S4, Ep. 24: The myth of American ‘chosenness’ (part two)
Rev. Dr. Jaimie Crumley moderates a conversation on the myth of American ‘chosenness’ with The Rt. Rev. Carol Gallagher, Ph.D.; Dr. Michael Hoberman; Rev. Darrell Hamilton; and Dr. Catherine Brekus.
What does the myth of American “chosenness” mean for different communities and the rise of Christian nationalism? Episcopal Bishop and Cherokee nation member Carol Gallagher, Baptist minister Rev. Darrell Hamilton, and Dr. Michael Hoberman, a scholar of early American Jewish literature and culture, engage in a conversation moderated by the Rev. Dr. Jaimie Crumley, a minister and professor of gender studies and ethnic studies. Dr. Catherine Brekus of Harvard Divinity School joins them, too, as they react to her lecture about how the myth of “chosenness” leads to much of the religious nationalism in our country today, including how scriptures were used to justify colonialism.
Segment 1 (starting at 00:40): Context for this panel
Meet our panelists:
The Rt. Rev. Carol Gallagher, Ph.D. serves as the assistant bishop in the Episcopal Church’s Diocese of Massachusetts. An enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, Bishop Gallagher previously served the diocese as a regional canon. Before that, starting in 2014, she served as assistant bishop in the Diocese of Montana, developing relationships with Native leaders and congregations there; educating and training clergy and lay leaders on issues of race, gender and inclusion; and leading the Task Force on Native Issues.
Dr. Michael Hoberman teaches American literature at Fitchburg State University. He is a graduate of Reed College and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His previous books include A Hundred Acres of America: The Geography of Jewish American Literary History and New Israel/New England: Jews and Puritans in Early America.
The Rev. Darrell Hamilton is an ordained Baptist minister and graduate from Wake Forest School of Divinity, where he earned his Master of Divinity in 2017. He earned his degree in Political Science from the University of Central Oklahoma in 2012. Currently, the Rev. Hamilton serves at the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain as Administrative Pastor and as Protestant Chaplain at Babson College. The Rev. Hamilton was a BJC intern in spring 2016.
The Rev. Dr. Jaimie Crumley (moderator) is an Assistant Professor of Gender Studies and Ethnic Studies at the University of Utah. During the 2022-2023 academic year, she is the Research Fellow at Old North Illuminated in Boston. Old North Illuminated is the secular 501(c)(3) that preserves the Old North Church and interprets its history. Her research, teaching, and writing consider the themes of historical memory, race, religion, gender, and abolition. Jaimie is an ordained minister whose ordination is recognized by the American Baptist Churches USA. The Rev. Dr. Crumley is a member of the BJC Board of Directors and of the 2016 class of BJC Fellows.
This presentation was the 2023 Walter B. and Kay W. Shurden Lecture on Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State, an annual lecture series sponsored by BJC. It took place at Old North Church in Boston.
Segment 2 (starting at 1:39): The panel conversation
You can also watch the panel at this link.
During the conversation, Dr. Crumley mentioned this piece by Dr. Brekus on American “chosenness.”
Respecting Religion is made possible by BJC’s generous donors. You can support these conversations with a gift to BJC.
Transcript: Season 4, Episode 24: The myth of American “chosenness” (part two) (some parts of this transcript have been edited for clarity)
Segment 1: Context for this panel (starting at 00:40)
AMANDA: Welcome to Respecting Religion, a BJC podcast series where we look at religion, the law, and what’s at stake for faith freedom today. I’m Amanda Tyler, executive director of BJC.
Today, we continue our look at the myth of American “chosenness.” In our last episode, we shared Dr. Catherine Brekus’s lecture on the topic at the historic Old North Church in Boston. I had the pleasure of being there in person to introduce Dr. Brekus, and today we want to bring you the panel discussion that followed her illuminating remarks.
At the end of her talk, Dr. Brekus joined Episcopal bishop and Cherokee Nation member Carol Gallagher; Baptist minister Rev. Darrell Hamilton; and Dr. Michael Hoberman, a scholar of early American Jewish literature and culture, for a thoughtful and provocative panel.
BJC Board member, Dr. Jaimie Crumley, a minister and professor of gender studies and ethnic studies, moderated their discussion. Let’s bring you that panel now, and we’ll start with Dr. Crumley’s first question.
Segment 2: The panel conversation (starting at 1:39)
DR. CRUMLEY: So my first question is for the entire group. Catherine just used her speech to offer us her perspective on what the phrase “American ‘chosenness'” means. But I’m curious to hear from our other panelists this evening. How do you define the idea of American “chosenness”?
DR. GALLAGHER: Do you want to start?
REV. HAMILTON: No. I’m going to follow you. (Laughter)
DR. GALLAGHER: Are you sure? (Laughter)
REV. HAMILTON: Yes.
DR. GALLAGHER: Okay. I think as an Indigenous person, it’s very hard to hear that phrase without understanding the price that was paid, not only in lives but land, people taken by disease, assumed to be less than. And the reality of even until the 20th century, Native folks didn’t get the right to vote until long after women got the right to vote.
And so in the past hundred years, up until really the past 30 or 40 years, Indigenous tribes have not even had the ability and the autonomy to even control their own lives and their own destiny. So I think that “chosenness” is really hard to hear from a very historical perspective of what has happened.
And at the same time, being a member of a tribe that was many generations Christianized, it’s very hard to separate Christian identity for some tribal people — not all of us, but particularly on the East Coast — with their Christianity. So it’s a very complicated understanding of that way.
DR. HOBERMAN: Well, the research that I do is mostly on early Jewish American history. When I say “early,” I mean mostly the period before the large immigration comes here in the late 19th century, so we’re talking what we call the Colonial Era.
When the word “chosenness” comes to me, I think, well, okay, this is, of course, the burden of the Jews to either have that idea imposed upon them or to be broadcasting the idea. So to be chosen is not necessarily to be, you know, in a good position in the world in the first place.
And, I think — if I think about this concept of being, you know, Jews as the chosen people, to me it’s always felt like much more of a burden and a liability than anything else.
That being said, of course, the history of Jews in America has been a mixed bag, and it has brought with it all kinds of ‑‑ you know, from a certain perspective, all kinds of blessings. I think some of those blessings are the results of many of the things that Catherine was talking about, which is to say that the so-called Founders, on a certain level, were not trying to found a Christian nation. And so for that reason, the doors were open to practitioners of any religious faith who wanted to show up.
All that being said, as time has passed, “chosenness” for Jews in America has often correlated to the status that Jews have had in many instances as white people. And so it’s ‑‑ as I say, it’s a mixed blessing. It’s something about which to feel quite ambivalent.
It’s no mystery, it’s no secret, that the earliest Jewish settlers in North America were participants in the same conquest and enslavement that white Protestants were participating in. They were not immune to any of those tendencies. And so some of those people read “chosenness” not very differently from how white Christian nationalists may be reading it today.
REV. HAMILTON: This is a great question, and for me, I would say the emphasis on the word “chosen,” in me as an African American, a Black American minister, I feel like I sort of live in an interesting sort of middle space between my Indigenous colleague and my Jewish colleague here, where to have an idea about “chosenness” and because of the color of my skin, the mark on my skin means that I am therefore barred from any degree of “chosenness.” Right?
At the same time, you know, the people in the text for which this myth is derived from, their skin is more like unto mine than it is to the people who derive the myth. Right? And so my skin is used as a ‑‑ or, rather, is weaponized against me from being able to be included within the myth, within the story of America, when the reality is, you can’t even have America without my story. Right? But yet erased from the myth. Right?
And at the same time, the way in which the very Hebrew scriptures play such a prominent role in the way in which we derive our humanity ‑‑ Dr. King talks about, you know, your somebody-ness. Right? But when you read the story of the Exodus, they are in Africa. They are not being exodused from Europe. So you are reading the story of African people, and our text is the story of African people.
So it’s an interesting interplay. And then the fact of being brought over to a place that was already inhabited without say, so in a sense, we have some ‑‑ I don’t want to say “complicity,” but yet we are still sort of used in a way that allows for the commodification and for the taking of indigenous land also, while at the same time being a people with no land, no culture, no identity, then having to derive new culture and new identity for ourselves here.
So, again, it’s an interesting sort of place to be, but thinking about that idea of “chosenness” and what it means to be kept from or barred from being included within this understanding of the myth, and then also just the fallacy, I think, that “chosenness” even presents.
DR. CRUMLEY: Yeah. I want to have follow-up conversations with all of you about what you just said. I think there’s a lot of depth there, thinking about, you know, in this congregation and my research on finding people who were Native people from Natick. Right?
I got an email from a woman who’s part of the Nipmuc tribe in response to one of my research videos, and she was talking about the challenge of wanting to be taken seriously in the Native community as a Native person, and yet the complications of being also strongly identified with Christianity, and that’s been a large part of the story of Indigenous people in Natick and in other places throughout the United States, so there’s really that complication and challenge there.
While we’re on the topic of marginalized people, I’m actually going to turn to you, Darrell, first to answer this question, but I’d love to hear from others also.
In Catherine’s speech tonight and also in a lot of her previously published writings, she argues that marginalized people, especially religious minorities and people of color in the United States, have historically appealed to the notions of divine destiny when advocating for their rights.
REV. HAMILTON: Right.
DR. CRUMLEY: Your response just had me thinking about this. So how do you think that’s played out in the African American theological tradition?
REV. HAMILTON: Yeah, yeah. And [to Dr. Cathering Brekus] I want to say I think that’s just such a really powerful and profound point that you made. And to be really frank, like I haven’t stopped chewing on it. That’s a really good piece of meat, you know, that you prepared, so trying to digest that.
But the way in which that I think that it plays out is, again, being ‑‑ how do I want to say this? Being part of a people and a legacy that has ‑‑ that loses ‑‑ that has lost culture, that has had culture stripped, that has had language stolen ‑‑ right? ‑‑ how do you sort of create a new sense of identity? What is it that you grasp hope onto?
And I don’t think that it’s inherently part of the hope in the myth of American “chosenness” in the way in which the Framers or the Puritans might have themselves tried to derive it, but African American people, we have a history of the way in which we re-signify on the theology or on the history, on the story of America, of Jesus, of, you know, the way in which we have to find a way in which this story can create life and be generative for our people.
So when you think about the practices of enslaved Africans, where you spend all day hearing the narrative of “Slave, obey your masters,” you’re legally barred from reading, let alone reading Bible, and yet at night, you then make your way to the woods, to the hush harbors, and you ‑‑
And you are able to connect with a sense of the divine that is deep within you that can’t be ‑‑ that can’t be stripped nonetheless ‑‑ right? ‑‑ this sense of hope, knowing that there is, indeed, something that God is doing on behalf of you, on behalf of people.
And I want to also say this, too, because when you think about the myth of American “chosenness” — this idea that it’s incumbent upon white settlers to bring Christianity to African people — again, Christianity is an African religion. African people, we had Jesus. Before white settlers ever even thought the name Jesus, we had Jesus.
And so this notion of connecting with that Jesus ‑‑ somebody might call it the Black Christ. Right? And then, okay, so we are here in this new place, having to find new identity, having to create new language, and yet we have ‑‑ but we have hope in the sense of a God that is still with us, that loves us, that is still going to provide and calls for something new.
So we put our hope in that thing, and we pray that a process of democracy can be used as a tool of the Divine to help get us to whatever telos, whatever end it is that God might be trying to create for us and then for the world.
So I hope that’s not too convoluted of a response, but the way in which I sort of see how we as a people ‑‑ and I don’t want to just say that we are resilient, but in the way we’ve been forced to be resilient and to make meaning and to make new meanings and to continue to find God and to draw deeper into faith. I see that as sort of how we sort of respond to that.
DR. CRUMLEY: Michael, did you want to tag in on that?
DR. HOBERMAN: Well, I mean, I guess I was ‑‑ I’m thinking about some of these voices in, let’s say, the pre-Civil War Jewish American community. And kind of two approaches that were taken on the part of Jewish leaders during these times, to either sort of buy into this idea of America being a redeeming country for Jews, or to sort of back off from it carefully and again, you know, cautiously invoke principles of secularism, just because secularism is the safest bet if you’re a member of a minority religion, which I think is quite well appreciated by this audience.
But I did dig up a couple interesting and — to me, anyway — disturbing, not surprising but disturbing quotations. So in 1858, Isaac Mayer Wise, who was a very significant Jewish leader based in Cincinnati, he delivers a speech on July 4. It kind of reminded me, in a strange way ‑‑ there’s some echoes of the Frederick Douglass speech, but not enough echoes, as you’ll hear.
He says, “Next to the Passover Feast, the 4th of July is the greatest Jewish holiday” ‑‑ implied ‑‑ “because it is the memorial of the triumph of liberty. It is the second redemption of mankind from the hands of oppressors, the second interposition of Providence on behalf of liberty.” So that’s a pretty strident claim from the perspective of a Jewish rabbi, to be, you know, invoking the Hebrew scriptures as a ringing endorsement of American “chosenness.”
And then another person, Isaac Harby, who was a leader, sort of lay leader in Charleston, South Carolina’s Jewish community — 1820s, 1830s — is considered to be one of the founders of Reformed Judaism.
First of all, he refers to South Carolina itself as “this happy land” for Jews. South Carolina was ‑‑ Charleston was a great haven for the Jews in the 1820s and ’30s. It actually had a larger Jewish community during that time than New York did, and these Jews in Charleston were merchants of different sorts, participants as most merchants in Charleston were, participants either directly or indirectly in the slave trade.
In any case, Harby says about America, “It is the land of promise spoken of in our sacred scriptures” ‑‑ “in our ancient scriptures.” So sometimes you’re going to hear those echoes from Jewish leaders, and sometimes you don’t.
Gershom Seixas — the last person I’ll mention, who led the Jewish community in New York and then Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War — he issues several prayers for peace during the Revolution. And his prayers for peace are very cautious in the sense that ‑‑ kind of the way Lincoln did during the Civil War.
He sort of suggests that, well, we hope that God is on our side. We’re not sure if God has chosen us. We better try to live up to what we think God expects of us. So I think the responses run the gamut from those two extremes.
DR. CRUMLEY: Darrell, when you were talking, it reminded me of David Walker, who I know some of you are very familiar with David Walker’s writings, and his real appeals to Christian scriptures and his really incendiary, for lack of a better term, critiques ‑‑ right? ‑‑ of southern Christians, of southern white Christians, for failing to live up to the terms of their own faith tradition.
I want to talk a little bit more about just the use of the Hebrew Bible. Right? I know, Catherine, you had talked about that some in your speech, and we heard you referencing ‑‑ I guess it’s from Deuteronomy ‑‑ right? ‑‑ that comes up in the Winthrop lecture, where Moses is not able to go to the Promised Land.
And so, Michael, I want to hear from you a little bit about that, just about how the Hebrew Bible specifically was used to justify colonialism and what that has meant for Jewish people. You talked about the Jewish people in the 19th century. What does that mean, that the Hebrew Bible had already been deployed so much and continued to be deployed so much through the 19th century?
DR. HOBERMAN: Well, in the earlier phases of the Colonial period, in my book about Jews and Puritans that, I think, Jaimie mentioned in the bio, mostly what I write about is the way Jews were sort of inadvertent interlocutors with, you know, Christian theologians, Puritan theologians, who were, of course, as we’re hearing, fascinated by the Hebrew Bible.
And so every now and then, they consult Jews or Jewish scholarship to, you know, sort of shore up their arguments, and one of the most prominent instances of that is Ezra Stiles, who Catherine mentioned in her talk with the 1783 sermon. So Stiles was a minister in Newport, wanted to learn Hebrew, and thought that the most expedient way to do so was to consort with the Jews in Newport, the people who created what we call the Touro Synagogue now.
And so he met several rabbis, visiting rabbis, and Jewish scholars, and mostly it seems as though they would just sort of hear his theories about the Hebrew Bible and politely offer more ‑‑ sort of footnoted the things that Stiles wanted to be able to say about the Hebrew Bible.
But as things progress and you get closer to sort of the crisis point that leads ‑‑ you know, we’re skipping ahead to the period of the middle of the 19th century and pre-Civil War period ‑‑ I wrote a piece a few years ago about how Exodus is used, sort of a comparative reading.
So when Benjamin Franklin or other, let’s say, Anglo Protestant or even Anglo secular Protestant people invoke the book of Exodus, they do it in the ways that Catherine mentioned. So America is the Promised Land, and the English people crossing the Atlantic are crossing the Red Sea.
Well, for Jews during that time period, Exodus was not about America being the Promised Land. It was about the Jews being saved from Egypt, from Egyptian slavery. And as it applied to the Civil War, well, like everything else, it broke down according to which part of the country you were in.
So Jews on the northern side of the Mason-Dixon Line would have perhaps read Exodus in one way, and to be honest, there were Jews in the South who read Exodus as, no, it’s not about ‑‑ it’s certainly not about Black people’s liberation. It’s about the liberation of the Jews and maybe ‑‑ I mean, there were a few instances where Exodus was the story of the Confederates being free to do what they wanted to do.
What’s interesting to me here is that when you look at, again, the Anglo Protestant tradition, it’s taking the Hebrew text and universalizing it, and then sort of superimposing it over Anglo experience. For Jews, it’s much more particularistic. This is our story of our liberation.
And interestingly enough, of course, that’s how African American ministers would have read Exodus, too. This is a story about us. As Darrell was saying, this is a story about our exodus, you know, our hope for exodus. You know, we originate in Africa, and here we are in Egypt, in America. How did that happen.
REV. HAMILTON: Uh‑huh, uh-huh.
DR. HOBERMAN: So, yeah.
DR. CRUMLEY: I do want us to dig in a little bit more into the Bible and especially how the Bible has been used in contemporary rhetoric ‑‑ right? ‑‑ to justify contemporary Christian nationalism. But before that, Carol, I want to bring you back into the discussion, because your ministry reflects the ways that Native people have maintained their sovereignty, despite the encroachments of the American settler state.
So how do you think it is that Indigenous leaders have been so successful about not allowing their voices to be co-opted by these narratives of divine destiny that we’ve been talking about? How do you think that’s been happening?
DR. GALLAGHER: Well, you know, I think one of the realities is America as a whole has paid little or no attention to Indigenous people, up until very recent history ‑‑
DR. CRUMLEY: Right.
DR. GALLAGHER: — except for what you all watched in cowboys and Indian movies. And most believed we were all gone.
DR. CRUMLEY: Right.
DR. GALLAGHER: And until ‑‑ you know, there’s lots of things that Richard Nixon did really poorly, as we well know, but during the Nixon administration was where we first began to have tribal sovereignty. And we’ve had to learn, as Native people, how to govern ourselves and to claim those voices.
Many of our people, many of my mother’s generation, were not allowed to speak their language. They were not allowed to do their traditions. The laws didn’t come off the books in the state of Oklahoma and other places until well into the late ’70s. So you could be arrested and go to prison for practicing your traditional ways.
And most of these people were also Christian, but, you know, various different seasons — Green Corn and other seasons that we celebrate as Cherokees, that was all done under the cover of darkness. I mean, what happens when people are sorely oppressed for generation after generation is ‑‑ and there’s a resilience in this ‑‑ is you go underground.
You go underground, and so our community celebrations often happened under cover of darkness, after midnight. People ‑‑ you know, this is a very Oklahoma thing, but pulling up their pickups with the lights off so that they wouldn’t get caught, but still.
So I think there’s that need to continue their identity, but many people, particularly my mother’s generation, the generation before us ‑‑ my mother was born in 1923 ‑‑ you know, were told that their way of life was bad. My grandfather grew up hearing, you know, kill the Indian, save the man. That was our national policy.
And there was a lot of killing. I mean, just death. I mean, if any of you go to Carlisle, you’ll see the hundreds and hundreds of little crosses of children that just died, some of illness, and many for just desperate loneliness and not being able to thrive.
I think the gift of both being out of anybody’s view is the ability to go underground and retain. The Cherokees had something they called the Pin Society in the early 20th century, where all their traditions were outlawed, so the traditional men would wear just like a ‑‑ not even a safety pin but just a straight pin in their lapel, so they could identify one another to each other. But that was the only way to be who they were.
DR. CRUMLEY: It’s interesting, because it keeps coming up, I think, during this discussion and, Catherine, during your speech, the importance of language ‑‑ right? ‑‑ and the harm that language can do, the harm of just all these reinterpretations even of the Christian scriptures.
But also the loss of language in the case of African peoples who came from all sorts of different countries and regions and were stripped of their indigenous languages and cultures, and in the case of Indigenous peoples who similarly ‑‑ I mean, even the phrase, African peoples, Indigenous peoples ‑‑ right? ‑‑ even that is violent language because it’s overlooking the particularities of the places ‑‑
DR. GALLAGHER: Right.
DR. CRUMLEY: — and the particular groups that people belong to.
DR. GALLAGHER: I mean, for the most part when asked, you know, how do you want to be referred to, as Native American, Indigenous? And when I write, I use a multiplicity of titles, just to help people understand that they’re all ‑‑ our spiritualities are not the same by tribe, so we want to be called by our tribal name.
I had a dear friend passed away a long time ago, but she was very powerful, very ‑‑ in the 1970s and really sort of on the forefront of really moving both the church and Native people forward. Used to say, you know, Columbus was looking for a trade route to India, so that’s why we got called Indians. Thank God, he wasn’t looking for a trade route to Turkey.
DR. GALLAGHER: But, you know, there’s also the ability to have a sense of humor, even in the midst of oppression, and that’s one of the things that’s fairly common among the groups represented here, I think.
DR. HOBERMAN: Good point.
REV. HAMILTON: Uh‑huh, uh-huh.
DR. CRUMLEY: Definitely. Catherine, I want to bring you into the conversation. You have this piece called, “Examining the Roots of American ‘Chosenness,'” which was first published on July 2, 2015. If you just go on the Internet and type in the phrase, American “chosenness,” this little piece will pop up by Catherine Brekus. You should go and read it after this. It is quite good and also short, if you don’t have a bunch of time to read today.
Catherine, in that piece, you talk about ‑‑ and I was very fascinated by this; I was doing a deep dive on this today ‑‑ The American Patriot’s Bible. And we need to talk about this, and I also want to bring Darrell and Carol in, bring the two of you in, because I know you all are doing ministry on the ground with the Christian people today.
But this American Patriot’s Bible, I’d love for you to tell us a little bit more about this, and also like, what do you make of it? What do you make of this Bible literally being turned into a primer for American nationalism?
DR. BREKUS: So actually I have written a much longer piece, just on The American Patriot’s Bible, and if anybody’s interested, I’d be happy to send you a copy. The American Patriot’s Bible is really a fascinating and to me, very disturbing document. It is the King James Version of the Bible, and within the pages, as you turn pages, there are pieces of American history woven into the text.
So it’s not as if there’s just some material at the beginning of the Bible and then you read the Bible. You literally turn the pages of Genesis, and there’s Dick Cheney. This is always ‑‑ my students are getting a little bit past this. They don’t know who Dick Cheney is, but every time I see Dick Cheney, I’m sort of startled. And he’s giving us a quotation about freedom.
And so what you’re supposed to think as you’re reading this Bible is that the biblical story and the American story are echoing each other, that they’re parallels, that actually the Bible is, in fact, in many ways, a story about the United States, so there are pictures of presidents. There are half-page articles about notable American figures.
There is a piece ‑‑ it’s so interesting ‑‑ at the beginning of the book of Exodus. Every chapter in the Bible has a little introduction, and there actually is a mention of the pilgrims and the Puritans, and how they recapitulated the story of Exodus. So these ideas are really still present.
So this is a Bible that really sacralizes the nation and suggests that the United States itself is redemptive. There was a fair amount of controversy when the book was published. Even Christianity Today, which is the evangelical magazine founded by Billy Graham — there was an article in Christianity Today that said that this book is an example of idolatry, that it’s treating the nation or putting the nation on the same level as Jesus.
But despite that, the book seems to have been really quite popular, and there have been other books that have followed. There’s one by David Barton called The Founders’ Bible, which is really just sort of a rip-off, except, if anything, it’s even more conservative.
There are hints in The American Patriot’s Bible that when you’re reading the story of Ishmael, that you’re supposed to be thinking about Muslim terrorists. But in The Founders’ Bible, it’s made explicit. So you can see the kinds of parallels that are being drawn.
One of the fun things to do is to go on the Amazon website and just read the reviews of The American Patriot’s Bible. People love this book.
The review that has always stuck with me is somebody wrote, I’m giving this book one star ‑‑ I was looking for all the bad reviews; there were very few. I’ve given this book one star, because the person depicted on page so-and-so is neither an American nor a patriot. So I had to go look and see what ‑‑
REV. HAMILTON: It was Obama?
DR. BREKUS: It was Barack Obama.
REV. HAMILTON: I’m sorry. I didn’t ‑‑
DR. BREKUS: No. You knew, you knew.
DR. GALLAGHER: You know right away.
DR. BREKUS: I should have known immediately that it was going to be Barack Obama, so ‑‑
REV. HAMILTON: I’m surprised he was there.
DR. BREKUS: So I think this shows you just the depth of white Christian nationalism in our own time, that a book like this could be published, that it could be popular, and that despite some outcries, it’s in circulation.
DR. CRUMLEY: I looked it up on Amazon. I don’t want to support it, but I’m also like, I need a copy of this.
DR. BREKUS: Somebody bought me a copy secondhand, which made me happy. A student bought this for me, because I did not want to ‑‑
DR. HOBERMAN: You could buy it off the person that gave it one star.
DR. BREKUS: Yes, really. He returned it, yes, he was so angry.
DR. CRUMLEY: So that makes me turn to you, Carol, and also to you, Darrell, because both of you, of course, are in church contexts. So what does this real resurgence that we’ve seen in Christian nationalism, these biblical defenses of Christian nationalism ‑‑ how is it impacting the church, or how do you imagine that it might impact the contemporary church?
DR. GALLAGHER: You know, one of the challenges for us ‑‑ and as an Episcopalian, the Episcopal church grew out of the Church of England, the Anglican church, so, you know we’re both a mixture of those folks who adore everything English and, you know, very rooted Americans who are very much working ‑‑ I mean, across the board, a variety of folks.
And one of the things that we’ve been doing in this diocese is working ‑‑ we have a Racial Justice Commission and working very ‑‑ just across the board, all of our commissions, all of our ‑‑ anybody who’s doing anything, just really educating folks about what it means to really be a Christian and what we both carry in our responsibility but also forwarding the conversation about liberation for all, and that includes the LGBTQ folks who — we are, you know, often as an Episcopal church in trouble with the rest of the Anglican communion for that advocacy.
But the reality is unless we’re ‑‑ I am totally convinced and, you know, will preach it. Rising tides lift all boats, and those who have to be ‑‑ you know, to shove others down to be in control or power ends up ‑‑ you know, just not the way we’re going to be.
And so that’s really the dialogue that I keep and Alan and all of us who work in this diocese and here at Old North, we’re really trying to encourage people to see that diversity is in its fullest and people being able to be themselves in their fullest is really God’s best gift. If you want to talk about “chosenness,” it’s in diversity, not in shoving other people away.
REV. HAMILTON: And I feel like I’m noticing two trends. So the church that I serve, we are a part of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. We ‑‑ you know, Pride Month’s tomorrow, so we pride ourselves on being very progressive in our theology and our approach and being intentional, particularly about how we challenge and confront whiteness, white supremacy, and the vestiges of that — whether that’s Christian nationalism, whether that’s capitalism, whether that’s, you know, just other international issues.
And so the challenge that I feel that’s had in our church particularly, being a predominantly white church, is for white Christians, white progressive Christians, the question of why should I still be Christian? And how it is that Christianity and white supremacy, white nationalism have gotten so interwoven? — many of them raised up in churches where these things have been so interwoven.
Now they’re in our congregation, really doing the work of trying to ‑‑ I don’t want to use the word “deconstruct” ‑‑ the only one that comes to mind; I know people run with that. But when it comes to their theology and really sort of assess that and how they want to build it up again, but at the same time with that wrestling, knowing the legacy of Christianity, the legacy of their own churches.
So why should I still be Christian? What is it about this message of Jesus that I latch onto, that’s important to me? There is some secularization that happens at times, but I also think that people who come to church are doing so because they’re being very, very intentional, because this is the place they want to be, and they want to engage in a spiritual ‑‑ in a Christian way.
And then I’m also serving a college environment where a lot of the generation of students in college, the prevailing and pervasive theology, unbeknownst to majority of them, is a white Christian nationalist theology, where they are getting inundated with on the regular. Why? Because it’s popular. Why? Because it’s loud.
You know, you go to TikTok and that’s where they’re getting so much of their faith formation is on TikTok. But, boy, if TikTok ain’t got some toxic theology. Right? And these young folks who don’t really understand how to parse the nuances of their faith, they’re trying to tell me what it means to be Christian. And I’m like, Boo, you just decided to follow Jesus two days ago.
I’ve been doing this for 30-some years. You know what I mean? And so it’s an interesting bag. Right? And so you see how pervasive, how powerful the movement has been, because honestly ‑‑ it’s mind-boggling me. I feel like ‑‑ you know, I’m not talking about my particular students, but just the generation of those students and younger.
They seem like they are going to be more racist than their grandparents. And I think a lot of that is intentional, because whiteness knew it was going to lose its majority power by 2040 something, and so the only way that they can maintain power is to dismantle democracy. It’s the only way you can do it.
And then, you preach these things and talk about these things so regularly, and to give these students credit again ‑‑ and, here, you know, there is an inward wrestling because they got friends who are queer. You know, they see George Floyd being murdered on television, so that’s a challenge.
But at the same time, they go to churches that are telling them that a theology around justice ‑‑ let’s not talk about liberty, but let’s talk about justice ‑‑ that that is somehow “woke,” and that being woke is somehow antithetical to being Christian. So it’s an interesting, interesting bag.
DR. CRUMLEY: We’re about at the end of our time, so I just want to acknowledge and maybe give people a quick moment to respond, if we have time. In the contemporary United States, we know that many people do not identify as belonging to any particular religious sect.
Yet ‑‑ I mean, I think, Darrell, your comments just kind of leaned in that direction ‑‑ we do see an uptick in Christian nationalist rhetoric. And as you said, a lot of it is online discourse, so we know that it’s not just common among older generations, as we might assume. It’s also commonly heard among younger generations.
So in the brief time that we have remaining, I’m wondering: How do you all think that we can help people who do not identify as being Christian or as being religious at all to understand the impact of Christian nationalist discourse?
DR. GALLAGHER: Well, I’m just going to jump in here, because I think for Indigenous people, there’s a level of sacredness of the land, people, the earth, that Christianity came to this continent and many embraced it.
And when we move away from understanding sacredness and using the gifts we’ve been given, whoever we are and, you know, it just becomes a commodity, a commercial, you know, when it’s bought and sold, that’s when ‑‑ in my mind, that’s when we’re not doing any sort of religious life. We’re just on Amazon. We’re just purchasing to comfort some inward or external need.
And so helping people have that dialogue about the difference between really living into the sacred versus just getting a better complexion or whatever the commodity is, how important that is in helping people, no matter where they’re coming from, to understand that.
DR. HOBERMAN: I want to ‑‑ I did a little homework before I came tonight, and so I was reading up on Catherine’s many, many, many wonderful publications. And you had an anthology, American Christianities, and the free version on Amazon, I got ‑‑ I read the intro, and one of the most powerful observations I found in there ‑‑ yeah, you made ‑‑ was that non-Christians in America, one thing they have in common is awareness that Christianity in America is power.
And that’s ‑‑ I mean, so I really took that to heart, as I was trying to apply it to how I understand the place of Jews in America, but more broadly, if we could disentangle Christianity from power ‑‑ right? ‑‑ if Christianity or whatever religion we’re practicing, if it’s disentangled from power, if it’s disentangled from tribalism, then it can begin to mean something in people’s lives, along the lines of what Carol was saying.
Yeah. Easier said than done, but I think at least first we have to recognize that Christianity is perceived by your students as power. It’s a source of power, and if people learn to question that, that would be the first step.
REV. HAMILTON: Can you just repeat the question one last time?
DR. CRUMLEY: Yeah. So with this current trend, toward people not necessarily belonging to any particular religious group, how do we help people to understand the problem of Christian nationalism when they might not identify with Christianity?
REV. HAMILTON: Yeah. I think I’ve been sort of touching on it. It really just comes down to whiteness and white supremacy. And we have to get to a place where we are willing to ‑‑ we encourage people to be willing to do the self-examination of their own complicity in whiteness and white supremacy. And don’t get it wrong, because ‑‑ you know, I know plenty of Black people that are white supremacists, you know, so it’s not about phenotype of skin.
But I think if we can help people to understand the insidiousness that is whiteness and white supremacy, then what we can actually come to terms with is the divinity, the sacredness, the holiness, maybe, maybe even some power that is in the collective strength that is Blackness, Black power, Black liberation, for all of us to see ourselves as connected to each other in an interconnected web of mutuality and shared humanity ‑‑ right? ‑‑ where we spend so much of our time trying to un-race ourselves.
Maybe if we re-race ourselves and then see ourselves as human and then also kin and a part of the same human story, you know, we no longer need to wield power over anybody. You know, I was listening to somebody who said, you know, when you talk about someone being your brother, the only other ‑‑ the other part of brother is “other,” so you see that person as the other version of yourself.
You know, so I can call you brother. Then you’re the other me. Right? So I can love you as the other me. We don’t have to be the same, but we share the same blood. Right? And we share some similar stories. And we call the same place home. We got the same mother. I’m going to get real Baptist and say, We got the same father. Hallelujah.
But the point is that if we could get to a place of emphasizing and coming together under our shared humanity, I think ‑‑ that’s the key. Yeah.
DR. CRUMLEY: Great. Catherine, I’ll give you the last word.
DR. BREKUS: Well, as I’m sitting here, listening to all of you — thank you so much for all these comments. I’m thinking back to this John Winthrop speech which, you might have gathered, has just haunted me for years.
And part of the reason for that is that so much of it is beautiful, and yet what Puritanism became is so horrifying. And I’ve always thought, what if that vision that he had of a group of people who were bearing one another’s burdens as their own, who were laboring together and sorrowing together ‑‑
He said that in times ‑‑ in regular times, people had to give out of their abundance, but in these extraordinary times, people were going to have to give out of their necessities in order to support others.
And so what if that had been the vision and that vision had not excluded others? That is a kind of “chosenness” that I think all of us would admire. So ‑‑ and it’s the kind of “chosenness,” I think, that is in the Hebrew Bible, where there is suffering and sacrifice that’s involved.
AMANDA: We want to thank all of our panelists for that insightful and thoughtful conversation. You can listen to our previous episode to hear the lecture, and you can watch a video of both online. We’ll put a link in our show notes. I also want to thank Walter B. and Kay W. Shurden who created this lecture series almost two decades ago.
That brings us to the close of this episode of Respecting Religion. Thanks for joining us today. As the Supreme Court issues decisions this month, we’ll be watching, and we’ll bring you new episodes, looking at the rulings that impact faith freedom.
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