In late July the Washington Post ran a story about South Dakota's new law requiring the posting of ‘In God We Trust’ on public school walls, but it somehow managed not to say a word about Project Blitz, the organization behind such laws, or about the larger Christian nationalist/dominionist agenda that it's part of, which Salon has covered repeatedly (here, here, here, here, here) since researcher Frederick Clarkson discovered their playbook last year.
For more than a year, the leading organizational voices raised in opposition have primarily been secular ones concerned with the political threat to America’s pluralistic democracy and specific groups whose rights are being threatened, united in the recently-formed BlitzWatch Coalition, which includes Political Research Associates, where Clarkson is a senior research analyst.
But that changed dramatically on July 29, with a statement of principles announcing the launch of Christians Against Christian Nationalism, spearheaded by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, under the leadership of Executive Director Amanda Tyler. It was originally conceived as an interfaith initiative, “But we quickly learned that our partners from other faith traditions did not feel as comfortable calling out Christian nationalism as we and other Christian partners did,” Tyler told Salon via email. “Their response initially surprised me, but I quickly saw the power in and the need for us, as Christians, to clean up our house first.”
The statement called Christian nationalism, “a persistent threat to both our religious communities and our democracy,” warning that “Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy;” that “It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation;” and asserting that “As Christians, we are bound to Christ, not by citizenship, but by faith.”
The statement doesn’t specifically mention Project Blitz, but Tyler cited such legislation as well as terrorist violence as troubling manifestations of their underlying concern with the divisive nature of Christian nationalism in the first of a series of 10 weekly podcasts BJC has launched in support of the initiative.
“We’ve seen violent and deadly attacks on houses of worship, perpetrated by extremists who espouse Christian nationalist views,” Tyler said, as well as “the state of bills sweeping the state legislatures around the country.” She went on to say, “This initiative is not in response to any one of these instances. But rather a way to counter what we view and proceed as a growing threat…. Christian nationalism tends to create an in-group of Christians, and an out-group of everyone else. In this phenomenon is completely at odds with our constitutional principles of religious freedom for all people, ensured by government that remains neutral when it comes to religion.”
In that podcast, endorsers from different denominations shared both scriptural and historical reasons for joining the initiative—past experiences of religious persecution, and biblical teachings, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan told by Jesus in response to the question of "Who is my neighbor?" or the Pentecost, when the disciples were able to speak to each other in the languages their different communities, without being forced back into one language, as well as when Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, breaking all manner of divisive social customs.
Also cited was the lesson of the intra-Christian genocide recounted by Emmanuel Katongole in “Mirror to the Church: Resurrecting Faith After Genocide in Rwanda,” when “the blood of tribalism ran deeper than water of baptism.” It was very much not about today’s politics, but about the principles involved.
A Grassroots Movement
The statement was released along with brief additional statements from 19 prominent endorsers, six of them Baptists, but—true to its Baptist origins—it’s not conceived as a top-down organization. “This is a grassroots movement, spreading through word of mouth and social media,” Tyler told Salon. “We had signers from all 50 states and more than three dozen denominations in the first eight hours of the campaign,” she said, with a total of more than 10,000 additional signatories in just over a week. “Anyone who self-identifies as Christian is invited and welcome to join us,” she said. “Our goal is not just to gather signatures, but to start conversations about what Christian nationalism is and how it shows up in our society today.”
To help further that conversation, BJC launched the above-mentioned podcast series, and EthicsDaily.com, a partner in the project, has published a series of opinion pieces from signatories.
The Baptist endorsers include Paul Baxley, executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. “To suggest that the church needs the protection of the state in order to flourish and thrive is idolatrous,” said Baxley in his statement. “The Church of Jesus Christ exists by the power that parted the Red Sea and raised Jesus from the dead, and that power and authority is still at work within us and among us even as empires rise and fall.”
“This is a first for the Baptist world and the wider community of Christian leaders who support separation of church and state,” Clarkson said. “Baptists have historically insisted that the coercive power of the state is a threat to the 'free will' required of individuals to find their own relationship with God. The dominance of government by any religious faction or institution, even their own, would be anathema for the same reason.”
Other endorsers included Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK Lobby For Catholic Social Justice. “Christian nationalism comes from a place of insecurity and fear. Jesus said we should 'fear not!'" Sister Campbell said. “Christian nationalism rejects Christ’s teachings and manipulates our faith to deny the inherent dignity of every person.”
“While the BJC has long been critical of Christian nationalism, this effort to inform and rally their communities towards greater clarity on both the religious and wider social and political significance of Christian nationalism, is a thoughtful—and I think remarkably forceful—defense of the faith in response to a rising ethos and ideology in the Christian Right,” said Clarkson.
“The early response — both positive and negative — to the statement has been instructive. It says to me that we’ve really hit a nerve in our society.” Tyler said. On the negative side, they were quickly attacked in almost entirely secular terms by rightwing Christian nationalists (here and here), in ways that echoed Tucker Carlson’s related claim that white supremacy was “a hoax.”
A Matter of Principles
“What I’ve noticed from our critics is that they don’t take on the text of the statement, perhaps because it is hard to quibble with the unifying principles we’ve laid out,” Tyler said. These principles include:
- People of all faiths and none have the right and responsibility to engage constructively in the public square.
- Patriotism does not require us to minimize our religious convictions.
- Government should not prefer one religion over another or religion over nonreligion.
- Religious instruction is best left to our houses of worship, other religious institutions and families.
- America’s historic commitment to religious pluralism enables faith communities to live in civic harmony with one another without sacrificing our theological convictions.
- Conflating religious authority with political authority is idolatrous and often leads to oppression of minority and other marginalized groups as well as the spiritual impoverishment of religion.
Rather than say anything about these principles, Tyler said critics “have tried to layer on culture-war debates — disputes that are not at all invoked in the statement — as well as claiming that we are attacking them or their positions by calling out Christian nationalism.” But, she said, “You’ll note that nowhere in the statement do we call names or label people as ‘Christian nationalists.’ Rather, we are denouncing a political ideology as harmful to our faith and to our country. Many of the negative responses I’ve seen are laden with Christian nationalist language and history, further proving the need for this kind of response right now.”
On his blog, evangelical historian John Fea, who signed the statement, pushed back against critics who claimed there was no such thing as Christian nationalism, a subject he’s written a whole book on. “Christian nationalism not only exists, but it is a view of church and state that drives a significant part of the Donald Trump presidency,” Fea wrote. “As I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, some of the fastest-growing evangelical groups in the United States embrace Christian nationalism.”
“While a common current media trope is that Trump is using evangelicals, this puts it exactly backwards. They’re using him to get what they want, and it’s working,” exvangelical writer Chrissy Stroop told Salon. “As I recently argued in Religion Dispatches, Christian nationalists’ disproportionate power is also the reason the American government is incapable of meaningfully curtailing rampant gun violence. Christian nationalist ideology is incompatible with democracy. If we cannot defeat Christian nationalism politically, we will only move further down the road of fascism.”
That’s not implausible. “Many of these extreme Christian nationalists may also be described as ‘dominionists’ because they want to take ‘dominion’ over government, culture, economic life, religion, the family, education, and the family,” Fea wrote. That’s precisely the goal that Project Blitz ultimately orients around.
Baptists’ Historic Role
It’s particularly fitting that Baptists are leading the way here, given the central (though rarely recognized) role they played in establishing religious freedom in America, as pointed out by Clarkson, citing John Ragosta’s book, “Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed.”
“While the period from 1768 to 1774 saw a dramatic escalation in raw persecution of Virginia’s Baptist and Presbyterian dissenters, facing a war with the most powerful empire in the world, Virginia’s leaders recognized early that the support of the entire population was necessary,” Ragosta wrote.
“It was in this context of a mobilization crisis that the dissenters’ previous pleas for improved toleration were forever abandoned to be replaced by increasingly forceful insistence that religious freedom was needed,” he wrote. “In the fall of 1776, dissenters flooded the new legislature with petitions demanding complete religious freedom. A petition sponsored by the Baptists garnered ’10,000 names’ — probably accounting for over 10 percent of the adult, white, male population.”
This was the political context in which Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which in turn served as the template for the First Amendment. Baptists were not passive recipients of the gift of religious freedom — they were the primary driving force, fighting against Virginia’s state religion, that made it available for all.
But decades ago, Southern Baptists underwent a dramatic change, as described in the new book “The Long Southern Strategy.”
“The ‘Christians against Christian Nationalists’ movement has been brewing for four decades,” co-author Angie Maxwell told Salon, in response to an internal coup. “Beginning in 1979, fundamentalists took over the Southern Baptist Convention and throughout the 1980s purged moderates and reintroduced such reactionary policies as the doctrine of wifely submission,” Maxwell said. “SBC leadership also defunded the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, its lobbying arm in Washington, because it continued to focus solely on the protection of free exercise of one’s religious faith and on the separation of church and state.” Instead, SBC became a primary driver of Christian nationalism, and as a result, “In 2016, close to 75 percent of white Christian fundamentalists report that it is important to be a Christian to be an American.”
So, Maxwell said, “Simply put, on one side of this fight are those championing what is the original essence of the Baptist faith—individual religious liberty—who are, in many ways, the spiritual descendants of those Baptists moderates exiled from the SBC so many years ago. On the other side are evangelical, fundamentalist, highly politicized Baptists who advocate for the establishment of a national religion—their religion."
The fundamentalist side clearly sees it as a fight, and doesn’t even consider the other side as Christian. But BJC and its partners see things differently—more in terms of a conversation than a fight. “We hope that this statement and accompanying resources, like the FAQ and the BJC Podcast series on Christian nationalism, equip people to lead conversations about how Christian nationalism is impacting their communities,” Tyler said.
It also involves a more caring, rather than legalistic mindset.
“With regard to the ‘In God We Trust’ laws and other bills coming out of the Project Blitz playbook, I hope that the lesson will be that even if a measure might pass constitutional muster on its face, it doesn’t mean that it’s harmless,” she said. “Anything that sends the message that someone must be a Christian – or any other faith tradition or religious in general – to be a true American is both harmful and against our constitutional values.”
Christian nationalists aren’t about to stop name-calling, finger-pointing and pushing their dominionist agenda. But they’re clearly alarmed that they’re now being challenged in an organized way, even just an organized conversation. They’d much rather dictate than converse—a mindset critics might see as neither Christian nor American, after all.