[Episcopal News Service] Presiding Bishop Michael Curry joined the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for a webinar on Christian nationalism hosted by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, also known as BJC, on Jan. 27. The webinar provided an overview of what Christian nationalism is, how it is showing up in America and how Christians can address it.
The webinar was part of BJC’s Christians Against Christian Nationalism initiative, which started in 2019 with a statement signed by an ecumenical coalition of faith leaders, including Curry, rejecting Christian nationalism as a “persistent threat to both our religious communities and our democracy.”
The webinar also featured Andrew Whitehead, associate professor of sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, who helped explain Christian nationalism as an ideology that “seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy.”
The ideology manifests itself in various forms, such as a drive to privilege Christianity above other faiths, a belief that the U.S. is favored by God over other nations, and the false assertion that the founding fathers created the U.S. to be a Christian nation, Whitehead said. It is also correlated with white supremacy, he added, citing his own research, which indicates that white Americans who espouse Christian nationalist principles are far less likely – in contrast to those who don’t espouse them – to believe that African Americans face significant discrimination and police brutality.
“[Christian nationalism] is absolutely a threat to a pluralistic, democratic society, and something that needs to be wrestled with in order to move forward and not repeat the events of Jan. 6,” he concluded.
Curry said current iterations of Christian nationalism follow a pattern in which Jesus’ most crucial teachings – such as the Sermon on the Mount, the Golden Rule and the parable of the Good Samaritan – are “moved aside and suppressed for a broad, ambiguous Christ figure who can be adapted to any cultural context.” The same pattern was used in Christian justifications of slavery and apartheid, he said.
“When that Jesus Christ is compromised, we’re going to find danger,” Curry warned.
“That was a moment when white supremacy coalesced with theology and clearly reinterpreted it for political and economic purposes,” Curry said. “Christianity was distorted to accommodate to the cultural desires. That’s perversion.”
That perversion, he said, has infected American Christianity ever since.
“I have always known – I’m 67 years old, been Black all those 67 years – and I have known since childhood that the Klan professed to be Christian,” Curry said. “We grew up knowing that, so we knew that there was an unholy conflation of Christianity and white supremacy, and it was often tinged with Americanism.”
Curry, Eaton and Whitehead cautioned that Christian nationalism is not the same as civic religion, patriotism or the political work of Christian leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“We are not condemning being patriotic,” Eaton said. “That’s different. Christian nationalism conflates our allegiance and our understanding – even our relationship – with God with a particular secular state … so you cannot by that definition be a real American unless you’re a certain kind of Christian.”
Civic religion is different in that it speaks of a “God that demands justice, humility and public service,” Whitehead said. “When we talk about civic religion, we’re talking about a civic republicanism that emphasizes strong civic virtue. … But Christian nationalism is something different.”
Christian nationalism “demands a tribal loyalty,” Whitehead said, which includes “violently defending the group and the tribe against outside influences. It’s about subduing others. It’s about waging wars and, many times, cultural wars. It wants to define the ‘us’ against a ‘them.’”
“The more virulent or dangerous kind [of Christian nationalism says], ‘We’re number one because we’re God’s favorites.’ And that borders on blasphemy, idolatry,” Curry said.
On the other hand, he said, Christian leaders like King have a vital place in American society.
“Dr. King articulated the ideals of an America where there is liberty and justice for all and the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and the aspirations of the human soul,” Curry said. “That’s not Christian nationalism, that’s a kind of civic religion, if you will, that is legitimate. It lifts people up. It sets people free. And that is consistent with Christianity. The other is not.”
Curry’s participation in the Christians Against Christian Nationalism initiative reflects The Episcopal Church’s commitment to “deradicalization,” which was expressed at the most recent meeting of the church’s Executive Council through a vote “to develop a plan for The Episcopal Church’s holistic response to Christian nationalism and violent white supremacy.”
“This violent and exclusionary movement is on the rise in the United States, and those of us who believe that God is calling us toward a very different vision, toward the Beloved Community, we have a special responsibility to stand against it,” said the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, in her opening remarks to Executive Council. “If we will not tell the world that it is not Christianity, then who will?”
Curry highlighted that point during the Christian nationalism webinar, calling on Christians to model lives of public faith that embody the compassion, dignity and harmony described by Jesus in the Gospels.
“We must counter these negative perversions of Christianity and of our humanity with an affirmative, positive way of being Christian. I do think Christianity must re-center itself on the teachings, the example and the spirit of Jesus of Nazareth.”
– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.