08 June 2020

Christian Nationalism: John Fea (1)

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White children protest desegregation in Chicago, Illinois, 1966. (Declan Haun/Chicago History Museum) Seven-year-old dressed in Ku Klux Klansman robes rides in a Klan motorcade on August 14, 1956, in Macon, Georgia. (Bettmann/Getty Images) White children protest desegregation in Chicago, Illinois, 1966. (Declan Haun/Chicago History Museum) Seven-year-old dressed in Ku Klux Klansman robes rides in a Klan motorcade on August 14, 1956, in Macon, Georgia. (Bettmann/Getty Images) https://segregationinamerica.eji.org/report/how-segregation-survived.html

I hope this infamous image will go down in history as a cautionary tale: President Trump’s photo-op brandishing a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church near the White House, minutes after the police and national guard teargassed the demonstrators that had stood in his path, including at least one Episcopal priest and a seminarian in the church courtyard. They were cleaning up after a day of providing water and other help to the protesters. Episcopal Bishop Mariann Budde of the Diocese of Washington registered her “outrage” at the event, mostly because of “the president’s use of the Bible and the backdrop of St. John’s Church for his political purposes.” Had he opened the Bible, she mused, he could have read aloud about love of God and neighbor, about seeking “God in the face of strangers,” about the call “to the highest standard of love, which is justice.”

Leave Trump aside now. Focus instead on what happens when religion mixes with politics, and here specifically, when religion gets hijacked to bolster the power of a particular regime. As most of you know, I’m a Christian theologian and an Islamicist (Islamic Studies scholar). One of the topics I’ve written about is twentieth-century Islamism, or political Islam. From the 1928 founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – a grassroots revival movement that quickly got involved in politics – to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, to the Taliban and all manner of Islamic parties worldwide, the temptation to mix religion and politics in Muslim-majority nations has seemed irresistible over the last hundred years.

You might object, “But haven’t Islamic polities always espoused some version of mosque-state integration since the Prophet Muhammad ruled in Medina (622-632)?” That is certainly true, just as it has been for Christians, from the Emperor Constantine until the modern period. In fact, the UK and Germany, among others, still have state churches. But for both Muslims and Christians, the God and politics formula has spawned authoritarianism. As Emory University professor Abdullahi Ahmed an-Na’im argued in his classic book, Islam and the Secular State, if they care about democracy and the equality of all before the law, governments in Muslim countries must be secular so that one version of Islam is not weaponized to oppress citizens of another religious school or persuasion.

That is what we had on display near the White House. An American president who was elected largely because he managed to secure 81 percent of the evangelical vote used tear gas to clear a path to a church from which he could remind his base that he was their champion in their fight to make America “Christian” again (note that his approval rating among this group has recently slipped from 80 to 62 percent). Trump was appealing directly to the nationalist ideology of the Christian Right that has been with us since at least Jerry Falwell’s founding of the Moral Majority in 1979.

I hope to unpack this notion of Christian nationalism following historian John Fea in this post, and in the next, I’ll lean on Katherine Stewart’s acclaimed book, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism. Both books are finely researched and argued. In this instance I look at the phenomenon from the perspective of an evangelical historian. In the next, I dive into a wide-angle study of the movement here and abroad.


John Fea’s historical perspective

Professor of American history at Messiah College (an evangelical liberal arts college), Fea has bravely waded into political waters before. In 2011 he wrote a book that pushed back against the view that the United States was “founded as a Christian nation” (see the second edition here). He comes back to this theme in his 2018 book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. That theme resurfaces in the third part of this book. Fea’s overall thesis is that starting with Ronald Reagan’s campaign in 1979, the so-called Christian Right hitched its wagon to the Republican Party and unashamedly pursued political power. In several instances, it did gain access to the Oval Office, though never as completely as in the Trump administration. Yet that is precisely what allows Fea to show why this is a fool’s errand: the edifice is built on three pillars that go against the way of Jesus: a) fear instead of hope; b) power instead of humility; c) nostalgia instead of historical truth.

Let’s start with fear, which is no stranger to American politics since the beginning:


“In 1800, the Connecticut Courant, a Federalist newspaper that supported President John Adams in his reelection campaign against Thomas Jefferson, suggested that, if the Electoral College chose Jefferson, the founding father and religious skeptic from Virginia, the country would have to deal with a wave of murder, atheism, rape, adultery, and robbery. In the 1850s, the anti-Catholic and anti-immigration Party, commonly known as the ‘Know-Nothing Party,’ was infamous for its American-flag banner emblazoned with the words ‘Native Americans, Beware of Foreign Influence’” (15).


Lyndon Johnson’s landslide win over his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, was in large part due to ads painting the latter as likely to drag America into a nuclear war. Sometimes, the fears are pure fabrications, like the “Pizzagate” incident when some Republicans alleged that Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager was operating a child sex ring in a Washington DC pizzeria. Fortunately, the three shots fired by the man with an assault rifle who had traveled from North Carolina to exact justice didn’t harm anyone in the restaurant. Clearly, fear can be a strong trigger.

The same applied to Barack Obama, “the perfect foil for the evangelical purveyors of the politics of fear.” He embodied pretty much all that made white evangelicals tremble:


“. . . he grew up in Hawaii and spent time as a child in a predominantly Muslim country; he was the son of a white woman and a black man; he not only had a strange name, but he had the same middle name as a well-known Muslim dictator whom the United States had waged war against. Obama’s embrace of Christianity took place in a liberal African American congregation with a pastor who was not shy about calling America to task for its past sins. But most importantly, Obama embraced policies on a host of social issues that alienated him almost immediately from most American evangelicals” (18).


Those kinds of fears naturally give rise to conspiracy theories. The so-called “birther controversy” (stating that Obama was not born in the USA) took hold of the Republican electorate to such an extent that still in July 2017, 72 percent of registered Republicans doubted Obama’s citizenship. Many of them believed he was secretly a Muslim too.

But they also feared plenty of Obama policies: his pro-choice stance, and especially his signature health care plan, which for them infringed upon their “religious freedom” – namely, that Obamacare “required employers, even religious employers, to provide coverage for preventative care that included abortion-inducing contraceptives.” Here, most evangelicals made common cause with conservative Catholics. Then the final straw in the culture wars was the 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized gay marriage (which was legal in 36 states already). More than ever, this landmark case galvanized the Christian Right’s opposition.

The politics of fear were also evident during the Republican debates in 2015-2016. “People are crossing our borders,” one could hear, “and the media won’t talk about how they’re security threats, carrying Ebola and bringing in ISIS terrorists – people who will steal, rape and kill.” Trump learned quickly how to tap into evangelical fears. Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat spoke at Messiah College in September 2016. Fea remembers, “In one of the more stinging lines of the talk, Douthat suggested that evangelicals seem to need Trump, a man with no real Christian conviction to speak of, to protect them in the same way that Syrians needed the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad to protect them against the threat of ISIL” (39). Have no fear: Trump, the strongman, is in the wings.

Another common fear of Americans, and evangelicals in particular, relates to Islam and Muslims. A Pew Research Center report in July 2017 found that “72 percent of white evangelicals believed that Islam and democracy were in conflict, prompting Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of anti-Trump white evangelicalism, to run an article entitled ‘Most White Evangelicals Don’t Believe Muslims Belong in America’” (39-40). Speaking in the spring of 2016 at Liberty University (Jerry Falwell Jr. remains its president), Trump promised to “protect Christianity” and to dismantle the policies of President Obama.

These, then, are some examples of the legacy of fear still very much in evidence among American white evangelicals. The second pillar on which Christian nationalism rests is hubris and the pursuit of political power. I will have much more to say about that in the next installment, but suffice it for me to mention here historian Daniel Rodgers’ analysis. He calls the 1980s the beginning of “the age of fracture”: the Reagan era was friendly to evangelicals while at the same time a chasm was forming between conservative Christians (including many Catholics) and the courts that seemed to move ever farther to the left. The former saw these fractures “as a threat to the nation’s moral core”:


“After they awoke to these changes, they organized politically and sought to put the American Humpty Dumpty back together again, with their own religious narrative at the core of the national origin story. Newly awakened to their political power, feeling spurned by the progressive policies of Jimmy Carter [ironically the first self-proclaimed “born-again” president], and deeply afraid of the direction the national culture was going in, they abandoned their earlier reluctance to become involved in politics and mobilized to fight back via politics. The political attempts to mend these fractures are still with us today. Evangelicals voted for Trump because they have been conditioned to a way of thinking about political engagement that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s as a direct response to these cultural changes” (47).


“The earlier [white evangelical] reluctance” Fea mentions here can be illustrated by their aloofness, at the very least, to the 1960s civil rights movement. More than anything at the time, “they were far more concerned about – and opposed to – the way the federal government used its power to enforce desegregation and oppose Jim Crow laws in their local communities. Historian Mark Noll has argued that race and civil rights served as an entry point for the white conservative evangelical critique of government” (54).

Shamefully, it was the 1972 Supreme Court Green v. Connally decision that spurred the creation of the “Christian Right.” The court ruled that private schools and colleges that discriminated on the basis of race would lose their tax-exempt status. In 1975, the high court removed the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University, a conservative evangelical school in the South, which had “banned interracial dating and denied admission to unmarried African Americans.”

In hindsight it seems surprising that the 1973 Supreme Court decision to allow specific kinds of abortion (Roe v. Wade) did not provoke much reaction in evangelical circles. As Fea puts it, “Most evangelicals thought abortion was a moral problem, and they believed that the pro-life movement was a distinctly Catholic crusade” (55-6). More than anything, they were irked by the rising tide of feminism and the attempt the year before to pass the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution. A woman’s choice to abort was both to endanger the child in the womb and to threaten the patriarchal structure of the family they assumed was God-given.

Influential Republican operative Paul Weyrich, a close friend of Jerry Falwell, told Dartmouth College historian Randall Balmer in 1990 “that the Christian Right was originally founded, not on evangelicals’ opposition to abortion, but rather on opposition to the attempts of the IRS to desegregate Christian academies” (59). In the next blog post, we will see how effective they were. The likes of Falwell thankfully lost on the issue of segregation (see the two images above), but as we are now witnessing in the federal courts and the Supreme Court itself, Trump has now amply fulfilled his promise to the “court evangelicals,” as Fea calls them. In his first three years in office, he has appointed 194 federal judges and two Supreme Court justices, all apparently to their liking.

Clergy were often seen in the courts of medieval monarchs, but Pope Pius II admonished his clergy to stay away from the kings’ courts, because it would be difficult for them to “rein in ambition, suppress avarice, tame envy, strife, wrath, and cut off vice, while standing in the midst of these [very] things” (117). Fea gives an example of how court flattery was on “full display” when President Trump invited his evangelical courtiers to the Oval Office on the occasion of the announcement of “a National Day of Prayer for the people of Texas and Louisiana who were hit by Hurricane Harvey”:


“Those in attendance used the opportunity to praise Trump for all he was doing for evangelical causes. Ralph Reed commended him for ‘acknowledging that God is our source of unity as Americans.’ Gary Bauer compared Trump to Washington and thanked him for defending the Judeo-Christian roots of America, alluding to the passage in the Declaration of Independence about rights coming from ‘our Creator.’ He then proclaimed America to be a ‘shining city on a hill.’ Paula White expressed gratitude for Trump’s practice of ‘calling our nation to God’ and for ‘always’ putting ‘God first.’ Trump sat at his desk, occasionally nodding his head in approval, and soaked in the adulation. [Robert] Jeffress closed the meeting in prayer. He described Trump as ‘a gift to the country’ raised up by God to bring ‘healing’ to a divided America” (119-120).


The last pillar of American Christian nationalism is its goal to “make America Christian again,” which nicely dovetails with Trump’s slogan to “make American great again.” In both cases, you might ask, why the nostalgia? My family and I, along with many members of our congregation, joined a crowd in front of our county seat in Media, PA, for a vigil lamenting the brutal killing of George Floyd and dozens other people of color killed by racist police brutality in our nation. The hour-and-a-half vigil was sponsored by the local chapter of the NAACP and the Media Fellowship House, an interfaith initiative founded in 1944 in reaction to a local restaurant refusing to serve two African American women and a baby. One black speaker expressed perfectly the sentiments John Fea reports in his book when he attended an evangelical conference on racial reconciliation as a keynote speaker. Having listened to a number of black pastors, he admitted, “I came face to face with the reality that African Americans have very little to be nostalgic about.” He explained,


“When African Americans look back, they see the oppression of slavery, the burning crosses, the lynched bodies, the poll taxes and literacy tests, the separate by unequal schools, the ‘colored-only’ water fountains, and the backs of buses. Make America great again?” (155).


John Fea’s theological perspective

Once those pillars are laid out in this fashion, it isn’t hard to imagine how Fea might critique them from a Christian perspective – or from any other faith perspective, for that matter. When it comes to fear, throughout the Bible God calls people not to be afraid but to trust in his love and care for them. Though God nowhere promises us a safe and prosperous life (contrary to what the purveyors of the prosperity gospel might teach), he does promise to always be with us, particularly as we follow his call to bring his love and peace in areas of conflict, poverty and pain.

Put otherwise, “The ‘proper conclusion’ to the Christian story – the direction in which history is ultimately moving – is the return of Jesus Christ amid the new heaven and the new earth. But in a world filled with distractions, it is easy to let this glorious hope become smothered by fear” (43).

With regard to political power, besides the fact that, as seems the case with the Trump administration, access to power gives little opportunity to actually influence policy, it is a weapon that often comes back to strike the people trying to wield it. Two of the Moral Majority’s most influential agents in time became disillusioned with the project. Journalist Cal Thomas and pastor Ed Dobson co-authored a scathing book in 1999 about their experience: Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America? The answer was a definitive no. Power is “the ultimate aphrodisiac.” It’s seductive, and it clouds a person’s judgment. Worst of all, for Christians it hinders them from spreading the love of Christ, as they are called to do.

Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture and Social Theory at the University of Virginia, James Davison Hunter put to pen his own vision for how the church should seek to impact the world (To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World). In an “exclusive” interview with Amazon, he explains the reason why he wrote this book: “I saw a disjunction between how Christians talk about changing the world, how they try to change the world, and how worlds—that is culture—actually change. These disparities needed to be clarified.” In his conclusion, Fea quotes Hunter as he articulates his own prescription, “faithful presence.” Yes, we can and should be concerned with issues across the globe. He goes on:


“But with that said, the call of faithful presence gives priority to what is right in front of us – community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people in which they are constituted. For most, this will mean a preference for stability, locality, and particularity of place and its needs. It is here, through the joys, sufferings, hopes, disappointments, concerns, desires, and worries of people with whom we are in long-term and close relation – family, neighbors, co-workers, and community – where we find authenticity as a body of believers. It is here where we learn forgiveness and humility, practice kindness, hospitality, and charity, grow in patience and wisdom, and become clothed in compassion, gentleness, and joy. This is the crucible in which Christian holiness is forged” (253 in Hunter, 186-7 in Fea).


John Fea’s book ends with lessons learned in June 2017 as he led his family and several colleagues from Messiah College “through the American South on a civil rights movement bus tour.” In the eight cities they visited they were able to interview a number of personalities who had been involved in this movement during the 1960s. Theirs was a message of hope, not fear; of humility, not power; finally, they had “a clear understanding about the difference between history and nostalgia” (188). In fact, “History was a means by which they challenged white Americans to collectively come face to face with the moral contradiction of their republic. As King said in his April 1968 sermon in Memphis [the day before he was killed], ‘All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you say on paper’” (188-9). King was well acquainted with his nation’s checkered history. But he and his followers “desperately wanted to be grafted into this imperfect but hopeful story, and to contribute their gifts and talents to the writing of future chapters of that story” (190).

In the second half of this blog post I will fill out in more detail a couple of the points made here, but I will especially highlight what for me constitutes this religious nationalism’s most destructive aspect – its early alliance with the libertarian political ideology at the heart of the Reagan administration. If anything, the current coronavirus pandemic and the wave of anti-racist protests demonstrate how unfortunate those directions were. Racial injustice is plainly exacerbated by the rising economic inequality that has its roots in the early 1980s.