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Home » Conflict and Christian Nationalism: How to Talk across the American Divide
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Conflict and Christian Nationalism: How to Talk across the American Divide


Published in the issue.

Photo: little plant on Unsplash
Photo: little plant on Unsplash

As recent congressional hearings on the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol have reminded us in vivid detail, we are a nation deeply divided. Conflict due to political and cultural differences has penetrated every corner of American life, including our relationships with family and friends, and caused painful rifts among members of our congregations. Perhaps most shocking to people of faith that day were the numerous Christian banners and symbols, an actual massive wooden cross, and the spectacle of one group—the “Jericho March”—

blowing shofars and praying to bring down the walls of government. These insurrectionists are at the most extreme vanguard of a growing movement we now call Christian nationalism.

Christian nationalists perceive a woeful decline of America’s standing in the world due to what they see as the nation’s growing degeneracy—and with it, a belief in an urgent call to restore the nation to its original goodness and mandate to lead the world into godliness. The U.S.  was founded, according to this group, by evangelical Christians (a misreading of the complex history of the Constitution) to become a new Jerusalem in which (white) Christians, mostly male, will rule over a nation whose laws are to perfectly align with a selective, fundamentalist reading of biblical mandates.

Making scant reference to the teachings of Jesus about love, healing, and justice, Christian nationalist preachers see an avenging Jesus coming to wage spiritual warfare against the current decadent ways of America (and the world). They interpret what they see as a growing depravity of the current age as evidence that the Apocalypse is near—and it is their duty to help bring it about – even by force. “Christian nationalism” really means white nationalism and white supremacy. A cynical alliance of right-wing politicians and ultra-conservative church leaders has been strategically eroding gender rights and racial equality. An open letter by church leaders endorsed by our own Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, put it most clearly: “As Christians, we must speak in one voice condemning Christian nationalism as a distortion of the gospel of Jesus and a threat to American democracy.”[i]

Lest we conclude this is a small fringe movement, statistics show that nearly two thirds of mainline Protestants and two thirds of all Christians taken together, agree with at least some of the beliefs, if not the actions, of the thousands who marched on the capitol on January 6. While 88% of Christian nationalists are white evangelical Protestants, about half of all Americans agree with some or all Christian nationalist beliefs, including white Protestants, Roman Catholics, and yes, Episcopalians! [ii]

Many of us are now asking “How can Christians who claim to believe in Jesus’ Abba-God of love, mercy, justice, and truth, participate in such a distortion of the Gospel?” Clergy and lay leaders may also be asking, “How can I begin to address politically and culturally entrenched conflicts among parishioners?” And even closer to home, “How can I talk to my friend/family member/neighbor when such a serious chasm divides us now?”

In my experience as a parish priest, pastoral counselor, and teacher of pastoral care for many years, I have learned a few lessons about talking and listening that may be helpful as we face these conflicts today. First, it’s important to recognize that sometimes dialogue is simply not possible, especially with an entrenched “True Believer” of Christian nationalism. The first principle, most pastoral counselors and social psychologists will agree, is that argumentation will not work. Argumentation, especially when heated, merely raises defenses and reinforces polarization. And we do not need to passively accept verbal abuse (or worse).  Nor am I suggesting that we try to create a false “peace” forged by mainstream appeals to “unity,” which gloss over the deadly realities of racism and other forms of oppression and silence movements for justice and social change—not, as the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel both warned, “crying peace, peace when there is no peace.” Our best recourse, when dialogue is impossible, is to channel our energy instead into education, preaching, and advocacy for justice and social change.

When we do sense some openness to honest conversation, and where some mutual trust is perhaps already established, the best way “in” is to show respect and to listen more than we speak—not pounce on an error in their thinking, or immediately try to “enlighten” or “heal” them, but to try to understand with as much empathy as we can muster what it must be like to be this person, and to inhabit their life with its various challenges and stresses.  (Empathy does not have to mean agreement!)

Maintaining relationship always comes first, by finding common ground (including shared values) and practicing respect and kindness. Much of what I advocate is being non-directive, making “I” statements rather than universal truth claims, assuming good will until proven otherwise, and when confronting seems necessary, engaging quietly in what longtime antiracist activist Loretta Ross terms “calling in” rather than loudly “calling out” another’s offenses to cause them shame—and perhaps only to signal our own virtue.

Finally, honest dialogue requires, perhaps more than anything else, that we do our own inner work of healing the split between our own righteousness and the (mostly disavowed) evil we all have to some degree. When we engage in such work, whether through therapy, spiritual direction, meditation, prayer, or other means of self-inquiry, we may be more able to withdraw our worst assumptions about the other person and enter into genuine dialogue. When this happens, we may find our way—together—closer to Christ’s Gospel of love and justice.

 

This article is adapted from the author’s new book, The Psychology of Christian Nationalism: Why People Are Drawn in and How to Talk across the Divide (Fortress Press, 2022). Used with permission from the author.

[i]The full statement can be found at https://www.christiansagainstchristiannationalism.org/.

[ii] Statistics from Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (NY: Oxford, 2020).