Instead of using the phrase “Christian Nationalism”, I’d like to enter into this conversation by talking about American Exceptionalism. I have often wondered what it would be like to be a Christian in another part of the world, where reading the Bible does not include a national identity of success and power. Where else are children told repeatedly “We live in the most powerful country in the world?” or even “Our soldiers fought for your freedom.” As the world continues to turn, the United States of America has wielded and lost power in a variety of places, but somehow, we still cling to the idea that America is the best. We’re number one, we tell ourselves, and we won’t believe differently, no matter how many different ways the point is proven wrong.
Please don’t think I hate the United States. I love the United States of America. I am grateful beyond measure that I was born here, that I’ve had a life here. I was able to be well-educated, maybe over-educated in these states. My birth went well, I had a healthy childhood and I was well-fed. My parents worked when they wanted to. I was able to marry my wife and adopt a child. I have had enormous privilege, based on the color of my skin and the nation of my birth. No doubt.
There has always been a confidence which comes from being an American. We are just so darn sure of ourselves. I’ve been reading “How to Preach a Dangerous Sermon” by Frank Thomas, as well as “Stand Your Ground” by Kelly Brown Douglas. Both books do an excellent job of describing American Exceptionalism, based in the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant understanding that we white folks are the superior race. This is built on early “scientific” findings that the indigenous people of North America and the Africans our forefathers enslaved were people of lesser capability, including questionable morals. This is why they were able to be enslaved or banished from their land. The assertion was white people were superior in their culture and morality. We were good Christians: God had blessed us. White people in the United States became the new Israel: God’s chosen race. It was easy to see. We could read the Bible, we could preach a sermon, we could write English. Clearly, the faulty thinking went, white folks were inherently superior to those poor savages.
And then we made laws to keep people of color from learning how to read. We didn’t allow them to marry, so every union was illicit. (We did the same thing with LGBTQ folks, by the way) We didn’t allow them to own property, so they continued to be impoverished. When we finally built schools they could go to, we didn’t give them enough resources to be effective. Healthcare & housing? Substandard is good enough. Most of the white population’s relationship with BIPOC people was enslavement, forced labor, or a problem to remove. This is so entrenched in our society that we cannot even imagine the millions of ways this affects us.
One of the most painful and important realizations I personally made about valuating African descent people was watching Henry Louis Gates’ television program “Finding Your Roots.” Gates traces notable people’s family trees. Countless famous African American guests are shown slaveowners’ tally sheets as Gates tries to find their ancestors. The columns show nameless slaves listed by gender and age, a price attached. A black person’s value was based completely on their ability to work or maybe to procreate to produce more laborers. Take away that ability, through poor education or disability, and they are worthless. Translate that to our assumptions about impoverished black people, unemployed black people, uneducated black people. Society still deems them ‘worthless,’ and blames the black people for it. Now we suspect they are “trouble,” which, unfortunately, goes all the way back to our fear of runaway or rebellious slaves.
Painful stuff. Challenging stuff. My ancestors did not own slaves. We weren’t even on this continent. But we had the benefits of European migration in a time when the borders were open to droves of people. We had white skin, learned the language, and fit right in. Quickly we understood social norms of who was valuable and who was not. There were folks who had lived on this continent hundreds of years longer than us, but we could assimilate with the majority whites more quickly. I have benefitted from that my entire life.
So how to come back from this white supremist life? Study it. Question my assumptions. Check my privilege. Share my power, as often as possible. Work on being anti-racist. Confess. Repent. Speak up, and when possible, act instead of just talk. Give opportunities. Challenge systems and institutions which keep people back. And pray. God can help us with this. I’d like to believe God wants to help us with this. We can do this together, with God’s help.