“We’ve got the American Jesus
Bolstering national faith
We’ve got the American Jesus
Overwhelming millions every day.”
– Bad Religion, “American Jesus,” Recipe for Hate (1993)
Some Reflections for Independence Day, July 4, 2018
Yesterday, Mandy Nicole, founder and editor-in-chief of Fundamentally Free, a multi-author ex-evangelical blog, published a piece called “Evangelicalism Killed my Patriotism.” She notes the presence of American flags in her childhood churches and the recitation of pledges, in evangelical environments, not only to the American flag, but also to the Christian flag, the Bible, and even the flag of AWANA, a fundamentalist children’s club present in many Baptist churches. (I attended AWANA for a while as a small child, with the neighbors down the street, at their church.) Nicole observes:
By giving everything they hold dear–or perhaps everything they can use as a tool of control–a flag and a pledge, Evangelical Christianity demanded the sort of unflinching and emotional loyalty that most Americans feel on the 4th of July. They saw how Americans proudly rally behind our flag and our Pledge, and knew they could recreate that sort of communal passion with their own.
I associate heartfelt patriotism with white nationalist Evangelical Christianity so much that I’m not even interested in learning how to practice patriotism anymore. In my mind, patriotism means stepping in line, exhibiting unyielding loyalty even in the face of fascism, and sacrificing myself on the altar of the Cause. I won’t do it. I can’t.
I asked Mandy Nicole whether she would associate the kinds of involuntary reactions to displays of patriotism she describes in her post with religious trauma, the type of CPTSD that affects many survivors of harmful indoctrination in authoritarian religious communities. She replied:
I would definitely categorize my reaction to patriotism and Americana symbolism as being triggered. I’ve come to acknowledge sudden nausea, dizziness, sweaty palms, and a feeling of being suffocated with my anxiety disorder, and those are absolutely what I experience when confronted with intense patriotism.
Nicole added that while she hasn’t been diagnosed with CPTSD specifically for religious trauma, so necessary caveats regarding self-diagnosis apply, she has “been diagnosed with CPTSD from my abusive marriage” and is thus familiar with the symptoms.
I understand viscerally how someone whose life trajectory led to the rejection of an abusive deity can feel compelled to give up not only on that deity, but also on the symbols and rituals associated with the nation that is so often conflated with the divine in Jesus Land, USA. I grew up with white Christian nationalism too. With ritual recitations of the pledges to the American flag, the Christian flag, and the Bible at the beginning of every day in my Christian elementary school, with elementary school talents shows that ended with Lee Greenwood sing-a-longs.
God and country rhetoric is now fairly repulsive to me, but when I reflect on this, a kind of nostalgic sadness, one that I suppose is only familiar to those who have experienced some sort of profound alienation, settles upon me. Johnny Cash’s 1969 country/gospel hit “Daddy Sang Bass” reminds me of my childhood, because, my immediate and extended maternal family being pretty musically inclined, we sang a lot. Christian songs, mostly, but also patriotic songs, particularly around July 4th. And also, somewhat inexplicably, “Those Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer” and “Wooly Bully,” particularly at Christmas. (With apologies to Tolstoy, all normal families are alike, but each weird family is weird in its own way?)
I used to love belting out patriotic tunes. It took the comment of an eight-grade English teacher on one of my essays–yes, even at my Christian school in Colorado Springs!–to get me to question and think critically about bootstrapping ideology, about the dogma I had simply accepted up to that time that anyone who worked hard in America could rise to the top. Meanwhile, in high school, back in Indiana, the tortuously protracted process of my religious deconstruction began.
At Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis I was trained to write well, to formulate arguments, to identify logical fallacies. All of this was supposed to be employed in the service of defending the faith and fighting the culture wars, of course, which was the same thing as “saving America” from probable divine punishment if we did not “do God’s will” by banning abortion, restoring sanctioned school prayer, keeping members of the LGBTQ community from having full civil rights, and vigorously opposing most welfare and universal healthcare, which were means of being racist while swearing that we were not racist. (Narrator: They were racist.) For my part, however, I could not keep from turning that critical tool set I learned in Christian school around on the ideology I was supposed to be supporting, the biblical inerrancy nonsense, the conflation of “the Biblical worldview” with always supporting the most extreme Republicans available.
Patriotism of the American Christian nationalist variety began to make less and less sense to me, and I experienced another eye-opening shock when, in high school and college while interacting with German exchange students and studying abroad, I learned that, as a rule, educated Germans found America’s ubiquitous and gaudy displays of patriotism to be tacky at best, and they were particularly offended at the commonly held belief among white evangelicals that “America is the best country in the world.” (It is worrisome that, as I write these words, jingoistic right-wing populism is rearing its ugly head in Germany again).
I began, slowly, to question what being the best country in the world could possibly mean, and to understand that, while any index would be controversial, if one were to base an index on key objective measures like life health care accessibility, health care outcomes, life expectancy, teenage pregnancy, and infant mortality, the United States would be nowhere near the top. Still later, I began to grasp an inkling of the extent to which people of color reside in a completely different America from the one I live in, to get some sense–not that I can ever understand it on the level of someone who lives it–of what Langston Hughes meant when he wrote, in 1938, “America never was America to me.” How sad is it that, eighty years after Hughes penned those words, they are still so so relevant, with the white supremacist onslaught of Trumpist theocracy getting worse by the day?
Because the patriotism that I grew up with was tied to authoritarian Christianity, the more I rejected that toxic Christianity, the more I became ambivalent at best about expressions of patriotism. Singing “You’re a Grand Old Flag” is now nearly as awkward to me as singing, “Oh, You Can’t Get to Heaven.” To me now, as the American atmosphere grows ever more suffocating, it feels like the entire country is turning into a Christian school, turning into the oppressive and abusive evangelical milieu of my childhood, from which I have worked hard to escape. To many with less privilege than me (and, despite being queer, I have a lot), it must feel worse than that. Hate crimes are up as Trump and the Republican Party have emboldened their bigoted supporters to act on their hate and resentments; school shootings are more frequent occurrences than the weekly release of a new episode of your favorite TV show; police violence against African-Americans is rampant.
In addition, the surprise retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy means that hard-won rights of women, members of the LGBTQ community, and racial minorities are now at serious risk. Furthermore, the fascist Trump regime has been separating children from their asylum seeking parents at the border and literally placing those children in cages. Despite a court order to reunify the children with their parents, it is unlikely that full implementation will be possible.
How can one be patriotic at a time like this? Can we turn to the high ideals espoused by the country’s founding fathers as “the essence of America,” despite the country being founded on genocide, slavery, and white settler colonialism? I don’t believe that we can in any straightforward way, no more than we can insist that the Sermon on the Mount is “the essence of Christianity, because I say so, dagnabbit.” Treating wishful thinking as truth will not do. American history is threaded through with evils; religion is far from always benign.
At least so long as we remain unable to achieve a consensus about how to face up to the crimes of our government and society, past and present, and to find a way to pursue restorative justice through our governing institutions, American pieties will ring hollow. I do take some solace, some hope, in the fact that those of us who oppose white supremacist patriarchy outnumber the Christofascists who have pulled off a soft coup. A political minority governs this country, with most of us in strong disagreement to its policies. But it is the fascists who have used every means at their disposal–democratic norms and rule of law be damned–to seize disproportionate power and to begin dismantling our democracy, such as it was. They are stacking the federal courts and the Supreme Court with extremists, and they are effectively pursuing post-truth authoritarian politics, weaponizing disinformation as a means of maintaining control.
Authoritarianism–in religion, in government–is abuse. I grew up in an abusive relationship with the god of conservative Christianity, and we are now all in an abusive relationship with the Christofascist Trump regime, a regime that serves that same hateful god. Call Trump a “fake Christian” if you must. He has learned to repeat key conservative Christian talking points, e.g., in America, “we don’t worship government, we worship God,” but he clearly fakes his piety. His Christian supporters, however, do not fake theirs.
The Bible is a mixed bag. “Real” Christianity exists in decent and toxic forms. Similarly, there are decent and toxic ways of being American. In each case, communally mediated values, rhetoric, texts, and traditions provide individuals and groups with the material out of which to construct authoritarian or liberationist Christian and American identities. I will not deny that toxic patriotism is authentic patriotism, just as I will not deny that toxic Christianity is authentic Christianity. The two go hand in hand because fundamentalist religion is the best source of authoritative justification available to bigotry and to imperial endeavors. Nevertheless, decent patriotism and decent Christianity also exist.
We are living in a dark time, and there is really no guarantee that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. There are no guarantees that the “good guys” will win. In the United States at this moment, it seems more likely than not that “the bad guys” are going to win for at least the short to medium term, and quite possibly for decades. Decent patriotism, a critical patriotism that rejects utterly the ideology of “my country, right or wrong,” a patriotism that remains fiercely critical of injustice, is cold comfort in a time like this.
It is nevertheless my hope–not my faith, because I don’t really have any–that someday decent America will finally triumph over toxic America, over white supremacist, patriarchal, theocratic America. We should strive to take back both houses of Congress in November, and I hope we win, but even if we do, it will take much, much more time, and much, much more effort, to achieve that triumph of decency and equality. As a renegade survivor of “generation culture wars,” I may not be much for flag waving, but I will fight for that end, win or lose.