Moving Foreword - Word&Way

Moving Foreword

Our new book, Baptizing America, officially launches in three weeks (though some pre-orders have started shipping since our publisher decided the book was too important to wait). We’ll be inviting paid subscribers of A Public Witness to a virtual launch event, which will be at 3 pm (ET) on June 3 (so mark your calendar and watch for more information about how to log on and the special guests who will be joining us).

One of the most rewarding days in the process of bringing this book to life was when we received the foreword for the book. We had reached out to Rev. Adriene Thorne, senior minister at The Riverside Church in New York City, since we greatly respect her ministry and the pulpit where she stands on Sundays. But we didn’t know if she would even like the book.

Riverside is a historic and prominent mainline Protestant congregation dually aligned with the American Baptist Churches USA and the United Church of Christ. Its pastors have included Harry Emerson Fosdick, William Sloane Coffin, James Forbes, Amy Butler, and other towering figures in mainline Protestant life. Other significant voices have also preached there, including Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Tony Campolo.

Thorne, who has been a minister in the Reformed Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), has continued that rich heritage since 2022. We welcomed her on Dangerous Dogma shortly after she started at Riverside, and she wrote an Unsettling Advent devotional for us. But what would she think about our book looking at how mainline Protestants help build Christian Nationalism?

Then her foreword arrived. It’s beautiful and captures the spirit of the book so well. We’re honored to have her foreword, and we’re glad her words are the opening for Baptizing America. So we thought we would share her foreword here. If you haven’t bought the book yet, we think this should convince you.

Rev. Adriene Thorne preaches at The Riverside Church in New York City on Sept. 17, 2023. (Riverside Church via RNS)

“Don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with justice and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, ‘You are too arrogant. If you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I will place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name.’” —Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Oof! Brian Kaylor and Beau Underwood’s book landed like a rock in my inbox and spirit, but it has proven to be just the heavy lift I aspire to hoist as I lament the religious and political fabric of the United States of America pulling apart and weakening daily. The authors starkly reveal for mainline Protestants what the 1979 horror film reminded us, “The call is coming from inside the house.” They assemble stories and records that make evident the ways mainliners created the very ideology we detest. Mixing faith identity and national identity, we produced the intoxicating cocktail now known as Christian Nationalism. The authors have the receipts to prove the claim.

Perhaps you read the title of this fine book multiple times and asked yourself how the publishers allowed the manuscript to go to print with such a glaring typographical error. The answer is they did not. Despite the fact that mainline Protestant churches, and others, associate Christian Nationalism today with evangelical, right-leaning communities of faith, the truth is that my progressive siblings and I play(ed) a part in building and maintaining the very destructive beliefs that we abhor … except, of course, when we are invoking them. We take great delight in pointing fingers at the other side — perhaps because our version is a softer, gentler form of nationalism — but nonetheless, in our worship, our silence, and our proximity to political power we too often invoke divine blessings on our “one nation under God.”

Now, before you throw your hands up in despair or begin to self-defend, as I did many times while reading, take a deep breath. Prepare yourself instead for a well-researched and often cheeky romp through American history. Prepare to understand our nation’s story through the stained-glass windows of the Christian church. Prepare to have your socks blown off reading stories of Christian leaders and politicians walking proverbially hand in hand — stories I guarantee you have never heard. The authors perform an impressive, convincing, and surprisingly humorous indictment of mainline Protestants that invite us to some good old-fashioned truth-telling and confession, for those inclined to such activities. I hope you are. Changing the nationalistic recipe that mainline faith leaders helped concoct will depend on our willingness to admit where we went wrong. It will also require our commitment to do better.

Because I can already hear the knuckles cracking from the handwringing and the plaintive cries about what to do, know that the book concludes with many theologically grounded actions that you can employ to combat Christian Nationalism in yourself and in your community of faith. The authors have not left us bereft of ways to protect democracy or, most importantly, to combat the weaponization of Christian faith, to lift up the global gospel of Jesus Christ, and to love our neighbors as ourselves … regardless of how they name God or if they name God at all. Reminder: that is part of the beauty of living in a democratic nation.

This literary offering is a necessary blow to the body of Christ, in that it is an invitation to course correct. Reading forces us to pause and notice the ways that we entwine the cross with the flag, and bids us to take repentant action. I believe God’s people are often doing the best we can. Sometimes we act out of fear and sometimes we are able to muster our God-given gifts and act out of love. We are not exceptional, but we can act exceptionally and collaboratively with great love.

The time is always right for a U-turn in the way we understand, name, and engage Christian Nationalism. I hope, dear reader, that you will make a U-turn with me. I hope you will read the book, share the book, and study the book. Most importantly for our churches and our nation, I pray you will take a U-turn and engage the actions the authors suggest.

I cannot say how I came to believe that God loved all the children of God. I do not remember anyone teaching me that all the children included other faiths as well as those who did not name God at all, but God’s love for all of God’s people is one truth I know for sure. Christian Nationalism is not Christian and it is not democratic. Thank you for using your platform and your connections to ensure religious freedom and democracy for all the people … regardless. Thank you for acting, to the extent you are able, from love rather than fear. May God bless all the people and all the good creation.

We are indebted to Rev. Thorne. She’ll be joining us as part of the panel for the virtual launch event for paid subscribers of A Public Witness on June 3 at 3 pm (ET).

We hope you will order your copy of Baptizing America now if you haven’t already (and thanks to all of you who have). You can order it from Amazon or other booksellers. But if you buy it directly from Chalice Press, you can use the promo code “BaptizingW&W” to receive a 33% discount.

Once you get your copy, please share a photo on Facebook, write a positive review on Amazon, and tell others about it.

As a public witness,

Brian Kaylor & Beau Underwood

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