“[W]hen we get to the point where the teachings of Jesus himself are seen as subversive to us, then we’re in a crisis.”—Russell Moore, former president, Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Southern Baptist Convention – resigned 2022
Russell Moore saw it coming as early as 2013. His church’s nearly two-centuries-old racist roots were nourishing new sprouts of hatred years before the next administration encouraged and enabled bigotry. “Time and time again in the white American Bible Belt the people of God had to choose between Jesus Christ and Jim Crow because you cannot serve both,” he said. “And tragically, many often chose to serve Jim Crow and to rename him Jesus Christ.”
It took others a little longer to see the white Christian nationalist movement budding and then blooming. On January 6, 2021, Rahna Epting, the executive director of liberal advocacy group MoveOn, tried not to watch the proliferation of Christian symbols as insurrectionists combined riot with religion to tear down democracy’s temple.
Contacting her friend and fellow comrade-in-arms, Rev. Liz Theoharis—a Presbyterian minister and head of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice—she found a ready ally, and the two resolved to combat the tribalism “which we name as white Christian nationalism.”
Their partnership culminated in a 75-page report, published in May 2023, All of U.S.—Organizing to Counter White Christian Nationalism and Build a Pro-Democracy Society.
Epting and Theoharis gathered about them like-minded people from a kaleidoscope of beliefs, disciplines and both secular and religious leaders. In the preface to the report they say, “Among us are secular political organizers and strategists, pastors, researchers, policy experts, and writers. Our backgrounds span racial, economic, gender, and sexual identities and we live and work in very different contexts—in cities and rural areas, churches and legislatures, Republican and Democratic strongholds. Some of us are Christians, fluent in the language of faith and the Bible, and some of us are not. What unites us, though, is a shared recognition that the rise of an authoritarian strain in our politics has been fueled and emboldened by a white Christian nationalist movement. And we agree that to effectively combat this movement, we must broaden our ranks, forge new alliances, and make changes in how we organize, both within our own communities and across them.”
All of U.S.—a call to arms against white Christian nationalism is the latest of a line of distinguished campaigns, dating back to the original Poor People’s Campaign organized in 1968 by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to combat what he called the three “evils” of society—racism, poverty and war.
Rev. Theoharis, along with Rev. William Barber II, revived Dr. King’s campaign in 2017, adding to it two more societal pestilences: ecological devastation and the “distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism,” which includes Christian nationalism.
“White Christian nationalists are out-organizing us in spaces we have left uncontested for far too long,” Epting said, singling out rural areas whose needs are too often ignored by local governments.
Theoharis agreed, saying advocates should be “organizing people more holistically” in order to meet “people’s material, spiritual and emotional needs, as well as political needs and aspirations.” She emphasized the need for teamwork and coordination between religious and secular groups, hoping that working together they can “build the kind of society we need.” As a corollary, she also expressed the need to alter public perception of Christians.
“When people are celebrating abortion bans, they’re articulated as Christian,” she said. “But when people are feeding migrants in the desert as part of their faith practice, they’re talked about as activists.”
Meanwhile other groups are mobilizing to combat white Christian nationalism. Protests across the country staged by advocacy group Faithful America put clergy and other religious leaders front and center criticizing events headlined by prominent Christian nationalists. There is, for example, the ReAwaken America Tour which often features former Trump adviser and confessed perjurer, Michael Flynn, who infamously shouted to thousands of cheering advocates at a San Antonio rally, “If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God and one religion under God.”
Momentum has been building to counter Christian nationalism as protestors from one group are often joined by other groups, such as Interfaith Alliance—which hosted a briefing on that “clear and present danger to our democracy and to an inclusive vision of religious freedom,” as group leader, Rev. Paul Raushenbush said.
Another group whose campaign dovetails with the others is Christians Against Christian Nationalism, a movement led by Amanda Tyler of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, who told the House Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties last December, “Christian nationalism strikes at the heart of the foundational ideas of what religious freedom means and how it’s protected in this country, and that is with the institution of separation of church and state.”
As awareness of the threat to democracy represented by white Christian nationalism grows; as the religious community continues to mobilize and speak out against it from the pulpit and in the halls of Congress; as reports such as that initiated by Epting and Theoharis build a case against it; and as both religious and secular leaders and groups continue to coalesce and gather in strength against white Christian nationalism, the needle has begun to move within and outside of religious denominations.
At its biennial General Assembly, the Disciples of Christ denomination passed a resolution—sponsored and seconded by many local congregations—condemning Christian nationalism as “a distortion of the Christian faith.” The conference featured workshops on the subject and a featured expert, author and sociologist Andrew Whitehead.
Whitehead expressed uncertainty as to whether or not the cavalry has arrived in time to tamp down Christian nationalism’s spread and influence, but he expressed hope that coalitions of concerned people—both within and outside of houses of worship—have a shot at diluting its impact on American politics and religion.
“Over the next few decades, I think it’ll be more difficult overall for this idea of the U.S. as a Christian nation—to reflect a particular Christian expression—to be taken for granted, or to even be the privileged position across American society,” he said.
Or, as a young graduate student named Martin Luther King, Jr. once preached, “One cannot worship the false god of nationalism and the God of Christianity at the same time.”