After 9/11, an idea arose that Muslims had better start policing their own. The Muslim community was pressured to prove loyalty to the United States or possibly suffer like the Asian-Americans during World War II, who ended up in internment camps. Americans demanded Muslim leadership to speak out and pick a side. Sadly, Muslim leadership largely failed to prove their loyalty to mainstream, non-Muslim Americans, and the resulting rift now seems permanent. Talk of segregating Muslims and banning them from this country are now commonplace. Americans blamed the moderates in the Muslim community, both home and abroad, for allowing this jihadi fire to grow unchecked right under their noses. The Muslim faith was hijacked, and the American Church is teed up for the same fate during its long slide toward irrelevance.
I have grown up in the White Church, and after years of all but abandoning it, I came back to it. I consider myself a true believer, though I am possibly the most irreverent and obnoxious Christian you may ever meet. Without over-qualifying, I believe in the tenets of the Christian faith as laid out in the Bible. I only say this so that my ideas here are not dismissed as those of a disenfranchised outsider or fringe follower who swings by only on Easter and Christmas. I am an active leader trying to change things from within. In the same way that Muslims feel that the religion they love has been hijacked, I feel the same is happening to my faith. Born of the usual diet of fear, anger, and ignorance, ideas are stirring in the pews of the church that are not being addressed. Tragically, but not unexpectedly. A case could be made that the White American Church has been silent and may bear responsibility for the mainstreaming of the white supremacist movement and general American fascism. White Church leadership in this country has a long history of silence or even complicit behavior during crucial race-related moments, including slavery and the civil rights movement. As tiki torches rage openly, the church again is standing by in silence, and the silence speaks volumes.
In “After Charlottesville, will white pastors finally take racism seriously?,” Washington Post writer Jemar Tisby, a self-proclaimed believer and church member, writes, “Despite all our efforts, some white pastors still remain silent on Sunday. They relegate racism to the status of a ‘social’ issue and not a ‘gospel’ issue. Leadership in churches and other Christian organizations remain all or mostly white. It’s the same with the boards of directors and trustees of these institutions. Evangelicals who prostitute the faith for political power remain in the pulpit and are given wide latitude to stir up racial resentment in the guise of ‘race-neutral’ language.”
The Trump era has been blamed for making racism and fascism en vogue. Is this rise in disgraceful ideology and its emboldened legion of followers really all Trump’s fault, or has it been there all along, allowed to foment in the silent vacuum left by the American pulpit? Like his claims about his height, weight, and wealth, Trump makes many claims about who he is, but spiritual leader is not one of them. Regardless of the attempts to justify compromises, it is reasonable to believe that to liberals, and to non-Christians, Trump never would have been elected without evangelical white voters. Some Christians chose not to vote at all and remain silent –– they are viewed equally complicit. Therefore, whatever Trump shall do, he doeth as the leader of the White American Church and evangelical movement. In “Blessed Are the Religious, for Theirs Is The Presidency of Trump,” Huffington Post writer Brandi Miller says, “Donald Trump is America’s White Jesus, and evangelical Christians follow him as Lord.” Like it or not, the church will be held accountable for everything out of the Trump piehole, and though it is actually fair to point blame, it pisses me off.
Many have wondered how the Nazis rose to power in a “Christian nation” like Germany. The fear and frustrations of economic depression after WWI were the seedbed of a growing moral compromise among average Germans, and church leadership was complicit in its populist endorsement of a charismatic leader named Adolph Hitler, who was scratching the itch in just the right way and at the right time. German Pastor Hermann Gruner said, at the pulpit, “The time is fulfilled for the German people of Hitler. It is because of Hitler that Christ, God, the helper and redeemer, has become effective among us. … Hitler is the way of the spirit and the will of God for the German people to enter the church of Christ.”
One exception was theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was determined not only to refute this idea but also to topple Hitler, even if it meant dying. Bonhoeffer was killed in a concentration camp for standing up to fascism and Hitler’s perverse ideology. Where is the American Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Is he on Christian TV or preaching from a pulpit somewhere in America? It would be surprising to find any pastor or evangelical leader to not know Bonhoeffer’s name and revere his courage, and yet they clearly have learned very little from him. The church’s silence would disgust him.
The church fears being political –– as it should. This is not for lack of opinion but because of money. They don’t want to risk their tax exemptions by endorsing a candidate directly, so they instead work into sermons a way to show support for a particular policy of their candidate without naming names and are never heard criticizing a policy or idea expressed or fomented by their party or candidate. Once in office, their candidate is as infallible as God himself, free from all criticism. The church is missing a huge opportunity to show the relevance of the Gospel message the same way that Martin Luther King Jr. did while remaining safely apolitical. For example, you could use the current white supremacist movement as an example for what happens when we allow fear to rule in our hearts, and replace it with hatred, and why we are warned in Apostle Paul’s letters to “Take every thought captive.” Pastors could be offering historical insight, drawing the parallel based on what happened to the Jews under Hitler and the mistake it was for the church to remain silent, teaching them about Bonhoeffer’s sacrificial response. With the Syrian refugee crisis, you would think pastors would be welcoming refugees with open arms. This would be a golden evangelical opportunity to spread the Gospel by living it instead of just preaching it! These are lost souls in the mind of the church, who, in Syria, could be stoned to death for attending a simple Bible study. Jesus’ words “Whatever you have done unto the least of these, you have done unto me” have rarely seemed more relevant than they have in relation to the Syrian refugee crisis. Now we can welcome them and love on them and open our great blessings to them the same way Jesus and the first-century church did. Has any churchgoer seen that happen at his or her church? What if churches just reminded their congregants that Jesus was a Palestinian Jew and not a white European? At this point, church leaders, unlike our president, could just come out and say, “This specific group or teaching is a contradiction with scripture and an offense to Christianity,” but they don’t. In a November U.S. terrorism report, The Guardian said that in the immediate seven years following 9/11, 201 cases of domestic terrorism by right-wing extremists were reported and with a higher death rate than any other terrorist group, person, or organization. “For at least a generation, right-wing homegrown extremists have been far and away the largest source of terrorism in the United States.” So you are more likely threatened by a white, right-wing, church-going male in this country than anyone else.
The inability of most pastors to make the Gospel socially relevant in race relations is long established. Condemning the classic enemies –– alcohol, drugs, and premarital sex –– is still at the forefront of every illustration of sin. Jesus warned against matters of the heart, which are revealed in our relationship to material things and money, to judgmental attitudes or self-righteousness, and to the poor and destitute. A life of humble service to mankind was central to his every action. I’m starting to think this Jesus guy wouldn’t be welcomed at most churches. Do pastors believe the Bible offers no solution to our current social climate, to fight bigotry and hate? Historically in America, the Bible has been used as a weapon to subjugate slaves, women, and the poor. Do pastors feel no conviction to right this wrong? In his 2003 book Blue Like Jazz, Texan Donald Miller described setting up a confessional booth in his very liberal college community of Portland, Oregon. Participants walked in expecting to rail against him for his audacity but instead found Miller apologizing for the great misdeeds of the church. Miller realized that empathy and humility were the pathways toward his ever being able to share his personal faith with the people he loved.
Maybe this social irrelevance is a large contributor to the overall decline in church membership. Is this inability to relate spawned from pastors and congregants being too far detached from the world outside the walls of their safe church, where the game of appearing holy comes easy? That wouldn’t seem Christlike at all. Authors like George Barna are reporting and predicting a steady and continuous decline overall in church membership, with an aging church population in both leadership and in the pews, and he predicts in his 2005 book Revolution that in the next decade, the church will be relegated to a small minority over. In the 2006 movie Idiocracy, the decline of society has markers that you can see happening right now. Likewise, the telltale signs or markers outlined in Barna’s book, now a decade in from publishing, seem to be reading like prophecy but at a much faster pace than predicted. Millennials are much bolder in their wholesale rejection of institutions like marriage and the church that have made their parents world-class assholes. The church, and most marriages, have little to respond with. How will millennials, who have rejected Trump and his ideology, then be expected to embrace the faith that got him elected? Why would a young person join a church that does not address the issues in the real world?
The need to disparage fascism and racism in the 21st century is like convincing someone, “Sorry, but you must wipe your ass after crapping. You just must!” Fascism is anti-American, and it is contradictory to Christianity. Sadly, most would say they agree in general, but most don’t understand what fascism is or understand how their social score-boarder comments are fascist, which they often mistake for patriotism. They think fascism is limited to the Nazis and Italians in WWII. They don’t believe you when you explain that while they may be entitled to their ideas, and that their ideas don’t make them fascists, the way they are expressing their thoughts is fascist. Even when you show them the historical parallels to the dangerous road we now travel, they lack the humility to hear it, unless it comes from a pastor. Because in their mind, “If the pastor don’t say it’s wrong, then it aint!” Pastors know this, they do, and they choose silence.
Here is a good way to know if you are a fascist. The obvious would be if you think someone else should be beaten, jailed, or kicked out of the country because he or she doesn’t look like you or has actively participated in behavior that merely makes you uncomfortable, then you are definitely a fascist. And an asshole as a bonus. You probably knew this deep down, and you probably don’t read newspapers anyway, just memes and blogs. The quieter, more prevalent and persistent version of fascism applies to those who have frequently insulted, bullied, harassed, or degraded another person on social media or in person over his or her beliefs. And to those who are offended personally by those who don’t look, talk, or eat like they do. If this is you, then you are probably a fascist. Some of you feel justified in the way a 5-year-old would claim, “But she hit me first!” If you think like this, you are part of the problem and also need to grow up. Fast. Nuclear war hangs in the balance.
There are conservative fascists, liberal fascists, and religious fascists. I have been on the receiving end of all three. I see liberals act like fascists on a variety of issues. The difference that conservatives cannot seem to grasp is that liberal fascism is based on an opposition to ideas and does not consist of judgment and hatred toward a particular demographic. So both sides are not equally at fault or equal in any way. However, the tactics and tools used by both are why nothing changes.
Fascists insult people on social media, they are careless in their posts, and they more often appear ignorant, basing their ideas solely on sound bites and memes from carefully chosen news sources, which only fans the flames of their growing fears and stiffening ideologies. Mainstream news organizations are almost –– almost –– as bad as the church. “The purpose of the news is to inform the public,” says the ignoramus who doesn’t know “how money do” and doesn’t understand that all news media outlets are about making money, period. If real news made money like it did 60 years ago, non-celebrity news would draw more viewers, and advertisers, than celebrity news. But we all know that’s not the case. The real news –– as opposed to the words of op-ed columnists –– is not left or right. This notion of dismissing news as biased left or right is a brilliant ploy by Trumpers to continually divide the soft-minded public. For the record, real news is The New York Times, the Washington Post, The New Yorker, Harper’s, CBS/NBC/ABC, and others (including this humble rag). These are real publications that have been around for a long time and have weathered all manner of libel accusations. Entertainment or op-ed-driven news is Fox News, CNN, Breitbart, and MSNBC, as well as most blogs and online streaming news services. Still, no matter how biased or unbiased a news organization may be, it is in the business of making money, and money is unbiased. Today’s left/right, real/fake battle is our fault. We get what we ask for and what we deserve. The bloviators don’t amount to news at all, just sensationalized reality TV with opinions that sell or don’t sell and, therefore, that make money or do not. It is the candy that feeds our cancer. The only difference is the flavor.
Christians in this country love to lay claim to a perceived spiritual heritage. Presbyterian minister Robert Dabney, Stonewall Jackson’s spiritual advisor, who masterfully wove Calvinism and scripture together to form a theological basis for systemic racism, genocide, and eventually civil war, is a strong part of that heritage, too. Despite his open support for repression and racism, his other ideas, ranging from who goes to heaven and the virtue of patriotism, are entrenched in church seminary teaching today. He is prominent in theological circles of all denominations. His enduring influence and admiration are as shocking as if you stumbled across a Jewish teacher sharing glowing reviews of Hitler’s economic policy. In his 1876 book A Defense of Virginia, Dabney wrote, “It is well known that, as a general rule, [Negroes] are a graceless, vagabondish set, and contribute very little to the support of the State by which they are protected. They are not citizens, never can become citizens, and wherever found in large numbers they are an expense and a source of trouble.”
He wrote hundreds of letters denouncing the public education of former or current slaves and fought against any policy that would have improved the lives of people of color or rendered them any relief or advantage. Only a pure white could be “the elect,” which in Calvinist terms means that Dabney taught and believed only pure whites go to heaven. Yet today pastors across the country proclaim him a prophet of God. Search his name on the internet, and you will find the whitewashed version of his message preserved by “Christian” booksellers like Logos.com or quoted and honored by heads of state, including President George W. Bush. Dabney’s view is one of many examples of how and why the church has at times actively exposed generations of believers to covert racist ideology and policy but sees no need to make amends today.
Is the American church poised to once again be on the wrong side of this cultural shift, or will it ever learn from its repeated mistakes? Will the White Church, for once, stand with their non-white brothers and sisters and together reject and oppose this rise in hatred and bigotry from within its own pews? Has there ever been a time when the White Church in America has been on the right side of any issue regarding civil rights? Have you ever met a racist atheist? Is this really the biblical church at all, or does it consist of the dying remains of a manmade shell that must pass away for something true and pure to arise in its place? If this American version of church is a group whose members claim to be disciples of Jesus, who are measuring their lives against his to make life decisions large and small, how could they be so largely content to allow this silent approval of patently black-and-white issues to pass? Issues that even a biblical novice would recognize as contradictory to Jesus’ teachings and therefore worthy of specific condemnation? If churchgoers are not asking these questions, then non-churchgoers certainly are. When history looks back on this era and makes judgment, will our kids and grandkids wonder what side we were on and be ashamed as many descendants from WWII-era Germany are today? Or will they be proud that we stood for what was right and took action? The real church is not limited to the people who meet on Sundays. A Bible-believing church could not be silent.
I was raised a Reagan Republican. Like most Christians, I never read the Bible as a kid. I grew up believing things or was allowed to believe things that I would be ashamed to admit now. The election of Obama in 2008 opened my eyes to the team I was really on and what my team believed. I was disgusted. Worse yet, the church was silent on what they saw “Christians” saying and doing publicly. The openly racist and hateful behavior toward our former president –– which was tolerated by people claiming to be conservative Christians, evangelicals, and Republicans –– was a new American low point for me.
Then on May 13, 2012, Pastor Charles Worley of Providence Road Baptist Church, at a Mother’s Day sermon, spoke a message that surely would bring outrage from the mainstream church: “Build a great, big, large fence — 150 or 100 miles long — put all the lesbians in there. Do the same thing for the queers and the homosexuals and have that fence electrified so they can’t get out … and you know what? In a few years, they’ll die out. … Do you know why? They can’t reproduce.”
He also said he wouldn’t vote for a “baby killer and homosexual lover,” referring to President Obama’s public support for marriage equality. During all of the right wing-driven fear-mongering and hate speech that ensued, once again, as would be expected, the church was silent. While I have not lost faith in the Bible, or my faith in who I believe Jesus was, my questioning of the manmade institution steeped in perverse tradition and destined for complete irrelevance began. Simple application of the most fundamental principles of the Gospel have led me to question if what we have all come to call “the church” has anything to do with Jesus at all. From a PR standpoint, the church isn’t doing Jesus any favors.
Sean Russell is a singer-songwriter (Cut Throat Finches), an infrequent contributor to the Weekly, and a reformed pragmatist.