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Being more concerned about Christianity’s “witness” than victims of Christian nationalism is Christian privilege
Christian singer Michael W. Smith waves an American flag while singing patriotic songs during a religious event led by ultra-conservative pastor Billy Graham on 8 May, 2003 in San Diego, California
David McNew / Getty Image
A word of advice for the American Christians opposed to Christian nationalism: if you want to be able to work effectively with secular progressives who support the freedom of and from religion, try not making concerns about the “witness” of “the church” the cornerstone of your public statements on the matter.
For those who don’t speak evangelical Protestant, which is unfortunately the native idiom of my childhood, when “witness” is used as a noun like this, it more or less translates to “reputation” or “attractiveness”. You see, we evangelical kids were always taught if we lived as “good Christians” should – maintaining, in other words, a powerful “witness” – outsiders who observed us would want the peace and purpose we supposedly had, thus leading to conversion opportunities. Of course, we were also supposed to make active attempts to convert others, frequently referred to as “witnessing” (or “sharing the gospel”).
While the phrasing is common, it’s specifically been on my mind since 18 August, when Andrew Whitehead – an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis and one of America’s most prominent commentators on Christian nationalism – invoked it in an opinion piece for Religion News Service titled Why Christian Nationalism makes American Christians less Christlike.
“Growing up in a primarily white, conservative Christian community, I repeatedly heard warnings concerning what was going to destroy our Christian faith and the United States with it – feminism, divorce, homosexuality, Secularism or non-Christian faiths,” Whitehead begins.
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I grew up in a similar community receiving the same messaging, but while Whitehead remains invested in the Christian faith, I’ve become an atheist. This was probably shaped in substantial part by my queerness, which makes me a target of the right-wing Christian moral panic that defined my childhood and to a large extent defines the American present.
Whitehead also asks rhetorically: “What if the greatest danger to the witness of Christianity in the US wasn’t any of these outside threats? What if the danger was closer to home and looked so familiar that it was able to evade detection?”
He concludes that Christian nationalism is “the greatest threat to Christianity in the US”.
Because of my life experiences, when someone speaks or writes about Christianity’s “witness,” even from a more or less liberal or progressive Christian point of view, I cringe, and I’m quite sure I’m not the only one.
Whitehead is far from alone among Christians who oppose the Christian Right in using this phrase even when addressing an audience that will include many non-Christians. That’s why I believe it’s worth addressing in discussions of Christian privilege, functional pluralism, and building political coalitions based on shared values rather than shared metaphysical beliefs.
Someone who argues the right wing’s culture wars are “harming Christianity’s witness” is not exactly wrong. American youth are abandoning Christianity in droves because many find the faith to be hostile to women’s, racial, and LGBTIQ equality and inclusion.
Of course, everyone is aware there are authentically liberationist Christians who care about social justice, including the civil rights and freedom of conscience of nonbelievers and members of minority religions, as well as abortion access, racial and ethnic equality, and LGBTIQ rights.
But you will not win people over with arguments that the reputation of Christianity, a religion many of us have experienced as oppressive, is at risk. Indeed, making such arguments for the general public and expecting the marginalised people you claim to care about to respond enthusiastically is the height of Christian privilege.
Whitehead’s piece also contains other examples of highly Christocentric language that progressive Christians who are ready to confront their privilege ought to avoid. Like his contention that Christian nationalism makes America “less Christlike”. Leaving aside the fact there is no reason for members of minority religions and nonbelievers to care about the “Christlikeness” of a country, I should point out there is no singular, universally accepted understanding of the meaning of “Christlike” among Christians.
Whitehead would have us believe Jesus simply taught “love,” not the “power, control, domination, fear, and violence” that define the Christian right and much of Christian history.
He should be aware that the rhetoric of “love” is often weaponised by authoritarian Christians precisely to manipulate and control. Combined with a belief in hell as eternal conscious torment, authoritarian Christians can easily conclude the ends justify the means when it comes to “saving souls,” and the result is that coercion, manipulation, and even violence can be rationalised as “loving” behaviour.
In addition, Whitehead calls Christian nationalism a kind of “idolatry.” This is not just inherently intra-Christian framing, but also inherently colonialist framing. Just look at how the rhetoric of “idolatry” is still used by evangelical missionaries today. And when you combine this invocation of “idols” with an inherently conversionist concern about the church’s “witness,” which Whitehead mentions well before he mentions the marginalised and the problems of xenophobia and racism, it becomes quite clear that Whitehead’s approach to fighting Christian nationalism does not look beyond the religion itself. It also does not go unnoticed that queer and especially trans people – a primary target of the Christian right’s current moral panic – are not even mentioned among the groups Whitehead claims Christians should be supporting.
To be fair, I do not doubt Whitehead’s good intentions in his opposition to Christian nationalism. And I am not singling him out from a place of personal animus, but because his work is currently generating a great deal of buzz and because it contains many of the problematic tropes Americans need to be aware of as reinforcing Christian privilege – the very Christian privilege that allows Christian nationalists to thrive.
If we are to realise democratic ideals, the norms of a functional pluralism in which members of all religions and none are accommodated equally cannot be dictated top-down by members of the dominant religion. It is my hope that pointing out Christian supremacist rhetoric and framing might help to spark public conversations about how to be more inclusive in the important work of opposing the dangerous Christian nationalist movement that has a frightening amount of power in the US today.
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Written by: Christianity Today

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