Mainline Christianity’s voice of compassion missed in our national debate on democracy
by Sean F. Everton, PhD
In a recent report on the January 6th riots, issued by the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, co-author Amanda Tyler defines Christian Nationalism as “a political ideology and cultural framework that seeks to merge American and Christian identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy.” She notes it “relies on the mythological founding of the United States as a ‘Christian nation’” and “demands a privileged place for Christianity in public life.”
As Jemar Tisby noted in a recent Op-Ed (“White Christian nationalism fueled the Jan. 6 insurrection, The Mercury News June 8, 2022), Christian nationalists are also more likely to embrace “racist, xenophobic, patriarchal, and exclusionary” beliefs. These, he argues, helped justify and bolster the attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Tisby also points out, however, that these beliefs do not reflect those of all Christians. He notes, “many Black Christian communities have historically embraced a different kind of patriotism, one that leads to an expansion of democratic processes, the inclusion of marginalized people and nonviolent calls for the nation to live up to its foundational ideals.”
This understanding of the Christian faith is firmly rooted in Jesus’s life and teachings. If we believe the Gospels tell us something about the historical Jesus, then we need to acknowledge that Jesus welcomed all of God’s children into his midst and turned no one away. He commanded his followers to love their neighbors, welcome the stranger, and embrace society’s outcasts.
But it’s not just Black Christian communities that live by these beliefs. According to Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry’s seminal study of Christian Nationalism, Taking America Back for God, not all Christian nationalists are white, and not all white Christians are Christian nationalists.
If we only count as Christian nationalists those who believe the U.S. is, or should be, a Christian nation (about 20% of Americans), then
- 38% of Christian nationalists are people of color, and
- 66% of white Christians are not Christian nationalists
If we also include individuals who believe the government should advocate for Christian values but who waver on whether the U.S. should declare itself a Christian nation (about 32% of Americans), then
- 37% of Christian nationalists are people of color, and
- 32% of white Christians are not Christian nationalists
Unfortunately, a large swath of the American public seems unaware that Christianity is not synonymous with the “racist, xenophobic, patriarchal, and exclusionary” beliefs of Christian nationalists. There are churches throughout the U.S. that welcome all of God’s children and are not seeking to undermine American democracy. This may be, as a friend of mine puts it, one of America’s “best-kept secrets.”
There are probably many reasons for this. Perhaps, it’s because controversial people and events are more likely to attract readers. Or maybe it’s because the media is disproportionately secular and, so, less attuned to the variety of religious beliefs and practices among Christians and other groups.
Perhaps. But, moderate and liberal Christians also need to take responsibility. We have largely failed in witnessing to Jesus’s life and teachings. Maybe it’s because doing so seems too much like “evangelism.” I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s time for us to make our voices heard so that Jesus’s ministry of compassion is no longer the “best-kept secret” in America.
Sean Everton is a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey and co-chair of the Adult Learning Ministry Team at First Congregational Church of San Jose.