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Faith Leaders Speak Out Against Christian Nationalism

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

After the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, a coalition of more than 100 pastors and other faith leaders wrote an open letter condemning the role that radical Christian nationalism played in feeding the political extremism that led to the violent insurrection. Part of that letter reads, quote, "We recognize that evangelicalism and white evangelicalism in particular has been susceptible to the heresy of Christian nationalism because of a long history of faith leaders accommodating white supremacy. We choose to speak out now because we do not want to be quiet accomplices in this ongoing sin," unquote.

This week, Vote Common Good, a nonprofit aimed at influencing religiously motivated voters, is partnering with Christians Against Christian Nationalism, a large group of faith leaders, to launch a new curriculum aimed at confronting Christian nationalism in churches across the country. Here to tell us more about it are Amanda Tyler, the executive director at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, and Pastor Michael Mills with the Agape Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. Welcome to you both.

AMANDA TYLER: Thanks for having me, Sarah.

MICHAEL MILLS: Yeah, it's good to be here.

MCCAMMON: Amanda, I want to start with you. For people who don't know, can you just define what Christian nationalism is exactly? And tell us more about the recent rise we've seen in this country.

TYLER: Sure. So it basically says that to be a "true American," in quotes, that one must be a Christian, or to be a real Christian, one has to be an American. And this ideology has been with us for a long time. But we've really noticed - we at Baptist Joint Committee and other groups that we work with noticed a rise in Christian nationalism and saw it as an urgent threat not just to our democracy and our unity as Americans, but also to our faithful walk as Christians.

MCCAMMON: And Pastor Mills, why are you concerned about Christian nationalism?

MILLS: Well, it's certainly something that we see everywhere we look. Living in Texas, you know, the blatant expressions of Christian nationalism - they're not hard to find. I mean, just this week, I saw a video promotion for a Christian church, and the ratio of American flags to Christian crosses was like zero to none. If there was a cross in there anywhere, it would have been draped with the American flag. So while I see the very real threat of Christian nationalism in very blatant ways, I'm thankful to say that my congregation, for the most part, has kind of held this dangerous ideology at arm's length. But it is simply everywhere that we look.

MCCAMMON: I'm sure you're aware of the same exit polling, national survey data that we've all seen. Clearly, this is more of an issue among white evangelicals. If you look at both the theology and expression of, you know, the Black church, for example, Christians of color - of course, everyone's different. But this issue with essentially white Christian nationalism is primarily an issue for white evangelicals. I mean, first of all, would you agree? And if you do, why do you think that is?

MILLS: Yes, I would agree, unfortunately. And I think that largely is able to be the case because of the privileged place that white Christian Americans have held for such a long time and that we've been able to have our way, unfortunately. And while that can be used for good in a lot of ways, it hasn't. And I think that's something that we have to recognize and name what it is and mourn that and then try to be better.

MCCAMMON: Amanda, I wonder if you - as you've put this curriculum together and put the word out, are you getting pushback from faith leaders at all?

TYLER: Well, the Christians Against Christian Nationalism initiative has had some pushback, as one might expect - defensive pushback about using the term Christian nationalism. But much more than the pushback, we've heard expressions of gratitude for putting language to this, to giving resources. And the Christians Against Christian Nationalism initiative has gained, you know, support from across the theological spectrum. And I'm glad that you brought up the term white Christian nationalism. One of the lessons in this curriculum targets specifically Christian nationalism, racism and white supremacy, because we have to address the topic of racism, which is so latent in this ideology of Christian nationalism.

MCCAMMON: I wonder if either of you can talk about the importance of launching this curriculum around Independence Day. Is there a significance to that?

TYLER: Well, there is because I think it's around Independence Day that we often see a lot of public examples of Christian nationalism. Our timing to launch the program this summer is also in terms when we think about - as we are reemerging in this next stage of the pandemic and a lot of groups and churches are starting to get together again for the first time, we wanted to have a resource available for these groups that were looking for a study guide and the next curriculum to use with their people. So that's why we were bringing it out right now. And we hope that this curriculum will help answer questions that people have.

MCCAMMON: Before we let each of you go, in this polarized time, do you worry, Pastor Mills, that you'll lose church members from talking about this? And Amanda, do you worry that, you know, churches will split apart over this issue?

MILLS: Yes, I sure do. And that's just me, you know, being vulnerable and expressing a bit of my humanity. You know, these are difficult conversations. And stepping into conflict, especially with what feels like a land mine or a mine field - that's hard work. And, you know, that has meant that we've had some people kind of pull away from the life of our congregation. And, you know, that's never what I would want for them. But, you know, I want to be able to send them in love, knowing that I've had the conversations that we needed to have and knowing that at this time, they just needed to step away. And so that's an unfortunate part of this and something that I would never want. But sometimes that is just our reality, unfortunately.

TYLER: And I'd say for as many of the people who are going to leave or not want to be associated over these topics, there are so many other Christians who are ready to have this conversation, who understand the threat to our country, to understand the threat to our faith, and they're ready to choose Christianity over Christian nationalism. And we hope that this new resource will help them have those tough conversations in their churches.

MCCAMMON: That's Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, and Pastor Michael Mills of the Agape Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. Thank you both.

TYLER: Thank you.

MILLS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.