Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States

Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States Summary: Christian nationalism is a better predictor for voting for Trump than identifying as an Evangelical.

Yesterday I pulled up Miroslav Volf’s For the Life of the World podcast because it was interviewing Jemar Tisby. I am very familiar with Jemar (and his book Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism). But I thought this was still a good interview and especially if you are not familiar with his book and work.

Because I was driving, I let it keep playing to last week’s podcast because I had not heard it. Volf was interviewing Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, sociologists of religion, talking about their recent book “Taking America Back for God”. The book is about Christian Nationalism. And the podcast gives a very good overview but doesn’t delve deeply into the argument. I immediately bought the audiobook and just finished listening to the book.

Short version: these two have developed a measure of Christian Nationalism and have used it in large scale surveys in 2007 and 2017 as well as compared it to other measures of Christian Nationalism. They believe that Christian Nationalism is the best predictor of voting for Trump in 2016 and will also be a good predictor for 2020. They also believe that White Evangelicals is not a good predictor of voting for Trump because many while many Christian Nationalists are evangelicals, not all evangelicals are Christian nationalists.

Christian nationalists and those that lean in that direction make up a majority of Evangelicals, and there are many factors in why that is true, but Christian Nationalists are present in many parts of the Christian church and even some that do not identify as Christian, but who view Christian nationalism as a type of American identify. Where I find the argument interesting is in the other associations with Christian nationalism, that overlap with (but are not necessarily the same as voting for Trump).

According to the authors, there are three aspects of Christian nationalism, power, boundaries, and order. (These are tendencies, so not every person that is a Christian Nationalist is deterministically someone that agrees to all of the following and those that follow any or all of the following are not necessarily Christian Nationalists, but they do hold explanatory power). Christian Nationalists tend to see political power as important and are primarily interested in the results of nationalism’s expression, not as much in the means to get there. So using Trump as an example, they don’t care that much about the ‘pussy-grabbing’ and racist language, although they may find it distasteful, as long as the judges are appointed and the power is wielded.

Secondly, (White) Christian Nationalists draw boundaries. They are not in favor of immigrants, especially refugees, who they see as likely to be Muslim or in other ways counter to their view of what it means to be an American. They distrust Muslims in particular because they are afraid of terrorism and violence, but also other immigrants from places like Central or South America (who tend to be Protestant Christian at fairly high rates) because they are still “other”. And within the US, Christian Nationalists tend to have a White normative view of what it means to be American, so Black and other racial minorities in the US are still ‘other’ and not ‘real Americans’.

Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery by Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah

Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of DiscoverySummary: Discussion of the role of the Doctrine of Discovery in shaping not only the development of the US but also the Christian church. 

Usually, I write about books reasonably quickly after I read them. I do this, not just because I like to discuss books and encourage others to read them, but as a type of public spiritual discipline where I try to write about thoughts so I can look back at them later and process books publicly as a means creating some open accountability for my Christian faith. So generally, I read a book, and within a few days, I have written at least something about it. But I first read Unsettling Truths just over six months ago, and I knew I was not yet ready to write about it. I needed to reread it.

Unsettling Truths is about the papal bulls that are referred to as the Doctrines of Discovery. Briefly, the papal bull, Romanus Pontifex, in 1452 declared that Christians (King Alfonso of Portugal) could “capture, vanquish, and subdue the Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ,” to “put them into perpetual slavery,” and “to take all their possessions and property.” Inter Caetera, in 1493, said Spain could claim any populated land as their territory if the population were not Christian. There is context to those papal bulls, but the background is not relevant to how those have been used later to further colonialism, white supremacy, manifest destiny, and even US legal precedent for land ownership.

I have primarily been addressing racial history and current reality through Black/White racial dichotomy and the history of slavery, Jim Crow, etc. It is not that I do not have an interest in other perspectives, but that I tend to follow the next trail on the path, and that has mostly been about issues of anti-Black racism. Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah are here to remind the church that, while those are important, they are not the only important issues in US racial history. Unsettling Truths is exactly the type of book that you need to read if you primarily or only see racial issues in the US through the Black/White dichotomy.

Unsettling Truths is also an explicitly Christian book. Both authors are former pastors. Soong-Chan Rah is currently a professor primarily focusing on global Christianity, church planting/growth, and evangelism. Mark Charles is presently an independent presidential candidate. The entire book is about Christianity.

Many of us are familiar with the rough outlines of slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights era. Many of us are less familiar with the history of Native American oppression. We can start with the early founding of the US:

While the Declaration of Independence may initially assert that “All men are created equal,” thirty lines below that assertion, indigenous people are referred to as “merciless Indian savages.” The Founding Fathers could use the seemingly inclusive term “all men” because they had a worldview informed by the Doctrine of Discovery that gave them a very narrow definition of who was actually human.

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo

Summary: A discussion of white resistance to understanding the social dynamics of race. 

I re-read White Fragility to participate in an online book discussion. And I continue to think that while White Fragility is very helpful and worth reading that there are issues with it. A number of people object to the title because they do not believe that being called fragile is helpful. The objections go in several directions. This piece, “It’s not White Fragility, it’s White Flammability” is an argument that the term fragile does not adequately take into account the harmful backlash that many White people express in response to being confronted with racism.

Of all the countless encounters I’ve had with white fragility, I may have thought, no matter what I say, this white person is going to react with anger and accusations and exclamations of their own innocence and my wrongness for attacking them, and nothing good will come of it. I never thought, this white person is fragile, this white person’s whiteness is fragile, or even this white person’s idea of themselves is fragile.

I thought, and felt in my body, this white person is dangerous. Because they don’t know they’re white. They don’t know they are not an individual. They think they’re an original. They think what they’re about to say is something they came up with, that came to them as a person, not as a white person. They are living a script, they are in a play, and I am caught in it with them. – from White Flammability article

Mark Charles, in his book Unsettling Truths, has a chapter on Participation-Induced Traumatic Stress Disorder. He discusses why he thinks that labeling what DiAngelo understands as White Fragility as PITS makes more sense. I generally agree with the content of what Charles is saying in that chapter, but I am not sure that the problems of labeling it as a psychiatric disorder are any less than the current term.

And then there are the complaints in the other direction that say that a term like fragility creates an opposition within White people to hearing the actual problems being raised. I think it is easier to respond to this point from the book:

When Faith Becomes Sight: Opening Your Eyes to God’s Presence All Around You by Beth and David Booram

When Faith Becomes Sight: Opening Your Eyes to God's Presence All Around YouSummary: Beth and David Booram present spiritual direction as a method of discipleship to an Evangelical audience. 

I am halfway through a program to become a spiritual director. It is a program rooted in Ignatian theory, as is the Boorams. As I have been in my program I have been intentionally seeking out Protestant or Evangelical books with similar content to the (Catholic) Ignatian perspectives to help me often understand subtle differences in language or approach that I am blind to. When Faith Becomes Sight, I think it is the best overview of Ignatian spiritual direction for an Evangelical audience that I have read.

The rough structure of When Faith Becomes Sight is to start first by recognizing the signs of God that are already around us. This approach begins with the assumption that God is seeking to communicate with you personally (not individually, but personally.) Signs of God are often subtle, and in a loud world with little silence, we need to develop skills to see and listen. Once we start being able to see the signs of God around us, then we need to develop skills of discernment, which requires that we examine our conscious and unconscious understanding of God. The final section of the book is more directly about the tools of spiritual direction and the lifelong process of discipleship.

When Faith Becomes Sight uses their work as spiritual directors (and their personal history) as examples of what discipleship looks like. I saw as I glanced through some reviews that some people objected to their retelling of scripture. Retelling or immersion in scripture is part of the Ignatian practice of absorbing scripture and then retelling it in ways that the scripture speaks to you. That does not mean that the retellings are the same as scripture, we are always limited in our perspective, and often in trying to make a point, we can distort a passage. That is not a reason to not deeply explore scripture, but instead, it is a reason to develop discernment about how we read scripture and theologically approach the world. And for those that are still skeptical, sermons explicate scripture, not merely read the scripture and sit down. Retelling scripture in your own words is very similar in purpose.

Part of the assumption of Ignatian spiritual direction is that a God will speak and we can understand. Not necessarily in vocal words, but maybe it will be vocal. The point is that Ignatius and many other streams of spiritual direction assume that the Holy Spirit can and will communicate his direction to us. And while we may not be perfect in understanding, with help, we can make a good attempt at discerning God from our own desires, our sin, and satanic interruption.

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You: A Remix of the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning by Jason Reynolds and Ibram KendiSummary: Jason Reynolds has taken the ideas of Ibram Kendi and written a young adult book about the history of racism.

I have read a couple of Jason Reynold’s books, and I like his young adult writing, even if I am not reading much young adult literature lately. And I have appreciated the two of Kendi’s books I have read (Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist).

Stamped is clearly Kendi’s ideas and Reynold’s words and style. It is framed in Kendi’s structure of there being three approaches to race, segregation, assimilation, and antiracism.

The antiracists say there is nothing wrong or right about Black people and everything wrong with racism. The antiracists say racism is the problem in need of changing, not Black people. The antiracists try to transform racism. The assimilationists try to transform Black people. The segregationists try to get away from Black people.

But what is helpful with Kendi’s approach is that he does not understand these three positions as fixed identities, but as he says in How to be an Antiracist, these are more like a “sticky name tag” that you can put on and take off, sometimes in a single day.

Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God by Kaitlin Curtice

Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering GodSummary: The struggle to find identity and meaning as a Potawatomi woman who grew up with a better understanding of Southern Baptist Church culture than her Native one.

I preordered the Kindle edition of Native and then picked up the audiobook free as a promotion for pre-ordering. Like I prefer, Kaitlin Curtice narrated her own book. As I have frequently said, almost always, the author can tell their own story better than a professional narrator. (There are exceptions and fiction is probably better for professional narrators, etc). Curtice is not a professional narrator, but the book calls for emotion and feeling in this personal book and she carries that out.

This is a far better book than I can write about right now. But I want to hit on one point that I think she talks about well. The US has always prized assimilation. But it never really occurred to me how much assimilating something requires giving something else up. It may not be you directly that is giving something up. But to assimilate impacts not just you, but your extended family and descendants as well. If you assimilate into another culture, you are separating your children from their heritage. That isn’t to say all cross-cultural change is bad, but that traditionally the only thing talked about was the movement toward unified White culture as a positive. But the loss of ethnic culture is a loss. Some have lost their ethnic culture because of forced migration and slavery as many African Americans have in the US. Many Native Americans were removed from their homes as children, forced into boarding schools, punished for speaking their native languages or expressing their culture and encouraged to adopt White norms.

However, those who today identify as White also have been assimilated and lost their individual ethnic identity. My grandmother, just two generations from me, and a woman I knew fairly well into my 20s came to the US from Finland as a 12-year-old. I have zero connection to Finnish culture, language, or heritage. There is a loss that has to be accounted for, not just the gain of her assimilating into US culture via NYC and rural Pennslyvania.

Good White Racist?: Confront Confronting Your Role in Racial Injustice by Kerry Connelly

Good White Racist? Confronting Your Role in Racial Injustice

Summary: A White Christian talking to other White Christians about racism.

If you have read my post on The Myth of the American Dream, you know I am ambivalent about Good White Racist and several other books I have been reading lately. They are good books, among the best I have read from Christians, which I appreciate. But the fact they exist, in some ways, is a sign of the reluctance of White people to learn from minorities who have been saying many of the same things for a long time.

The description of the book opens with the following:

good white racist noun
1. A well-intentioned person of European descent who is nonetheless complicit in a culture of systemic racism
2. A white person who would rather stay comfortable than do the work of antiracism

One of the positives that immediately struck me was the preface. There are several pages devoted to acknowledging the people that have previously taught her all of the things she will later say. The Black women (primarily) that have taught her personally and paved the way academically to write about race. There is humility with that opening that caused me to text it to some friends immediately and think that maybe this book would be different.

And then the introduction opens, “Hi. I’m Kerry, and I’m a racist. (This is where you’re supposed to say, ‘Hi, Kerry.)'” She continues in the next few pages noting that White people trying to address race often “talk a great game on the one hand while maintaining the racist status quo on the other.” Like White Fragility, this is a book primarily is targeted toward people that have some awareness of the reality of racism, but also consider themselves a ‘Good White person.’ As she says, “It is our job–white people, not anyone else’s–to acknowledge this power dynamic and dismantle it, making space for the power of others to emerge.”

A friend posted a quote from Martin Luther King Jr’s book Where Do We Go From Here:

“Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”

The importance of the book is that Good White Racists:

“…benefit from that assignment in a social system that privileges whiteness…are generally nice people who intellectually do not approve of racist behaviors but who practice them anyway…[and] are concerned (possibly obsessed) with two things: their own comfort and their own inherent goodness.” (p15)

What Good White Racist points out throughout the book, is that paying attention matters, and the desire to not pay attention is exactly the problem that prevents real change. (Similar to the theme of Myth of the American Dream).

The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr

The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.Summary: A joint biography about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr and the way that they influenced one another.

The Civil Rights Era was made up of many more people than Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, but they are two of the defining figures of the mid 20th century. This is the first joint book I have read about them since James Cone’s Martin & Malcolm & American. It has been at least 20 years since I read that book, and throughout The Sword and the Shield, I tried (and failed) to remember how Cone handled the discussion. I need to go back and reread it.

I was glad that I have recently read a biography of Malcolm X as well as King’s last book, Where Do We Go From Here, which had details about their lives front and center in my mind. I am far from a scholar of either, but I am also not unfamiliar with them. I still learned plenty, and the focus on them together does intentionally put their work on tension even if they only directly met one time.

As much as anything this is a reminder of what was lost with their deaths. No one like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr is only their flattened memories. Both were complex people that were significantly changing over time, as was the central theme of Marble’s biography of Malcolm X and Cornell West’s compiled Radical King. Kendi’s three categories of racial relationships (segregationists, assimilationists, or antiracists) in How to be an Antiracist reminded me of how both King and Malcolm X were antiracists much of the time, but in quite different ways.

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei Summary: A memoir of George Takei’s time in the Japanese Internment camps during World War II with some discussion about how they shaped his life after that time.

I do not read a lot of graphic novels, but I have found they work really well for history and memoir especially for discussion of eras where the visualization really matters. The March Trilogy by John Lewis is a very good example of this type of visual history that would communicate very differently in a straight narrative.

George Takei has been most known for his role as Sulu in Star Trek. But he has deftly used that fame to draw attention to gay rights, immigration and most especially, the history of the Japanese Interment camps. A graphic novel of that time is a natural outgrowth of his other work.

I always like to include a piece of art when I talk about graphic novels because art matters so much to the experience of reading a graphic novel. This is a frame from toward the end of the book when George Takei is processing what it meant to be in the internment camps with his father.

With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman

With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard ThurmanSummary: Fascinating autobiography of a pathbreaking and important man.

I came to know about Howard Thurman, like many do, through hearing about him in relation to Martin Luther King (Jr and Sr). He was a classmate with MLK Sr at Morehouse College. And then, during Thurman’s first year as Dean of the Boston College Chapel, Thurman overlapped with MLK Jr as he was finishing up his Ph.D. It is said that MLK Jr carried a copy of Jesus and the Disinherited with him during his Civil Rights years. Their relationship is probably not as formative to King as I had thought earlier, but there are many letters between them.

Regardless of his relationship with King, Howard Thurman is a path-breaking man. His father died young, and as the story at the beginning of the book says, “I said, ‘One thing is sure. When I grow up and become a man, I will never have anything to do with the church.'” His father died when he was seven, and because his father was not a member of the church, the pastor initially refused to allow a funeral at the church. After being pressured to permit the burial, the pastor refused to participate. A traveling evangelist agreed to do the funeral but turned it into a spectacle for evangelism instead of a memorial.

Despite the early negative relationship to the church, Thurman had an early mystical experience calling him to be a minster. Throughout his life, he was a mystic in orientation. I am not going to cover his whole career; you can read his Wikipedia page for a summary, or the memoir for more detail. After becoming a pastor, teaching, and serving as chaplain at Morehouse and Spelman, serving as a Dean at Howard University Chapel and a faculty member, he left the academic world in 1944 to co-pastor an intentionally interracial church in San Francisco. It is one of the earliest intentionally interracial congregations with Howard Thurman as co-pastor, but the only paid pastor and primary lead for most of the time. After nine years, Thurman became the Dean of Boston College Chapel, the first Black man to have a similar position at a predominately White University. He remained there 12 years until 1965 when he officially retired and led the Howard Thurman Educational Trust until he died in 1981.