No, MLK Was Not a Christian Nationalist - Word&Way

No, MLK Was Not a Christian Nationalist

Recently, one of my most-trusted media outlets published an op-ed so damaging, egregious, and malicious that I felt it necessary not just to post about it on social media, but to take the time to write a lengthier piece about it.

Angela Denker

It’s always tough to know whether you’re helping or just adding fuel to the fire when you amplify a so-called “bad take” only in order to refute it, so I try to refrain from the practice in general. But this opinion piece really stuck in my stomach — the argument it made was so damaging as well as so uninformed that it made me feel physically ill.

To make things worse, this op-ed was also written on a topic that happens to be a research specialty of mine: White Christian Nationalism in America and its growth in recent years.

I came across the article through a tweet from Religion News Service writer Jack Jenkins, who was frustrated that the writer tried to discount the meaning of Christian Nationalism by suggesting that it wasn’t clearly defined.

Hm, I thought, let me read this.

To simplify things for you, I will summarize the article here:

I am going to attempt to be snarky here and make fun of the myriad of dedicated researchers, pastors, theologians, and historians who have well-documented the existence and danger of Christian Nationalism in several books, by doing a quick cursory study of exactly one of those books and frameworks, setting it up as a straw man headed by a White former Southern Baptist thirty years younger than me (I’m 87) to say that I think I am a Christian Nationalist and of course, if I think I am one it can’t be a bad thing.

Also, I will throw in there an aside that Martin Luther King, Jr., was also a Christian Nationalist, so it can’t be a movement based on racism (as countless scholars have proven it most certainly is, foremost among them Black researchers and Christian thought leaders such as Jemar Tisby, PhD, Prof. Anthea Butler, Dante Stewart, and many, many more).

I will ignore the seminal work and study connecting Christian Nationalism to gender-based violence and gender roles in the church, particularly the role of abuse of women and children in the church (convenient, as I am a Catholic), and will refuse to engage with the work of scholars like Kristin Du Mez and Beth Allison Barr, the powerful witness of Beth Moore, and the well-documented survivor stories of journalist Sarah Stankorb.

Basically, I will ignore the huge body of work that refutes everything I’m saying, and instead continue on my dangerous path of whataboutism, ignoring the history of the theology of glory, which leads Christians to confuse salvation with worldly power and esteem, and a suggestion that God’s Kingdom is meant primarily for White American Christians.

The first time I read this abomination of an op-ed, I think I came at it from a journalist lens similar to Jenkins, and I was frustrated that such a well-respected news organization like the Post would publish something that has so little engagement with reality. It came off to me basically like a befuddled older man being frustrated that research and current thinking on American religion had left him behind, while he spent his entire professional career as editor of the religion section for Newsweek magazine. A position that I’m almost certain no longer exists and would also not afford a middle-class American lifestyle, much less supporting an entire family, as it did for this writer.

And let me be clear here, too, that while I think it’s relevant that this op-ed was written by an 87-year-old former journalist who has written several books published by major New York publishers, I do not wish to suggest that the writer’s age means he cannot make valuable contributions to scholarship/journalism today.

In fact, I know many of you who read this might be officially classified as seniors according to the AARP. And I value and treasure the witness and wisdom and learning I’ve received from each and every one of you. There is great value in listening to our elders and understanding the lessons of the past when applied to the present.

This op-ed is not that at all, unfortunately. Instead, the writer engages in dangerous historical revisionism, failing to listen to and learn from the lessons of the past, in order to, I can only imagine, preserve his own sense of power and esteem in a world that maybe he feels is passing him by. And unfortunately, the Washington Post was more than happy to oblige.

Maybe they thought it was cute or funny that this writer declared himself to be an innocuous Christian Nationalist, thereby writing off the whole thing as a sort of “Proud to be an American” exercise in flag-waving, hot-dog-eating, fireworks-watching, Onward Christian Soldiers-singing worship service.

That’s the thing, though. Only someone who knows that he’s not one bit threatened by the violence, hatred, and destruction wrought by Christian Nationalism could write such an article, and only someone willfully ignorant to their own risk or similarly unthreatened could decide to publish it at the Post.

Women, of course, especially those of us women who happen to be ordained clergy members or happen to be experts in this field, know much better. In fact, after appearing in a viral video about Christian Nationalism last week, I was the proud recipient of several hate comments and notes sent to my email, as well as one disturbing packet sent to me via USPS priority mail (I have no idea how he got my home address).

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Black and brown Americans, AAPI Americans, and LGBTQIA Americans know this threat all too well, too. One only has to watch the rightwing “Christian” response to the killing of Jordan Neely on a New York City subway to know that the lives of Black Americans still do not matter the same as those of white Americans to so many in this country, the valiant work of Black Lives Matter notwithstanding.

We have a national lynching memorial established in Alabama with 805 hanging steel rectangles representing each U.S. county where a documented lynching took place. And still, last month, 16-year-old Black teenager Ralph Yarl was shot and nearly killed in Kansas City just for ringing the doorbell of his white neighbor.

The lies of Christian Nationalism kill. They inspired the shooter who killed nine people, including three children, at a mall outside Dallas. They were the impetus that sent a shooter in rural New York on a killing rampage in a Buffalo grocery store where he’d researched that he would have the highest probability of killing the most Black victims.

The lies of white Christian Nationalism sent ELCA Lutheran-raised 21-year-old white man Dylann Roof into a Bible study prayer meeting at a famous and historic Black congregation in Charleston, where after being warmly welcomed to join the group, he killed nine of the same Bible Study participants who welcomed him in, all of whom were Black.

That’s where this road of white Christian Nationalism ends. It ends in death. Death first for the most vulnerable, but ultimately death for us all. Death too for the progenitors of violence and hatred, which often begins as hatred directed at themselves. Death due to poverty and violence and despair around the world, for an inability to see or care about the ways our greed and actions impact those far from us — those who aren’t Americans or self-declared Christians, but those who suffer because of our choices, political and economic.

It’s breathtaking to me that someone who was immensely privileged to spend his entire career working at the intersection of journalism and religion, in a position and career class that frankly no longer exists, would so carelessly fan the flames of hatred and violence in Christianity’s name, all to I guess absolve himself of his own self-guilt due to benefiting from American white Christian Nationalism.

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mathew Ahmann in a crowd on 8/28/1963. Original black and white negative by Rowland Scherman (The National Archives and Records Administration). Colorized by Jordan J. Lloyd. (U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service. ca. 1953-ca. 1978.)

And here’s the final thing I want to say about this — and it might be the most important.

It took me years of reporting, studying, and research — and honestly a period of self-introspection, reflection, and repentance after the murder of George Floyd not far from my house — to recognize the massive role that white American Christian racism plays in the growth of white Christian Nationalism in this country.

American Christian Nationalism is built on a belief that America is the Promised Land and that Jesus came especially to save, redeem, and uplift Americans. Extrapolate that promise and history just a little bit, and you realize that such an understanding of America requires a purposeful ignorance of America’s racial sins: beginning with slavery and people brought against their will to America from Africa and continuing in killing and subjugating and abusing Indigenous peoples, and on to lynchings and segregation and redlining and mass incarceration and police brutality and healthcare inequalities and the “war on drugs” and micro-aggressions and all the ways in which White American Christians maintain their sense of superiority by promulgating a belief system that necessitates the dehumanization of Black Americans (and by extension, anyone who isn’t a cishet conservative, wealthy White man).

To suggest, as this article did, that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., himself was a Christian Nationalist is among the most pernicious and racist sins of Christian Nationalism itself. Dr. King was steeped in the global liberation movements of his time, and while he was called particularly to the struggle of Black Americans — his theology was such that called for the liberation of all people, the same Gospel witness lifted up by Jesus himself.

Thus Dr. King preached against the demonization of the poor, the soulless evil of unfettered capitalism and predatory debt; and he connected the struggle of Black Americans to the struggle of oppressed peoples all over the world. His was an inclusive gospel, even as I acknowledge that — as no human is — neither was Dr. King perfect, particularly in his understanding of the need for the liberation of women and LGBTQIA Americans.

No one person can fully encompass the liberation of Jesus’ Gospel, just the same as no one country or people can lay claim to the redemption and glory that Jesus promises the world. The lie of white Christian Nationalism is that white American Christians are especially saved. The specialness of our salvation is its exclusivity, they claim, but the New Testament says the exact opposite: the specialness of Jesus’ salvation is its inclusivity.

If only conservative scholars would dwell more on Paul’s revolutionary words in this sense, and less on his particular prohibitions to the women of Corinth during worship, or the sexual practices of the Roman world.

The inimical sin of this article in calling America’s most famous Black preacher himself a Christian Nationalist is that by doing so it attempts to inoculate white Christian Nationalism itself from claims of being racist. No, of course this movement cannot be racist (and implicitly, neither can I if I support it, this author suggests) because look, a Black preacher himself was a Christian Nationalist.

Notably, the article does not even attempt to back up such an insupportable claim, and mentions it almost as an aside, so much so that I missed it upon first reading.

This is so often the case, though, is it not? That it’s not the loudest pronouncements, the most egregious offenders, that lead to mass movements of hatred. It is not the men with the fashy haircuts carrying tiki torches, or the shooter covered in swastika tattoos, or the writers of online manifestos, dangerous as they are, who we must be most careful to guard against.

Instead, it is those who look presentable, in 3-piece suits with careful language and elite college pedigrees, who serve as apologists for hate. Those who couch their language in studied terms and phrases, who often appeal to the “center” and who say, “You know, I am a registered Democrat, but …”

It is those who spend their lives in elite media siloes, then cast stones at others who dare to call out clear and present danger to themselves when powerful people continue to platform a violent, convicted sex offender.

It is those who make their money on the backs of young, underpaid, inexperienced journalists, or those independently wealthy enough to do a professional job for a salary just barely above minimum wage; those who make their news-worthy decisions primarily on how they will play with Wall Street, shareholders, and SEO.

It is those who decided, oh, this will be a fun, snarky little op-ed to publish in the Washington Post about Christian Nationalism, undermining the work of countless scholars and eyewitnesses because we are too “busy” or too scared to actually account for the damage it’s wreaking on America. And worse, to clearly see our role in allowing it to fester, grow, metastasize, and kill.

Angela Denker is a Lutheran pastor and veteran journalist. She has written for many publications, including Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and FORTUNE magazine. Denker has appeared on CNN, BBC, and SkyNews to share her research on politics and Christian Nationalism in the U.S. Her book, Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters who elected Donald Trump, was the 2019 Silver Foreword Indies award-winner for political and social sciences. The revised edition of Red State Christians, subtitled: A Journey into White Christian Nationalism and the Wreckage it leaves behindcame out Aug. 16 and is currently available everywhere books are sold.