Christian Witness in the Two Americas

In the most racially divisive moment in the United States since the Civil Rights Movement, we are discovering that we are not “one nation under God,” but two Americas, living in the same national space. One America recognizes that we are becoming increasingly diverse as a nation, with experts projecting that people of color will outnumber white citizens in less than a generation. This America welcomes diversity and celebrates how rich and interesting our country becomes with the embrace of racial, ethnic, cultural, and sex/gender difference. This America accepts the truth that to live up to our moniker as the “city on a hill,” we must embrace our tradition as a nation of immigrants and establish border policies that are both disciplined and gracious. This America acknowledges that our national history is built on injuries to people of different races, cultures, and countries, but it seeks to remedy that legacy by the confession of sins and commitment to a future of fairness and mutual respect.

But there also is a second America, gripped by fear and simmering with resentment, inhabited by groups used to occupying the majority and serving as the measure of what is normal, but who now are in danger of losing their country to an element that feels foreign and alien.

This is what Robert Jones has called White Christian America, the largely Anglo–Saxon Protestant majority that has controlled American culture and politics for most of our national history. The citizens of White Christian America sense that their vision of the country is in its death throes. Folks who do not look like them have taken over their neighborhoods, their schools, and their jobs, leaving them feeling unmoored and left behind. People they long considered inferior now occupy important posts in government. Longstanding social norms for authority, family, and religion have been cast aside in the name of diversity. Speech is monitored more closely than ever, with the “political correctness police” now ruling out what would be considered acceptable public vocabulary or pointless banter a decade ago; even jokes are heavily scrutinized for racial undertones and offense to women. The culture is being turned upside down, and White Christian America is facing the last great battle for survival, the last opportunity to make America great again.

For this America, the enemy is “the other,” that which is not white or Christian: people of color, immigrants, Muslims, people with strange ways of identifying sex and gender, women with outsized expectations and behavior. In this America, racial bigotry finds a foothold, emboldened by none other than the President of the United States. To White Christian America, the president gives permission to see racist violence in the streets of Charlottesville as a legitimate difference of opinion between “good people on both sides.” To White Christian America, the president recommends a moral distinction between good immigrants from places like Norway and dangerous invaders from “shithole” countries like Mexico, Haiti, and those on the African continent. To thunderous applause from White Christian America, the president dog whistles four U.S. Congresswomen of color to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” while average citizens follow his lead, badgering Latino residents about their citizenship status or even their use of Spanish in public. This is an America that understands itself to be under siege, and it is lashing out, with presidential approval.

As a Christian, the greatest tragedy for me is how much of the energy for the defensiveness in White Christian America comes from the Christian part. Evangelical Christianity has staked its claim in the culture war it wages for our country, and it has anointed its savior, with nearly 80 percent of white evangelicals voting for President Trump in the 2016 election, despite his unconvincing claim to Christian identity and his well-documented, unapologetically xenophobic, racist, sexist, and immoral public and private behavior. Evangelicalism has made a deal with the devil, concluding that the price of moral integrity was worth the gain of a future for conservative principles. So evangelicalism baptizes White Christian America and gives its cause righteous power.

But what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? (Mark 8:36, KJV). When Christians give up the moral high ground, purchasing political priorities at the expense of more fundamental ones, how can we ever claim the mantle of moral leadership again? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets (Matthew 22:36-40, NRSV). How can complicity in political divisiveness be a fulfillment of Jesus’ great commandments? When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:33-34). How can the dehumanizing treatment of immigrants be anything but a violation of biblical law? What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8). How can the racial hatred that runs through the veins of Trump’s America be wed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

Figuring out the best policies to address our immigration problems is a complicated political responsibility, and people of good conscience can disagree over the right balance between border security and the national legacy of welcome symbolized by our Statue of Liberty. Politics is a hard business of deal-making, compromise, and rhetorical persuasion. Politicians bow to the dual masters of serving the nation and getting reelected, and those two masters do not always utter the same commands. Surely, though, we Christians should be united in our denouncement of xenophobic tropes as a strategy for stoking fear in citizens, and the inhuman incarceration of fellow human beings in border concentration camps. Surely we Christians should be of one voice in condemning a politics of name-calling, bald-faced lying, and school-yard bullying, insisting instead on leadership that binds us together. “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” The church should be a force of unity and moral imagination in America, appealing to the better angels of our nation and the best of human moral principle, rather than prostituting itself as a partisan player in an increasingly destructive culture war between the Two Americas.