Warning Wisconsin people of faith about white Christian nationalism
A growing movement of religious leaders speaks up for pluralism, human rights
Picture of a Christian church in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, taken in October 2012 | Getty Images Creative
For three days this week, the Rev. Jennifer Butler has toured Wisconsin, warning against the resurgence of white Christian nationalism in politics and religion alike.
White Christian nationalism is as old as the nation, says Butler. “It’s a deliberate attempt to conflate religious identity with ethnic and national identity,” she says, “to say that America is a nation that was founded by and for white Christians, and primarily for men to be in charge.”
It has resurfaced throughout U.S. history. It was emboldened by the presidency of Donald Trump, and it was embedded in the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol insurrection that sought to prevent the peaceful transfer of power once Trump lost his reelection bid in 2020.
While the growth of this far right movement “has been shocking, and rightly so, to many Americans,” Butler adds, she cites research suggesting that as many as one in five Americans adhere to its underlying point of view.
At the same time, the white Christian nationalist resurgence is being met by a growing number of faith groups, organizing in opposition and working to bolster pluralism and democracy in a movement that makes room for many faiths, Butler says. She’s the founder of one such group, Faith in Public Life.
Both the influence of white Christian nationalism and the work going on to counter it are what drew Butler to Wisconsin. The state “has been ground zero for some of the efforts to jeopardize free and fair elections,” she says. Even so, “faith leaders in Wisconsin played a really critical role in ensuring that there was safety at the polls and everybody had access.”
An interfaith coalition that included Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders and other representatives helped sponsor Butler’s visit. “They’re working very hard to build a statewide presence that can help to advance human dignity,” she says.
Her Wisconsin presentations included a workshop Sunday at a church in Waukesha on how to talk to friends and loved ones who have embraced Christian nationalism and conspiracy theories, as well as a lecture on Monday on the history of the Christian right.
On Tuesday she is scheduled to discuss American democracy and the role of faith at First Baptist Church in Madison, followed by a panel with Christian, Muslim and Jewish faith leaders countering white Christian nationalism in Wisconsin and across the U.S.
A slave Bible without Exodus
While white Christian nationalism has been getting a lot of attention lately, it has a long history in the U.S. Two centuries ago defenders of slavery used the Bible to justify the practice, and published a Bible for enslaved people, Butler says, “that cut out the book of Exodus because the Bible itself was inspiring slave revolts.”
The contemporary Christian right launched in the 1970s to oppose school desegregation, Butler says, shifting its primary focus to opposing abortion in the 1980s. She sees Trump’s failure to forcefully and immediately condemn the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., and his 2020 photo-op holding up a Bible in front of a church in Washington, D.C., after demonstrators protesting the police killing of George Floyd were tear-gassed, as acts that fed the latest resurgence.
The COVID-19 pandemic sparking fear and uncertainty and the emergence of the Q-Anon conspiracy movement all played a role in drawing more people into the Christian nationalist world view, she adds. Internet misinformation and social media algorithms have fed on people “feeling unstable and insecure and looking for meaning and for community.”
Yet faith, too, has a heritage of resistance to that world view. Faith-based abolitionists challenged slavery from a moral perspective and helped bring about its end, Butler says. A century later, Martin Luther King Jr. mobilized “a coalition of faith leaders to counter a segregated society.”
‘We gave up our voice’
Now a new wave of faith voices drawing on many different religious traditions is leading resistance to contemporary white Christian nationalism.
Butler acknowledges that many people who have encountered and been repelled by the Christian right and white Christian nationalism have gone on to assume all Christianity and all religion is equally hateful and narrow.
Christians who opposed the Christian right made the mistake of not speaking up, she says. “We gave up our voice in the 1980s and ‘90s — we actually thought the best way to handle the Christian right was to keep our faith private. And I think that was a mistake.”
As a high school student in the 1980s, she recalls seeing Christian right leader Jerry Falwell on the evening news, “but never hearing from the kind of colleagues that I’m working with today — who really are the religious majority,” she says.
“What we needed to do is be vocal about the religious foundations for advancing human dignity, for protecting voting rights and for ending racism, for countering antisemitism,” Butler says.
That’s been her mission since founding Faith in Public Life in 2005. Since that time she has gathered 50,000 religious leaders from many faiths under the group’s umbrella.
“What I’ve been about the past 17 years is helping faith leaders understand that their religious freedom entitles them to speak from a Jewish voice, a Catholic voice, a Muslim voice, and that that voice actually helps people understand what’s happening in the world today … to advance dignity for everyone.”
Helping loved ones walk away
In her first Wisconsin presentation, in Waukesha on Sunday, on how to talk to “friends and loved ones caught up in conspiracy theories and Christian nationalism,” Butler said that trying to approach those conversations from a perspective of reason, logic or debate is likely going to fail.
“People who are getting pulled into these conspiracy theories, most of them are very frightened,” she says. “We need to understand the fear, the anger, the anxiety, that’s driving them and show some empathy for that. It doesn’t mean we agree with where they take that, but we need to empathize.”
Common experiences can be a touchstone. “We’ve been through a pandemic,” Butler says. “We all have doubts about some of the major institutions or our society” — the reality of sex scandals embroiling the church, for example.
By starting from a place of empathy based on shared experiences and feelings, she says, it’s possible “to start to introduce new facts to people.” Reasoned arguments can follow, but understanding the emotions driving people’s distrust and alienation is most important.
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For people who share a religious heritage, that can also be a touchstone, Butler says. She wrote a book, “Who Stole My Bible?” to counter what she sees as misinformation about the underlying message of her Christian faith — a faith that for her and millions of others has been about human freedom.
Butler says she also came to understand that drawing someone out of the destructive worldview at the heart of white Christian nationalism and related conspiracy theories is “not all up to me.”
“I used to go into conversations thinking I had to win, and I had to prove a point, and I had to come away with them accepting my reality,” she says. “The truth of it is we need to just be there, to try to shore them up emotionally, and to introduce a sliver of doubt.”
A native of Georgia who still lives in that state, Butler says that she’s seen many friends and family members swept up by conspiracy theories and right-wing misinformation. By keeping an open dialogue, however, she has seen some walk away from those views.
“I’ve had people come back to me after a period of years,” Butler says, “to find that something I said had opened their heart, their mind, a little further.”
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