Returning briefly to Adam Serwer’s essay on “The Nationalist’s Delusion,” it’s interesting that religion plays almost no visible role in his argument. This is not because religion is irrelevant to his subject, but because religion is relevant primarily due to its irrelevance.
There’s a great deal that could be said about the role of religion in this collective national spasm of resentful hate — particularly about the role of white churches and white Christianity — but I’m not sure it would have added anything substantial to Serwer’s essay. White Christians in America have not distinguished themselves from the larger society in any meaningful way that would make them worth discussing as in any way distinct from the same dynamics driving everyone else. “A majority of white voters backed a candidate who assured them that they will never have to share this country with people of color as equals,” and nothing about white Christianity as currently practiced in America makes white Christians any less susceptible to this explicitly racist con job than any other set of white citizens.
If anything, white Christianity — particularly white evangelicalism — only seems to make white voters more resentful, more stupidly gullible, more eager to punch down, more enthusiastic about accepting Trump’s vision of a world in which our neighbors are our enemies.
When I speak of “American white Christianity,” I’m not listing demographic attributes, but theological qualities. I do not mean adherents of Christianity who also happen to be American and white. I mean practitioners of a religion characterized by whiteness and American-ness. It is a white theology based on the white Jesus reflected back from a white Bible. There is nothing in such a faith to make any of its adherents less susceptible to the “haze of delusion, denial, pride, and cruelty” Serwer describes as white nationalism.
White Christians prefer to call it “Christian nationalism,” but it’s the same product with a different label. In America, there has never been any form of “Christian nationalism” that was not also white nationalism. Steve Bannon and David Barton have always been in the exact same business.
Thinking about what Serwer’s essay means for the church in America, I’m reminded of one of this country’s greatest theologians, Frederick Douglass. Douglass saw and named the same disease infecting this nation, and he saw too that it had infected the church — and that the church had become a carrier, spreading this disease wherever it went. In his great sermon marking the Fourth of July, Douglass directs the vitriol of the prophet Isaiah at those in the church who were actively defending American slavery, and then turns to what he calls “the most awful responsibility” the American church had brought on itself:
The American church is guilty, when viewed in connection with what it is doing to uphold slavery; but it is superlatively guilty when viewed in connection with its ability to abolish slavery. The sin of which it is guilty is one of omission as well as of commission. Albert Barnes but uttered what the common sense of every man at all observant of the actual state of the case will receive as truth, when he declared that “There is no power out of the church that could sustain slavery an hour, if it were not sustained in it.”
Let the religious press, the pulpit, the Sunday school, the conference meeting, the great ecclesiastical, missionary, Bible and tract associations of the land array their immense powers against slavery and slave-holding; and the whole system of crime and blood would be scattered to the winds; and that they do not do this involves them in the most awful responsibility of which the mind can conceive.
In prosecuting the anti-slavery enterprise, we have been asked to spare the church, to spare the ministry; but how, we ask, could such a thing be done? We are met on the threshold of our efforts for the redemption of the slave, by the church and ministry of the country, in battle arrayed against us; and we are compelled to fight or flee. From what quarter, I beg to know, has proceeded a fire so deadly upon our ranks, during the last two years, as from the Northern pulpit? As the champions of oppressors, the chosen men of American theology have appeared — men, honored for their so-called piety, and their real learning. … Great religious lights of the land have, in utter denial of the authority of Him by whom they professed to be called to the ministry, deliberately taught us, against the example or the Hebrews and against the remonstrance of the Apostles, they teach that we ought to obey man’s law before the law of God.
My spirit wearies of such blasphemy; and how such men can be supported, as the “standing types and representatives of Jesus Christ,” is a mystery which I leave others to penetrate.
“Blasphemy” is not hyperbole there. It is a term of acute theological precision. It is the correct and apt and necessary term. It is the word we need to be using now, today, to describe the blasphemous champions of oppressors with their so-called piety who have rallied in support of Donald Trump and Steve Bannon and Roy Moore and all the tiki-wielding Nazis of Charlottesville. James Dobson is a blasphemer. So is Franklin Graham, and Jerry Falwell Jr., and Robert Jeffress. Jeffress’ “church” in Dallas is unworthy of the name. It is a temple of white nationalism — a palace of sin and hate. It is unholy ground.
But, as Douglass says, the guilt of such men may be obvious, undeniable and vast, yet there is a greater guilt beyond them — a “superlative” guilt and a more awful responsibility. As the Rev. Barnes said, “There is no power out of the church that could sustain white nationalism an hour if it were not sustained in it.”
Many white churches support white nationalism and Trumpism. Other white churches allow the option of not supporting it. But it is only that — an option, one that is permitted and tolerated, but never demanded. This, too, is blasphemy.