My husband and I expected to be pastors until we retired, but the Christian nationalism embraced by some church members has caused us to give up on that idea.
From 2017 to 2020, we were co-pastors of a church in Amarillo. Members knew that we did not share the positive opinion of former President Donald Trump that many of them had, but we rarely discussed our political views. We left that church before the 2020 election, planning to continue our careers as pastors elsewhere.
We have since realized we cannot do that. Serving as pastors now seems incompatible with God’s call to preach and live according to the teachings of Jesus. We know that other congregations, especially in red states like Texas, are likely to include MAGA Republicans who don’t want to hear that their bigoted views go against everything Jesus taught and modeled. They can’t accept that politicians they support, like Donald Trump and Governor Greg Abbott, are endangering lives and ignoring Jesus’ call to help “the least of these.”
My husband experienced this firsthand when he led worship at a rural Texas congregation on June 19, 2022. The person reading the prayers provided by the national church left out one that recognized the Juneteenth holiday and condemned white supremacy. During his interview with the church council after worship, he asked why that prayer had been omitted. He was told that similar prayers at previous services had caused one man to walk out and say he wouldn’t be back and several others to complain. When he said he found that troubling and did not think white supremacy was part of God’s kingdom, the council president looked straight at him and said, “I disagree.”
As you’ll see below, many Texas Christians recognize the danger Christian nationalism poses and are publicly expressing their opposition to it. Even so, far more Christians in Texas and elsewhere need to denounce Christian nationalism. The silence of those who know better not only contradicts the teachings of Jesus, but also legitimizes the cruel policies, threats, and violence.
The term “Christian nationalism” means different things to different people. That makes it easier for political and religious leaders to falsely claim this dangerous ideology will make our country better. I am using Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry’s definition from Taking America Back For God. They spent five years analyzing data and conducting interviews about Christian nationalism in the United States, and they define the term as follows:
“Christian nationalism is a cultural framework—a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems—that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civil life.”
They emphasize that “Christianity” here means something other than its usual definition. It is not simply a religion whose adherents worship Jesus as Lord.
Whitehead and Perry continue,“It includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism. It is as ethnic and political as it is religious.”
Even in supposedly progressive denominations like the one my husband and I belong to, there are people who embrace Christian nationalism and believe the United States needs to be reclaimed as a Christian nation. What used to be the private prejudices of some church members are now painfully obvious. Even worse, they believe God shares their bigoted views and wants everyone to be forced to live by them. State officials like Abbott seem to agree.
The ‘false prophets’ of the GOP
Faithful America, a nationwide Christian organization with more than 180,000 members, has identified Abbott as one of 20 “false prophets” who “distort the Gospel for their agenda of hatred, power, and division.”
Abbott’s directive to have parents of transgender children investigated for child abuse if they help their children get appropriate medical care is a cruel policy that violates Jesus’ directive to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
His decision to bus immigrants to distant states without notifying anyone in those states so they could prepare to feed and house large numbers of people obviously contradicts what Jesus says in Matthew 25:
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’
“And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.’”
The ongoing refusal of Abbott and the GOP-led state Legislature to accept the Medicaid expansion that’s 90 percent funded by the federal government is another example of their lack of concern for “the least of these.” If Texas expanded its Medicaid program, 1,432,900 uninsured non-elderly adults would become eligible, more than a third of the uninsured nonelderly adults in Texas. As it stands now, adults without dependents or disabilities are not eligible for Medicaid regardless of income in Texas.
Furthermore, the official 2022 Texas GOP platform includes calls to repeal all minimum wage and mandatory sick and family leave laws, end federal welfare programs, eliminate funding for school-based mental health programs and repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). How can anyone believe Jesus would support those ideas, which would clearly harm “the least of these?”
It’s equally hard to imagine Jesus would agree with Abbott that we have “God given Second Amendment rights.” Abbott believes gun ownership cannot be restricted in any way, even to prevent an 18-year-old from legally purchasing the assault rifles and ammunition necessary to murder 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde.
Jesus made it clear that violence was unacceptable, even when it was used to defend him. Jesus also taught that we are to love everyone, even our enemies. The violent breach of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, is therefore morally unacceptable according to Jesus even if you believe the lie that Trump won in 2020 or was anointed by God to lead our country. So are the threats against election workers and others who refused to support that lie. So are the cruel comments, laws, and policies that endanger immigrants, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ people.
LGBTQ+ people and allies do not pose any threat to Texas children. The real danger to Texas children comes from far-right groups like the Proud Boys, many of whom identify as Christian nationalists. That was quite obvious in June during a Pride-themed Family Story Time at a McKinney library. When the Proud Boys and other right-wing extremists showed up to protest the event, counter-protesters drowned out their hateful words with cheers and formed a human shield. “‘There were protesters there that held up signs about protecting kids, but it was members of the LGBTQ community and allies that shielded my brown boys from these hate groups,” Kathryn Vargas told LGBTQ Nation.
Another parent tweeted that she and her three small children needed an escort to their car for safety. “Grateful to LGBTQ community members and allies who out-numbered them five to one so that at least my younger two kids couldn’t see anything but love.”
Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of the LGBTQ+ advocacy organization GLAAD, holds politicians like Abbott partially responsible for this and similar incidents. She told Salon’s Kathryn Joyce, “The anti-LGBTQ rhetoric we see during these incidents comes straight from lawmakers like DeSantis and Abbott and their co-conspirators on Fox News, who are leading the charge to misrepresent, demonize and target our community.”
Texas Christians Against Christian Nationalism
Incidents like that and our desire to be faithful followers of Jesus have led some Texas Christians to realize we must publicly condemn Christian nationalism. We often face negative consequences when we do. As I mentioned earlier, my husband and I decided we could no longer serve as pastors. That means our income has decreased dramatically, and we currently have no health insurance.
I spoke with three other Texas Christians who have also paid a price for their opposition to Christian nationalism.
Lead Pastor Zach Lambert of Restore Church, Austin, shared his experience with me during a phone interview on October 17, and in subsequent emails. The congregation was originally part of the Evangelical Free Church of America. Pastor Zach told me they were kicked out of that denomination when they refused to sign “an anti-LGBTQIA+ policy that the Texas-Oklahoma District wrote in response to our church not discriminating against queer folks.” Pastor Zach also had his ministry license revoked.
He emailed me a copy of a letter he received from a church official in response to his statement that he would mail back his ministry license. It included these words:
“I plead with you to reconsider your position on this important matter, not only for biblical and doctrinal reasons but also both for your own spiritual well-being and for the spiritual well-being of others.”
There were also more frightening consequences. Lambert has been called a “pedophile enabler,” “groomer,” “baby killer,” and “heretic,” among other derogatory terms, online. He found it necessary to remove photos of his children from all social media platforms.
After the insurrection on January 6, 2021, Lambert realized how homophobia was combined with racism and patriarchy in Christian nationalism. He preached a sermon against that ideology and lamented the willingness of many Christians to embrace it.
He also uses Twitter to express his opposition to Christian nationalism. On October 5, 2022, he tweeted, “I don’t want America to be a Christian nation. Christian nationalism is toxic and abusive. … I just want Christians in America to live and love like Jesus.”
The consequences of expressing that view haven’t been all bad, though. Lambert told me that his church has new visitors every week who tell him they have left previous congregations because of politics. He gets many more (he estimated 10 to one) positive messages than negative ones on social media. About 15 percent of church members identify as LGBTQ+ and are grateful to have found a congregation that truly welcomes them.
Pastor Jessica Cain, who has been at Living Word Lutheran Church in Buda since 2018, spoke with me on October 18. She said one reason she was excited to become their pastor was because of the congregation’s history of community engagement and political advocacy. While they never endorse or oppose specific candidates, the church partners with the Central Texas Interfaith organization to promote causes like living wages and safe working conditions, more affordable housing, fair treatment of migrants at the border, increased access to health care, and common-sense gun safety measures.
She saw that as a welcome change from her previous Texas congregation, where she felt she had to be extremely cautious about what she said. Despite that, some members still left to join more conservative denominations. One couple was upset when their request to put an American flag in the sanctuary was denied, along with their wish to put hundreds of flags on the church lawn to celebrate a patriotic holiday.
Living Word has also been a Reconciling in Christ congregation for many years. That designation means it welcomes people of all sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, is open to calling LGBTQ+ ministers, allows its premises to be used for LGBTQ+ weddings, and is committed to racial equity.
The congregation held a Pride worship service in June, as well as a service of celebration and lament in observance of the Juneteenth holiday. It also has an anti-racism task force.
Because of its location in a more liberal area of Texas, and the fact that there are other progressive churches nearby, neither Cain nor the congregation has been harassed or threatened to the extent that Pastor Zach has. However, members who identify as LGBTQ+ or have had abortions have been negatively affected by the condemnation and discriminatory laws Christian nationalism encourages. They and others, including Cain, have ended relationships or limited what they discuss with friends and family members who still support Donald Trump, Greg Abbott, and other Christian nationalist politicians.
Finally, I spoke to Cindy Harris by phone on October 18. She told me she had left a congregation (she was not comfortable specifying which one) in Grapevine because of Christian nationalism. Although she and her husband had helped start the church and been members for years, she realized she could not support the extremist views many members came to see as the only acceptable ideology.
Prior to the 2016 election, Harris’ husband criticized Donald Trump on Facebook. He got messages from another church member saying he was not Christian if he didn’t vote for Trump and calling him a “baby killer.” When he told the pastor, he found out that person had done the same thing to others. She was never held accountable for her abusive behavior and still belongs to the church.
Harris’ husband, who she described as “more loving” than herself, still worships there. She added that he knows he must “get closure and leave” at some point.
Cindy also shared that a friend who attends that church told her some “hard-right” candidates for elected offices now worship there. One man running to be a school board member called his opponent a pedophile. She added that the church parking lot has cars with bumper stickers like “Let’s go Brandon,” a euphemism Republicans use that means “Fuck Joe Biden,” and some members wear their MAGA hats in church.
Cindy told me she is disappointed, discouraged, and angered by the behavior of many people at her former church and the pastor’s inability to hold members accountable. It is now a very different environment than when she raised her children there.
We all must denounce Christian nationalism
Plenty of Texas Christians are appalled by the hateful comments and violence of Christian nationalists. St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin proudly proclaims their progressive Christian values through wonderful messages on the sign in the front yard, such as “Jesus Was a Liberator of the Oppressed, Not a Mascot For the Powerful,” and “Jesus Trusted Women.” I’m always grateful to see their messages when I drive by. According to the the congregation’s website, they follow the teachings of Jesus “by championing universal human rights and courageously acting to overcome injustice.”
Unfortunately, other Texas Christians who agree with those statements and oppose Christian nationalism choose not to publicly share their beliefs. Some pastors stay silent because they don’t want to create conflict, cause members to leave, or be forced to resign. Some Christians are afraid they will be rejected by friends, family members, or fellow church members. They have people in their lives who don’t see (or don’t care) that Christian nationalism clearly contradicts Jesus’ teachings and the way he treated people. Others fear they will be harassed online or physically assaulted if they express opposition to Trump, Abbott, or many other far-right bigots who embrace Christian nationalism.
While those fears are understandable, the trauma Christian nationalism has already inflicted on individuals and our country and the ongoing threat it poses is serious enough that remaining silent is not a morally defensible choice.
There are many ways you can take action to oppose Christian nationalism. The nonprofit Vote Common Good offers a free online course on the subject, which you could share with your friends or faith community. On social media, avoid engaging with cruel and insulting individuals; either block them or “turn the other cheek” by replying with verified facts from credible sources.
Support independent media outlets that tell the truth about the violent attacks Christian nationalism encourages. Vote for candidates who oppose the unjust laws and policies Christian nationalists embrace and report all threats and other attempts to intimidate voters you witness to the national voter protection hotline, 866-OUR-VOTE. If you can safely do so, record video as they occur.
Whether or not they’re religious, the opponents of Christian nationalism outnumber its supporters. If we work together, we can counter that ideology and limit its ability to do further damage. As Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said during his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1986, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.” This is one of those times.