The un-wokeness of Christian nationalism

By Paul Graves
Reader Contributor

Sometimes, ignorance breeds irony. Irony comes from a Greek word, eirôneia, which means “feigned ignorance.“ 

One such example may be the “woke” cultural phenomenon. Perhaps many people who think something is “woke” are feigning — pretending — to be ignorant. They may actually know their use of “woke” means the opposite of what it actually means.

Being “woke” was popularized in 1962 as African-American street slang by Black novelist William Melvin Kelley. His explanation of “woke” clearly proclaimed that history — Black history, especially — must be embraced and affirmed. His description is reflected in how the Oxford English Dictionary defines “woke”: “Originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice; frequently in stay woke.” 

Paul Graves.

Today, “woke” is a heavily wounded word. It’s been distorted by both well-meaning and mean-spirited people who toss it around like a rugby ball, then run after the player with that ball. 

Folks, it simply means becoming realistically aware — “wake up,” if you will. There’s the irony, folks. 

Christian nationalism is an ironic case in point. (Full disclosure: I’m a retired United Methodist pastor. My view of this distorted, rigidly narrow Christian message is what drives me to an informed repudiation of Christian nationalism.)

This authoritarian ideology is a mish-mash of religious, political and cultural misinformation that masquerades as “truth.” It paints those who disagree as “woke.” Yet, in the light of factual truth-pieces, we can assume Christian nationalism is actually “un-woke” itself. 

I must quickly say that while many of these folks are churchgoing believers, not all Christians are “Christian nationalists.” Far from it. 

But the nationalist-leaning folks have a large bullhorn, and are eager to use it to push their repressive agendas. They shout loudly here in North Idaho, in bodies like the Idaho Legislature (and many other state legislatures), or in many groups and individual homes around our country.

Christian nationalists have chosen to embrace what Kellyanne Conway characterized early in the Trump administration as “alternative facts” (rather than historical realities). The result is always a dangerous distortion that undermines the concepts of political democracy and religious freedom.

Here are a few “alternative facts” on which Christian nationalism bases its “authority,” according to “An ‘imposter Christianity’ is threatening American democracy’, a CNN analysis by John Blake published July 24, 2022:

1. A belief that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation. But the notion that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation is bad history and bad theology, said Yale University sociologist Philip Gorski, co-author of The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy.

While some Founding Fathers saw the new nation through biblical lenses, many did not. And virtually none of them could be classified as evangelical Christians. They were a collection of atheists, Unitarians, Deists and liberal Protestants.

2. A belief in “warrior Christ.” For so many participants in the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at our nation’s capital (and their thousands of supporters), that event was as much religious as political. It appears based on a very limited interpretation of Jesus as a violent warrior found in Revelation 19:11-21. It’s in stark contrast to the Jesus found in the four Gospels — a man who subverted the religious and cultural systems in prophetic ways, but never as a violent warrior. 

Another sad irony here: In Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s exceptional book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, she observes that, “White Christian nationalists do not accept this ‘militant masculinity’ when exhibited by Black, Middle Eastern and Latino men.” That characteristic leads to another belief.

3. A belief there’s such a person as a “real American.” Expert researchers on Christian nationalism observe that, “The nation is divided between ‘real Americans’ and other citizens who don’t deserve the same rights.” So many groups (people of color, LGBTQ communities, demonized “others,” etc.) don’t count politically when it comes to the key act of democracy: voting.

“It’s the idea that we are the people, and our vote should count, and you’re not the people, and … you don’t really deserve to have a voice,” Gorski said. “… [B]ecause we know that all real Americans voted for Donald Trump.”

When people are prevented from voting, whether in local community elections, or state and national elections, we crack open a dangerous door to the whole experiment called democracy. So become informed, and vote. 

Get woke! Stay awake to historical realities as they are, not as you want them to be. America will be better for it.

Paul Graves is a retired United Methodist pastor and longtime Sandpoint resident, where he served on the City Council and as mayor. He also works as a geriatric social worker, serving as “Lead Geezer-in-Training” for Elder Advocates, a consulting ministry on aging issues.

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