Reading sociologist Andrew L. Whitehead’s new book, American Idolatry, I had the distinct feeling of being back at my childhood church.
Whitehead and I met during our freshman year of high school in the youth group of a large rural evangelical church in northern Indiana. This is the church where we learned to love and follow Jesus. Where we learned to read the Bible. Where we found Christian community and made lifelong friendships, including with each other.
And it is where we were unwittingly formed into ambassadors of (white) Christian nationalism.
The fusion of our faith with conservative Christian politics went virtually unquestioned. To be a Christian seemed to naturally entail advocating for conservative Christian values to guide American society. We would play together in the youth group praise band on Wednesday nights and show up for See You at the Pole at our public schools on a Wednesday morning in September to pray for our nation to promote our values.
But as conservative evangelical Christianity rose to political ascendancy during the George W. Bush administration — and as we gained some distance from our childhood church while off in college and graduate school — we began to see the fruits of this fusion of conservative Christianity with American politics.
What we saw was as bad for the church as for American society.
Those who taught us “God so loved the world” were some of the most vocal proponents of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and of the harsh immigration policies. Those who taught us to follow the Golden Rule became outspoken advocates for displaying the Ten Commandments in public spaces and denying religious minorities the same religious freedoms they enjoyed. Those who taught us the Great Commission made it their mission to fight the “gay agenda” and the “godless liberals” in Hollywood.
This disparity between the loving evangelical faith we were taught and the power-hungry, fear-based, violence-endorsing Christian politics we were experiencing led us to look elsewhere to make sense of our faith. By encountering books like Greg Boyd’s Myth of a Christian Nation and John D. Roth’s Choosing Against War, we found a way to begin disentangling our faith from Christian nationalism.
Our paths crossed again in 2011 in Waco, Texas, where Whitehead was finishing his doctorate in sociology of religion at Baylor and I was beginning mine in theology and ethics. Little did we know that our training was preparing us for resistance to the rise of Christian nationalism that would come to fruition in the presidency of Donald Trump six years later.
For me, resistance took the form of returning to Indiana to take a pastorate at a small Anabaptist church in a low-income neighborhood, beginning my tenure just 19 days before Trump’s inauguration. For Whitehead, resistance took the form of his groundbreaking 2020 book with fellow sociologist Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God.