Pax Christi Michigan (PCM) shared this statement in its Winter 2023 (Vol. 44) newsletter. The topic of White Christian nationalism will be a focus of PCM’s state assembly on Saturday, April 15. Click here to learn more.
In his 2021 Teacher of Peace acceptance speech, Fr. Bryan Massingale challenged Pax Christi to pay attention to this issue; this statement from PCM is a great example of state leaders responding to his call.
In her book The Seven Deadly Sins of White Christian Nationalism, theologian and Episcopal priest Carter Heyward identified white Christian nationalism (WCN) as “a movement spawned by white Christian American men to superimpose their conservative religious values on the leaders and laws of the United States.” Amplifying Heyward’s alarm, a group of Catholic universities and social justice organizations, including Pax Christi USA, reviewed voter suppression efforts prior to the 2022 midterm elections, and issued a statement that said: “White Christian Nationalism, an ideology heretical to authentic faith, represents a clear and present danger to building a multi-faith, multiracial democracy.”
Although the three components of WCN are inextricably linked, it is helpful to briefly examine each element independently. Note that deep, disturbing assumptions of superiority and dominance characterize WCN. White refers to “white supremacy,” and in particular to the shameful history of virulent racism in the United States, from the “original sin” of slavery, to Jim Crow, and over the years, to the epidemic of deaths of unarmed people of color at the hands of police and vigilantes. The Christian component represents the conviction that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation and is divinely favored, as “evidenced” by its enormous wealth and power. Accordingly, the American “mission” is to spread its religion, freedom and civilization – and to use force if and when necessary. Nationalism reflects the belief in “American exceptionalism,” the notion that the U.S. is both unrivaled and destined to have a unique role in transforming the world. This has resulted in a global backlash against the spirit of American nationalism that characterizes U.S. foreign policy. WCN adherents cling furiously to their delusions, in large part to counteract acute insecurities and fears that America’s mission and power are threatened by the growing presence of non-Americans, non-whites, and non-Christians in our midst, and not coincidentally, among voters.
White Christian nationalists embrace an extreme, fundamentalist version of the faith that fuses God and country with a militarized, racialized and nativist gospel at odds with genuine faith. They regard “others” – African-Americans, Muslims, Latin Americans, Asian-Americans, Jews, LGBTQ persons, immigrants – “as both inferior, and as enemies to be defeated, deported or destroyed,” says Mennonite professor Drew Strait. The National Council of Churches points out that morally, WCN “gives little attention to structural issues of poverty, racism, the healing of our planet, and international peace, thereby undermining justice and causing great harm.” Furthermore, “genuine morality must be rooted in a clear-minded devotion to truth, including an accurate understanding of our history, our failings as well as our successes.”
Tragically, as New Yorker editor Michael Luo points out, “Christian churches have often provided institutional spaces for the preservation and transmission of white supremacist attitudes.” This has played into the hands of white Christian nationalists. Fr. Tom Reese writes that by making a single issue “their ‘preeminent priority,’ the [U.S. Catholic] bishops made Donald Trump and the Republican Party their allies.” Yet, “Republican legislators… have opposed almost every proposal that would have implemented Catholic Social Teaching.” Accordingly, the “collateral damage” has included: “The Voting Rights Act; the Earth and humanity; migrants and refugees; the poor; and, democracy.” And disturbingly, prophetic moral leadership.
WCN is playing a harmful role in the deep divide within American society today, as reflected dramatically in the January 6 insurrection, including the flagrant misuse of religious symbols. As Pax Christi USA 2021 Teacher of Peace Fr. Bryan Massingale noted, “The brutal mob violence of January 6 was a clear declaration that many white Americans would rather live in a white dictatorship than in a multiracial democracy. If democracy means sharing power with people of color, and especially Black people, they want no part of it.”
Yale sociologist Philip Gorski claims that “Trumpism is the current version of the WCN frame.” Donald Trump has given a contemporary form to racist attitudes that have long festered in American Christianity, and WCN remains at the center of the deadly serious, ongoing threat to American democracy. The violence of WCN protestors in Charlottesville, and of those who attacked the U.S. Capitol at the instigation of Trump, has not miraculously disappeared. And distressingly, the new U.S. Congress includes over 170 members who have denied or cast doubts on the 2020 election.
It may appear we are powerless in the face of devastating racism, a “Christianity” that has been hijacked and bears no resemblance to the authentic Gospel of Jesus, and to an aggressive, violent American nationalism. White Christian nationalism, the toxic combination of these elements, is clearly dangerous and formidable. However, we are not without the means to address WCN, and thus to contribute to what the late South African priest Fr. Albert Nolan called, “God’s great and mysterious work.” We have the assurance of Christ himself, in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are you who are peacemakers.” We have Catholic Social Teaching that, as Pax Christi Ambassador of Peace Joe Nangle points out, “has for the past 125 years intelligently and faithfully found Gospel-based interpretations and actions for an entire range of human problems.” And we have our own experience and that of all who have creatively and nonviolently resisted oppression for generations, including: educating ourselves and others; public statements; identifying injustices and supporting those affected; working for free and fair elections; demonstrating and marching for justice; seeking and proclaiming truth in the face of lies and deception; nonviolently confronting those responsible for oppression to search for understanding and reconciliation; and, perhaps most essential, prayer.
In our work for justice, it is crucial to be ever mindful of the extraordinary challenge of Jesus’ directive to “love our enemies.” It is tempting to fall into the trap of judging those who perpetrate evil as beyond redemption, while simultaneously viewing ourselves as above reproach. As Alex Mikulich, the keynote speaker at our Pax Christi Michigan 2023 State Conference, writes, we must “not look away from our own violence.” What are our own “assumptions of superiority and dominance,” and how may we have contributed, overtly or more subtly, to oppression and injustice? Etty Hillesum, who died at Auschwitz after facing the most barbaric evil of the 20th century, wrote in her diary, “I really see no other solution than to turn inwards and root out all the rottenness there. I no longer believe that we can change anything in the world until we have first changed ourselves.” In the Pax Christi Vow of Nonviolence, we promise to practice the nonviolence of Jesus by: “striving for peace within (ourselves); refusing to retaliate in the face of provocation and violence; actively resisting evil; and, working nonviolently.” Finally, we agree unreservedly with Thomas Merton, who wrote to a friend in December 1961 this profound, compassionate conviction: “We have to open our hearts to a universal and all- embracing love that knows no limits and no obstacles, a love that is not scandalized by the sinner, a love that takes upon itself the sins of the world. There must be total love of all, even of the most distant, even of the most hostile.”