christian, and I’m done turning the other cheek.” So said Jack Posobiec at the Turning Point USA’s Amfest 2022 conference yesterday. With those words, he dismissed one of Jesus’ most well-known teachings about nonviolence and love as something not for him. Yet he claims to be a Christian, speaking to thousands of people who claim freedom, family, and [Christian] faith as fundamental values for this nation.

Like me, his name may be new to you, but he is well-known in radical right circles. He says his  podcast, Human Events Daily with Jack Posobiec, “brings you unfiltered and factual updates on how current events will impact our country today and in the future.” Yet the Politifact Scorecard rates his “factual updates” as 100% false or mostly false. The Southern Poverty Law Center says that “his disinformation typically focuses on making his political opponents seem dangerous or criminal, while ignoring or downplaying the corruption of authoritarians.” He also “collaborates with white supremacists and neo-nazis.”

Why would this man be invited to speak at a national conference of Turning Point USA (TPUSA) whose mission is “to identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote freedom”? If you watch some of the highlights from America Fest 2022, it makes sense. The founder and president of TPUSA, Charlie Kirk, has his own show where he says ….

“We are lectured all the time about ‘domestic violent extremism’ as if the right has lots of domestic violent extremists, except that’s just not true. The left is full of people that are willing to use force to intimidate and harm conservatives.”

As Doug Pagitt said in last week’s interview, the Christian right often casts itself in the role of victim in the story they tell of America today. Kirk’s statement alludes to that in saying “the left” wants to “intimidate and harm conservatives.” This is why Posobiec claims it’s time to stop turning the other cheek and fight back. They refuse to be victims of “the left” any longer, as they see it, and they are ready to fight.

Charlie Kirk’s opening speech at Amfest presents a dark narrative of the future for this country. As does this whole movement, he uses fear – the fear of what will happen if they don’t fight back. The speech is 30 minutes, but watch just the first three minutes to experience the dark spectacle of what thousands of people saw and heard at the conference opening.

Watch another 10 minutes or so, and you will hear him describe their opponents as….

“the Marxist, totalitarian left filled with venom, hatred, darkness, resentment, arrogance, and despair … and teaching our children this vile garbage of critical race theory and woke nonsense.” He says “they want power, authority, control, and submission.” And that “their vision is one of despair and confusion, destroying the distinction between good and evil.”

TPUSA describes itself as traditionally conservative, committed to “the principles of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government.” The rhetoric of their conferences, speeches, and podcasts expose them as a radical right group similar to the Reawaken America Tours. In my two days there, I heard the same demonizing of “the left,” with hate-filled language and the call to fight back – with the suggestion that militarized violence is coming.

As I listened to both of these men, I heard them projecting onto their opponents some of what many of us see in this movement – a desire for “power, authority, control, and submission” – and a “vision of hatred and darkness … of despair and confusion.” How is it possible to even talk with each other? I’m not sure it is – not with people who demonize their opponents. What we must do, however, is challenge them. Call out their story of being victims of a power-hungry, hateful, “left” and learn to tell our own alternative story of a better future as we live with empathy, compassion, and justice for all.

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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.

How do we engage with Christian nationalists?

How do we engage with people who part of this movement we call Christian nationalism? In this interview, Doug Pagitt helps us understand engagement and empathy, which he urges as our response to the people.

Doug Pagitt is the Executive Director and co-founder of Vote Common Good – an author, pastor, and social activist. A leading voice for progressive Christianity, Doug makes frequent national media and speaking appearances. He has a new book, Outdoing Jesus. Visit his website to learn more –DougPagitt.com.

Doug calls himself a possibility enthusiast. For two decades, he has been leading the conversation on progressive faith and politics. Through creative, entrepreneurial and generative efforts, he works to enlist people to join in the hopes, dreams, and desires God has for a more beautiful world. 

“The threat to democracy,” Doug says, “comes when government begins to do its work in order to fulfill its purposes by Christian means,” but not everyone in the movement is in agreement about how to do that. “There’s a continuum of where people are and the kinds of ideas they hold. There’s not a unified view in the movement, and people are not motivated by the same thing. They fight with one another.”

Watch this interview with Doug, then read more below the video about the kind of response he recommends.

How do we engage with empathy in our personal relationships? Political or governmental engagement is important, but personal engagement remains critical to making a difference. Convinced that people cannot be persuaded to change their minds or their beliefs, most of us do not even try. Here’s what Doug said: “Many people are ready to swap one belief for another, but we all need a meaningful alternative belief before we let go of a harmful belief.” So personal, empathetic engagement may be saying to someone: “I have a different way to look at this. Would you mind looking at it with me?”

Empathy includes understanding why people believe what they do. We need to put ourselves in their place as much as possible to have a sense of why they say or believe what they do. One question to ask, Doug says, is this: “What function does that belief have in your life?” It does something for them. It provides something important in their lives. What is that and why? Once we have a good idea about the answer, we can talk with them about it.

Another fascinating idea in the interview is that most stories have heroes, villains, and victims. None of us sees ourselves as the villains, of course – just a hero or a victim. We sometimes do, however, see other people as villains, which is never helpful.  “We must engage people as heroes or victims,” Doug says, “in whatever role they see themselves. Replace the hero narrative with another hero narrative, not make them villains in a story.”

Toward the end of our interview, Doug focused on what he calls “a sojourner narrative,” – a narrative of shared experience. Rather than heroes, villains, or victims, can we see ourselves as sojourners on a common journey? He suggested looking to migrants for help in this. What is their story as they learn “to live in a new land”?” What could we learn from that story about being sojourners together on a path to a better life, a better future?

If you find this interview helpful for considering an appropriate response to people involved in Christian nationalism, you might want to visit the Vote Common Good website. They offer a free course on “Confronting Christian Nationalism” that you might also benefit from. Thank you for watching this interview.

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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.

You are invited to join our new Imagine Learning Community where you will find interviews and resources from a variety of leaders and groups engaging with people in this movement. Click here to learn more.

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.

Interview with Jennifer Butler

Jennifer Butler founded Faith in Public Life in Washington, D.C. A Presbyterian minister and global justice activist, she leads this national movement of clergy and faith leaders united in the prophetic pursuit of justice, equality and the common good. They are leading the fight to advance just policies at the local, state, and federal levels. They have a network of 50,000 leaders who engage in bold moral action that affirms just values and the human dignity of all.

Jennifer and I met this past August when the Reawaken America Tour came to Batavia, NY. She joined the public opposition to the event, and I attended the 2-day event. We have both since been writing and speaking to challenge the movement and change the conversation around Christian Nationalism. You can read her article in The Philadelphia Inquirer here.

Jennifer Butler, Founder of Faith in Public Life

Rev. Butler also wrote Who Stole My Bible? Reclaiming Scripture as a Handbook for Resisting Tyranny. I hope you will read it. In the introduction, she wrote:

The usurping of moral norms, like human dignity and loving your neighbor, is at the root of so much chaos. These beliefs are being undermined in favor of unbridled greed, ethnic nationalism, and xenophobia. A large percentage of white Christians is marching to the drumbeat of white nationalism and leading the way in the corruption of our values. Given all of this, nothing could be more important than reclaiming this radical book called the Bible and acting to make its vision for radical justice, equality, and liberation a reality.

After today you will find this interview – along with interviews of other people challenging this movement and changing the conversation – at Imagine, a learning community working for a better world. Sign up for free (for 30 days). Then for $10/month, you will have access to resources, interviews, and updates – and an Introduction to Christian Nationalism – all of which can help you learn and work for the kind of world you want to live in.

I don’t want to live in the authoritarian, power and fear-driven world this movement works to build. Rather, I want to live in a compassionate, just world, filled with hope. I can imagine it, and I am learning and working for that better world. Will you join me?

How do people change?

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

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

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

Giridharadas summarizes her approach to persuasion this way:

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

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

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

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

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

Moving from fear to hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common Ground?

With decades of work in conflict transformation, I must ask the question: “Do we have any common ground?” We oppose a movement that threatens democracy around the world. It must be challenged and its power destroyed. Yet a movement is made up of individual people. My question is whether I share any common ground with them and if that might offer hope for transformation.

This authoritarian, radical right movement is not a single entity. It includes radical economic and political conservatives, Christian Nationalists, MAGA followers, militia groups, and people who lust for power and money – all of which must be opposed. Are there not, though, individuals caught up in diverse parts of this movement who share desires and dreams in common with mine?

As I wandered among the vendor stands at Reawaken America and listened to the speakers and watched the people, I knew that at some level we all have similar desires:

  • Health
  • Family
  • Happiness
  • A decent income
  • Freedom from fear
  • Trust in our leaders and confidence in our government
  • Hope for our nation and the world our grandchildren will live in

Dr. Mark Sherwood, with his wife, Dr. Michele Neil-Sherwood, founded the Functional Medicine Institute in Tulsa, Oklahoma (https://fmidr.com/). Their stories, briefly told on their website, sound inspiring, and their commitment to the health of the whole person seems genuine. While I might question some aspects of their practice of medicine, I do not doubt that we share some common ground in what we want for people in this life.

Dr. Mark Sherwood

As Mark Sherwood spoke on Saturday morning, he talked about our desire to live and not die. Who doesn’t share that desire? He talked about abundant living and a desire for a better life and a nation we want for our grandchildren. Even in that context, though, he also talked about “battling tyranny” – meaning the government and current administration. I disagree with that. He used the “Make America Great Again” language and claimed that our problems are because “we fail to put God first.” While I may agree with that last statement, I am sure we mean very different things by what it means.

Among all the speakers those two days, Mark Sherwood’s presentation brought me to ask the question of common ground, not with everyone but with enough people in this broad movement that we might change the trajectory. I doubt that he and I would agree on many questions of politics or religion, but don’t we share common desires for a better life – for health, family, a decent living, freedom, trust in our leaders?

It’s an opening, a place to begin – like the entrance to a dark cave where we don’t know what’s inside – but can we do it together?  I may never sit down and talk with the Sherwoods, but I know a great many people – family and friends – with whom I share common dreams and desires, but disagree on how to move toward them. This is one way forward in our nation. Sit down with people, listen to each other’s stories – our desires and dreams – and create a new story for transformation in our future.