Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #203. First published in the St. Cloud Times in print, June 2; online, June 4, 2024

You can hardly listen to a newscast or look at Facebook without encountering a version of this question: How to keep Christian discipleship and American patriotism together?

Defining “Christian” has always been contentious – beginning in the New Testament itself – and every answer has implications for social, cultural, and political identity. Defining “American” is also subject to dispute – and has been from the beginning. But to those of us for whom these two dimensions of our identity are fundamental, the question of discipleship and patriotism is posed today with uncommon – even unprecedented – intensity.

One answer, trumpeted loudly these days, is white Christian nationalism, which combines trappings of Christianity and patriotism into a tool for achieving political power and exclusionary and elitist goals. True Americans, in this vision of a “Christian nation,” are descendants of white European immigrants and are Christian of a particularly strident evangelical sort. The image is the “very fine people” who marched in Charlottesville in 2017, the brandishers of Bibles and Jesus flags among those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, has called it like it is. “It’s not conservative Christianity. Obviously, it’s not liberal Christianity either. 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.”

Jesus of Nazareth, yes – who sided with the marginalized, whose parable of the Good Samaritan upended religious exclusiveness, who took cues from earlier texts – especially the prophets – which say much about hospitality, about mercy, about compassion, about welcoming the stranger in your midst. Posters of Jesus holding an AK-47 assault rifle don’t really mesh with the Bible.

Craig Loya, Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Minnesota, poses a challenge: “A dangerous and idolatrous Christian nationalism surges today, and we have an obligation to speak out and resist any and all ways that the name of Jesus or Christian is invoked by those who violently insist on a narrow understanding of our national identity.”

St. John’s Episcopal Church in St. Cloud has responded to that obligation.

“Christian and American: How we keep discipleship and patriotism together,” recently adopted by the church’s vestry (its parish council), makes clear that the congregation’s faith is an alternative to white Christian nationalism (disclosure: I am a member of the Social Justice Committee that drafted the text).

The statement enumerates convergences of discipleship and patriotism.

  • Since everyone is made in God’s image and immigration is the lifeblood of American society and economy, the accusation that immigrants “pollute our blood” goes against both Christian conviction about who people are and American experience.
  • God still speaks, including through science – which “has demonstrated that identity and gender are more fluid than people two millennia ago understood.” The parish strongly supports PRIDE events, because “it is not American to stigmatize those who don’t fit the binary stereotype, and it is not Christian to go even further and claim that God reviles them.”
  • Defining America as a “Christian nation” means that adherents of other religions aren’t true Americans, expunging them from “We the People.” The Gospel is inclusive, so intercultural and interfaith dialogue is “a banquet, not a battle.”
  • The statement notes that public education is “where disagreements about ‘American’ and ‘Christian’ come into especially sharp focus today.” Steve Bannon has sounded the white Christian nationalist rallying cry: “The path to save the nation is very simple – it’s going to go through the school boards.” In response, St. John’s says, “As Christians and Americans we will do everything we can to support school board members whose vision of education is shaped by diversity, equity, and inclusion – which we consider to be both Constitutional and Gospel values.”

White Christian nationalism threatens not only American democracy but also Christian identity. The year 2024 poses stark alternatives. I urge those of you who, like me, check “Christian” when asked for “religion,” to consider the conclusion of the St. John’s statement: “We are patriots who acknowledge both the glory and the shame of American history – the fact that 1619 and 1776 are both defining moments. We are disciples who acknowledge both that God’s kingdom is not of this world and that we are co-creators with God, charged with making a world where all can flourish, where we all do better when we all do better.

“Bishop Curry portrays our religion: ‘We are called to a way of love that creates a community in which the dignity of every human being is recognized and respected, and where all can have an equal say in the governing of our civic life.’”

[Note: The statement, "Christian and American: How we keep discipleship and patriotism together," is available, pending activation of the church's new website, as a blog post at https://ironicchristian.org/the-blog/265-blog-post-temporary-016-june-5-2024-christian-and-american-st-johns-episcopal-church-st-cloud-mn.]