White Christian nationalism is not Christianity, presiding bishop says during panel discussion

By Egan Millard
Posted Oct 27, 2022

[Episcopal News Service] Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, in an Oct. 26 seminar at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., reiterated The Episcopal Church’s position that white Christian nationalism is a gross perversion of Christianity, and that Christians must refute such ideologies.

The seminar, titled “How White Christian Nationalism threatens our democracy,” took place at the university’s Center on Faith and Justice and was hosted by the Rev. Jim Wallis, the center’s founding director and founder of Sojourners. Co-sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, Washington National Cathedral and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the discussion brought together Wallis, Curry, BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler and University of Oklahoma sociology professor Samuel Perry.

“I would say that white Christian nationalism is the single greatest threat to democracy in America,” Wallis warned in his introduction. “It’s also the greatest threat to the integrity of the Christian witness.”

Perry, author of “The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy,” helped define the term that has rocketed to prominence since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Though it spans a variety of political and cultural phenomena, Perry said, white Christian nationalism is at its core a reactionary movement fueled by anger about shifting power dynamics.

“It is an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a very particular kind of Christianity,” Perry said. “That is a Christianity that isn’t characterized by, say, giving my life to Jesus or wanting to be a good disciple, but it is about white Christian ethno-culture, a traditionalist Christian subculture that characterizes ‘people like us,’ that we have been in charge and that we are the rightful rulers and our culture should hold sway and it should be institutionalized in American political life.”

Curry agreed with that characterization and argued that the basis of white Christian nationalism is not about differing opinions or interpretations of Christian teaching, but a uniquely dangerous movement. It should not be equated with the broad spectrum of evangelical Christianity, for example.

“It’s not conservative Christianity. Obviously, it’s not liberal Christianity either,” Curry said. “What we’re actually describing is an ideology that’s not really a religion, but it looks like a religion and invokes language and symbols that have religious traffic. … If you look at the complex of white Christian nationalism, as an ideology, you lay it alongside Jesus of Nazareth and we’re not even talking about the same thing.”

Curry echoed Wallis’ assessment of the present movement as a revival of Christian-associated white supremacy that has surfaced throughout American history, citing the significance of Christian voices in defending slavery in the 19th century.

When Wallis asked Curry how white Christian nationalism has affected him personally and what he fears most, Curry recalled being warned by his grandmother about “the hooded men” of the Ku Klux Klan, which claimed to be a Christian movement.

Wallis, Perry and Tyler provided the context for the current wave of white Christian nationalism, which is now being openly espoused by some Republican elected officials and candidates, such as Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano. In a Politico national poll in May, 61% of Republicans supported declaring the U.S. a Christian nation, and more Republican candidates are supporting such ideas in their campaigns for the Nov. 8 midterm elections.

In the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, during which right-wing rioters invoked Christian language and imagery, The Episcopal Church committed to the work of “deradicalization”; at its meeting later that month, Executive Council voted to ask the church’s Office of Government Relations and Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations “to develop a plan for The Episcopal Church’s holistic response to Christian nationalism and violent white supremacy.” The Episcopal Public Policy Network released an educational series on how churches can join in the deradicalization effort this past summer.

Perry said that in addition to being the biggest threat to American democracy, white Christian nationalism is the biggest threat to religious liberty because its proponents have weaponized the Christian identity.

“I think it’s a huge threat to a faithful Christian life and to a flourishing Christianity in this country. And I think it’s the single biggest threat to religious freedom for all that we face in America today,” Perry said, “because Christian nationalism as a political ideology and a cultural framework creates second-class citizens for everyone who’s not Christian in their view.”

Curry urged Christians to speak out against these ideas, saying that “silence is complicity and silence creates a context in which something like that can grow.” One of the most powerful tools Christians have, he said, is the Bible itself.

“Lift up the text of the New Testament, specifically the four Gospels … and let Jesus talk. Anything that claims to be Christian, if it doesn’t match up, then we say, ‘Well, that’s not Christianity.’”

EPPN has released an election engagement tool kit for Episcopalians to prepare for the upcoming elections, and will host online evening prayers as polls start closing on the East Coast on Nov. 8.

– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at emillard@episcopalchurch.org.