February 25, 2021

Nationalism, Civil Religion and Following Jesus

Last night, I gave a talk (virtually, of course) to kick off a series at an Episcopal congregation in Dallas, TX. I realized after the fact that I had a few of my numbers wrong, so I am sharing this excerpt with corrected data and some additions. You will notice that I am lately a bit of a broken record. There are moments that shape a generation. Columbine. 9/11. Of course, the lives lost are of the greatest tragedy but it is what these moments capture or distill regarding something much larger going on around a culture that make these events so formative. I sense that January 6 may be such a moment so long as the mythmakers do not replace fact with fiction in our collective memory.


On January 6 of this year 2021, hundreds of Americans rushed into our nation’s capitol building destroying property and seeking the Vice President of the United States and members of Congress whom they viewed as obstructions to their cause. They were also waving flags. American flags, confederate flags, but also, Christian flags. Many were documented praying before, during and after their siege of the capitol. They quoted Bible verses and wore apparel evoking Christian idioms.

Most Episcopalians will have likely looked upon what happened on January 6 and said a quiet prayer under their breath that may have carried echoes of those prayers evoked by the religious elites found in the Gospels, “Thank God I am not like those Christians.”

Unfortunately, we are not as different as we would like.

The American civil religion that so many Episcopalians are most comfortable with is merely a domesticated version of the feral Christian Nationalism we observed on January 6. There are differences, yes. White Christian Nationalism utilizes language of fear, hate, and destruction. American civil religion language evokes democracy, justice and inclusion. Yet, what they both seek to acquire–or protect–is the exceptional status within the body politic by colluding religious belief with national identity. In many ways, adherents to American civil religion hold that which White Christian Nationalists covet: wealth and power for white Americans. 

That well defines the Episcopal Church.

Nine out of ten Episcopalians are white and only 4% of the Episcopal Church is black. We have closer proximity to power and privilege than we would like to admit. More presidents have been Episcopalian than any other denomination. Thirty-five percent of Episcopal Church members make six figures or more annually in a country where the median annual household income is below sixty-nine thousand dollars a year. Of the sixty-three hundred plus congregations that make up the Episcopal Church, a little less than a third of our 1.6 million members regularly show up on Sundays and yet we still gave over 1.3 billion dollars in plate and pledge in the previous year.

We are white, we are well connected and we are wealthy.

You may say that we have greater concerns today than wrestling with white privilege. Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic which we have now been facing for a year is of great concern! Let me for a moment, then, reflect with you on what history may teach us of moments like this.

The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 took somewhere between a half million to eight hundred and fifty thousand lives. During the Spanish Flu, the archives of the Episcopal Church state, “[t]he severe impact of the 1918 influenza was little recognized in formal commentary”. And, yet, what documentation we do have is often related to the opening or closing of buildings for worship during the pandemic. Sound familiar? Can you guess what I found in the archives of the Spanish Flu’s impact on Episcopalians in the state of Texas during that time? Only the postponement of the consecration of Bishop Quinn … by a week.

Considering our collective wealth and whiteness, is it safe to say that our privilege insulated us from the impact felt by the pandemic of 1918? If current evidence of the COVID-19 pandemic is any indication, yes. Of the half a million Americans that have died during the current pandemic, the COVID-19 death rate of people of color is double or more than that of white people in the U.S. Privilege did not in 1918, nor does it now in 2021, inoculate us from disease but it does distance us from its ravages.

The impact of the Spanish Flu may not have been felt immediately in the Episcopal Church but a symptom of the Church’s response may be observable only a few short years later. In September 1925, attendance and income of the Episcopal Church had declined low enough that it caught the attention of the public and made headlines in the Washington Post. Could it be that the apathy and ambivalence of the privileged for the poor caught up with the denomination that was (and remains) made up mostly of the white privileged class? Time will tell.

The antidote for the Church is not Christian Nationalism or American civil religion–both are merely the trappings of religion draped over power and privilege. Neither of these appropriately wrestle with the two pivotal directives Jesus provided Christians in the Gospels: the great commandment and the great commission. 

Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 22 and what constitutes eternal life in chapter 10 of Luke’s Gospel. In both cases, the conversation operates around the ancient command to love God with every fiber of one’s being and to care for one’s neighbor as one would care for one's self. When pressed on the definition of neighbor, Jesus's definition of “neighbor” is wrapped up in the stranger–the outsider.

What we call the great commission is shared at the end of Jesus’s earthly ministry. In chapter 28 of Matthew’s Gospel and the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. In the Acts retelling of Jesus commissioning, he effectively tells his friends to start in their town and then move throughout the county. But then, the next location on Jesus's list would have stopped his friends in their tracks: Samaria.  It would seem to be no mistake that Jesus includes Samaria purposefully to demonstrate that God’s mission will always include those we assume are beyond God’s reach. The follow Jesus is to collude the church and the other, not the church and the state (I know that's cheesy but it says succinctly what I'm getting at). Meaning that our fate is linked up with the fate of others. If our faith is fashioned around the hate and exclusion of others or the destruction of God's creation … well, you're doing it wrong.

As long as we look to the center, rather than to the margins we will miss the mark of what it is to follow Jesus. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams has often said, “The Church is always renewed from the edges rather than the center.” Williams is right. Jonathan M. Daniels demonstrated to us what this looks like during the Civil Rights Movement. Will this work require the decentering of ourselves? Yes. It may not require our lives as it did Daniels's but it will require sacrifices. And I'm convinced the work of following Jesus will always demonstrate traits that counter what we have seen exhibited by Christian Nationalism. In an era when there are those set on planting new churches that exhibit nothing short of hate, fear, destruction and exclusion. We now–as much as we have ever before–need those that will nurture communities that foster the way of Jesus through love, hope, creativity and expansion.

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