The many manifestations of white Christian nationalism
‘Symbols have the power to shape narratives’
When the Christians Against Christian Nationalism statement launched in 2019, one particular sentence sparked many new conversations: the line that says Christian nationalism “often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation.”
“That one line got more pushback than anything else in the Christians Against Christian Nationalism statement, and we heard self-righteous indignation from the detractors,” BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler said.
On July 14, BJC hosted a webinar to explore further how Christian nationalism undergirds racism, featuring a conversation about research and personal experiences with Dr. Jemar Tisby and Dr. Robert P. Jones, moderated by Tyler.
Tisby is a historian and the author of the New York Times bestseller The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism and his most recent book, How to Fight Racism. Jones is the CEO and Founder of PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) and the author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity and The End of White Christian America.
Scholars define Christian nationalism as a cultural framework that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life, including in the way history is interpreted, in the symbols considered “sacred,” and in public policies espoused by a nation. And, within that framework, the voices and experiences of white people are often elevated above the voices and experiences of all others.
When we talk about Christian nationalism, according to Jones, it really comes down to a form of white Christian nationalism, which involves “white Christians having a very deep-seated idea that America is really their own private promised land, meant for them and divinely so, set out by God.”
Tisby noted that this concept is centuries old, and often in these conversations the term “Christian” represents more of a political identity. He said people have to be trained to know what Christian nationalism looks like in practice and how it manifests itself in various ways, such as having an American flag in a pulpit, internet memes of a European-looking Jesus hovering over a White House, massive church celebrations of the Fourth of July, and an elevation of the Constitution to something that is co-equal to Scripture.
“Symbols have the power to shape narratives,” Tisby said.
He and Tyler noted that Mississippi changed its state flag last year, removing the flag design that included the Confederate battle flag. The new state flag includes the words “In God We Trust.”
Tisby shared that when he drove from Arkansas to Mississippi during his Ph.D. program, he passed the Mississippi flag several times.
“Every time, as a Black man whose commute is literally through cotton fields, you see this former state flag that flew for 126 years — this flag survived the Civil Rights Movement, a referendum in the early 2000s, the early Black Lives Matter movement,” he said, adding that the fact that the flag with the Confederate emblem didn’t come down until 2020 raises some questions.
“What does that communicate in the state that has the highest proportion of Black people than any other state?”
When they changed the flag, Tisby said the provision that required the words “In God We Trust” on the new flag can be interpreted as a sign of Christian nationalism — it’s an example of using power to shape a new narrative.
“What’s it saying to people who are not Christian or who don’t subscribe to any particular set of religious beliefs?” Tisby asked.
He said if people try to take those words off the flag, people will interpret it as messing with religious belief.
Jones added that the debate over the flag brings up the ways symbols impact us, noting that the Confederate symbol was added to Mississippi’s flag in 1894 as the South was wrestling with Reconstruction.
“You will see the allegiance and power of those symbols as soon as you try to take them down,” said Jones in rebuttal to those who say words or monuments are mostly symbolic without any additional meaning.
“Every church that has a white Jesus in its stained glass has got work to do,” Jones said. “This is an explicit racialization of God. It’s a statement of power, and it’s about white Christian power,” Jones continued.
Jones said we are often misunderstanding the threats in front of us because we tend to give Christianity a pass, but the symbols on January 6 during the insurrection were clear: people storming the Capitol carried Confederate flags and anti-Semitic symbols as well as Christian symbols, Bibles and flags.
“Those people are telling us who they are,” Jones said. “Far too often we say they are extremists or white supremacists, but the ‘Christian’ piece just kind of falls off the radar. If we’re really going to understand what animates this reaction, we’ve got to understand that piece.”
“There’s something unholy, unrighteous that happens when you combine this concept of whiteness and white supremacy with Christianity,” said Tisby. “In the Bible it says any addition to the Gospels negates the Gospels — it’s no longer the Gospel. When you add this gospel of nationalism to Christianity — to the Gospel of Jesus Christ — it’s no longer recognizable as the faith of the founder of Christianity.”
Tisby said that one of the most pernicious aspects of Christian nationalism is the fact that it’s all some white Christians know.
“It’s so familiar that when you call it ‘Christian nationalism,’ they think ‘Well, that’s just Christianity,’” Tisby said. “And when you try to disentangle the nationalist and racist portions from Christianity, they think you’re unraveling their faith itself,” he continued.
In order to combat white Christian nationalism, Jones and Tisby recommended sharing personal testimonies and starting the conversation focused on what you are learning about the differences between Christianity and Christian nationalism.
“If you try to start with the facts, the figures, the statistics, even the history — a lot of times there’s a wall and you can’t have a good conversation,” Tisby said, noting that moving into the history can be helpful.
“If we want to refute the idea that the Civil War was just about this sort of abstract idea of states’ rights when it was really about preserving race-based chattel slavery, you don’t have to take my word for it,” Tisby said. “Go to the Mississippi Articles of Secession which say our cause ‘is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.’”
Tisby said that the forces of Christian nationalism are adept at dictating the terms of the debate, and they will use terms like “Critical Race Theory” to appeal to a more visceral reaction, pushback against the idea of systemic racism, and often de-rail a conversation.
Tisby pointed out that when someone says Critical Race Theory is a problem, others respond by defining Critical Race Theory to say why it’s not the main issue, which can lead to getting bogged down in that instead of discussing the issues of Christian nationalism.
Tisby said we need to be savvier. When people mention it to him, he starts with his experience working in middle schools to explain that Critical Race Theory is not being taught to schoolchildren.
Tisby then brings the conversation back to the topic of Christian nationalism and its dangers, sharing findings from the Department of Homeland Security that the biggest domestic terror threat was from white supremacist extremists.
“So, let’s talk about that,” he said.
Jones agreed and added that the current discourse on Critical Race Theory is not about the academic concept — which is decades old — but it’s instead a coordinated propaganda campaign that is reacting to our country’s current moment of racial reckoning.
“It’s a protectionist move to pre-empt an honest reading of history — not only of the country, but our churches,” Jones said, adding that we have a current crisis of white Christians who are not willing to tell the truth about themselves and the country.
“If we care about our churches and if we care about our country, we can’t be too cowardly and too self-interested to really look at our history honestly — that’s the only way to help,” he said. “We can never build a healthy future based on lies or ignorance.”
Tisby said it’s important to combat misinformation and untruths. “You can’t actually repent and believe the Gospel unless you’ve told the truth about who you are and why you need a savior,” Tisby said.
“In a similar way, unless we tell the truth about this nation when it comes to race and Christianity, there’s not going to be any repentance, there’s not going to be any repair, and there’s not going to be any reconciliation.”
Tisby also implored viewers to learn from the Black Church, which exists because of the sin and heresy of white supremacy. Black people were denied equality by white churches, so they created their own.
“The very historical development and theological development of the Black Church tradition — which is many and varied — has immense resources already for fighting racism, white supremacy and Christian nationalism,” Tisby said.
Tyler noted that Christian nationalism prevents making space for others. “Christian nationalism, by its definition, has Christians taking up all the space in the American story,” she said.
Jones says that growing up in Mississippi, he used to see the state’s motto on license plates: The hospitality state. He said we can combat nationalism with the virtue of hospitality.
“Hospitality is about making space for everyone, and if white Christians could do that, I think that’s a real antidote for the nationalist impulse.”