“In times of war, hatred becomes quite respectable, even if it must often disguise itself under the guise of patriotism.”
In his masterful, if brief, spiritual 1999 meditation entitled “The Human Condition,” Trappist monk and psychologist Thomas Keating posed two questions essential to living an authentic and meaningful life: “Where am I? And “who am I?”
His investigation has more to do with the geography of faith than with local circumstances. I would argue that these questions are equally relevant to measuring the present moment in our nation’s journey and the bewildering persistence of Christian nationalism.
As Religion News Service’s Jack Jenkins recently posted on Twitter: “The rapid and enthusiastic shift within the far right to embrace Christian nationalism by name is truly striking to watch.”
National and local media — including LNP | LancasterOnline investigative reporter Carter Walker covered the resurgence of Christian nationalism in the United States.
According to the publication Christianity Today, Christian nationalism is “the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity and that the government should take active steps to make it so.” Here and elsewhere, it is a repudiation of the growing diversity of our nation.
Locally, there was the 2020 clandestine gathering of white nationalists at the Lancaster Township farm of Holocaust denier and pro-Kremlin blogger Charles Bausman, who was present during the January 6, 2021 uprising at the US Capitol. . (Bausman told LNP | LancasterOnline that he is fundamentally driven by his Christianity.)
The most recent and aggressive anti-LGBTQ activities of the Mid-Atlantic Reformation Society – which sought to hold an event last month at a Lititz restaurant to determine whether Pennsylvania should be an “explicitly Christian state” – and the Lancaster newspaper Mountville-based Patriots are part of a vast far-right subculture at war with the American mainstream. Leaders of this subculture have a misunderstanding of history, including the 1701 Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges.
Leaders of the Mid-Atlantic Reformation Society mistakenly believe that William Penn deliberately designed his proprietary colony to be an explicitly Christian state. Penn envisioned a “sacred experience,” but one whose origins were rooted in religious tolerance and freedom. The Charter of Privileges of 1701 and the Constitution of 1776 affirmed this practice. What was remarkable about the Commonwealth since the American Revolution was its innovative political structure and its rich and deep religious and cultural diversity. This included Protestant, Anabaptist, Roman Catholic and Jewish congregations and, of course, Native American Indian communities.
A strange drink
The June 19 confrontation at a gay Pride rally in Lititz Springs Park brought together the pastoral leadership of the Mid-Atlantic Reformation Society and the staff of the Lancaster Patriot to protest a legally sanctioned rally.
As reported by TNL | LancasterOnline, the group carried signs, including at least one that claimed “Christ Hates Pride”. I was raised to believe that Jesus hated no one and to claim otherwise is heresy.
These recent events have deep roots in American history, and they play into an age-old argument about whether America was meant to be a white Christian nation — a sanctuary, if you will, from the problems of the world. The notions of “city on a hill”, “chosen people” and “manifest destiny” have biblical allusions and are embedded in heartwarming if often incorrect discourse on the origins and meaning of the national purpose of the America.
The nationalist goal, as stated on the conservative Center for Renewing America website, is simple: “Renew a consensus about America as a nation under God with unique interests worth fighting for.” Such an ideology, which mixes religion with a particular patriotic belief, is a disturbing manifestation of a self-righteous fundamentalism in the defense of an imaginary American identity.
This perspective remains a fiction — a story we tell; it bears little resemblance to historical reality. Echoes of American exceptionalism are heard among its adherents, to the detriment of a larger truth. Talk of renewal, of reclaiming and rebuilding America, is a retrograde vision that deliberately ignores the deep and diverse multicultural roots that are the source of national identity.
Christian nationalism gives New Testament meaning to the phrase “under God,” and too often there is an overtly white racial context in which it must be applied. Those who don’t fit this definition are somehow less American, or not destined for equal citizenship at all.
Although religion, and Christianity in particular, had a formative influence in shaping our national culture, that does not mean that this nation was destined to be an “explicitly Christian state,” as claimed by the Mid-Atlantic Reformation. Society. Moreover, such claims do not take into account the diversity of Christianity itself.
A strange mix of religious, racial and ethnic stereotypes mixed with patriotic passion has crept from the shadows into public life throughout American history. Much of contemporary hate culture is influenced by a Christian nationalist outlook. Groups such as the Christian Identity movement, the World Church of the Creator’s Creativity movement, the Phineas Priesthood and the Ku Klux Klan stand out. The tiki torch parade in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 and the repeated chanting of “Jews won’t replace us!” foreshadowed events to come.
But, too often in our nation’s history, a particular form of nationalist theology has been shrouded in contradictory intolerance and racial and religious antagonism. In other words: identity politics has always been a powerful force in national development. The long history of Native American oppression, black slavery and later segregation, and repeated cycles of anti-immigrant vitriol testify to a counter-narrative that is now restricted or banned in some schools as somehow sort of unpatriotic.
Mine arrived in the United States at a time when anti-Irish and anti-Catholic riots were peaking all over Pennsylvania. Like a later generation of Southern and Eastern Europeans who were foreigners in cultural traditions and language, tens of millions of immigrants transformed America even as they were denied access to opportunities for the general public. They did not fit a definition of “100% Americanism”. They were foreigners who had no place here. The sting of prejudice and violence was also felt by Asian immigrants, who were legally excluded long before World War II-era resettlement camps were imagined.
Who today remembers either Father Charles Coughlin, the so-called “radio priest” who attracted millions of listeners for his weekly broadcasts, or the public pro-Nazi rallies which regularly drew thousands of people during fascist meetings in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and elsewhere? The American Christian Front in the 1930s created a toxic alliance of Evangelical Protestant and Roman Catholic Christians who, though distrustful of each other, embraced strong anti-Semitic rhetoric and beliefs that predicted the nationalist spirit displayed in Charlottesville five years ago.
Devotion to God and country, and belief in regenerative violence and hatred, were on full display on January 6, 2021 at the United States Capitol. Discussions of “replacement” and “restoration” as the surest paths to national renewal reverberated through the halls of Congress. And the drumbeat continues.
Unfortunately, even tragically, such sentiments only serve to inflame religious and political tribalism in dismantling what is genuinely ennobling and forward-looking in our common national future.
And now that same “patriotic” spirit, in all its nuanced deceptions, has surfaced in Lancaster County and throughout the region.
Like NL | LancasterOnline reported that the discussion scheduled for last month by the Mid-Atlantic Reformation Society in Lititz was announced to focus on Pennsylvania’s original constitution and the role religion played in the early years of the Commonwealth.
The Commonwealth’s original constitution required elected officials to proclaim their belief in “one God” and the “divine inspiration” of the Bible – it was effectively a religious test for public office. But such language was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1961, and Pennsylvania’s constitution was amended to remove the language in 1968.
Alas, Christian nationalists twist history and debase religion to serve their own interests. Their knowledge of the origins of American and Pennsylvanian history is sketchy at best, and perhaps grimmer, calculating at worst.
We should study (and write) history not to celebrate or condemn, but to seek a better understanding of our past and of what Thomas Keating called the human condition.
Spiritually and politically, we should reject the narrow intolerance of the apostles of Christian nationalism and persevere in our resolve to challenge the voices that would divide us into warring factions. As black theologian Howard Thurman said, hatred “under the guise of patriotism” is a threat to democracy and human decency.
Or, to quote constitutional law professor Kermit Roosevelt III’s new book The Nation That Never Was: Rebuilding America’s History, the real act of rebuilding America begins with the replacement of an “exclusive individualism” through an “inclusive equality” that all would share as the fulfillment of the American promise.
Dennis B. Downey, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of history at the University of Millersville. His most recent publication is “Pennhurst and the Struggle for Disability Rights” (Penn State Press 2020). He chairs the Disability Policy Circle at the Public Interest Law Center in Philadelphia.