Tag Archives: Christian nationalism

Revising History? Or Ignorance Of It?

A recent article in the Charleston Post and Courier reported on the results of a poll conducted by Winthrop University. It was pretty disheartening.

The Winthrop University Poll randomly dialed and questioned 969 residents in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia between Nov. 10-20 and Nov. 26-Dec. 2. Results have an error margin of plus or minus 3.15 percent.

The poll found that half of residents either agree or strongly agree that America was founded as an explicitly Christian nation.

Among white evangelicals, three-fourths agreed or strongly agreed with this belief about how the nation was founded.

The immediate question raised by such results is whether these respondents have chosen to ignore what they (presumably) learned in history class  or whether they are simply uninformed. Whatever the answer, the poll results explain a number of things about Southern political culture.

The poll’s director noted that the belief in a Christian founding is central to Christian Nationalism.

“Research has shown that increases in Christian Nationalist beliefs lead to more exclusionary views on immigration and more negative views of multi-culturalism in America,” Huffmon said. “Those who hold these views care more about whether they have a strong leader who will protect their religious and cultural values than whether a leader is individually pious.”

Forgive me if I suggest that the “cultural value” they want to protect is Christian social dominance.

It is virtually impossible to reconcile this belief in a Christian Nation with American history, or with what we know about the origins of America’s constitution–or for that matter, with the plain language of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. It is one thing for Christian fundamentalists to prefer that the country affirm the superiority of their particular creed; it is another thing entirely to falsify history in order to convince themselves and others that the Founders agreed with them.

If these folks have made a conscious decision to falsify history, that’s reprehensible. But it is far more likely that they are ignorant of history, that they’ve never heard of the Enlightenment, or encountered the (then radical) political philosophy that privileged personal autonomy over religious and political beliefs endorsed and imposed by the state.  The widespread belief in Christian nationhood reflected in the poll results is a stark reminder of Americans’ deficit of civic literacy, and the failure of our schools to teach history and government accurately and adequately.

It’s interesting–and telling– that this particular fantasy about America’s founding is almost exclusively a phenomenon of White Christians who consider themselves the only true Americans.

The Rev. Joseph Darby, first vice president for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Charleston, disagreed with claims that the country was intended to be explicitly Christian.

Darby, who also pastors Nichols Chapel AME in Charleston, didn’t mince words in describing Christian nationalists and white evangelical denominations with exclusionary views on immigration and multiculturalism.

“It’s called Christian hypocrisy,” Darby said.

Darby added that the country should not be in favor of one particular religion. Rather, he said politicians and voters should “love God and love others as we would be loved.”

“If the laws reflect that, we’d be one nation under all,” he said. “If you have something that’s exclusively Christian, you’re walking a very slippery, nationalist slope. Everyone in America is not Christian.”

I suspect that White Christian Nationalists are more worried about the threat civic equality poses to their cultural hegemony than they are about America’s spiritual prospects.

Policymakers can’t do much about chosen ignorance, but polls like this should be seen as yet another reason to make civic education a national priority.

Our “Seamless Garment” Problem

When I was a very new academic, I loved attending conferences and listening to scholars from various institutions deliver papers that illuminated issues with which I’d struggled.

One of those issues was my puzzlement about why some religious folks seemed unable to “live and let live”–to understand the Bill of Rights as a list of things that government wasn’t supposed to decide. You go to XYZ church, I go to ABC–government shouldn’t be involved in those choices. I read such-and-such books, you consider them evil. Not government’s concern. Etc.

I certainly understood that people of good faith could disagree on where lines got drawn, but I lacked a description for those insisting that government use its power to impose their religious beliefs on everyone else. Then I attended a conference presentation that gave those people and that insistence a label: the “seamless garment” folks.

Seamless garment folks are people who see government and religion as one inseparable authority; when government won’t legislate their beliefs, they experience that refusal as discrimination.

The frustration of the Seamless Garment folks is arguably what has led Evangelical Christians to support Donald Trump (and especially his Seamless Garment Vice President, Mike Pence.) Their insistence on using government to require others to act (or not) in accordance with their beliefs has now eclipsed their attention to such biblical admonitions as caring for the widow and orphan and adhering to the Golden Rule.

What have we seen from these folks during Trump’s first year? A writer for Vox supplies a list.

In my first year at Vox, I’ve covered a range of religion stories — from witches casting spells against Trump to controversial debates over the alt-right at the annual Southern Baptist Convention conference. In that time, I’ve noticed a few distinct, related patterns emerging. Most notably, Christian nationalism is getting stronger — even as that nationalism has both caused divisions within the evangelical community and led to wider politico-religious divisions in America, cleaving white evangelicals, from, well, everybody else.

The article lists five “take-aways”:

  • Religious minorities are experiencing a spike in discrimination. Muslim communities have been particularly hard-hit; anti-Islamic incidents have soared.   There’s been a 44 percent rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes and a 57 percent increase in Islamophobia overall. Anti-Semitism has increased as well.
  • Evangelical solidarity is showing fissures. Their demographics are changing and their communities are becoming more diverse; like other young people, young evangelicals have different priorities than seniors, and are significantly less anti-gay. Many of them are uneasy being tied to the Trump presidency– the Southern Baptist Convention, a body that represents nearly 40 percent of evangelical Protestants in America, passed a near-unanimous resolution condemning the alt-right.

And, of course, there was Roy Moore. His Alabama special election campaign, late in 2017, seemed to capture the religious zeitgeist, as evangelicals wrestled with the question of whether to support a man who had been accused of molesting teenage girls if it also meant supporting a pro-life, even theocratic candidate. The reasons for white evangelical support of Moore were varied, but the outcome of the election — which showed the growing influence of evangelicals of color — revealed that changing demographics, not changed minds, were responsible for Democrat Doug Jones’s victory.

  • Spiritual but not religious is becoming a significant voting bloc. The author noted that many of the people she interviewed said that the need for inclusive, LGBTQ-affirming spaces had alienated them from the religions they had grown up in or near, and left them in search of something different.
  • On the other hand, Christian Nationalism is on the rise. The prominent Evangelicals around Trump believe Christians should take over America, and run it in accordance with biblical law. (In fairness, many other evangelicals see them as charlatans.)

The article ended with speculation about the role Evangelicals will play in 2018. This  paragraph, especially, struck a chord:

The greatest trick Christian nationalists — or their more explicit cousins to the right, white nationalists — have up their sleeve is to claim they are being persecuted. Central to the narrative of Christian nationalism in the White House, no less than the explicitly white nationalist protests in Charlottesville, is the idea that the “liberal media” and “PC police” have banded together to silence the “true” speakers of truth — a dynamic that, in the rhetoric of Christian nationalism, turns into a full-on war between good and evil (just consider how Roy Moore’s defenders compared him to Jesus during the last days of his campaign).

Unfortunately for the Seamless Garment members of the Christian Taliban, the U.S. Constitution specifically rejects the “seamlessness” they seek, and leaves matters of religious belief and observance to our individual consciences.

Fortunately for the rest of us, His Trumpness can’t change that.

 

(Un)Civil Religion

What is “Christian Nationalism” and how is it operating to support Donald Trump? Think Progress has an illuminating history,  and an effort to explain the continued devotion of many Evangelical Christian pastors to Trump and his Presidency.

It is notable that, in response to Trump’s moral equivocations following Charlottesville, when business executives resigned en masse from the administration’s advisory panels, only one minister followed their lead.

Others have actively defended those equivocations.

Jerry Falwell, Jr. tweeted his “pride” in the President:

Finally a leader in WH. Jobs returning, N Korea backing down, bold truthful stmt about tragedy.So proud of @realdonaldtrump

Falwell’s relationship with Trump, and his inability to see anything “unChristian” about the President’s behavior, led some graduates of Liberty University, which Falwell heads, to return their diplomas.

Chris Gaumer, a former Student Government Association president and 2006 graduate, said it was a simple decision.

“I’m sending my diploma back because the president of the United States is defending Nazis and white supremacists,” Gaumer said. “And in defending the president’s comments, Jerry Falwell Jr. is making himself and, it seems to me, the university he represents, complicit.”

The Think Progress article quotes liberally from Sam Haselby, author of The Origins of American Religious Nationalism. Haselby identifies three elements of our national history that give rise to Christian Nationalism:  Reverence for the country’s founders;  persistence of the “Jeremiad” narrative, defined as the insistence of activists (left and right) that their cause is consistent with the spirit of America’s founding; and the “undeniable prevalence of religious rhetoric or ‘God talk’ in political spaces, no matter which party is in power.”

But few groups indulge in this tradition more fervently than today’s Christian nationalists, whose repeated (and disputed) calls for America to be “restored” as a “Christian nation” mixes all three of Haselby’s elements. When leaders such as Franklin Graham say God has blessed America more than any other nation on earth, they often mean it in a very specific way: Namely, that America is somehow special to God, and has been since its founding, when it supposedly was “built on Christian principles.”

Haselby points out that today’s Christian Nationalists use these elements very differently than their predecessors.  Modern Christian nationalism—characterized by antipathy towards science, so-called “secular” institutions, and government overreach—would have confused and repelled their 18th- and 19th-century forbears.

America’s current version of Christian Nationalism bears an unsettling resemblance to the German version that enabled the rise of Hitler:

The result was broad support for Hitler’s rise to power among German Christians and their leaders, some of whom took their devotion to an extreme. Hitler’s numerous flaws were often explained away or, in some cases, replaced with complete fabrications about his faith.

Interweaving authoritarianism with American-style Christian nationalism isn’t just theoretical: it’s happened before.

“There was a widespread belief in Germany among Christians that Hitler kept a copy of the New Testament in his breast pocket, and he read from it every day—which was completely false,” Ericksen said. “[Hitler] was happy to nurture or not confront those kind of misconceptions, because he wanted that kind of Christian support. And the Christians were so willing to bend over backwards — they accepted or in some ways maybe even invented explanations of how he could be a real Christian leader.”

By the time his power crescendoed, the difference between the Hitler and religious leaders was almost nonexistent. The most extreme form of Christian nationalism had taken hold.

The article is lengthy, but well worth a read in its entirety.

It has been said that although history doesn’t repeat itself, it does rhyme. Fortunately, America’s Christian Nationalists are a decided minority within the faith community; we can take comfort in the significant numbers of American religious leaders who have forcefully rejected Trump’s endorsements of racism and various bigotries.

But we also need to learn from history, and recognize the threat posed by those who are willing to twist and deform their theologies in the service of cultural dominance.

Politics in Post-Christian America

The American Conservative recently ran a fascinating article that raised the question: what will become of a Republican Party that only speaks to (certain) Christians? (Granted, after the most recent food fight…er, GOP debate…there are other reasons to question the  continued viability of the party…)

We all know that demographic changes are creating a more racially and ethnically diverse America. Indeed, there is substantial evidence for the proposition that it is the growth of that diversity that has triggered the rise–and rage–of a bigotry that had been suppressed (albeit not eliminated) over the preceding few decades. What demographers are now beginning to recognize is the emergence of what the article calls “post-Christian” America.

And as the article notes, that reality hasn’t yet penetrated to the current crop of Presidential candidates

Judging solely from the rhetoric and actions of the Republican presidential candidates this cycle, you would be hard-pressed to tell much difference between 2016 and 1996, the year that the Christian Coalition was ruling the roost in GOP politics. Sure there’s a lot more talk about the Middle East than before, but when it comes to public displays of religiosity, many of the would-be presidents have spent the majority of their candidacies effectively auditioning for slots on the Trinity Broadcast Network.

Even Donald Trump, the thrice-married casino magnate turned television host, has gone about reincarnating himself as a devout Christian, despite his evident lack of familiarity with the doctrines and practices of the faith.

If Americans are moving away from Christianity–if even the people most likely to vote Republican are moderating their connection to the version of Christianity that has been most congruent with political conservatism–the GOP will need to significantly expand its appeal to non-Christians and those who describe themselves as “spiritual” rather than religious.

That isn’t happening.

While the process of secularization has been slower-moving in the U.S. compared to Europe, it is now proceeding rapidly. A 2014 study by Pew Research found that 23 percent of Americans say they’re “unaffiliated” with any religious tradition, up from 20 percent just 3 years earlier. The Public Religion Research Institute confirmed the statistic as well with a 2014 poll based on 50,000 interviews indicating that 23 percent of respondents were unaffiliated.

The trend away from faith is only bound to increase with time. According to Pew, about 36 percent of adults under the age of 50 have opted out of religion. At present, claiming no faith is the fastest growing “religion” in the United States. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of people claiming “nothing in particular” increased by 2.3 percent, those saying they were agnostics increased by 1.2 percent and those claiming to be atheists increased by 0.8 percent. No actual religious group has experienced anywhere near such growth during this time period.

The article provides analyses of vote shares from the last election cycle, demonstrating that as people move from church-based religiosity, they also move–in significant numbers–to the Democrats.

The conclusion?

In 2016 and beyond, Christian conservatives face a choice. They can embrace identity politics and become a small group of frustrated Christian nationalists who grow ever more resentful toward their fellow Americans, or they can embrace reality.

There are many things today’s GOP embraces, but reality isn’t one of them.