During three decades of travel to the U.S. for work, I’ve enjoyed many conversations about faith and politics. These discussions have become more polarized in recent years, with my conversation partners often repeating odd, sometimes contradictory views.
In 2015, I was seated at the bar at an upscale restaurant in West Bend, Wisconsin, chatting with the middle-aged businessman next to me. When our conversation veered into politics, he was negative about Obama, framing him as a weak president. That was fine. However, I was surprised when he said that Obama wasn’t Christian. After all, I had heard the president pray and speak of his Christian faith.
When I asked him about this, the man explained that Obama’s middle name is Hussein and was clearly not Christian. I asked what Obama had done or said that was so clearly un-Christian. In response, he simply reiterated his first answer.
Looking back, I realize that while I was ready to talk about how well his presidency reflected Christian values, my dinner companion wasn’t concerned about Obama’s faithfulness to scripture. To him, Christianity wasn’t a question of words or deeds. In his eyes, being Black and having the middle name Hussein disqualified Obama from belonging.
As a lay leader in a diverse church where more than half the members are Black or Asian, the reality of our society’s racism has become clearer to me.
As I reflect on my numerous experiences in the U.S. talking about faith and politics, I have become troubled by the overt mixing of Christianity and racism. So, I took a course about white Christian nationalism from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. These are my key take-aways.
What is white Christian nationalism?
White Christian nationalism is a way of thinking that advocates for a fusion of a specific racial view of Christianity with politics and civil life. There are a few notable characteristics:
A strong sense of traditional morality based on social hierarchy. (An example could be excluding women from any church leadership.)
A comfort with social control, such as using threats or actual violence. (An example of this is poor refugee treatment at the U.S. border, like separating refugee parents and their children.)
A desire for strict boundaries around civil rights and national identity, often linked to race. (Examples of limiting participation in civil society include making it harder for Black people to vote and denying health care for gay people.)
Close friends of mine have fallen into this sort of thinking, and I’ve had long, difficult and mostly fruitless conversations with them about these matters.
My experience is that once you’ve started to buy into these ideas, you can find yourself pulled down an internet rabbit hole while you lose friends. You can go from cable news to social media to conspiracy theory sites in just a few short months, all while strangers on the internet egg you on and drag you down with them.
After a grim conversation with a U.S. friend who had become susceptible to white Christian nationalist thinking, I asked how his new views had affected his relationships. His tone changed immediately.
While talking about politics he was aggressive and unstable, but when he reflected on the effect this had on his relationships, he became vulnerable and was clearly hurt. Nonetheless, he was determined to stay on the path he was on.
Recent research has found that nearly three-quarters of U.S. white evangelicals showed mild to moderate support for white Christian nationalism, and 36 percent were “strong advocates”—to the point that it dominated their life, as in my friend’s case.
What is wrong with white Christian nationalism?
This is not a problem with conservative religion or politics, it’s a problem with a very specific part of conservative religion—something that I, as a conservative, never want to be a part of. In my mind, there are three main reasons why white Christian nationalism does not mix with Christianity:
- All people are God’s children. When white Christian nationalism discriminates against BIPOC, newcomers and Jews, it is not being Christian. In Jesus’ day he welcomed all: women, tax collectors, prostitutes, soldiers, Samaritans, Greeks, Romans. Jesus did not judge people by the colour of their skin. He lifted the lowly and rebuked those who needed it.
- It makes it hard for the fruit of the spirit to blossom. How do we live out Galatians 5:22 or the Beatitudes after we commit to white Christian nationalism? Jesus calls us to peacemaking, not fomenting division by imposing hierarchy.
- Our faith tradition does not support the convergence of faith and politics. Jesus refused the devil’s temptation of worldly kingdoms. God did not want Israel to have a king. While our faith can inform our politics, as it did for Tommy Douglas and Martin Luther King, Jr., politics should not capture faith as it has for the Taliban and Ku Klux Klan.
What might a Canadian Christian response to white Christian nationalism look like?
- Think about your own mindset. We want to bring people into God’s light. Rather than judging, we can lament the pain that often comes with white Christian nationalism. A good starting point is to look for common interests, where we all want good things for everyone involved.
- Talk about white Christian nationalism with loved ones you think might be susceptible to it. Having these conversations isn’t easy, but it’s less complicated to have 10 light-hearted and gentle conversations ahead of time than it is to try and help a person who has been drawn into white Christian nationalism.
- When you find white Christian nationalist views, respond with grace, humour, and emphasize what is true, not what you disagree with.
- Keep cool. When people are fearful or angry, they make an easy target to be persuaded into more radical views and actions that politicians harness to get votes and companies use to sell you stuff. Consuming a wide variety of media perspectives, including some that get under your skin, help keeps you balanced.
White Christian nationalism is a harmful ideology—both for minorities, whom it turns into second-class citizens, and its own supporters, who suffer isolation and poor mental health. It is already creeping into Canada.
As it makes its way into Canada, Canadian Mennonites have a choice to make about whether we welcome white Christian nationalism here.
James Barber is a lay leader in Hagerman Mennonite Church in Markham, Ontario, and serves on Mennonite Church Eastern Canada’s executive council.