The Gospel of a New Christian Left

Thunder on the Left

What would it mean to take the political message of the Gospels to the streets?

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The Rev. Traci Blackmon will never forget Charlottesville. she was there in August 2017 with a multi-faith contingent of fellow clergy, face-to-face with white supremacist Christian nationalists chanting, “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!”

Blackmon also remembers the night before that deadly “Unite the Right” rally, preaching at the packed church across the street from the Thomas Jefferson statue on the campus of the University of Virginia. “Opening that door, hearing the chants of those outside with the tiki torches,” Blackmon told me in a recent interview, “that moment for me was more terrifying than any of the moments in my life that I’ve seen the Klan.”

“I’ve seen the robes and the hoods,” said Blackmon, who was raised in Birmingham, Ala. “I’ve seen the parades in the middle of the day. But I never had the fear in Birmingham that I had in Charlottesville. Because the sheets were gone. The hoods were gone. They were in khakis and button-downs.”

That rally in Charlottesville may not be remembered for its ties to right-wing Christianity, but as Anthea Butler, a professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania, explains in a report on Christian nationalism and the January 6 insurrection, “The Klan has been an unmistakable symbol of white Christian nationalism.” The Confederacy itself, Butler notes, was explicitly founded as a “Christian nation,” and slaveholder Christianity was central to the postbellum mythology of the South. The monument that the white supremacists in Charlottesville were there to protect was, of course, a statue of Robert E. Lee.

It’s important, then, to understand the presence of Blackmon and her many colleagues that night and the following day in Charlottesville—described vividly by the journalist Jack Jenkins in American Prophets (2020), his deeply reported book on the religious left in the United States—as a form of prophetic witness to a new, dark chapter in American democracy’s reckoning with white Christian nationalism. That reckoning began well before Donald Trump’s election—the long march of the Christian right toward overtly racist nationalism is an old story—but we saw it most dramatically in Charlottesville and on January 6, 2021, when violent insurrectionists stormed the US Capitol carrying crosses and flags, including Confederate battle flags. It’s also evident, more insidiously, in the Republican Party’s attacks on elections and voting rights, on reproductive rights and LGBTQ folks, on the First Amendment and public education, and in the banning of books on race, gender, and the uglier sides of American history.

Blackmon, who lives in St. Louis—and was deeply engaged in the protests on the streets of Ferguson, Mo., in 2014—is now the associate general minister for the United Church of Christ, one of the major mainline Protestant denominations, and the senior pastor of Christ the King UCC, a historic Black congregation in Florissant, Mo. When asked what a progressive Christian response could or should look like in this moment, she immediately drew a contrast with the highly organized Christian right. Those on the right, she said, “have created a long-term strategy.” Progressive Christians, on the other hand, “are wrestling, because we don’t have a strategy. We don’t have a collective response; we don’t have a unified response.”

Blackmon also noted that some of the campaigns most closely associated with Christian nationalism—especially the attacks on LGBTQ rights and the Supreme Court’s religiously motivated assault on women’s bodily autonomy—not only pervade right-wing white evangelicalism and Catholicism, “they are very much present in conservative Black churches.” Christian nationalism, she said, “has found its way into the Latinx community, into the Black community.”

“The fact that we’ve refused to speak out against it in our pulpits and in our theology,” Blackmon said, “has left us ill-equipped in this moment. There are people who will push back strongly against racism but won’t push back at all against sexism. There are people who will push back against sexism and racism, but [calling out] heterosexism is a bit too far. There are people who will push back against all of those but aren’t willing to risk their class status. We have to decide what it means to be on the progressive side of the Gospel.”

A reminder of just how complicated this terrain is can be seen in a recent national survey published by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), which aimed to measure “the threat of Christian nationalism to American democracy and culture.” Respondents were asked whether they agreed with each of five statements, such as “God has called Christians to exercise dominion over all areas of American society” (6 percent agreed “completely,” 14 percent “mostly”). Another was “U.S. laws should be based on Christian values” (13 percent agreed completely, 27 percent mostly)—a notion that various iconic figures in the history of the American left, from Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth to Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr., might well have agreed with. Which raises the question: Whose “Christian values”?

“That’s a very, very legitimate question,” Cornel West told me when I asked him about the survey. A professor of philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City—and now a 2024 presidential candidate for the Green Party—West is perhaps the leading Christian thinker on the American left.

“Christianity is a way of life,” West said. “It’s not just a commitment to a dogma or doctrine, not just a certain attachment to values in the abstract. It cuts so much deeper than that. It’s a highly complicated, variegated structure of feelings and of virtues—even before values. Virtues have much more gravitas than values do.” For Christians, West explained, “love is not a value. It’s part of the three virtues [faith, hope, and love] that generate a very concrete, fleshified way of following a God manifest in space and time, who was not a value but a person: Jesus—the fleshification of truth-talk.

“So you say, ‘Oh, I can see you got Christian values,’” West said. “No, I’m following this cat—who I believe was the son of God.

“The Klan wants Christian values,” West continued. “Martin Luther King does, too. So they’re both Christian nationalists? What are we really talking about?”

What, then, might an authentic Christian resistance to white Christian nationalism look like? I posed this question to more than a dozen Christian thinkers, clergy, and activists and asked them whether the deep tradition of prophetic Christianity in this country, committed to economic and social justice, can offer an effective counter-narrative—if not a counter-movement—to the dominant modes of both right-wing and mainstream liberal Christianity in America.

This is personal for me. I come from poor, white, rural, Southern, deeply religious Christian people. My father spent his early years on tenant cotton farms in northeastern Texas in the 1930s, and both of my parents were raised in a fundamentalist Christian tradition. But the white, middle-class, intensely conservative church in which I grew up, in a suburb of Los Angeles, had almost nothing to say about poverty—much less about justice for the poor and oppressed. It had nothing to teach about white supremacy, or patriarchy, or homophobia; these were simply the air we breathed. Instead, I heard a lot about personal salvation and eternal damnation, and a lot about a so-called “moral majority”—this was in the 1970s and early ’80s—and a lot about Ronald Reagan standing up to the communists. And I heard about brown-skinned people who didn’t speak English and supposedly had no right to be in “our” (white) country. And although I’ve long since traveled, religiously and politically, about as far as possible from all of that, I watch in horror as the kind of “Christianity” that I grew up in—what I now recognize as white Christian nationalism—threatens American democracy in ways I never imagined.

And I am far from alone. “Evangelicalism is shedding lots and lots of exiles,” the Christian scholar David Gushee told me. “They’re disproportionately young, under 40, and they’ve left decisively or have felt themselves pushed out for a variety of reasons—sexuality, race, gender, politics, anti-intellectualism.”

Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Georgia and a past president of the American Academy of Religion, is the author of Changing Our Mind (2014), which argues for full LGBTQ inclusion in the church; After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity (2020); and the forthcoming Defending Democracy From Its Christian Enemies (2023). He points to research showing that the ranks of evangelicals decline by about 1 percent every year. American evangelicalism “is shrinking, aging, and radicalizing overall,” he said. “It’s an older, frightened, white constituency, not really defined by theology but by a certain fearful politics.” As a result, “evangelical” has become more of a tribal identity than a religious one. “A lot of the people who really wanted the religious identity are leaving,” Gushee said. “And these exiles are often angry, traumatized, hurting.”

More and more of these exiles—Gushee calls them “post-evangelicals”—“are resisting right-wing Christianity in various ways. I’m seeing it in multiracial, multi-everything kinds of coalitions, new expressions of church, new kinds of communities, new kinds of activist efforts. And it’s hopeful to me.” He pointed to the Post-Evangelical Collective, to which he’s an adviser, a nascent grassroots organization led by pastors and other leaders who are seeding and supporting new church communities around the country. “The style of this group is so refreshing,” he said. “It’s not authoritarian in any way. It’s people who want to follow Jesus and create healthy churches in which everybody is welcome.” And, he said, “they are resolutely opposed to white Christian nationalism, patriarchy, racism, homophobia—all of it.”

Resistance from within evangelical Christianity is not a new phenomenon. Jim Wallis, the founder of the Christian social justice organization Sojourners and the new Archbishop Desmond Tutu Chair in Faith and Justice at Georgetown University, is a longtime leader of the American evangelical left, which has roots in the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s and ’70s. His forthcoming book The False White Gospel takes on the “old heresy,” as he calls it, of Christian nationalism and white supremacy.

“I do still call myself an evangelical—I won’t concede the term to the right-wing white Christian nationalists,” Wallis told me. Ahead of last year’s midterm elections, his multi-faith, multiracial campaign Faiths United to Save Democracy mobilized some 900 “poll chaplains” trained in de-escalation techniques to be at vulnerable voting locations. In December, he co-organized a two-day gathering of around 50 prominent Christian leaders to develop strategies to counter the threat of white Christian nationalism.

There’s already a national ecumenical campaign, Christians Against Christian Nationalism, launched in 2019 by the Baptist Joint Committee and its 15 member networks. The organization’s executive director, Amanda Tyler, has testified before Congress about the links between Christian nationalism and white supremacist threats. I spoke with the BJC’s Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, a gay, married Baptist from Houston and the author of Just Faith: Reclaiming Progressive Christianity (2020). He said the BJC campaign takes a big-tent, pluralistic approach to constitutional religious freedom, partnering with both faith-based and secular groups, including the Freedom From Religion Foundation. It recently joined Faithful America, a Christian social justice group, in following the Christian nationalist ReAwaken America Tour around the country and working with local Christians at tour stops to provide opposing voices in media coverage.

Nicholas Hayes-Mota is a Catholic scholar at Boston College who studies the tradition of Catholic social teaching and faith-based social justice organizing in the United States. While one shouldn’t expect the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to speak out against the Republican Party’s Christian nationalism anytime soon, Hayes-Mota said, there are many dissenting voices within Catholic politics that go unheard in the mainstream media. He pointed to public intellectuals like Massimo Faggioli at Villanova University and the Jesuit priest Bryan Massingale at Fordham University (who came out as gay in 2019 and has defended the LGBTQ community), as well as Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego. McElroy, Hayes-Mota told me, “has been unflinching in drawing out the political implications of Catholic social teaching—on environmentalism, anti-racism, immigration, LGBTQ+ inclusion.” Hayes-Mota, whose own roots are in the distinctive Latin American Catholicism of his mother’s native Costa Rica, also happens to be gay and married. He told me that the Catholic social tradition—as seen in Pope Francis’s “theology of the people” (the pope’s brand of liberation theology) and in grassroots movement networks like Faith in Action and the Industrial Areas Foundation—“is not easily mappable as ‘left’ or ‘right,’ yet still points in a radically different direction than white Christian nationalism.”

The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, a Presbyterian minister and a frequent contributor to The Nation, finds the term “left,” as in a Christian or religious left, “too puny” for the kind of “moral movement” across lines of religious, racial, class, gender, and national identities that’s needed to counter Christian nationalism. With the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, another frequent Nation contributor, Theoharis cochairs the Poor People’s Campaign, which is modeled on the multiracial campaign of the same name envisioned by King during the final years of his life.

In the Poor People’s Campaign, Theoharis said, “we start with systemic racism, but we also have to see the impact it has on the entire society through voter suppression and policies that disproportionately impact all poor and low-income people.”

“The story of the early Christian movement,” she said, “is actually bringing people together across nationality, across division—it’s about mutual solidarity across different ethnic and racial groups—when the empire has everything at stake in keeping people divided.”

Theoharis and Barber both demur at the “religious left” label. And yet, Theoharis said, “I don’t mind being called a radical. If we look at our prophetic traditions, the tenets and texts of our faiths today, everybody should be out there turning over tables, calling out those who would take and hoard the wealth of the world.”

The idea, and practice, of an authentically radical Christianity—not milquetoast liberal but prophetic, liberationist, democratic socialist, and, above all, centered on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth—has deep roots in this country. Gary Dorrien, the eminent historian of American religion at Union Theological Seminary, demonstrates in American Democratic Socialism (2021) that religious socialism—and the Christian socialist tradition in particular—is central to the story of the American left. “There’s a moral undergirding in Christian socialism which doesn’t trade off what brought it in to begin with and refuses to be shamed about having a moral basis,” said Dorrien, who is a longtime member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). “That’s what holds us in there, and has done so for the whole time there’s been such a thing as socialism.”

If Christian socialism sounds like a contradiction in terms, there are plenty of biblical scholars and theologians who can inform you otherwise. “When one truly ventures into the world of the first Christians, one enters a company of ‘radicals,’” writes David Bentley Hart in his highly praised—and meticulously literal—translation of the New Testament. “To be a follower of ‘The Way’ was to renounce every claim to private property and to consent to communal ownership of everything.” In fact, he writes, channeling Proudhon, “It is almost as if, seen from the perspective of the Kingdom [of God], all property is theft.”

Hart, who is based at the University of Notre Dame and is the author of numerous books, including That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation (2019), practices in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. He is also a member of DSA. “I think there is a theological case to be made,” he told me, “that there is no other choice than to be something like, call it what you like, a socialist, if you really want to be a Christian who thinks Jesus might be taken as an authority on these things.” Hart noted that although Jesus’s concern for justice for the poor was nothing new within the context of Judaism, with its deep prophetic tradition, “in Christ, it’s radicalized to the point that he speaks with totally uncompromising clarity that the possession of wealth, in and of itself—in a world in which there is considerable poverty—was already a transgression of God’s justice.”

“If you look at the Sermon on the Mount,” Hart said, “much of his concern was with an incredibly practical politics of preserving the poor against the abuses to which they are always vulnerable on the part of the wealthy and powerful.” As Christianity developed, and the church itself became wealthy and powerful, this core message of the Gospel was reduced to a kind of “obligatory rhetoric.” Nevertheless, Hart said, “even as late as the fourth century, we have the greatest fathers of the church using language that would make Bakunin sound like a tepid conservative.”

As for Christian nationalism, Hart said, “you couldn’t make a more preposterous claim than that Christianity is compatible with nationalism.”

Another eminent biblical scholar, Obery M. Hendricks at Columbia University, the author of Christians Against Christianity (2021) and The Politics of Jesus (2006)—on what he calls the “true revolutionary nature of Jesus’s teachings”—also identifies as a democratic socialist. “The biblical witness has a socialist ethos,” he said, “an orientation toward the common good and the responsibility of those in governance to look out for ‘the least of these.’” Though he is ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, he doesn’t see institutional Christianity and its “doctrinal superstructure” as being consistent with this witness. “Someone can call me a Christian. That’s fine. But I’m not dedicated to the church; I’m dedicated to the core of the Gospel. Jesus started a movement, not an institution.”

Indeed, as it happens, some of the most authentically prophetic witness by Christians in this country is that of people who are rejected, marginalized, and oppressed in America today.

I mean people like Roberto Ché Espinoza, until recently based in Nashville, a transqueer liberationist Christian scholar, founder of the Activist Theology Project, pastor of the interspiritual community Our Collective Becoming, and author of Body Becoming: A Path to Our Liberation (2022). An ordained Baptist minister, Espinoza has focused on pastoral care for a trans community that has been traumatized by the panic whipped up by right-wing media and the increasing threats of Christian nationalist violence. “The entire institutional history of Christianity is rooted in violence,” Espinoza said. “I’m not here to preserve the institutional church. As a Christian, I’m here to follow Jesus.” (See my interview with Espinoza at TheNation.com.)

Aaron Scott is a white trans Christian who grew up working-class in a small town in upstate New York that was hit hard by deindustrialization. After completing his studies at Union Seminary, he moved to Washington State and cofounded Chaplains on the Harbor (affiliated with the Episcopal Church) and its Freedom Church of the Poor—“a church of the streets and the jails,” he calls it—in Grays Harbor County. Scott is now heavily involved in the Poor People’s Campaign. In his organizing work with the unhoused, the addicted, and the formerly incarcerated, mostly young and white, he has faced public threats of violence from right-wing vigilantes, as well as violence itself.

In the working-class rural counties where white Christian nationalism finds much of its base, Scott said, progressive churches that could be feeding, sheltering, and caring for people—as well as organizing politically—are held back by institutional barriers and an aversion to risk.

Echoing Traci Blackmon’s critique, Scott sees progressive Christianity and the Christian left—especially the older, mainline, mostly white and liberal denominations—often failing to act strategically. They’ve issued statements, he said, “but not really organized differently, like the way we do church: ‘Who is this for? What is the point of this building, this land? What are the risks we should be taking?’” For Scott, the question facing churches is this: “Would you rather close up shop and die sitting on a pile of money? Or would you rather join the struggles of poor people in this country? Maybe you would lose it all; maybe someone would come in and steal the silver. But God forbid you take that risk.”

One of the reasons Chaplains on the Harbor came to exist, Scott said, “is that there were congregations who were like, ‘Yes, we would rather die than have those people come in here.’ And then they did die, and their building was empty. And we said, ‘Hey, we’ve got an idea.’”

Perhaps the answer to Blackmon’s question of what it means to be on the progressive side of the Gospel will be answered only when more churches are ready to risk their wealth and institutional structures and follow the radical, working-class, brown-skinned, self-sacrificing Palestinian Jew who started a poor people’s movement 2,000 years ago.

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