It’s not really Pentecostal Christianity

In the early ‘70s I spent a few years in Pentecostal circles, using their language of spiritual warfare, of demons and the devil. We experienced it as spiritual, believing that the battles we fought were between the divine and demonic, light and darkness, righteousness and sin. That was our language and our understanding of it all. Many Pentecostal Christians still experience it that way, but a newer, darker version is taking over.

Katherine Stewart, author of The Power Worshipers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, published a recent article in The New Republic called The Rise of Spirit Warriors on the Christian Right. She describes a powerful religious and political movement with Pentecostal roots, using that earlier language of spiritual warfare and the demonic, a battle between good and evil, but what she describes no longer fights just in “spiritual realms.” They have merged political power with their specific religious faith and seek what they call “dominion” over all areas of our lives.

In the article, Ms. Stewart writes about the Reawaken America Tour and how this new political/religious/cultural movement is on full display at their events. I attended their event in Batavia, NY in August of last year and wrote about my experience of it. (You can read what I wrote here.)  I agree with her assessment of the movement’s dangers. She says that it is a “reactionary style of religion surging in America…[that] represents a significant threat to American democracy.”

The article’s ending statement seems shocking to people who do not yet know about the power of this movement:

“Religion in America is starting to look more like religion in Brazil and Guatemala because America, in some aspects, is starting to resemble Brazil and Guatemala: increasingly unequal, bitterly divided, corrupt, rife with disinformation, and unstable.”

Margaret Mead famously said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” The group does not have to be “thoughtful,” as I understand that word, just “committed.” One current theory says that social movements with only 3.5% of the population can change the world, whether for better or worse. Pentecostal Christians make up about 3.5% of the U.S. population, especially if we include people who have adopted the ideas, goals, and language of this new movement.

Katherine Stewart does not suggest that every Christian in the Pentecostal tradition claims to be part of this new movement, nor even approve of it. Her article and this post are not anti-Pentecostal.  She clearly describes the diversity of race, education, and cultural backgrounds within Pentecostal denominations. People of Latino origin, for instance, form a large and growing group within Pentecostal churches. They are also a growing part of this movement gaining political power in the United States – as well as Brazil and Guatemala, as she documents. Here’s how she describes the movement that poses a danger to democracy:

“This idea that the American political realm is a place of ‘spiritual warfare’—in a literal, not metaphorical, sense—is one of the defining elements of the new forms of highly politicized religion that are surging across the country…. [And] some of the same patterns of thought and expression popular among Christian apostolic and prophetic movements are gaining traction among those who identify with other religious movements and denominations. … [And] the concept of spiritual warfare is gaining in popularity among all ethnic groups, including among white nationalist extremist groups such as the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys.”

Please read the full article because she details important history, leaders, and recent developments of this movement which may look like Pentecostal Christianity but has become a reactionary political-religious-cultural force seeking power over the nation.

“It promises its followers will become heroes in an epic struggle between good and evil, to be played out very much in the here and now. Demons are real, ‘spiritual warfare’ is the way to contain them, and adherents are called to serve in the battle …fought not in the individual conscience but on the public stage. The political headlines, according to this way of thinking, are a clue to the desires of God and the plots of His enemies.

“The demons that merit the emphasis of [this movement] often have to do with the belief that the secular liberal world is infested with ‘the LGBT agenda’ and, in particular, ‘transgender ideology.’ Whatever one makes of the policy details, considered abstractly, the relentless focus on this single issue is an expression of hostility toward a perceived liberal establishment. If evil has a face, it is that of the ‘expert,’ the professor, and perhaps above all the liberal nonbeliever who urges everybody to pursue their own ideas of good and base their moral code on the principles of empathy and rationalism, rather than biblical truth.”

This article documents public statements of people seeking election to state and national office that come directly from the language and ideas of the movement. Each one openly campaigned – and some, like Florida Ron DeSantis, still govern – from its authoritarian goals. Not limited to U.S. politicians, the leaders include people like “Michael Flynn and former president of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro [who] identify as Catholic, and yet outdo many Pentecostals in their commitment to spiritual warfare, their professed belief in the reality of demons, and the way they fuse national identity with a reactionary idea of religious righteousness….Although Spirit Warrior Christianity” she says, “can be found at all points on the political spectrum, this style of religion appears to fit most easily with political ideologies centered on religious authoritarianism.” And that’s the fundamental danger to democracy.

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You can watch my recent 20-minute interview with Katherine Stewart here.

What in the world is going on?

Those words come from a 2006 seminar I developed about the threat to our nation coming from the Religious Right. That was 17 years ago. Few people listened because many thought the movement was coming to an end. And here we are.

Time published an article today with this headline: “Christian Nationalism’s Popularity Should Be a Wake Up Call.” This excerpt from The Midnight Kingdom: A History of Power, Paranoia, and the Coming Crisis by Jared Yates Sexton draws from his personal story and the history of similar religiously-based movements through the centuries. While he acknowledges that the current state of today’s movement is not yet there, he describes where it could go:

“The ‘solutions’ are appalling and unsurprisingly they echo the extreme measures necessitated by a looming apocalypse. The evil traitors must be stopped at all costs. Some want them in prison, others need to see them swinging from every light pole. Virtually everything, including our government, elections, economy, and popular culture, are controlled by a sinister conspiracy that is, depending on the day, either explicitly the domain of Jewish puppet masters or simply the Devil himself at the controls, and so seizing power and using cleansing violence and the muscle of the state are the only means of deliverance.”

You can pre-order the book at his website and watch this video interview with Jared Yates Sexton where he talks about part of what’s in the book.

Every day now, we learn of widespread efforts by governors and legislators, and many in the U.S. Congress, to enforce their religious and political beliefs on the nation. That was not true 17 years ago. The movement grew in power in the intervening years and now Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, and the Florida legislature, for instance, are forcing teachers and librarians to remove books and stop teaching what they consider to be wrong, including almost anything about racism and white supremacy, the rights of women for reproductive freedom, and LGBTQ rights.

“There is a small group of Christian fundamentalist leaders whose influence and power have grown over the past 30 years to the point that they play a key role in determining the laws and policies of our government.”

I wrote those words in 2006 as part of my seminar. This movement has now seized power from local school boards to many states to the federal government. Not all conservative Christians, of course, are part of the movement. I also wrote this in 2006:

“The Christian fundamentalism of the religious Right is what evangelical Christian activist, Jim Wallis (of Sojourners) calls “bad theology” and “bad religion” (in God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get it). What we are describing is not the Christian religion, not even Christian conservatives and evangelicals as a group.”

You may have seen by now a term I didn’t even know before I did that seminar – Dominionism. “The term may be unfamiliar even to many who support the values,” I wrote,
“but the ideas are widespread. D. James Kennedy, pastor of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida (in 2006) heads a movement to Reclaim America for Christ.” Dr. Kennedy died a year later, but other leaders came to power and are far more zealous and unbending, and hungry for even more power.

Even though many who now claim with pride to be Christian nationalists may not be familiar with dominionism, their goals are similar. Some in public view (see my posts on the Reawaken America Tour) echo these words written in 1986:

“Christians have an obligation, a mandate, a commission, a holy responsibility to reclaim the land for Jesus Christ — to have dominion in civil structures, just as in every other aspect of life and godliness.

But it is dominion we are after. Not just a voice. – It is dominion we are after. Not just influence. – It is dominion we are after. Not just equal time.

It is dominion we are after. World conquest. That’s what Christ has commissioned us to accomplish. We must win the world with the power of the Gospel. And we must never settle for anything less… Thus, Christian politics has as its primary intent the conquest of the land — of men, families, institutions, bureaucracies, courts, and governments for the Kingdom of Christ.”

George Grant, The Changing of the Guard, Biblical Principles for Political Action: Biblical Blueprint Series, 1987, pp. 50-51.

Jared Yates Sexton, in this excerpt, issues the same “wake up call” I spoke about in 2006. The dangers have increased. The crisis is already here. If Christian nationalism remains a mystery to you, something you wonder about, and you would like to know more, you might want to take this “Introduction to Christian Nationalism” course.

Christian faith or political ideology?

Amanda Tyler names Christian nationalism as “a political ideology and cultural framework that merges our identity as Americans and Christians … and relies on a false narrative of our founding as a Christian nation.” Whether that challenges you or sounds right to you, I hope you will watch this interview today and hear more of her thoughts.

Amanda Tyler is executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, widely known as BJC.  For 87 years, this organization has been upholding the historic Baptist principle of religious liberty: defending the free exercise of religion and protecting against its establishment by government. She is also the lead organizer of BJC’s Christians Against Christian Nationalism campaign and recently spoke at a congressional hearing about the threat of Christian Nationalism.

“We’ve known about the dangers of Christian nationalism for many years even if we didn’t call it by that name,” Amanda said. A common theme of the story they tell is that “one must be a Christian to be an American.” – Starting three years ago, many leaders saw the growing influence and threat to democracy of the movement and started the Christians Against Christian Nationalism (CACN) project. Please listen to the interview, and then read on to the end.

Amanda Tyler grew up in Texas Baptist churches, back when Baptists still agreed on her statement that they have “for centuries found a theological calling to stand up for religious freedom for all.” As a Baptist minister for 50 years, I learned it early and stood firm on our commitment to the separation of church and state, guaranteeing religious freedom for all. The Baptist Joint Committee, which Amanda leads, has worked for almost 90 years to keep this commitment strong in this country. And now Christian nationalism denies that history and claims the founders never said that.

What can you do? Amanda recommends starting with the CACN statement of principles, which says in part:

“Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian. It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation. We reject this damaging political ideology.”

The eight principles in their statement can give you the language and ideas essential for engaging in conversation and challenging this movement. For example:

“People of all faiths and none have the right and responsibility to engage constructively in the public square.”

“Conflating religious authority with political authority is idolatrous and often leads to oppression of minority and other marginalized groups as well as the spiritual impoverishment of religion.”

This project speaks directly to Christians, often in the specific language of our faith, because it is a call and challenge to other Christians to stand up to this movement. “Our religion,” she says, “has been co-opted by political actors to further their aims.” The movement uses symbols and language of Christianity, and often looks like the same thing, but it is not. It is “political ideology and cultural framework” and not true Christianity. What can we do? Amanda names three things:

  • Name and recognize Christian nationalism for what it is.
  • Take a stand against it.
  • Share what we’ve learned with others.

I found her words at the end of the interview to be encouraging and hope you will too:

There is “no religious test to be an American … The idea of multi-ethnic and multi-racial democracy that we aspire to is made better by our diversity. … Christian nationalism is deeply entrenched in American society, and it may take a generational project to dismantle it….The fight may be hard and long, but we can do it.”

Anyone can view this interview for free at the Imagine Learning Community, where you will find many other resources and interviews as well.

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.

Why Antisemitism Should be Everyone’s Concern

Joyce Herman and I met in Washington, D.C. in 2005 at a national conference for religious progressives, but we live in the same town. Over the years, we would connect at some public gathering. In recent months, however, we began active conversation about the rise of antisemitism in the U.S. Joyce wrote a recent blog post that deserves a wider audience than I could give it, but please take time to read her entire post. It’s worth the time.

As a young Jewish child in the 1940’s learning about the horrors happening in Germany, I would lie awake at night and ask myself over and over, “How can they (those who are in charge of the world) be letting these horrendous things happen??”

Now, when autocratic, anti-democratic forces are burgeoning all over the world, including the U.S, that little child’s question is unfortunately still in play. My hope is that a brief exploration of antisemitism and why it should matter to everyone will shed some light on the bigger question of what role individuals can take in not letting bad things happen.

Antisemitism is complicated. I’ve used the acronym H.A.T.E. (It’s HERE, it’s ANCIENT, it’s a TOOL FOR TYRANTS, it affects EVERYONE) to help explain what it is and how it works.

H. It’s HERE and it’s real.

Simply stated, antisemitism is prejudice or hatred of Jews. A detailed history can be found in Holocaust Encyclopedia. Antisemitism occurs in cycles, surfacing when the society is stressed. Until recently antisemitism was in a less visible phase. However, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported over 2700 incidents of antisemitism in 2021, the largest increase since they began reporting them 70 years ago. Antisemitism on the Right, led by a strong and organized White Nationalist Supremacy movement has instigated and inspired murderous attacks on synagogues, grocery stores, schools, and malls.

The last few years have seen:

A. IT’S ANCIENT:

It didn’t start in Nazi Germany. Antisemitism has been called “the oldest hate.” A Jewish Black woman recently lamented that the Jews’ 6000 year history is characterized by a global search for safety.

Antisemitism began well before Christianity when the Israelites refused to bow down to Greek and Roman emperors. Over the millenia, Jews’ commitment to their interpretation of God and God’s commandments kept them separate and made them subject to torture, forced conversions (“you can’t live among us as Jews”) expulsions, (“you can’t live among us”) and periodic pogroms and genocide (“you can’t live”).

For centuries, state and church laws disallowed Jews from owning land, holding public office, or pursuing most occupations. Jews were living as a minority without a homeland and had to rely on the good will of rulers in the country where they were allowed to settle. In exchange for a promise of protection for the Jewish community, a few Jews would serve as money lenders (usury was deemed a sin for Christians), tax collectors, or other public officials. The majority of Jews there remained as impoverished as the general population.

T. IT’S A TOOL FOR TYRANTS

When those being taxed would resist the oppressive conditions of their lives, ruling royalty directed the people’s hatred and resentment to the Jewish community. Jews were used by those with the real power as “middle agents” to absorb the hatred and resentment and keep the real oppressors from coming to account. Blame and scapegoating became a regular device to divert oppressed people’s animosity and gather people to the rulers’ agenda. Dog whistles and veiled or open use of antisemitic tropes often preceded outright attacks and ultimately pogroms. In the digital age, antisemitism takes different forms but with the same destructive effect.

In a related pattern autocratic rulers developed a “divide and conquer” strategy—keeping the oppressed groups in conflict with each other. We see that operating again today in the U.S.

E. IT’S EVERYONE’S CONCERN

The recent dramatic and visible rise of antisemitism — a poison that runs in cycles and has resurfaced at many points in history — is but one example of how our world gets divided. Moreover, antisemitism plays a pivotal role in disrupting the entire society and in particular any progressive trends that have the potential to bring about longed for justice and wholeness.

Eric Ward, Executive Vice-President of Race Forward, and Senior Advisor to the Western States Center and former senior consultant to the Southern Poverty Law Center, has made a powerful case that antisemitism fuels White nationalism. Amazingly, he briefly infiltrated the Oath Keepers (of January 6 infamy), and learned that antisemitism formed the core credo of these White Christian Nationalists. They teach that Jews form “a monstrous, all-powerful cabal,” a concept that comes from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged document that a group of Russian police fabricated in the 19th century. They further spuriously claim that Jews use what the Oath Keepers call “subhuman others,” including Blacks and immigrants, as pawns in the Jews’ plan to destroy White nationhood. This is known as The Great Replacement Theory. See also, The “Great Replacement Theory”, Explained by the National Immigration Forum. Be sure to check the end of the document for a list of effective forms of allyship.

Ward believes fighting antisemitism cuts off that fuel for the sake of all marginalized communities under siege and that racism will not be eliminated until antisemitism is addressed. For more information see Ward’s Congressional testimony 12/13/22.

It’s often said that “Jews are the canaries in the coal mine.” It may start relatively innocuously, and people feel “it’s not a big deal, and it doesn’t affect me.”

Pastor Martin Niemoller, a German Lutheran Pastor,  was a Nazi sympathizer and an anti-semite but dramatically changed when he was targeted and imprisoned by the Nazis. When he was liberated from prison after the war, he famously said:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

ISRAEL

Although many American Jews want a homeland for Jews — and a homeland for Palestinians — the majority oppose the Israeli government’s repressive policies, a fact which is not widely known. A survey “found that Jewish Americans – much like the U.S. public overallhold widely differing views on Israel and its political leadership. It’s worth noting that Christian Zionists have been a major factor in supporting U.S. policies vis a vis Palestinians. They have also backed the settlement movement. Progressive Movements Cannot Afford to Ignore the Role of Christian Zionism in the Dispossession of Palestinians

Progressive causes have suffered when groups have singled out Israel, and by extension Jews, for attack or exclusion. This is part of the old pattern of scapegoating. The World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001 got sidetracked from considering reparations for slavery in the U.S. because of polarization around the slogan “Zionism is racism” which caused the U.S and Israel to pull out of the conference. Likewise the Women’s March in 2017 began with great energy and high hopes for inclusivity and supporting women of color in leadership, but Jewish women’s groups who had been very active in Civil Rights and feminist causes for decades were excluded because they supported the existence of the State of Israel.

Moreover, just as it is not un-American to criticize U.S. policies and behaviors, it is not antisemitism to call out egregious policies by the State of Israel. In other words, one can support the right of the State of Israel to exist while condemning governmental policies. However, when supporters of Palestine fail to distinguish between the policies of Israel, the State of Israel, and Jews, criticism of Israel can turn to hatred for Israel, and from there to attacks on Jews and Jewish groups. It is counterproductive to attack or exclude Jews in order to lift up Palestinians.

FROM ALLYSHIP TO SOLIDARITY

The Pachamama Alliance is committed to bringing about a very different world than the separation our current economic/political/social systems have brought us. In community, we can grieve the disconnections, the insidious splits of humans from one another, from other living beings, from the earth, and even from oneself. Together we can find the way back to wholeness.

Becoming allies to any targeted group is an empowering way to make rewarding connections. Jews’ history of not being supported when conditions become threatening means they don’t always trust that people care. (My Jewish friends’ faces light up when I tell them about the many ways allies from the Pachamama Alliance and elsewhere have supported me.)

The 2022 Chanukah celebration in the White House was a powerful and thoughtful response to the upsurge in antisemitism . While mixing church and state can be problematic, President Biden’s speech and the whole tenor of the event provided much needed healing.

Another compelling statement came from Imam Abdullah Antepli, formerly from Turkey, who gave the Shabbat sermon at Central Synagogue in Manhattan on December 16. Having been taught that Jews and Judaism were irredeemably evil, he grew up a rabid antisemite, burning Israeli flags. Now, despite death threats, he spends his life not only in prayer, but in calling on people of all faiths to take action.

Imam Abdullah Antepli believes the reason hate and antisemitism are on the rise is lack of action, quoting, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Amplifying what kind of action he believed was necessary, he cautioned against being “anti” something, rather than “pro,” and asked, “What ethical light do we want to show? A rightful response to the darkness will take grace, educational opportunities, and sometimes giving people a second, third, and fourth chance.”

Imam Antepli’s other plea, one that resonates deeply with the Pachamama vision, is if we respond from our silos, each group addressing only their own pain, the problems will not be solved.

Paying attention to acts of antisemitism and speaking out about them are antidotes to the isolation that is part of anti-semitism and all oppressions.When people find the courage to stand up and speak out in ways that others can hear, an important piece of healing happens in our world.

Beyond that, learning about the meaning and rich practices of Judaism, including Shabbat and the holidays, especially the High Holidays in the fall, can lead to deep connections between Jews and non-Jews.

A team of Jews of Color who lead the progressive Jewish organization Bend the Arc, recently offered this wisdom: We must take steps beyond allyship to build a movement based on solidarity.

I think that is the answer I’ve been waiting for.

January 6 and Christian Nationalism

Today is the 2nd anniversary of the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Many faith leaders have questioned why the report from the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol has only one direct reference to Christian nationalism. Reports indicate Rep. Liz Cheney influenced the decision. Her official statement was that she “won’t sign onto any ‘narrative’” regarding Jan. 6 that “suggests every American who believes God has blessed America is a white supremacist.”

Even though many journalists and writers documenting this movement do connect it to white supremacy, no one I know of suggests what Liz Cheney says.  Yet far too many researchers and experts have thoroughly documented the connection to January 6 to dismiss it or ignore it.

Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, organized Christians Against Christian Nationalism to provide resources for anyone who wants to learn more and take action to resist this movement that threatens our democracy and harms Christianity. The full report documenting clear and direct connections between this movement and what happened on January 6, 2021 is available here.

One of the best definitions of what Christian Nationalism is comes from Amanda Tyler’s introduction to that report:

Christian nationalism is a political ideology and cultural framework that seeks to merge American and Christian identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism relies on the mythological founding of the United States as a “Christian nation,” singled out for God’s providence in order to fulfill God’s purposes on earth. Christian nationalism demands a privileged place for Christianity in public life, buttressed by the active support of government at all levels.

It is important, she adds, to address not just the actions around January 6 or more “obvious examples” of the movement, but its “more mundane and insidious forms…that often go unnoticed:

This report’s focus on the events leading up to and on January 6 does not suggest that this is the sole example or manifestation of Christian nationalism in the United States today. Concentrating solely on the most violent or obvious examples of Christian nationalism could distract us from addressing the more mundane and yet insidious forms of the ideology that often go unnoticed. The contributors and sponsors of this report are committed to studying and combatting Christian nationalism in its many forms. The scale and severity of the January 6 attack warrant a dedicated report of this kind. Dismantling Christian nationalism will take a broad and diverse response from individuals and organizations committed to effecting change.

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My interview with Amanda Tyler will be available
a week from now on January 13. _____________________________________________________________________________________

Andrew L. Seidel -a constitutional attorney, Director of Strategic Response at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and author of The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American – documents in this report several rallies prior to January 6 which were explicitly Christian nationalist (see sections 5 and 6 of the report):

One of the first post-election rallies in Washington, D.C., took place on November 14 in Freedom Plaza. It was typical of the pre-January 6 rallies, with many of the same players and speakers. It opened with a prayer infused with Christian nationalism that set the tone for everything that happened later…. They marched with crosses, Images of the Virgin Mary,“Jesus is my Savior, Trump is my President” flags,” “An Appeal to Heaven” flags, and a red flag that proclaimed “JESUS IS LORD.” An RV bedecked in Trump paraphernalia declared, “PRAY FOR 45.” At the Supreme Court, they erected a massive white Christian cross.

On December 12, the Jericho March was held in D.C. with Christian images and themes. And on January 6, “Crosses were everywhere that day in D.C., on flags and flagpoles, on signs and clothes, around necks, and erected above the crowd,” Andrew Seidel reports.

Please read the full report or watch the webinar releasing the report:

Amanda Tyler’s reaction to the events of January 6 deserve to be heard:

January 6 revealed on a national stage just how dire the threat of Christian nationalism is to our constitutional republic. As I wrote in the aftermath of that day, my horror about the violent attack only increased when I saw photos of the rioters holding up signs like “Jesus Saves” and heard reports that the first invaders to enter the Senate chamber carried a Christian flag. As a Christian, seeing signs of my faith on display during such a violent event filled me with anger and frustration. It was a display of textbook Christian nationalism, an ideology that merges American and Christian symbols, narratives and identities.

Whether it was the Reawaken America Tour I reported on here last fall or this detailed report on its influence the events of January 6, Christian nationalism must be resisted and its power stopped. Join us in this continuing work.

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

Organizing the faithful

I met Nathan Empsall this past summer while working together to oppose the Reawaken America Tour scheduled for Rochester NY. That event was cancelled, but then moved to nearby Batavia – and was in the national news spotlight. I’m delighted to share this interview with him.

The Rev. Nathan Empsall, an Episcopal priest and organizer, leads Faithful America as its executive director. It is the largest online community of Christians putting faith into action for social justice. Their 200,000 members — Catholic, Protestant, and more – refuse to sit quietly while Jesus’ message of good news is hijacked by the religious right to serve a hateful political agenda. They are organizing the faithful to challenge Christian nationalism and white supremacy and to renew the church’s prophetic role in building a more free and just society.

In this interview, Rev. Empsall clarifies the mission of Faithful America at this time. They are calling out Christian nationalism for its “distortion of our faith,” working with interfaith and secular partners as they work from a Christian perspective. They are “not just against something, but for something … lifting up an alternative vision of love and working together as a community.”

Please watch the interview and then read more about their work below:

Nathan defines Christian nationalism as “a political ideology and distortion of religion” because it “merges Christian identity with a civic identity, specifically their form of Christianity with a conservative political identity. Their message is that we can only be good Christians if we share all of that. And he adds that the movement is about “seizing power just for themselves rather than sharing power” to attain justice and equality for all in our nation.

We want to lift up love, hope, grace, compassion, and dignity, he says, but we also need to “name the problem and take it on, just as Jesus did in his day.” It’s important to distinguish between the movement, which is not Christian, he says, and people in the movement who may be Christian as they claim to be. It’s the people we must love even as we challenge and call out the movement and its leaders.

So what can you do? How can you be involved? Nathan invites you to visit their website and go to “Resisting Christian Nationalism” where you will find a wealth of resources to learn about Christian nationalism and get involved. You will find a variety of curriculum resources for small group studies in your church or community. Use them. Learn from them and talk about them.

Show up! A familiar phrase, and always true. Get involved in your local community – school boards and local elections – and don’t leave your faith at home. Speak up in love with an alternative story about who we can be as a nation and community. For those of you who are Christian by faith and commitment, he says, “Jesus is the center of our narrative” – his words and life of love. [I would add that compassion and justice are the core of every religion – or non-religious worldview – at its best.] Christian nationalism gets its power from claiming to have a monopoly on Christianity. They don’t. Trust your sense of what’s right and speak out now in a way that people “feel loved and empowered.”

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

Making sense of it all

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

What will we do about antisemitism?

Tonight in Brighton, New York, I will join a rabbi and an imam – as a Baptist minister – to speak briefly at a community gathering sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Rochester to publicly declare our opposition to all forms of antisemitism. It is happening again, and it is growing in intensity in the United States. What will we do? Not just if we are Jewish and targets of the hatred and violence, but simply because we are human beings.

Pittsburgh Synagogue

One article by the Associated Press told several stories of how “Jewish Americans Confront Antisemitism with Resolve and Worry.” Just two of those stories – from December 2023 – call all of us to do what we can.

Jewish Americans are closely following the recent upsurge in antisemitic rhetoric and actions with a mix of anxiety and resolve — along with a yearning that a broader swath of Americans, including leaders across the political spectrum, speak out against anti-Jewish hatred. New Yorker Rizy Horowitz said: “It’s a very frightening moment. There is no other word. We’re all frightened because we’ve seen the past and we don’t want to relive it.”

Texas author Anna Salton Eisen, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, has been sharing her late parents’ stories for years. “When I started speaking in schools more than 20 years ago, the Holocaust was a history lesson. Now it has become a lesson in current events,” she said. “Students who used to ask me questions about Hitler now want me to address the statements by Kanye that put Hitler in a positive light.”

This is why I will be there tonight. Today’s threat of antisemitism demands from all of us much more than giving a few remarks at a small evening gathering, but it’s one thing I can do. And I can keep writing about it – creating awareness, educating, giving alternatives for action. This is what I will say tonight – “3 reasons why I am here”:

First, I am here because of my faith. As a Baptist minister for 50 years, I remain firmly committed to two foundational principles – the separation of church and state and the freedom of religion for all. You may hear some radical right Christians denying separation of church and state and calling for a Christian nation, but that has never been our faith as Baptists. I am also a follower of Jesus, who affirmed the Hebrew scriptures when he said the two greatest commandments were to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as ourself. As a Christian, but also simply as a human being, I am here because of love. Our scriptures also say that “love does no harm” to another, so my faith compels me to here because of a love that will do no harm to another and will prevent that harm wherever possible.

Second, I am here because of history. Some of us do know actual history, and we do know the hatred and persecution of Jewish people through the centuries. We know the horrific realities of the 20th century and all that happened to Jews. We know that it happened not just because of the direct actions of a few, but because of the silence and complicity of so many others. Like most people of my generation, we learned and accepted the deep commitments of the words: “never forget” and “never again.” – A commitment not just of Jewish people, but of all people, and I am here because of that history.

Third, I am here because of the present threat … because it IS happening again. Some people choose to be ignorant of the past or willfully deny that it could happen again, and so they are once again complicit. Some choose hatred and violence – all the evils of antisemitism – and are a direct threat to the well-being, to the very lives, of Jewish people. Some would deny their right to exist, if they could. So I am here because I am compelled by conscience and love to join with you to stop it now.

The question I am asked most often about the threat to democracy of Christian nationalism is “what can I do?” Many of us are now asking the same question about the threat of antisemitism, which is related but not confined to religion. This runs deep in human history.

What experience, abilities, or gifts can you bring to this? I can write, speak, talk to people, teach about it. I can participate in community gatherings or demonstrations. I am looking for more alternative actions I can take. What about you? What will you do?

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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.

This is why

Why did members of Congress get “a Sunday School lesson … on the history of Baptists and religious freedom” this week? Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), spoke at a congressional hearing on the rise of anti-democratic extremism. When the chairman, Jamie Raskin, asked Tyler why BJC decided to actively oppose white Christian nationalism, she said:

“The problem of white Christian nationalism exactly fits with our mission of defending and extending religious freedom for all people. That’s because Christian nationalism strikes at the heart of the foundational ideas of what religious freedom means and how it’s protected in this country, and that is with the institution of separation of church and state.”

Later in the hearing, she added:

“Christian nationalism is a political ideology and cultural framework that seeks to fuse American and Christian identities. It suggests that ‘real’ Americans are Christians and that ‘true’ Christians hold a particular set of political beliefs, but the Christianity presented by the movement is more of an ‘ethno-identity’ than a religion. Opposition to Christian nationalism is not opposition to Christianity, and a growing number of Christians feel a religious imperative to stand against Christian nationalism. Christian nationalism uses the language, symbols and imagery of Christianity — in fact, it may look and sound like Christianity to the casual observer. However, closer examination reveals that it uses the veneer of Christianity to point not to Jesus the Christ but to a political figure, party or ideology.”

This is why we need to pay attention to another story from Texas. A state representative, Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, hired as his legislative director a man named Jake Neidert who advocates extremist, violent views and calls himself a Christian nationalist. In a Facebook post earlier this year, he wrote:

“Please understand that we’re not TRYING to turn America into a Christian theocracy. We’re going to do it.” (emphasis mine)

State Rep. Tinderholt has pushed for legislation that proposed the death penalty for Texans who get and perform abortions and supports dozens of bills against any form of LGBTQ gender identity and sexual expression. Neidert, however, is publicly far more extreme and is now the man to develop legislation for Tinderholt.

In a June 2022 tweet, he wrote: “You want to force kids to see drag shows, I want to ‘drag’ you to the town square to be publicly executed for grooming kids. We are not the same.” As a Baylor University student leading the chapter of Young Conservatives for Texas, “Neidert compared LGBTQ allies to child rapists and serial killers, saying that homosexuality was equally sinful,” then “defended the post by saying he was a Southern Baptist, and that ‘many congregations and denominations of Christianity still believe that homosexuality is a sin. I would not say [the tweet] is a stretch.’”

People often react to such stories by labeling them “extreme” and saying these views represent only a small minority. Yet Texas Gov. Greg Abbott “directed Child Protective Services agents to investigate families who provide gender-affirming care to transgender children.” And “Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office sought information on Texans who requested gender changes on their driver’s licenses — raising concerns among transgender Texans that they were being monitored. Meanwhile, ahead of Texas’ next legislative session that begins early next year, lawmakers have already filed dozens of bills targeting LGTBQ rights, including bills that would criminalize gender-affirming care for minors.”

The laws of the United States, or any of the individual states, must not be written based on the moral views of a specific version of any religion, including Christianity. As Amanda Tyler affirmed at this congressional hearing, many Christians oppose Christian nationalist views because we disagree that their views represent our faith and all it teaches about such concerns as abortion and LGBTQ rights.

When people like Neider and powerful groups like the Texas legislature, as well as the state’s governor and attorney general, want to criminalize human behavior that many of us support, this is why we speak up and take action. What many people still see as extreme views held only by a small group are being written into state laws governing the lives and restricting human freedoms of millions of citizens. This cannot continue.

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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.