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A Series on Christian Nationalism: Part III
The final excerpt from the Conclusion to the 2022 edition of Red State Christians
On the Fourth of July, I shared that for each Tuesday in July, I will be sharing excerpts from the 2022 edition of my book, Red State Christians, in an effort to focus on Christian Nationalism and helping you to understand it through a pastoral, theological, journalistic, and narrative lens. My hope is that you will see yourself and your experiences with loved ones and fellow Americans in the stories I share in these excerpts, and my hope is as well that by the end of this month - you will both better understand the threat of Christian Nationalism and also feel hopeful as you join the fight against it - knowing you are not alone.
Thanks for reading,
Here’s the final excerpt, from the last part of the Conclusion to the 2022 edition, excerpted here for the very first time. Thanks for joining in this series; read parts 1 (here) and 2 (here). Purchase your copy of the book here, via ebook, paperback or hardcover (2019 edition only).
It does no good to spoon-feed white Christians half truths about the church’s culpability in racial injustice. The time for making white conservative Christians feel more comfortable has passed.
I write these words hungry for the hope that I left you with when I first finished writing Red State Christians—before COVID-19, before George Floyd, and before the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. But I cannot go back to that place now. Our country has changed. The equation has changed. This is no longer about understanding an election or answering questions about Trump; now it is about a fleeting hope for redemption.
As I stand waist-deep in the knowledge of how the church has contributed to the subjugation of marginalized people everywhere, the depths to which white American Christians have sunk to promote ourselves (to gain power and money and influence), only to look underneath the water and see generations of death, suffering, and trauma, I wonder if the white American church can ever again rationally offer itself as a hope for salvation.
As a white American pastor of a predominately white Ameri- can church, I have to be honest and say I don’t know. Maybe I once wrote this book thinking that I could help redeem red state Christians, but I don’t believe that anymore. Perhaps the white American church is beyond hope of redemption, and we should burn down all our churches and wear sackcloth and tear our clothes and mourn; let someone else build something else out of our pathetic ashes.
I promised at the end of the new introduction that we would talk about God later. So now maybe is the time for God, or at least to listen to God here in a place where there is no hope for the church or for human beings anymore. Only God can redeem what has long since died.
Pastors know this especially, but I think most people know the truism that bad things often come in threes. The unholy triad of COVID-19, George Floyd’s murder, and the Capitol insurrection served to convince me that my hopefulness for conversation and dialogue with a movement bent toward death and destruction was ultimately unfounded.
Recently, I experienced three devastating deaths in my personal and church life as well.
Della died in September 2021. She was in her nineties, but she stayed sharp throughout COVID-19 isolation in her assisted living home for months. Up until the end, she had a quick smile and loved to talk. Her family told me later that Della, who spent most of her life farming in the rural Midwest, loved watching professional wrestling. She was such a fan that if her son called during it, she’d hang up on him unceremoniously. What I also learned about Della was that she had a capacity for love and acceptance that went beyond demographics. She asked me multiple times what I thought about God’s acceptance of LGBTQ people in the church. Most churches in our area did not accept people who were openly LGBTQ and forbid them from marrying or serving in the church. When my Lutheran denomination voted to accept gay marriage and LGBTQ ministers in the church in 2009, many of the local churches in Della’s area voted to leave the denomination. Still, Della was different. When I told her what I believed about God’s acceptance and love and embrace of LGBTQ people, she smiled at me.
“I think so too,” she said. “I never believed that other stuff.”
Della reminds me that individual people are more complicated and more capable of love and acceptance than demographic studies of rural white Christians might suggest.
Sara had one of the broadest smiles I’d ever seen in a church service. Her blond hair fluttered around her like a halo as I watched her just smile, and smile, and smile, as I led church on one of my first Sundays in rural Minnesota. She’d been diagnosed in her fifties with early-onset dementia and Alzheimer’s. She died in November 2021 after a steady and then steep decline in a local assisted living center that had a loving staff but little capacity for memory care. Sara changed quickly, especially after COVID-19, and she lost tons of weight and the ability to enjoy food, even eventually Communion.
Her diagnosis wasn’t at all fair. She had none of the advantages a wealthy urban person with her diagnosis might have had. Her husband, who had COPD and health challenges himself, was overwhelmed navigating the medical system and the huge costs associated with her care. His grief wore him out. He missed how they used to dance together.
Even in her suffering and the immense unfairness of her diagnosis, Sara maintained a quiet dignity all the way to her death. As she lay in hospice care and everyone waited for the end to come, health care workers were coming in to see her even on their days off. Sara had a gift denied to many of America’s most famous Christians. She had an immense capacity to love everyone, regardless of who they were. Even me. When I came to see her in the waning and exhausting months of the pandemic, she’d always say she loved me. She had no reason to love me. I’d barely known her and had missed many chances to visit her due to COVID-19 restrictions. I could have done more, brought her more Communion, taken her outside, spent more time with her husband.
But Sara knew, wisely, that love was never meant to be earned. White American Christianity has lost this message, with its emphasis on praying a sinner’s prayer, on making life choices within a Christian box, on paying lip service to love while spending most of the time in sin.
Sara got it, though.
Finally, in October 2021, we lost Matt. My husband’s oldest brother, who had overcome many challenges in his life to ultimately become a supportive father to two young girls and one stepson; to raise his family in rural southwestern Missouri; to live the dream too often denied to people who faced the challenges Matt had faced.
Matt died of COVID-19 at age forty-three, meaning that for me, the pandemic would no longer be a thought exercise or a historical watershed event but a personal tragedy. It was an unignorable reminder that while most healthy unvaccinated young people would not die of COVID-19, some would—and each death would be tragic and wrenching and life-altering for the family they left behind.
Matt’s death wasn’t a political death, though for many people discussion around COVID-19 was shaped primarily by politics. I couldn’t and wouldn’t forgive the conservative politicians and pastors who shunned vaccines, profited handsomely off unproven alternative cures, and promoted economic vitality over human life throughout the years of COVID-19 in America.
The argument that these same people were also to be called “pro-life” could never make sense to me again. Not after my children’s uncle, my husband’s brother, my in-laws’ son had died.
I originally ended Red State Christians close to where Matt and his family lived, in a small town in rural Missouri where my father-in-law grew up on the family farm, the setting of chapter 5. In this initial ending, I was in the church bathroom with my youngest son, help- ing him “go potty,” when my conservative Christian family members asked my husband where I was. They wanted me to pray before the meal. I was surprised and honored.
Less than four years later, I was called upon by my husband’s family to pray again. Again, I had expected they would choose a conservative male pastor, someone less liberal, less female—someone who wasn’t considered their political enemy.
This time, the prayer was much more difficult. I was asked to pray and to lead the service as pastor at Matt’s funeral.
So many times, as I’d watched him suffer with the effects of COVID-19 in the hospital for three long months, I’d wanted to scream in rage or dissolve into tears. We just felt so powerless. My husband’s family and I had sometimes felt separated by a gulf—a chasm—too cloudy to see across over many long years, at least since 2016. We had disagreed vehemently. I didn’t know how to make it all make sense. And now, we were united only in our terrible grief: mine tangential to a certain extent, theirs more raw and real and devastating.
I found myself tasked with speaking anyway in defense of a God who allowed such capricious suffering and death, left us powerless and alone, and then swept in to offer a too-late resurrection. I spoke of promises made and fulfilled for Matt. I read statements from his children. I prayed that God would receive him as his casket was lowered into the crumbling, red Missouri dirt.
I embraced my husband’s family. The dirt clung to our feet and we embraced anyway.
Then I turned away and faced the rows upon rows of graves in the cemetery next to the highway that undulated across the heartland of red state America. There, I finally wept—loud and ugly and unrestrained.
I wish I could say that the pain I felt when I first wrote these words is no longer present - but as I read them again I am filled with teeming emotion. Sadness, pain, pride, hope, and - ultimately - love for the people I wrote about and for the God who has walked next to me through it all, from the Cross to the grave to the hope for resurrection. I’m not done making sense of what is happening in white American Christianity. As I read the opening words of this section, I couldn’t help but think of all the recent exposures of abuse and misconduct in the white American church, specifically recent documentaries: Shiny Happy People and Secrets of Hillsong. We are still digging through the wreckage of the Church’s costly trade: the Gospel of Jesus for the Gospel of Christian Nationalism — love and charity exchanged for money, celebrity, and power. And still, as always, I can’t help but hope, too. So many of us now have found our voices, and we are telling our stories. The truth is coming to the light. We still see in a mirror, dimly, but we are working to see one another face-to-face. A big part of my hope always comes from you: that you take time to read, to share, and to bear witness with me. The work will always continue, but thankfully, so will the grace.
If you’re interested in reading the whole book, find Red State Christians here, via ebook, paperback or hardcover (2019 edition only).
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