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How Americans can address Christian nationalism in their congregations and communities

On Jan. 6, a virulent form of Christian nationalism burst into the public view. What can religious leaders and others do to bring these people — and the country — back from the brink?

Photo illustration by Michelle Budge

In the wake of a tumultuous transfer of presidential power, religious leaders are taking a deeper look at beliefs that can interfere with unity and peace.

This effort has thrust Christian nationalism, or the claim that America should be an overtly Christian — not secular — nation in which a certain interpretation of the Bible holds sway, into the spotlight and led pastors and scholars to consider how best to address associated ideas.

For many Americans, love of country is intimately connected with their faith. They’re Christian nationalists in the sense that they feel their religious values should be represented in policy and they see America as a Christian nation.

Although common, experts warn that such beliefs can slide into something more dangerous: an extreme form of Christian nationalism that leads to an exclusionary attitude and threatens pluralism, democracy and — religious leaders say — Christianity itself.

In this extreme form, Christian nationalism is “absolutely a threat to a pluralistic democratic society,” said Andrew Whitehead, co-author of “Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States.” While most Christian nationalists aren’t violent, he and others say it was a driving force behind the deadly U.S. Capitol riot that took place in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6.

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington.
John Minchillo, Associated Press

Religious leaders believe it’s possible to address Christian nationalism with positive, affirming messages, some of which come from the Bible itself. Though it might seem like some militant Christian nationalists are too far gone — and even some pastors say they can’t be helped — a world-leading expert in deradicalization offers hope.

“No one is unreachable,” he said.

How widespread is Christian nationalism?

Speaking last month at a webinar on Christian nationalism put on by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Whitehead noted that while Christian nationalists were empowered during Trump’s presidency, the ideology isn’t new and it’s surprisingly widespread.

Christian nationalism, which he defines as “a cultural framework that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life,” is embraced by around 20% of U.S. adults and accommodated by an additional 32%, he said.

Whitehead’s research has shown that, while Christian nationalists are most commonly found in rural areas of the South and Midwest, they are present throughout the country. They are also found in all educational levels, though their numbers are highest among high school graduates and Americans who have some college education.

Additionally, although the worldview is often associated with white evangelicals, not all Christian nationalists are white evangelicals and not all white evangelicals are Christian nationalists, religion experts said.

A wide variety of people of faith are amenable to the ideology, including a large number of Catholics and Black Protestants. A recent survey found that around 7 in 10 Latter-day Saints in Utah and Arizona are at least sympathetic to Christian nationalist ideas.

“If you’re only tracking (the prevalence of Christian nationalism) through white evangelicals, then you’re missing what the hard right in the Catholic Church is doing,” said the Rev. John Dorhauer, who is general minister and president of the United Church of Christ and co-author of “Steeplejacking: How the Christian Right is Hijacking Mainstream Religion.”

On the surface, believing that America is a Christian nation is fairly innocuous. But when the ideology is taken to an extreme, it quickly becomes exclusionary and dangerous, religion scholars and pastors said.

“The ‘Christianity’ in Christian nationalism, to a certain population, generally means ‘people like us.’ And the people like us are generally white, native born and culturally Christian,” said Whitehead, who is an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University — Purdue University Indianapolis.

Many Christian nationalists don’t fit this description, including, of course, Black Christian nationalists. But those who do espouse the more virulent strain of the ideology — which, in general, can fuel support for gun ownership, militarism and sexism — are more likely to participate in the sort of violence that the nation witnessed on January 6.

This extreme form of Christian nationalism “demands a tribal loyalty of sorts,” Whitehead said. It draws on the “Old Testament tradition ... of violently defending the group and the tribe against outside influences. ... It wants to define the ‘us’ against a ‘them.’”

Though not all white Christian nationalists are ready to take up arms, there are other reasons it’s important to push back against the ideology, religion experts said.

For example, research shows that the more a white American embraces Christian nationalism, the less they believe that Blacks face discrimination and the more likely they are to believe that reports of police brutality against Black Americans are exaggerated, Whitehead said.

“Christian nationalism for white Americans blinds them — or helps them blind themselves — to ... inequality in the U.S.,” he said.

The Bible’s many shades of gray

Although Christian nationalism will likely always be present in the U.S. in some form, religious leaders and scholars believe pastors, as well as the general population, can help address its most violent expressions.

Pastors need to take a stand against violent, exclusionary beliefs, said the Rev. Dorhauer, who has endorsed the Baptist Joint Committee’s Christians Against Christian Nationalism statement.

“The simplest and most obvious (strategy) is to be really clear about what your core values are, what your theology is and what your understanding of the scripture and the literature are,” he said.

Because extremism thrives on the sort of dichotomies former President Donald Trump evoked in the lead-up to the Capitol riot — us vs. them, good vs. evil — pastors can also help by undermining black and white thinking, said the Rev. Brent Strawn, a professor at Duke Divinity School and an ordained United Methodist Church minister.

“‘It’s my way and my way is the only right way’ — that kind of stark dichotomization is the real problem,” the Rev. Strawn said.

He added that, in American politics, both the political right and left are plagued by such binary thinking. To push back, the Rev. Strawn said pastors can point to the many shades of gray in the Bible itself, as well as the psychological and moral complexity of those who inhabit its pages.

“What I would try to encourage clergy people to do — what I’m trying to do myself — is to problematize that strict dichotomy,” he said. “Congregants don’t want that complexity but it’s there in their sacred texts. Those in pastoral leadership have to walk people through that.”

Jennifer Herdt, a professor and associate dean at Yale Divinity School, agreed that pastors need to bring nuance to the pulpit. White evangelical pastors, in particular, she said, need to “nudge their followers away” from a narrative of victimization.

“There’s this strong feeling among (white) evangelical Christians of being a threatened minority,” she said. Evangelical leaders cultivated that mindset throughout Trump’s presidency and the message resonated with a white working class who have various grievances.

“Christian nationalism gave that white working class a kind of transcendent ideology to latch onto,” Herdt said. Now, it’s up to pastors to “re-narrate” that story.

She recommends that pastors keep worship services the same but model nuance and complexity by offering personal testimonies about their own changes in conviction.

“This has to be done carefully. If a leader starts to sound patronizing that will backfire,” Herdt said, adding that it’s critical not to shame and alienate Christian nationalists in our congregations, workplaces or even our homes.

“The starting point is always relational,” Herdt said. Trust and relationships form the basis for reaching out to others.

She acknowledged, however, that reaching out can be difficult if Christian nationalists self-isolate. They might be in congregations that reinforce their views, like so-called Patriot Churches.

“We’ve already seen a shift away from denominations, which have a little more influence, toward nondenominational churches that people can set up and do whatever they want,” Herdt said. “They proclaim, ‘This is Christianity.’ And no one can say, ‘Wait a second.’”

Keeping the door open

Pastors aren’t the only people who should be seeking to build relationships with Christian nationalists, said the Rev. Michael Curry, who serves as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. He wants all Americans to confront problematic beliefs by reaching across political and religious divides.

“Get to know them, spend some time with them,” he said during the Baptist Joint Committee’s January webinar, noting it’s important to remind Christian nationalists that Christians are called to seek peace and unity.

“We must counter these negative perversions of Christianity and of our humanity. We must counter them with an affirmative positive way of being Christian,” the Rev. Curry said.

The Most Rev. Michael Curry, center, the presiding bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church, and others take part in a candlelight vigil outside the White House on Thursday, May 24, 2018, in Washington. According to organizers, the event was intended to bring attention to political, moral and theological issues in America.
Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

However, he added, in the midst of outreach efforts it’s important to remember that some people won’t be brought around.

“Jesus didn’t get everybody,” he said.

In contrast, John Horgan, a psychology professor at Georgia State University, the director of the Violent Extremism Research Group and the author of numerous books on terrorism and deradicalization, said that while some extremists are harder to reach than others, it’s important not to give up on anyone.

“In theory, nobody is unreachable,” he said. “Often what keeps people committed to these ideologies is that they have no way out. They feel like they are pariahs in the community, they have burned too many bridges.”

Isolating an extremist only helps to affirm and solidify their views, so it’s important not to cut off communication with people or shun them, he said. Instead, show them grace and keep the door open — whether that door leads to the church, the workplace or the home.

“It behooves us to see opportunities when they present themselves” to dialogue with Christian nationalists, Horgan said. “We shouldn’t ridicule them. We shouldn’t shame them. We should do our best to offer an opening when people do want to come back.”

He added that it’s important to listen to the stories of those who have been radicalized. Not only is listening an act of compassion, it also helps us understand how extremists were drawn in in the first place.

“We can learn lessons as to how to prevent people from getting sucked in,” he said.

Finally, as Whitehead’s findings suggest, we need to tackle the elephant in the room: race.

“It’s going to require some uncomfortable conversation and conversation that, for too long, we’ve put off,” Horgan said.

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