Why ‘Baptizing America’ Matters - Word&Way

Why ‘Baptizing America’ Matters

I’ve been a mainliner all my life. I grew up in the United Methodist Church and chose to migrate over to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) when I entered adulthood. I was even active enough in my denomination to become a scholar at the Disciples Divinity House during my time pursuing a Master of Divinity at the University of Chicago where I also interned with a United Church of Christ congregation. Since this is the world I call home, I was thrilled when Brian Kaylor and Beau Underwood asked me to edit what eventually became Baptizing America: How Mainline Protestants Helped Build Christian Nationalism.

Throughout the process of shaping this book, I saw my personal experiences with mainline institutions reflected back at me. I previously only thought of Christian Nationalism as a problem that I should critique because I had a duty to do so as a Christian who was partially responsible for a subset of Christianity — even if I was never a part of it. But Brian and Beau clearly demonstrate that it is much more complicated than that. Mainliners, unfortunately, planted the seeds for much of the Christian Nationalism we see flowering today.

Learning about and exploring this was both fascinating and, at times, unsettling. All the different churches I have attended had an American flag at the front of the sanctuary. It was not uncommon for worship services to include patriotic moments and nationalistic hymns for holidays like the Fourth of July and Memorial Day. This is just “how things are.”

But an important part of looking in the mirror is adjusting the things you notice that look off. I did not come away from this book thinking less of my denomination or the mainline family. I came away with a renewed sense that truthfully examining ourselves, even the parts we would prefer to remain in shadows, is more important now than ever. And before we can meaningfully move forward with any sense of prophetic voice in the public realm, we have to look back at what we did when we were at the peak of our cultural and political power in the twentieth century.

U.S. and Episcopal flags wave next to a church building.

This is one place where Brian and Beau really shine. I thought I already knew a lot about the history of American religion, but they dug up some fascinating stories that I had never heard before. I was completely unaware that President Harry Truman was asked by the National Council of Churches to bless the Revised Standard Version of the Bible when it was released in 1952. In a ceremony at the White House, Truman connected Scripture to American identity and foreign policy goals.

Similarly, I never knew that the phrase “In God We Trust” showing up on our money is deeply intertwined with mainline Christianity. Not only was it a lifelong Episcopalian who got the U.S. Treasury to mint the phrase, it is striking that two different mainline churches still celebrate their role in the motto to this day. An American Baptist Church in Prospect Park, Pennsylvania, currently boasts on a sign on the outside of its building that it is the origin of the phrase and notes that “from this church in 1861 the suggestion was made that recognition to the Almighty God be placed on the coins of our country.” And First Presbyterian Church in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, brags on its history page that one of its congregants led the effort to put “the motto, ‘In God We Trust,’ on the United States coins that went into the collection plates.”

These are just a couple of the numerous historical incidents explored in the book. So many things that mainliners did (and sometimes still do) would be widely condemned as Christian Nationalism if done by conservative evangelicals. A dangerous double standard revealed.

Another aspect of Baptizing America that I have found particularly interesting has been the media coverage of the book. While many outlets have done an incredible job exploring what Brian and Beau’s work has to offer, we have honestly faced more hurdles than I was expecting. One of the core selling points even for non-mainline audiences is that basically all the other books on Christian Nationalism are about evangelicals. And I remember from my days teaching Intro to Journalism that a core news value is “novelty.”

But apparently it is difficult for some journalists and outlets to stray from comfortable routines. The idea that White evangelical Protestants should dominate news coverage, political or otherwise, is so ingrained that it has the potential to sideline unique and interesting scholarship — even when we point out that there are currently more mainline Protestants than there are evangelicals.

But luckily we are persistent. And we also have a large and varied readership that gets it. While we normally give away a signed copy of a book we review each month, Brian and Beau will randomly choose five paid subscribers of A Public Witness to receive a signed copy. Upgrade today and you might find a signed copy of Baptizing America headed your way! If you want to absolutely guarantee that you receive a copy of this timely book, you can order today before the official release on June 4 (and if you win, just give your purchased copy to a friend).

Don’t forget, paid subscribers are also invited to join Brian, Beau, and a panel of guests — Dr. Diana Butler Bass, Rev. Adriene Thorne, and Dr. Andrew Whitehead — during a virtual book launch on June 3 at 3 pm (ET).

As a public witness,

Jeremy Fuzy

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