Disciples Confronting Christian Nationalism - Word&Way

Disciples Confronting Christian Nationalism

James Garfield is the answer to a fascinating trivia question. In addition to serving as the 20th president of the United States, he was also an ordained minister in the religious movement that would become the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). That makes him the only occupant of the Oval Office to also be a member of the clergy.

Founded in the early 1800s, the Disciples of Christ are the oldest denomination started on American soil. They arose on the American frontier and followed its advancement. Garfield’s church evolved alongside the nation’s development, prompting one historian to label it an “American original.”

Given this background, the Disciples of Christ would appear to be an unlikely candidate for the denomination at the forefront of opposing Christian Nationalism. Yet, actions and events at its recent general assembly (July 29-Aug. 1) in Louisville, Kentucky, placed it at the vanguard of organized religious bodies in the U.S. confronting this dangerous ideology.

Individuals pray over Rev. Teresa “Terri” Hord Owens (third from left), who was reelected to a second term as general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) during the general assembly in Louisville, Kentucky, on Aug. 1, 2023. (Christian Church)

At a moment when many Christians on the far (and not so far) right are seeking to gain and use political power to preserve a retrograde social order, the Disciples — as individuals, congregations, and a denomination — are opposing such efforts to conflate national and religious identities for partisan ends. Disciples pastors are preaching against Christian Nationalism, warning their congregations about the theological problems inherent to this way of thinking.

When the Disciples gathered recently for their biennial meeting, they adopted a resolution opposing Christian Nationalism that was sponsored by more than a dozen congregations. The general assembly also featured workshops on how to counter Christian Nationalism’s effects in their local contexts and featured a prominent scholar on Christian Nationalism.

This issue of A Public Witness takes you to Louisville to see how a denomination with deep American roots is witnessing against those advocating for a close alignment between God and country — messages that should resonate for small “d” disciples as well. But there’s also more work needed to confront Christian Nationalism. So this issue will close with … spoiler alert … exciting news about a forthcoming effort from us to help all Christians interrogate their complicity in spreading this false gospel.

What Happened at General Assembly

During the Disciples general assembly, hundreds of people participated in two workshops on Christian Nationalism. One of us (Beau) is a Disciples pastor and was one of the presenters for a workshop on “equipping Disciples to confront Christian Nationalism.”

After some definitional and theological work, the workshop focused on practical ways of responding to the threat Christian Nationalism poses to both church and society. Participants broke into small groups to reflect on three critical questions:

  • What are the impacts of Christian Nationalism in your context?
  • How aware is your congregation of Christian Nationalism and what are the biggest concerns?
  • How can you imagine (your congregation) taking action to oppose Christian Nationalism, within your congregational life, within your community, and/or beyond?

Small group discussions during a workshop on “equipping Disciples to confront Christian Nationalism” during the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) general assembly in Louisville, Kentucky, on July 30, 2023. (Rebecca Littlejohn/Word&Way)

And while that workshop was great (especially Beau’s part of course), the other workshop on Christian Nationalism featured one of the top scholars on the topic. Andrew Whitehead is a professor of sociology at IUPUI and author of the forthcoming book American Idolatry: How Christian Nationalism Betrays the Gospel and Threatens the Church (which he talked about recently on our podcast Dangerous Dogma).

As he does in his new book, Whitehead didn’t just present from a detached sociologist perspective. Along with presenting survey data, he told stories from his evangelical upbringing that included aspects he now sees in a different light.

“What I later came to recognize, study, and define as Christian Nationalism, was — and for many people still is — taken for granted,” he said. “I didn’t question the tenets of Christian Nationalism, and more importantly, how they differed from various expressions of the Christian faith.”

Through his research unpacking the religious and political views of those espousing Christian Nationalism, Whitehead said he’s come to see how the worldview is “detrimental to the church” and “contradicted those core aspects” he learned growing up in church, like loving your neighbors, caring for those who are less fortunate, and breaking down lines that divide peoples. And as he spoke to the gathering of a mainline Protestant denomination, he warned that his research shows 60% of mainline Protestants embrace or are sympathetic to Christian Nationalism.

“Christian Nationalism is not just a problem ‘out there,’ but is something that we have to take ownership of and educate ourselves about and resource our leaders in order to confront and oppose,” Whitehead said. “Christian Nationalism betrays the gospel and threatens the church.”

Afterward, Whitehead told us about how he “enjoyed my time at the Disciples assembly.”

“It is so encouraging to see the denomination grappling with Christian Nationalism, committing to having the hard conversations, and equipping its clergy and congregations to respond to the current cultural and political moment,” he added. “The church is setting a wonderful example!”

Left: Andrew Whitehead presents on Christian Nationalism during the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) general assembly in Louisville, Kentucky, on July 30, 2023. (Disciples of Christ Historical Society) Right: a communion service during the general assembly. (Christian Church)

In addition to listening to presentations about Christian Nationalism, the delegates at the assembly also passed a resolution denouncing this ideology as “a distortion of the Christian faith.” (The official background material to support the resolution included links to Word&Way reports along with the work of Whitehead and others.)

The resolution notes Christian Nationalism promotes violence, authoritarianism, “White Supremacy, antisemitism (and other forms of religious bigotry), xenophobia, persecution and scapegoating of LGBTQ+ persons, misogyny, and ableism.” But this dangerous ideology does this, the resolution points out, as it “appropriates the name of Jesus Christ and the language and imagery of scripture to promote this ideology, in direct contradiction to the gospel Jesus preached.”

“Christian Nationalism runs counter to the very heart of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) identity by promoting division and stratification of the human family to the detriment of the unity and equality that our baptisms beget (Galatians 3:28) and the Lord’s Table celebrates (1 Corinthians 11:17-34),” the resolution reads.

In addition to defining and critiquing Christian Nationalism, the resolution also commits the denomination, its leaders, and its congregations to work to counter this heretical ideology.

“The Church in all its expressions commits to educating ourselves and our constituencies about the societal and spiritual dangers of Christian Nationalism, how to talk about Christian Nationalism theologically, and how to counter it in both ecclesial and public life,” the resolution resolves. “The Church calls on its leaders and members to take every possible opportunity to speak out and act boldly against Christian Nationalism, ensuring that the love of God known to us in Jesus Christ may not be distorted by this ugly and false appropriation of our faith, but proclaimed with generosity and grace to all peoples, from our doorsteps to the ends of the earth.”

Beyond committing to learning about Christian Nationalism and working to counter it, the resolution also hinted at some needed introspection: “The Church in all its expressions will continue to prayerfully discern, confess, and repent of our own complicity with Christian Nationalism.”

And what kind of reckoning is needed? Well, to answer that, we need a book.

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Coming Soon from Us

This summer, between vacations, denominational meetings, and crafting excellent issues of A Public Witness, we’re finishing up a book on how mainline Protestants contributed to the rise of Christian Nationalism in the United States. This is our first public announcement of this important project. We wanted the readers of A Public Witness to be the first to know because we appreciate your support and encouragement.

Our book is already under contract with Chalice Press, which is the publishing arm of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) — which we’re particularly excited about since it means a publisher for one of the mainline Protestant denominations is backing this provocative project. (Chalice also published our Unsettling Lent devotional book.)

Most of the conversations about Christian Nationalism today focus on how conservative evangelicals are pushing this ideology in public schools, state Capitols, the U.S. Supreme Court, during the Jan. 6 insurrection, and just about everywhere else. While the worst examples of this ideology may appear in such places, it also exists whenever a Mainline Protestant preacher offers a sermon standing in front of the American flag that has been in that sanctuary for decades.

Indeed, most of the historical “evidence” evangelicals point to today to justify their attempts to create a “Christian” nation were things actually established by mainline Protestants. We offered a taste of this argument in our essay published earlier this year by Religion & Politics, an online news journal of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. But we barely scratched the surface in that piece.

If we want to understand the dangers that Christian Nationalism poses to our democracy and especially our faith, then we need to also understand how we got here. And we need to be honest about the significant work that mainline Protestants and progressive Christians still have to do in eradicating this problem from their sacred spaces and conversations. Otherwise, we might not fully excise the demon from our nation and churches. That’s what our book will help explore.

We’ll have more updates soon about the book and how you can get your hands on it. The anticipated publication date at this point isn’t until summer of 2024. That means it will drop in the midst of an election year that we’re sadly sure will be chock-full of Christian Nationalism. As the recent resolution passed by delegates at the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) general assembly noted, there is much work still to do in learning about, repenting from, and challenging Christian Nationalism. We hope our book will be a helpful step in that process for both the Disciples of Christ and the rest of Christ’s disciples.

As a public witness,

Brian Kaylor & Beau Underwood

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