The white Christian nationalism tearing America apart at the seams

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” — Archbishop Desmond Tutu

The world lost a great moral leader this Christmas when Archbishop Desmond Tutu passed away at the age of 90. I had the honor of meeting him a few times as a child. I was raised by a family dedicated to doing the work of justice, grounded in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and also sacred texts and traditions. We hosted the archbishop on several occasions when he visited Milwaukee — both before the end of apartheid and after South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed in 1996.

"To combat [White Christian Nationalism]... it’s necessary to build a multiracial moral movement that can speak directly to the needs and aspirations of poor and dispossessed Americans and fuse their many struggles into one."

In the wake of one visit, he sent a small postcard that my mom framed and placed on the bookcase near our front door. Every morning before school I would grab my glasses resting on that same bookcase and catch a glimpse of the archbishop’s handwritten note. This wasn’t inadvertent on my mom’s part. It was meant as a visual reminder that, if I was to call myself a Christian — which I did, serving as a Sunday school teacher from the age of 13 and a deacon at 16 — my responsibility was to advocate for policies that welcomed immigrants, freed those held captive by racism and injustice, and lifted the load of poverty.

READ: It started on the Christian fringe — now it's the GOP's winning issue

Given our present context, the timing of his death is all too resonant. Just over a year ago, the world watched as a mob besieged the U.S. Capitol, urged on by still-President Donald Trump and undergirded by decades of white racism and Christian nationalism. January 6th should have reminded us all that far from being a light to all nations, American democracy remains, at best, a remarkably fragile and unfinished project. On the first anniversary of that nightmare, the world is truly in need of moral leaders and defenders of democracy like Tutu.

The archbishop spent his life pointing to what prophets have decried through the ages, warning countries, especially those with much political and economic power, to stop strangling the voices of the poor. Indeed, the counsel of such prophets has always been the same: when injustice is on the rise, there are dark forces waiting to demean, defraud, and degrade human life. Such forces hurt the poor the most but impact everyone. And they often cloak themselves in religious rhetoric, even as they pursue political and economic ends that do anything but match our deepest religious values.

Democracy At Stake

“What has happened to us? It seems as if we have perverted our freedom, our rights into license, into being irresponsible. Perhaps we did not realize just how apartheid has damaged us, so that we seem to have lost our sense of right and wrong.” — Archbishop Desmond Tutu

By now, lamenting the condition of American democracy comes almost automatically to many of us. Still, the full weight of our current crisis has yet to truly sink in. A year after the attempted insurrection of January 6, 2021, this nation has continued to experience a quieter, rolling coup, as state legislatures have passed the worst voter suppression laws in generations and redrawn political maps to allow politicians to pick whom their voters will be. The Brennan Center for Justice recently reported that more than 400 voter suppression laws were introduced in 49 states last year. Nineteen of those states passed more than 30 such laws, signaling the biggest attack on voting rights since just after the Civil War. And add to that another sobering reality — two presidential elections have now taken place without the full protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

This attack on democracy, if unmet, could alter the nature of American elections for at least a generation to come. And yet, so far, it’s been met with an anemic response from a painfully divided Congress and the Biden administration. Despite much talk about the need to reform democracy, Congress left for the holidays without restoring the Voting Rights Act or passing the For the People Act, which would protect the 55 million voters who live in states with new anti-voter laws that limit access to the ballot. If those bills don’t pass in January (or only a new proposal by Republican senators and Joe Manchin to narrowly reform the Electoral Count Act of 1887 is passed), it may prove to be too late to save our democracy as well as any hopes that the Democratic Party can win the 2022 midterm elections or the 2024 presidential race.

Sadly, this nation has a strikingly bipartisan consensus to thank for such a moral abdication of responsibility. Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, in particular, have been vocal in refusing to overturn the filibuster to protect voting rights (though you know that, were the present Republicans in control of the Senate, they wouldn’t hesitate to do so for their own grim ends).

And of course, democracy isn’t the only thing that demands congressional action (as well as filibuster reform). Workers have not seen a raise in the minimum wage since 2009 and the majority of us have no paid sick leave in the worst public-health crisis in a century. Poor and low-income Americans, 140 million and growing, are desperately in need of the child tax credit and other anti-poverty and basic income programs at precisely the moment when they’re expiring and the pandemic is surging once again. And Manchin has already ensured weakened climate provisions in President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda that he claims he just can’t support (not yet anyway). If things proceed accordingly, in some distant future, sadly enough, geological records will be able to show the impact of our government’s unwillingness to act quickly or boldly enough to save humanity.

As Congress debates voting rights and investing in the people, it’s important to understand the dark forces that underlie the increasingly reactionary and authoritarian politics on the rise in this country. In his own time, Archbishop Tutu examined the system of white-imposed apartheid through the long lens of history to show how the Christianity of colonial empire had become a central spoke in the wheel of violence, theft, and racist domination in South Africa. He often summed up this dynamic through parables like this one: “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.”

In our own American context, they have the Bible and, as things are going, they may soon have the equivalent of “the land,” too. Just look carefully at our political landscape for evidence of the rising influence of white Christian nationalism. While it’s only one feature of the authoritarianism increasingly on vivid display in this country, it’s critical to understand, since it’s helped to mobilize a broad social base for Donald Trump and the Republicans. In the near future, through control over various levers of state and federal power, as well as key cultural and religious institutions, Christian nationalists could find themselves well positioned to shape the nation for a long time to come.

Confronting White Christian Nationalism

“There are very good Christians who are compassionate and caring. And there are very bad Christians. You can say that about Islam, about Hinduism, about any faith. That is why I was saying that it was not the faith per se but the adherent. People will use their religion to justify virtually anything.” — Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Christian nationalism has influenced the course of American politics and policy since the founding of this country, while, in every era, moral movements have had to fight for the Bible and the terrain that goes with it. The January 6th assault on the Capitol, while only the latest expression of such old battlelines, demonstrated the threat of a modern form of Christian nationalism that has carefully built political power in government, the media, the academy, and the military over the past half-century. Today, the social forces committed to it are growing bolder and increasingly able to win mainstream support.

When I refer to “Christian nationalism,” I mean a social force that coalesces around a matrix of interlocking and interrelated values and beliefs. These include at least six key features, though the list that follows is anything but exhaustive:

* First, a highly exclusionary and regressive form of Christianity is the only true and valid religion.
* Second, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity are “the natural order” of the world and must be upheld by public policy (even as Latino Protestants swell the ranks of American evangelicalism and women become important gate-keepers in communities gripped by Christian nationalism).
* Third, militarism and violence, rather than diplomacy and debate, are the correct ways for this country to exert power over other countries (as it is our God-given right to do).
* Fourth, scarcity is an economic reality of life and so we (Americans vs. the world, white people vs. people of color, natural-born citizens vs. immigrants) must compete fiercely and without pity for the greater portion of the resources available.
* Fifth, people already oppressed by systemic violence are actually to blame for the deep social and economic problems of the world — the poor for their poverty, LGBTQIA people for disease and social rupture, documented and undocumented immigrants for being “rapists and murderers” stealing “American” jobs, and so on.
* Sixth, the Bible is the source of moral authority on these (and other) social issues and should be used to justify an extremist agenda, no matter what may actually be contained in the Good Book.

Such ideas, by the way, didn’t just spring up overnight. This false narrative has been playing a significant, if not dominant, role in our politics and economics for decades. Since childhood — for an example from my own life — I’ve regularly heard people use the Bible to justify poverty and inequality. They quote passages like “the poor you will always have with you” to argue that poverty is inevitable and can never be ended. Never mind the irony that the Bible has been one of the only forms of the mass media — if you don’t mind my calling it that — which has had anything good to say about the poor (something those in power have tried to cover up since the days of slavery).

In many poor communities — rural, small town, and urban — churches are among the only lasting social institutions and so one of the most significant battlegrounds for deciding which moral values will shape our society, especially the lives of the needy. Indeed, churches are the first stop for many people struggling with poverty. The vast majority of food pantries and other emergency assistance programs are run out of them and much of the civic work going on in churches is motivated by varying interpretations of the Bible when it comes to poverty. These range from outright disdain and pity to charity to more proactive advocacy and activism for the poor.

Geographically, the battle for the Bible manifests itself most intensely in the Deep South, although hardly confined to that region, perhaps as a direct inheritance of theological fights dating back to slavery. For example, although there are more churches per capita than in any other state and high rates of attendance, Mississippi also has the highest child poverty rate, the least funding for education and social services for the needy, and ranks lowest in the country when it comes to overall health and wellness. It’s noteworthy that this area is known as both the “Bible Belt” and the “Poverty Belt.”

This is possible, in part, because the Bible has long been used as a tool of domination and division, while Christian theology has generally been politicized to identify poverty as a consequence of sin and individual failure. Thanks to the highly militarized rhetoric that goes with such a version of Christianity, adherents are also called upon to defend the “homeland,” even as their religious doctrine is used to justify violence against the most marginalized in society. These are the currents of white Christian nationalism that have been swelling and spreading for years across the country.

A moral movement from below

We live in a moral universe. You know this. All of us know this instinctively. The perpetrators of injustice know this. This is a moral universe. Right and wrong do matter. Truth will out in the end. No matter what happens. No matter how many guns you use. No matter how many people get killed. It is an inexorable truth that freedom will prevail in the end, that injustice and repression and violence will not have the last word.” — Archbishop Desmond Tutu

In the Poor People’s Campaign (which I co-chair with Reverend William Barber II), we identify Christian nationalism as a key pillar of injustice in America that provides cover for a host of other ills, including systemic racism, poverty, climate change, and militarism. To combat it, we believe it’s necessary to build a multiracial moral movement that can speak directly to the needs and aspirations of poor and dispossessed Americans and fuse their many struggles into one.

This theory of change is drawn from our study of history. The most transformative American movements have always relied on generations of poor people, deeply affected by injustice, coming together across dividing lines of all kinds to articulate a new moral vision for the nation. This has also meant waging a concerted battle for the moral values of society, whether you’re talking about the pre-Civil War abolition movement, the Populist Movement of the late nineteenth century, labor upsurges of the 1930s and 1940s, or the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Today, to grasp the particular history and reality of America means recognizing the need for a new version of just such a movement to contend directly with the ideology and theology of Christian nationalism and offer an alternative that meets the material and spiritual needs of everyday people.

Archbishop Tutu was clear that injustice and heretical Christianity should never have the last word and that the world’s religious and faith traditions still have much to offer when it comes to building a sense of unity that’s in such short supply in a country apparently coming apart at the seams. At the moment, unfortunately, too many people, including liberals and progressives, sidestep any kind of religious and theological debate, leaving that to those they consider their adversaries, and focusing instead on matters of policy. But as Archbishop Tutu’s deeds and words have shown, to change our world and bring this nation to higher ground means being brave enough to wrestle with both the politics and the soul of the nation — which, in reality, are one and the same.

A sleeping giant is stirring — and it could transform the political calculus of elections to come

When President Biden first unveiled the Build Back Better agenda, it appeared that this country was on the path to a new war on poverty. In April, he told Congress that "trickle-down economics have never worked" and that it was time to build the economy "from the bottom-up." This came after the first reconciliation bill of the pandemic included the child tax credit that — combined with an expanded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and unemployment benefits, stimulus checks, and other emergency programs — reduced the poverty rate from 13.9% in 2018 to 7.7% in 2021. (Without such actions, it was estimated that the poverty rate might have risen to 23.1%.) All eyes are now on the future of this Build Back Better plan, whether it will pass and whether it will include paid sick leave, reduced prescription drug prices, expanded child tax credits, expanded earned income tax credits for those without children, universal pre-K, climate resilience and green jobs, and other important domestic policy investments.

For months, the nation has witnessed a debate taking place in Congress over how much to invest in this plan. What hasn't been discussed, however, is the cost of not investing (or not investing sufficiently) in health-care expansion, early childhood education, the care economy, paid sick leave, living-wage jobs, and the like. Similarly missing have been the voices of those affected, especially the 140 million poor and low-income people who have the most to lose if a bold bill is not passed. By now, the originally proposed 10-year, $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, which a majority of Americans support, has been slowly chiseled down to half that size. For that you can largely thank two Democratic senators, West Virginia's Joe Manchin and Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema, unanimously backed by Donald Trump's Republican Party, which would, of course, cut everything.

Because of them, the "reconciliation" process to pass such a bill has become so crucial and politically charged, given that the same obstructionist Democrats have continued to uphold the Senate filibuster. All year, Manchin, Sinema, and the Republicans have blocked action on urgent issues ranging from climate change and immigration reform to living wages and voting rights. For example, after months of resistance to the For the People Act, a bill that protects and expands voting rights, Manchin forced the Democrats to put forward a watered-down Freedom To Vote Act with the promise that he would get it passed. In late October, though, he failed to win a single Republican vote for the bill and so the largest assault on voting rights since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era continues, state by state, unabated.

President Biden's original Build Back Better plan was successfully caricatured as too big and expensive, even though it represented just 1.2% of gross domestic product over the next decade and Congress had just passed a bipartisan single-year Pentagon budget nearly double the annual cost of BBB. In reality, $3.5 trillion over a decade would be no more than a start on what's actually needed to rescue the economy, genuinely alleviating poverty and human suffering, while making real strides toward addressing the climate crisis. Instead, cuts to, and omissions from, the reconciliation bill will mean nearly two million fewer jobs per year and 37 million children prevented from getting needed aid, while leaving trillions of dollars raked in by the super rich in the pandemic moment untaxed. Perhaps it will also fall disastrously short when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to the level necessary on the timetable called for by the world's scientific community.

Much of the recent coverage of these dynamics has focused on what all of this could mean for the Democrats in the 2022 elections (especially given Virginia Democrat Terry McAuliffe's loss in a state that President Biden won by 10 points). With low approval ratings, striking numbers of retiring members of Congress and increasingly gerrymandered voting maps, as well as outright voter-suppression laws, the Democratic faithful have reason to be worried. Still, what's missing from such discussions is how bad things already are for tens of millions of Americans and just how much worse they could get without far bolder government action. It's true that the 2022 elections could resemble the 2010 midterm elections when Republicans broke President Obama's grip on Congress, winning control of the House of Representatives, but too few observers are grappling with the possibility that 2022 could also reproduce conditions of a sort not experienced since the Great Recession.

As our second pandemic-winter approaches, there are many signs of an economy entering crisis. Economists are warning that despite an employment bump thanks to direct government intervention, we may already be entering a recession that could, sooner or later, prove at least as severe as the Great Recession of 2008. The expectations of everyday Americans certainly seem to reflect this simmering possibility. Consumer confidence has dropped to the second lowest level since 2011 and holiday spending among low-income Americans is expected to fall 22% from last year. (The 11.5% of all shoppers who say they won't spend anything at all on gifts or services this holiday is the highest in a decade.)

As has been true throughout the pandemic, millions of people abandoned by the government will do whatever they can to provide for themselves and their communities. They will try to care for one another, share what they have, and come together through mutual-aid networks. Their resources alone, however, are anything but adequate. Instead, as conditions potentially worsen, such survival struggles should be seen as beachheads when it comes to organizing a largely untapped base of people who need to be awakened politically if any kind of lasting change is to be realized. These millions of poor and low-income Americans will be critical in creating the kind of broad movement able to make, as Martin Luther King once put it, "the power structure say yes when they really may be desirous of saying no."

Keep in mind that the survival struggles of the poor and dispossessed have long been both a spark and a cornerstone for social, political, and economic change in ways seldom grasped in this country. This was true in pre-Civil War America, when hundreds of thousands of enslaved people smuggled themselves to freedom on the Underground Railroad, forcing the nation to confront the horrors of slavery in person and igniting a movement to end it. It was no less true in the 1930s, when the hungry and out-of-work began organizing unemployment councils and tenant-farmer unions before President Franklin Roosevelt even launched the New Deal. The same could be said of the decades before the Civil Rights Movement, when Black communities began organizing themselves against lynch mobs and other forms of state-sanctioned (or state-complicit) violence.

Another example was the transformative work of the Black Panther Party, whose legacy still impacts our political life, even if the image of the party remains distorted by myths, misrepresentations, and racist fearmongering. This October marked the 55th anniversary of its founding. For many Americans, its enduring image is still of ominous looking men in black berets and leather jackets carrying guns. But most of their time was spent meeting the needs of their community and building a movement that could transform life for poor Black people.

In a recent interview, Fredericka Jones, a Black Panther herself and the widow of the party's co-founder, Huey Newton, explained that among their projects:

"the most famous and most notable would be the free breakfast the Panthers offered to thousands of children in Oakland and other cities, providing basic nutrition for kids from poor families, long before the government took on this responsibility. We knew that children could not learn if they were hungry, but we also had free clinics. We had free clothing. We had a service called SAFE (Seniors Against a Fearful Environment) where we would escort seniors to the bank, or, you know, to do their grocery shopping. We had a free ambulance program in North Carolina. Black people were dying because the ambulance wouldn't even come and pick them up."

Before his murder in 1989, Newton himself characterized their work this way:

"The Black Panther Party was doing what the government should've done. We were providing these basic survival programs, as we called them, for the Black community and oppressed communities, when the government wasn't doing it. The government refused to, so the community loved the Party. And that was not what you saw in the media. You didn't see brothers feeding kids. You saw a picture of a brother who was looking menacing with a gun."

As Newton pointed out, the Panthers bravely stepped into the void left by the government to feed, educate, and care for communities. But they were also clear that their survival programs were not just about meeting immediate needs. For one thing, they purposefully used those programs to highlight the failures of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty and the contradictions between America's staggering wealth and its staggering poverty and racism, which existed side by side and yet in separate universes. In those years, the Panthers quite consciously tried to shine a light on the grim paradox of a nation that claimed there was never enough money to fight poverty at home, even as it spent endless billions of dollars fighting a war on the poor in Southeast Asia.

Their programs also gave them a base of operations from which to organize new people into a human-rights movement, which meant that all of their community work would be interwoven with political education, highly visible protest, cultural organizing, and a commitment to sustaining leaders for the long haul. While deeply rooted in poor black urban communities, the Panthers both inspired and linked up to similar efforts by Latino and poor-white organizations.

These were, of course, the most treacherous of waters. At the time, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI listed the Black Panthers and their breakfast program as "the greatest threat to internal security in the country." Government officials recognized that such organizing could potentially catch fire across far wider groups of poor Americans at a moment when the War on Poverty was being dismantled and the age of neoliberal economics was already on the rise. In such a context, the ability of the Panthers to put the abandonment of poor Black people under a spotlight, unite leaders within their community, and develop relationships with other poor people across racial lines seemed like a weapon potentially more powerful than the guns they carried.

I wrote recently about the often-overlooked successes of the National Union of the Homeless, which organized tens of thousands of homeless people across the country in the 1980s and 1990s. Its success came, in part, through lessons its leaders drew from the experiences of the Panthers, something they acknowledged at the time. In fact, they called the key strategic ingredients for their work the "Six Panther Ps" (program, protest, projects of survival, publicity work, political education, and "plans, not personalities"), organizing building blocks that they considered inseparable from one other.

At the time, the Homeless Union opened its own shelters and led takeovers of vacant houses in the possession of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. These were their "projects of survival." Through them, they secured housing and other resources for their leaders, loudly called into question why there were more empty houses nationally than homeless people, and forged unlikely alliances and political relationships.

More than 20 years later, homeless leaders have revived the National Union and are now making preparations for a winter organizing offensive on the streets and in encampments, shelters, and vacant homes across the country. As life-saving eviction moratoriums continue to expire nationwide, such projects of survival become shining examples of how poor and low-income people can begin to build a movement to end poverty.

Waking the Sleeping Giant

Last month, the Poor People's Campaign (which I co-chair with Reverand William Barber) released a new report on the unheralded impact of poor and low-income Americans in the 2020 elections. Contrary to the popular belief that poor people don't participate in elections and are apathetic about politics, it shows that poor and low-income voters made up at least 20% of the total electorate in 45 states, and up to 40% of them in nearly all of the battleground states. Although we don't know who those voters cast their ballots for, based on the state numbers it's highly likely that Joe Biden and down-ballot Democrats won a significant percentage of them.

The report also examines the racial composition of those voters in key battleground states, revealing that poor folks turned out across race, including a large percentage of poor-white voters. This is significant, since their overall vote share throws into question the knee-jerk idea that poor white voters are a key part of Donald Trump's base. The data also suggests that it's possible to form multiracial coalitions of poor and low-income voters, if brought together around a political agenda that speaks to their shared needs and concerns.

The most important takeaway from the report: poor and low-income voters are a sleeping giant whose late-night stirrings are already impacting elections and who, if fully awakened, could transform the political calculus of elections to come. The question, then, is how to awaken those millions of suffering, struggling Americans in a way that galvanizes them around a vision of lifting the country from the bottom up, so that everyone — billionaires aside — can rise.

The first part of the answer, I'd suggest, is beginning within poor communities themselves, especially places where people are already taking life-saving action. The other part of the answer is finding new and creative ways to connect the survival strategies and projects of the poor to a wider movement that can move people beyond survival and toward building and wielding political power.

On this topic of power-building, Martin Luther King's words again ring true today. In "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community," he wrote:

"Our nettlesome task is to discover how to organize our strength into compelling power so that government cannot elude our demands. We must develop, from strength, a situation in which the government finds it wise and prudent to collaborate with us."

Yes, it's once again time for poor and low-income people to come together across issues and lines of division, challenging the tired, yet still hegemonic narrative that blames them for their poverty, pits groups of them against each other, and feeds the lie of scarcity. Perhaps the Mass Poor People's and Low-Wage Workers Assembly and Moral March on Washington planned for the nation's capital on June 18, 2022, will signal the building of just such a new political powerhouse before the midterm elections.

Indeed, the response of those elected to serve all the people in a historic hour of need suggests that there is much work still to be done. But if in the months to come, you stop for a moment and feel the earth beneath your feet, you might just sense the rumblings of a giant electorate of poor and low-income agents of social change waking from its slumber.

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