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April 6, 2021

The pastoral challenge of Christian nationalism

By Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

Director, School for Conversion
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a writer, speaker and the co-founder, with his wife Leah, of Rutba House, a new monastic community in Durham, N.C. He is associate minister at St. John’s Baptist Church and directs the School for Conversion, a nonprofit community organization. He is the author of a number of books, including “New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church,” “God’s Economy,” and most recently “Revolution of Values.” Wilson-Hartgrove is a graduate of Eastern University and Duke Divinity School.

Unsplash / Dawid Malecki

Pastors must present a more gripping vision of a beloved community to steer congregants away from the lies of Christian nationalism, says an author and activist.

Since the Capitol riot on Jan. 6 of this year, when reporters noted symbols and practices of white Christian culture among the insurrectionists, commentary on American public life has included a renewed focus on the role of religion in politics -- especially, the influence of white Christian nationalism.

Whether they storm Capitol Hill or not, people who believe that it’s morally justifiable to overturn an election present a clear danger to public life. But white Christian nationalism also threatens on a less public stage -- in our congregations.

“A member of our church came to me and confessed, ‘My husband was there at the Capitol,’” a Baptist pastor told me.

What do you do when you realize that white Christian nationalism is trying to recruit your church members?

It is not news to most American pastors that increasing political polarization has divided families and congregations. But the religious fervor of the anti-mask and “Stop the Steal” movements over the past year has highlighted the discipleship challenge of religious nationalism.

Though white Christian nationalism uses the language and symbols of Christian faith, pastors are increasingly realizing that it invites their congregants to worship another god. The work of shepherding people in the way of Jesus entails helping them see that not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” is inviting them into the way of truth.

Of course, this is not a new pastoral reality. I’ve just started a series on the continuous role of Christian nationalism in our public life. In 20th-century America, Christian faith was used to defend racial segregation in the South -- just as in 19th-century America, biblical quotations and appeals to Christian nationalism were used to defend slaveholding.

Because faith claims our ultimate allegiance, it is powerful. And for the same reason, political forces will always try to use faith for their own ends. “There were also false prophets among the people [of Israel],” the Second Letter of Peter reminded Christians in the second century, “just as there will be false teachers among you” (2 Peter 2:1 NIV).

For much of the 20th century in America, most white Christians were not concerned about the ways their faith had become intertwined with nationalism, because they thought the syncretism benefited both their nation and their churches.

Both Republicans and Democrats supported the addition of “one Nation under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and the adoption of “In God We Trust” to legal tender in the 1950s. But the civil and women’s rights movements of the 1960s and ’70s inspired a reactionary conservatism that claimed the mantle of traditional and biblical values as a “Moral Majority.”

From its inception, the religious right was afraid of becoming one among many minorities in a multiethnic democracy. For 40 years, it has worked to subvert the will of the majority of Americans by exploiting Christian faith.

The pastoral issue that many churches have only recently begun to grapple with was in fact decades in the making.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested over the past 40 years in independent radio and television, parachurch organizations, formation programs and political outreach, all designed to recruit white Christians for a voting bloc.

If the stakes seem higher now than they were 20 years ago, it is only because the electoral power of this voting bloc has weakened, causing panic among its sponsors.

The extremism of Donald Trump’s candidacy was irresistible to the religious right because it promised -- and delivered -- an energized base for a shrinking white Christian voting bloc. The crusade was framed as a culture war, but it was always a struggle for power. In that political battle, Christian congregants increasingly became the objects of a propaganda campaign.

Given this context, what can pastors glean from the biblical witness to help shepherd their people in this time?

The prophets who pointed out the danger of idol worship offer an instructive example. God’s people worshipped at the Asherah poles in ancient Israel because they were invited to do so by kings and priests who benefited from the cults. When prophets pointed out that this practice was leading people away from truth and life, the people had to reckon with a malignant practice that had become normal.

In many church communities, the demonization of immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ people and Democrats has been normalized by talk radio and Facebook memes. Too often, pastors have tried to avoid conflict by saying they do not want to get involved in politics.

But lies do not only shape partisan affiliation; they also distort people’s capacity to recognize the image of God in their neighbors.

Dispelling the lies of white Christian nationalism will require more than fact checking. Refuting individual false claims does little to break through the wraparound culture the religious right has built to reinforce white Christian nationalism.

The only viable alternative to a lie is a better story, a more gripping truth. If churches want to win souls who are entangled in webs of lies, they need to support a vision for beloved community, especially in white rural America.

The good news is that people are already doing this work.

In small towns across the South, I’ve seen Black, white and Latino workers with the Fight for $15 join together to rally for better wages and often linger to share a meal. I’ve seen environmental activists gather to share the stories of how pollution from coal ash ponds is harming their families. I’ve seen local businesses leaders work with undocumented neighbors to raise awareness about the impact of anti-immigrant policies on their community.

These coalitions often form without the support of local churches. But pastors have an opportunity to support and promote the better story they represent by inviting them to meet in their fellowship halls, by featuring testimonies from them in their worship, by lifting up prayers for the work God is doing through them to heal the wounds that harm us all.

While this kind of community engagement may feel like a stretch to many pastors, we can also celebrate the traditions that have shown us what faith-rooted work for beloved community can look like in America.

From the efforts of abolitionists in the 19th century to the battles for living wages and voting rights today, the work of faith communities has been central to every stride toward a more perfect union in American history.

Yes, white Christian nationalism threatens the future of democracy. But a faithful Christian public witness can also join hands with people of other faiths and of no faith to work for the common good. Discipling people into this tradition of following Jesus is essential work for every pastor in America today.


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Faith & Leadership

This was first published in Faith & Leadership, the online learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program is a service of Leadership Education, which designs educational offerings, develops intellectual resources and facilitates networks of institutions.