A ‘Nonconforming Minority’ Can Defeat Christian Nationalism | Sojourners

A ‘Nonconforming Minority’ Can Defeat Christian Nationalism

In his newest book, Jim Wallis addresses what far too many white pastors ignore: nationalism in the church and autocracy in politics.
Hats with the slogan 'Make America Pray Again' are displayed at the 2024 National Religious Broadcasters Association International Christian Media Convention where former U.S. President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gave an address on Feb.22, 2024. REUTERS/Seth Herald

Through my travels preaching at churches and speaking at conferences, I often get to talk with pastors and church leaders across the U.S. about the issues close to their hearts. Lately, those conversation have almost always included pastors’ concern about the increasing polarization in our politics and culture. Many of these pastors see first-hand the influence of a surging Christian nationalism in their own communities, including members of their congregation who believe the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation or who, thanks to the fear-based messages of conservative Christian radio, are convinced that Christianity in the U.S. is “under attack.” Yet, most pastors feel ill-equipped and under-supported to address this growing threat, fearing they will only further divide their congregations if they attempt to address Christian nationalism head-on.

Jim Wallis is one of the faith leaders who keenly understands the threat of growing nationalism in the church and autocracy in our politics — and the role that Christians must play in stopping it. In his newest book, The False White Gospel: Rejecting Christian Nationalism, Reclaiming True Faith, and Refounding Democracy, he aims to inspire and equip “all who can be persuaded to resist and help dismantle a false gospel that propagates white supremacy and political autocracy.”

For Jim — founder and former president of Sojourners who now directs Georgetown University’s Center on Faith and Justice — “white Christian nationalism” is “idolatry because it’s a worship of nation [rather than God], “…and it’s a heresy because it draws Christians away from Christ,” he told me when we talked recently about the book. Or as he writes in the introduction: “Today’s racism is the resurgence of the old ideology combined with the return of an old heresy. That is the false gospel of White Christian Nationalism. Its very name spells its heresy—White instead of the diverse human calling the message of the gospel makes; Christian but implying domination instead of service; and Nationalism which is contrary to Jesus’ Great Commission.”

The threat of a nationalistic faith that is blind to racial and social justice and puts politics ahead of the teachings of Jesus isn’t new here in the U.S. But what Jim sees — and what I think far too many other faith leaders are failing to take seriously enough — is the degree to which white Christian nationalism is undergirding and supercharging the growing danger of authoritarianism within our politics. Former President Donald Trump’s latest fundraising scheme — a $60 Bible that combines scripture with the Pledge of Allegiance and Bill of Rights — is just the latest example of this dangerous alliance. Both polling and reporting has shown how those who hold some degree of Christian nationalist beliefs are more likely to support authoritarian leaders, political violence, or election conspiracies.

Yet, while Christian nationalism is fueling anti-democratic forces in our politics, far too many white pastors and church leaders have been silent. From my conversations with pastors, I know some of these pastors stay silent because of a fear of further dividing the congregations or becoming a target of extremism. They fear their voices  will be drowned out by the megaphone of social and conservative media.

Others stay silent because they feel disillusioned with the state of our democracy, including the way it’s so often anti-majoritarian in nature and has failed to live up to its full promise of liberty and justice for all. I’ll admit, I empathize with those who feel frustrated with our democracy right now. But though it’s broken, we need to first protect our fragile democracy if we ever hope to transform it into a democracy that works for everyone. Or as Jim said: “We need to protect what is in order to transform into what is not yet.”

Which is where the church comes in. In his book, I was drawn to what Jim outlines as his vision for what he calls “a remnant church” that could help save and ultimately transform U.S. democracy by modelling what faithful public discipleship looks like. When I asked him what he meant by the “remnant church,” he told me about a recent conversation he had with pastors about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who helped lead a Christian movement in Nazi Germany that rejected accommodation to the state’s ultranationalist and exclusionary ideology. That movement, known as “the Confessing Church,” insisted on a faith that remained true to the teachings of Jesus. Jim believes that a new version of the Confessing Church is needed today in the U.S. “Only a minority of white believers are going to come along to an American remnant church, but they are younger believers,” he said, “and they want to join with the Black and brown leaders of the church in this nation and form a new American church.” 

In so many ways, the Black church has served as a remnant church throughout our nation’s history, serving as a powerful democratizing force by proclaiming a gospel that fuses together spiritual renewal with social justice, providing the spiritual fortitude and organizing infrastructure during the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. And as someone ordained within the Black Baptist tradition, I feel part of my own vocation is to push that bold witness forward, along with any other Christians and people of faith and conscience who will join.

Jim and I continue to work closely together alongside Barbara Williams-Skinner through Faiths United to Save Democracy to build a multi-racial, multi-faith, and intergenerational movement of faith leaders across the country who are committed to protecting the freedom to vote and our democracy. But the campaign is not simply seeking to protect our flawed democracy; our ultimate aim is to build the moral and political will to transform it.

One of my favorite quotes by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is that we will not save the world from “pending doom” through “the complacent adjustment of a conforming majority but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority.” I think this nonconforming minority is akin to what Jim calls “the remnant church.” This remnant church must refuse to conform with the forces of Christian nationalism and autocracy, transforming a vicious cycle of hatred, fear, and grievance into a virtuous cycle of hope, dignity, and love. A remnant church is also needed to demonstrate a commitment to truth-telling in the spirit of love that emboldens others to show greater courage in the face of authoritarianism.