Common Conversations: Series 1, Episode 1

Common Conversations

Common Conversations Transcript
Series 1 “The Weight of Racism”
Episode 1 “The Load of Christian Nationalism and Baptist History”
October 2020

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Natalie Aho: Hello. I’m Natalie Aho, the new program manager for the Baptist Commons here at Wake Divinity. The Baptist Commons is a network of diverse communities of Baptists committed to justice, reconciliation, and compassion. We provide events, resources, and services for Wake Divinity students, alumni, and supporters. 


Today we welcome you to our first event for the new academic year called Common Conversations. Moderated by a Wake Divinity alumni, student, or supporter, these are conversations between experts and members of the Wake Divinity faculty. 


This fall, we are focusing on three topics under the theme of “the weight of racism.” As architects of equity, hope, and healing, we feel there is a no more important place to begin than to talk about racism in America. The weight of this injustice is on us all. As our beloved Deacon Maya Angelou once said, “It is impossible to struggle for civil rights, equal rights for blacks, without including whites. Because equal rights, fair play, justice, are all like the air: we all have it, or none of us has it.”


In our series, we’ll tackle the load of Christian nationalism and Baptist history for our first conversation; Black Baptist burdens and White Baptist pressures for the second; and the gravity of trauma of these enmeshed communities for the third. Don’t worry; you don’t need to be a Baptist to engage.


We hope you’ll do more than watch. We hope you are inspired to start your own conversation after listening to ours. And that you too will continue the call for justice, compassion, and reconciliation. 


Rev. Darrell Hamilton: Hello, my name is Reverend Darrell Hamilton, and I would like to welcome you to the first episode of Wake Divinity Common Conversations with our topic, “The Load of Christian Nationalism and Baptist History.” We are here today with two experts, two good friends of mine, two really important mentors in my own life journey and my own vocational discernment. I would like to welcome here with us today Amanda Tyler, J.D. and Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty or just BJC. And Dr. Bill Leonard, Founding Dean, Faculty Emeritus, and Baptist historian extraordinaire of Wake Divinity. And again, I am Reverend Darrell Hamilton, a Wake Div alum from the class of 2017, pastor for formation and outreach at the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. And I am also a former Wake Divinity Moyer Scholar Intern at BJC. I will be moderating today’s conversation, and we are really in for a good one with these two experts, these two friends, and two mentors joining us today.


So I would like us to get started. Amanda, if you don’t mind, I’d like to kick it off to you. Could you just explain to us what exactly is Christian nationalism, and with that, can you also explain to us the relationship between Christian nationalism and white supremacy?


Amanda Tyler: It’s great to be here with you, Darrell, and with Bill and this Common Conversation. I think that’s a perfect place to start, and we really need to have a common language around Christian nationalism. And as prevalent as it is, I find when I’m talking about it that a lot of people in the audience aren’t exactly sure about what I mean by the term “Christian nationalism.” So when I use that term, I think the best definition is that Christian nationalism is a cultural framework that tries to merge our identities as Christians and as Americans. Put another way, Christian nationalism suggests that to be a true American one needs to be Christian. Or to be a true Christian, one needs to be American. And of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. Christian nationalism tends to rely heavily on a mythological founding of the United States as a “Christian nation.” And you know that term can mean a lot of things to different people as well. In some ways, the United States is a majority Christian nation; that is true. But most people who talk about us as a Christian nation really aren’t talking about demographics. They’re talking about this idea of the founding as somehow that God singled out the United States for special gifts or that the founding was a providential move. Or that the United States was founded by Christians for Christians. I could define it as almost like a supercharged civil religion or an extension of American exceptionalism.


To get to your statement or question about how it relates to white nationalism, or Christian, it’s not the same. But there certainly is a lot of overlap because Christian nationalism tends to overlap with and provide cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation. A lot of that starts with the kind of history that it relies upon this idea when they talk about the founding of the United States as a Christian nation, they’re talking about a white Christian nation. They are ignoring indigenous and black bodies and slavery when they’re making that statement. And so they don’t have to be overtly racist in their language when they talk about the founding as a Christian nation.


I also think that Christian nationalism has a lot in common with racism. Like racism, it’s pervasive. It touches every aspect of American society. And just like I don’t find it very helpful to talk about who is and is not a racist because we all live in a racist society, it’s better to talk about and identify Christian nationalism, rather than trying to identify particular people as Christian nationalists.


We are all impacted by Christian nationalism to different degrees. And so understanding that not immediately, it is an indictment of us personally, but understanding it helps us work through Christian nationalism. 


I think about some of the shootings at synagogues as examples of Christian nationalism. But just like racism or white supremacy, we do a disservice if we concentrate too much on those really overt violent examples. Those are important to point out, but Christian nationalism also shows up in more subtle ways. It shows up in our civic life. For instance state legislative bills that would post ‘In God, we trust’ on all of the walls of public school buildings – when we used to send our children to public schools before they shut down. We would see that was a big item.


It also shows up in our sanctuaries when we see American flags on the altar and in a lot of sanctuaries. I’m just pointing out some of the examples of Christian nationalism.


And just as I close this definitional section, I want to break down the ‘Christian’ and the ‘nationalism.’ This is not a religion. It’s a political ideology. But it does rely heavily on a religion. But, Christian nationalism is really more about identity than religion.


And for nationalism, I think it’s important to distinguish that from patriotism. Patriotism is love of country, but nationalism is a kind of a supercharged patriotism that requires some kind of blind allegiance to the state in different ways. So I hope that gives us some texture for the conversation when we talk about Christian nationalism.


Rev. Darrell Hamilton: Oh, most, most definitely. It’s a wonderful texture to the conversation and is really enlightening and helpful to really grasp such a complicated and important topic that is pervasive in our world right now. One of the things that you said, though, that really stuck out to me was saying that Christian nationalism has its roots in this mythological founding of the United States as a Christian nation. Hearing that Christian nationalism is tied to this misrepresentation of history, of American history, of Christian history, and so Dr. Leonard, I wanted to ask you, actually, while our audience does include many who are not Baptist, why, though, would we need to talk about the relationship between Baptist history and Christian nationalism? Can you speak a little bit to that today, sir?


Dr. Bill Leonard: Thank you, Reverend. It’s good to be with all of you today. Baptists as a movement are difficult to talk about because there are so many Baptist groups that span a whole theological spectrum from Primitive Baptist on the Calvinistic end of the spectrum to Free Will Baptist on the more Armenian or free will, part of the spectrum. So I’m going to generalize about early Baptists and some of the lessons we learned from them about these kinds of questions.


Baptist really began as a movement around the year 1609 in Holland. And they really start with the assertion that what we are calling Christian nationalism is closely related to a uniform and enforced conformity to one kind of Christian tradition, a church-state coalition, in which to be born into a specific European country requires baptism into one kind of Christian church. What we would call a religious establishment, that was state privileged, and defined the nature of Christianity for almost all the citizens. In other words, to be French and Italian was to be Roman Catholic, to be German was to be Lutheran, to be British was to be Anglican. Baptists resisted that kind of religious uniformity and pressed for religious liberty for those who believed and those who didn’t. That is, early Baptists said, “God alone is judge of conscience, and neither the official state or its official church can judge the conscience of the heretic, the people who are thought to believe the wrong things, or the atheists, the people who don’t believe at all.” In that, they were among the first Protestants to envision a state where what we now call religious pluralism exists for Christian religious, or non-Christian religious, and for those who claim no religion at all in America. 


Particularly in the colonial period, Baptists make that point significantly, especially in New England and Virginia where there were religious establishments – the Puritans in New England and the Anglicans in Virginia. Our teacher in much of that is the person I call the “quintessential” or the “quintessential American dissenter” and the “erstwhile” (meaning not constant) Baptist, Roger Williams, who founded the First Baptist Church in America at Providence. And then he followed another Baptist practice, he quit being one. And in doing that, he was clear that there are no Christian nations, only Christian people bound to Christ, not by citizenship, but by faith. That was a very important distinction. And it was unique in that time. Matter of fact, after years of talking about and reading Williams, I stay amazed that he and his colleague in Newport, Rhode Island, John Clark, (who did stay a Baptist) saw in their era these ideas of religious liberty and a response to Christian nationalism that so few religious leaders around them saw at the time. Williams was clear, again, that the idea of a Christian nation was actually idolatry. The nation should be a place, at its best, where people have the freedom to choose to believe or not to believe and to choose to believe the doctrines and the interpretation of scripture that their conscience guides them toward. Unfortunately, however, many 21st century Baptists have moved away from that tradition and are moving in many ways toward a Christian nationalist position that seems, at least to me, foreign to the origins of the Baptist community.


Darrell Hamilton: Hmm. Wow. Thank you for sharing that with us, Dr. Leonard. So helpful and so enlightening. I think a lot of what you’re raising, what makes it so important for our day, and especially really important for this conversation, is as you said, there are so many Baptist movements throughout history, but seeing the way in which the Baptist movement is continuing to go in the 21st century, really is eye-opening to get a grasp of this larger question around Christian nationalism. And so that also then leads me to want to come back to you, Amanda, actually, because I’m really compelled by what Dr. Leonard was sharing from Roger Williams. Again, he said, “There are no Christian nations, only Christian people, bound to Christ by faith.”

Thinking about your work with BJC, why then should BJC have a voice in this conversation around Christian nationalism? Tell us about why an organization like BJC would be compelled to educate the public about Christian nationalism?


Amanda Tyler: In many ways, BJC, which as you said, stands for Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, we see ourselves as the modern-day heirs to people like Roger Williams. People who fought for faith freedom for all people, for themselves but also for people of other faiths and people who didn’t claim a faith tradition. In recent days, and when I say days, I mean really years and decades, we have seen an erosion of an understanding of what religious freedom for all people means, as Bill pointed out, within the Baptist family itself, but also within the greater culture. We, for decades, BJC, have been pushing back against the myths that underlie Christian nationalism and the so-called “founding of the country as a Christian nation.” 


I think over the past few years, we’ve really seen rising incidents of Christian nationalism as we’ve also seen more and more misunderstanding about what religious freedom really means. When we hear that term sometimes now, it really is invoked by people who I think are fearing the loss of Christian privilege. And for Christian nationalism, implicit in that is Christian privilege. This idea that Christianity should be privileged by the state, and, in fact, is meant to be privileged by the state. Nothing could be farther from the truth from a constitutional perspective. You know those Baptists that Bill was telling us about fought for this establishment of an organized religion and for a government that would remain neutral when it comes to religion. 


Last year, BJC, seeing these rising incidents of Christian nationalism and more and more misunderstanding about what religious freedom even means, we started a project called ‘Christians against Christian nationalism.’ We launched this project in coalition with a number of other faith groups who were also concerned about Christian nationalism. We thought that as Christians, we had a special responsibility to raise awareness about this, not only in the greater culture but within our own ranks. So we launched a website called and core to this initiative is a statement of principles that anyone who self identifies as a Christian is welcome to sign on to. 


I was struck by that quote that Bill gave from Roger Williams because in our statement we say as, “Christians we are bound to Christ, not by citizenship, but by faith.” And then we go through core principles of religious freedom. These principles are things like, people of all faiths and none have the right and responsibility to engage constructively in the public square. We also say government should not prefer one religion over another, or religion over non-religion. These Christians say religious instruction is best left to our houses of worship, other religious institutions, and families. We affirm that America’s historic commitment to religious pluralism enables faith communities to live in civic harmony with one another without sacrificing our theological convictions. These are really just restatements of core principles of religious freedom. So while we are raising awareness of what Christian nationalism is, we are also hoping to educate and raise awareness about what religious freedom is. And how, when we lean into the promises of religious freedom that can push back and work almost as an antidote to what we consider a poison when it comes to Christian nationalism.


So while the initiative sounds negative – Christians against Christian nationalism – the core statement of beliefs is really something that we can all be for. The initiative is also hope – hoping to bring together many different kinds of Christians who disagree on theology. Christians who have different political positions might take different positions on issues of moral concern, but they can agree on these bedrock principles of faith freedom for all. And that we can invite people into conversation with us to understand what Christian nationalism is. So on this website, people are invited to sign the statement, but also to get the resources they might need to have conversations in their faith communities, and broader communities, maybe even around the dinner table with people to help understand Christian nationalism. We have a lot of resources, including a 10 part podcast series that BJC produced last year – Dr. Leonard was actually one of our guests for that series. Along with the discussion guide, people can learn more through the podcast series. We at BJC have really invested a lot of time and energy into this topic because we think understanding Christian nationalism and how it operates is really core to protecting religious freedom for all people.


Darrell Hamilton: Thank you, Amanda. I wanted to actually add another question prompted by what you’re raising. There’s a pastor who’s a favorite of mine, Howard John Wesley, who ain’t too far from you at BJC, he has a phrase he says, “Can I push it?” I wanted to see if I can, maybe, push it a little bit with this question, because I like what you said about leaning into the promises for religious freedom as a way to counteract or work against the poison of Christian nationalism. Seeing in our contemporary context – what I’ve called preaching from the pulpit – the crisis of 2020, as we’re on the eve of an upcoming election, right in the middle of a pandemic, and we also have the pandemic of police brutality, and continuing to raise conversations around systemic racism and anti-black violence. So what makes this conversation about religious freedom, or leaning into the promise of religious freedom, how does that relate to the current challenges that we find ourselves living through right now in the year 2020 in relationship to the conversation around Christian nationalism?


Amanda Tyler: I think that’s an excellent next step, Darrell because when I talk about the promise of religious freedom, implicit in that is that we haven’t lived up to that promise. And I think the existence of Christian nationalism itself shows that we haven’t lived up to that promise. If we have this powerful ideology out there that suggests a privileged position for Christians, and really, white Christians in this country, is that it shows that we haven’t achieved religious freedom for all people. And I think that we see the gap in the promise and reality when you talk about the many crises that we’re facing as a country this year. Understanding Christian nationalism can help us understand a lot of those problems. 


Here I rely very heavily on two experts in the field – sociologists of religion, Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry – who have written a really great book called Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. (I would highly recommend this book.) They’ve done a number of different surveys about Christian nationalism and seen that across multiple academic studies using large nationally representative surveys that Americans who embrace Christian nationalism are more likely to do a number of things: (And I’m just going to read some of these examples of how Christian nationalism shows up)

  • They’re more likely to approve of authoritarian tactics like demanding people show respect for national symbols and traditions.
  • More likely to fear and distrust religious minorities, including Muslims, atheists, and Jewish people.
  • They’re more likely to condone police violence toward black Americans and distrust accounts of racial inequality in the criminal justice system.
  • They’re more likely to believe that racial inequality is due to the personal shortcomings of minority groups.
  • They report being very uncomfortable with both interracial marriage and trans-racial adoption.
  • They are more likely to hold anti-immigrant views and to fear refugees, to oppose scientists and science education in schools.
  • And they’re more likely to believe that men are better suited for all leadership roles, while women are better suited to care for children in the home.


And so understanding how Christian nationalism actually impacts all of these things, I think, can help us get to some of these root problems that are really troubling the United States right now. I would refer, if people are like, “Really, is that really the case?” I would refer them back to the Christians against Christian nationalism website and the resources section where we’ve posted some of the academic studies that back this up.


Once you get into this study, it turns out that more than religious affiliation, this idea of where you are in a Christian nationalism spectrum is more likely to tell you how people come out on some of these really pressing issues.


Bill Leonard: Darrell, I would add to that wonderful summary that one of the crises that we’re going through in 2020 and beyond, I’m sure, is this idea that at one point in time, or some point in time, there was this mythic or idyllic America that was shaped by some of the earlier issues that were in many ways anchored in white supremacy. “We were in charge. We knew how to be Americans. We knew what America meant. We knew who was trying to interfere with that view of America.” And this has happened all the way through the history of the country – that whole line, “No Irish need apply,” was a reaction against when the Irish Catholics came in the 19th century. So we’re really at this point of deciding among many crises, what kind of nation are we going to be and what do democracy and pluralism mean, and how is opening that door to those diverse visions more American than not.


Darrell Hamilton: Really glad you said that, Dr. Leonard. And just as an aside, I know you told me that I should call you Bill. But unfortunately, the southern in me won’t allow me to do that just yet. I haven’t quite earned that yet. But if you’ll indulge me to continue to call you Dr. Leonard for just a few more seasons. But I think you are going in a direction that I was actually hoping to ask you to take us. As you were saying, thinking about as a nation, what sort of nation are we looking or wanting to be, what sort of democracy, are we looking at wanting to be? What would you say that we, as Baptists, and we as Americans, we as people of conscience or goodwill, people of faith, however we might identify, what would you say that we can learn or maybe what we should look to learn from history in order to help us cast a vision for the future?


Bill Leonard: I think that as Christians, and as American citizens, we must not simply live out the creed that all women and men are created equal. But we have to live beyond white supremacy racism and broken theology that in the past has kept us from living out that creed, even when we said it wasn’t. And in doing that, I think, we have to also own, repent, and live freer and better than our past. That may also mean, not that we can repent for slavery and racism, for those who promoted slavery and racism and Jim Crow and the like – we can’t repent for them. But we can repent from them to another vision of America that they either didn’t get to or didn’t want to see that we must respond to, not only in light of this creed that all are created equal but in terms of simply loving our neighbor as ourselves. Which by the way was one of the verses that abolitionists used most frequently in responding to these biblical defenses of slavery.


Like the Baptists who challenged the privilege and establishmentarianism of deals cut by a church and state, we must reject what I would call a neo-establishmentarianism that attempts to, going on something that Amanda said, that attempts to privilege one kind of faith as the American faith. And we must be vigilant in the face of efforts to reassert white supremacy and privilege in, for example, limiting voting rights with laws aimed at voters of color. We must also do well to reconnect with the power of dissent. Dissent for conscience’s sake. One of the characteristics of the early Baptist was as a dissenting movement, not only about Church-state affiliation but about the role of the gospel in shaping human and churchly relationships. Encouraging churches to raise at times, perhaps even to what I’ve called, “raised gospel bail money,” for those who are imprisoned or arrested for the sake of conscience. As not only protesting but giving witness to another way of understanding the nature of the American Republic and the nature of the Christian gospel.


Darrell Hamilton: Thank you for sharing that, Dr. Leonard. Amanda, I’d actually like to pull you in on the same question to get a sense of – maybe, if you don’t necessarily want to tie to the history – but what do you think is needed, or what we should be doing in order to cast a vision for the future? How would you engage that?


Amanda Tyler: Well, I would pick up on what Bill talked about – theology and reclaiming this idea of theology. Because one of the many evils of Christian nationalism is the way that it perverts Christianity. Some would argue it’s been perverted beyond recognition in a lot of ways and want to restart the whole thing. But this idea of not letting scripture be used by those in power to perpetuate a privileged place for Christians, and really only a certain kind of Christian, that provides, I think, a real clarion call for change. And that’s what a lot of what is motivating this ‘Christians against Christian nationalism’ movement as well – that from people of faith who still claim a label of Christian, they are concerned about what Christian nationalism is doing to their faith. 


And also to pick up on that other strand of the importance and the power of dissent. Once you really buy into Christian nationalism that you’re so merged with the state that you can’t speak truth to power in an authentic way. I think that pushing back against Christian nationalism means also leaning into a rediscovery of theology and scripture, one that isn’t tied to some earthly kingdom or need to perpetuate that government is power. It also means rediscovering a prophetic voice.


Darrell Hamilton: Thank you both very much for your thoughtful and really helpful responses. We’re getting ready to move into a time of Q & A, but I would be remiss to not ask a question of my own. I’m definitely not trying to over-insert myself into the conversation. But recognizing in the middle of this conversation, not only do I hold an intersection between my experience as a graduate of Wake Divinity and also as a former intern of BJC. But also as a Black Baptist preacher and pastor, I am a product of the legacy that is Christian nationalism. I am a son of the history of Christian nationalism. I come from descendants and ancestors – I actually have been doing this work recently to actually trace my ancestry back all the way to, I believe, the 1600s and in Virginia. I found an ancestor directly from Africa, and so, I am a descendant of a people who experienced the theology, as you were naming Amanda, that was used for our subjugation. I come from a legacy and a history, a rich history of dissent, not only as a Baptist, not only as a Black man, but also as a Black Baptist. Because the whole establishment of Black Baptist identity within itself is a product of dissent, of this tradition of dissent. And so I just wanted to ask the both of you, what would then, in your words, make this conversation relevant for someone like myself? Why is this conversation so important that we have it right now, in this Common Conversation setting, me as a moderator? What makes this conversation so relevant today for many people like myself who have been recipients of and who have been impacted by this legacy and this history of Christian nationalism?


Amanda Tyler: What immediately comes to mind for me, Darrell, is when we talked about Christian nationalism and how closely that is associated with whiteness and white Christian nationalism. I think it’s important that we also talk about the ways that religious liberty and religious freedom have also often been seen almost entirely within a white framework in this country. When we hold up heroes of religious freedom, most of them we talk about are White Baptists. We at BJC are really leaning into our history and trying to understand and bring in more diverse voices for religious freedom. Because they’ve always been there, but they haven’t always gotten their due in a country that is so influenced by Christian nationalism. I think this idea of being able to open up our understanding of what it means to be a Christian in the United States, as well as what it means to be an American, and to think about all of the incredible contributions of all kinds of people, including many Black Baptists, to the history of religious freedom and to the history of this country, that really gives a strong interest in pushing back against Christian nationalism and will further enrich our understanding of what a robust religious freedom for all could really look like. What an inspiring story to talk about your own research into your ancestry and to know how much of you is from that tradition, that strong tradition of dissent. It is really crucial and important to break down the myth of the United States as a Christian nation, to break down Christian nationalism as such a driving force in our culture today.


Bill Leonard: Darrell, I also think that it’s important that we tell the truth about our Baptist past, as well as our American past, which means we, particularly those of us who are Baptists in the south, White Baptists in the South, we have to be able to reflect on and retell the horror stories that were perpetuated through Baptist churches. Other churches, too, but I’ll just talk about my own family of faith. They utilized national law to hold people in bondage. I have to always remember that in 1822 one of the first and most elaborate defenses of slavery, Biblical defenses of slavery, came from Richard Furman, the pastor of First Baptist Church Charleston, South Carolina, when he wrote (and here’s the nationalism), he wrote to the governor of South Carolina in this exposition in late 1822, calling the governor to declare a day of prayer and thanksgiving that the Denmark Vesey (alleged) Rebellion in Charleston, related to an African Methodist Episcopal Church we now know as Mother Emmanuel, that the rebellion had been put down by the providence of God that had protected the white people. And in doing that, he lays out this biblical argument in which he says, “Had the holding of slaves been a moral evil, it cannot be supposed that the holy apostles who feared not the faces of men would have tolerated it for a moment in the Christian church.” 


And here nationalism, Scripture, and slavery are all put together around a slave rebellion, and we have to keep telling that story, and we have to talk about Jim Crow, and we have to talk about the slave-related origins of so many institutions. It’s been my privilege to serve on a committee at Wake Forest University, one of many such committees at schools of higher education from Georgetown to University of Virginia to Furman and to Baylor University, that was looking at the slave-related origins of the schools and to owning the fact that many of these schools began with slaveholding faculty, administrators and supporters.


But, and I’ll add one more thing, we also have to remember that there’s another story and my favorite one. The story of the slave woman named Winnie who is a member of the Forks of Elkhorn Baptist Church in Kentucky, who in 1806 is brought for disciplinary action before the church, the white Baptist church, where she was a member for saying that she once thought it her duty to serve her mistress and her master. But since the Lord had converted her, she had never believed that white people could keep Negroes in bondage. Now that woman heard the gospel in a church that was trying to keep her from hearing that idea of liberation. But in spite of that, she heard and articulated the gospel, and they disciplined her and put her out of the church by the way.


So we have to tell those stories, but also acknowledge the power of the gospel for liberation and freedom, even in those, who at that moment in time, may have been denied that liberty.


Darrell Hamilton: Wow, thank you both so much. This was so, so rich and so helpful. Even all these years later, I’m still a student sitting at the feet of you both, learning and receiving so much wisdom. So thank you all so much for sharing. 


We are actually going to transition to a time of Q&A, and we have a few people who are joining us today who have some questions for Amanda and Bill. And so we are going to turn it over to them now.


Rev. Courtney Stamey: Hey, y’all. Thanks for doing this session. It’s great to be with you. My name is Courtney Stamey, graduate of class of 2015. I’m the senior pastor at Northside Baptist Church in Clinton, MS. 


In Mississippi, we have a vote to change our state flag on the ballot in November. Our state legislature decided to change from our former flag with the Confederate battle emblem in the corner to a new flag with the stipulation that the new flag has the words ‘In God we trust’ on it. How can Christians who are against Christian nationalism wade into these murky waters?


Amanda Tyler: Thank you so much, Courtney, for that question. And to answer your question directly about how should you wait into the murky waters? I say, “Very carefully.” Thank you for being willing to do so, to be that voice of dissent. I’m not a citizen of Mississippi, but I am going to say, I think it’s really important that the state remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag. But to replace it with these words, ‘In God we trust,’ which just infuses a new kind of exclusion to the state is really troubling. I mentioned earlier when we were talking about examples of Christian nationalism, a movement to put ‘In God we trust’ on the walls of every public school classroom. The people who defend that decision say it’s a national motto. And it’s true that since the 1950s, it has been a national motto. But to put it without additional context on something like a school wall where every child would see it or here on the state flag where everyone sees it, it sends a message that if you don’t trust in God, then you are not one of us. You are not welcome here. It also raises the question of why God is on a national flag at all, as if to be a Mississippian or to be in the United States, that those are the only people who trust in God. So I do think that adding this motto of Christian nationalism on any flag is not a good choice. It is moving in the wrong direction. I think that as a Christian the most productive voice that you might have in your state right now is just to start asking questions about what that statement really means. To really get at some of the underlying assumptions of that statement and to help people understand why that might be problematic for some people to see that on the flag, not just people who are not Christian, but also for Christians. Because leaning into that, it starts treading very dangerously into the territory of idolatry, as we talked about earlier, when you question who are you pledging allegiance to, especially when you see ‘In God we trust’ on the flag. It merges things in really troubling ways and so I think this is a real point, an opportunity of education, and I would recommend the Christians against Christian nationalism resources to you as you try to have those difficult conversations in your state.


Bill Leonard: I would absolutely agree with Amanda and simply add the fact that this is a trade-off, apparently. Okay, we’ll get rid of the battle flag that is so representative of racism from another era, we hope, and not the present day. But in order to do that and get enough votes to make that possible, we have to give on what it is, what I would call an example of something I named as neo-establishmentarianism because as Amanda said, it does eliminate a whole group of people. In our country right now 23% of people who call themselves non-affiliated or nones or dones represent 23% of the population, the same percentage roughly as Roman Catholics and as evangelicals illustrate that the difficulty of trying to enforce a god language on a State symbol is just highly problematic. But it illustrates also how deep are the issues of Christian nationalism that we’ve been talking about today and how that this trade-off was seen by certain politicians as the only way to get the flag removed. That’s a reality that I think requires the witness of those who see problems with both of these kinds of responses and government enforcement of those racist and or religious symbols, quasi-religious symbols. 


Dr. Andrew Gardner: Hello Bill, Amanda, and Darrell. Andrew Gardner, class of ‘15 here. I am currently Visiting Faculty Associate of American Religious History and Louisville Institute Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Hartford Institute for Religion Research, Hartford Seminary, and a current BJC board member. I had a question for Amanda. 


Last year, BJC appointed a special committee on race and religious liberty to interrogate the organization’s history, and in many ways, its failures with respect to racial representation. Can you speak to why it’s important for organizations like BJC to pursue this type of work?


Amanda Tyler: Well, thank you, Andrew, for that question. Thank you also for your service as a board member for BJC, and for your service to this special committee on race in religious liberty.


More than a year ago, the board of directors of BJC appointed this committee to look at our history, and to Bill’s point earlier, we saw the need to tell the truth. There was an aspect of our history that was actually brought to light in an academic’s book on religious freedom. Professor Dr. Tisa Wenger raised this aspect of our history from the 1940s about the board of directors’ response to one of the board members who asked the Committee to get involved in racial justice issues. And so we felt the need to understand and tell our history. And so over the past year, this committee has been working, and its work continues. We will be talking about that work publicly at a later time. But I think that it is vital for institutions of all kinds, to really understand their history and not take their history, in the stories they’ve been told, take their history at face value. I think that is a great lesson of Christian nationalism. I think it’s a lesson of the racial reckoning that we’re coming to now – that history is a dynamic thing and that it is our responsibility to understand our history, to learn from it, and to make our choices and our actions now reflect that better understanding of where we are. BJC, we trace our origins to 1936, obviously after slavery in this country, but racism continues to pervade even to the present day. And so I think any organization today has an obligation to interrogate their history and understand where there might have been shortcomings, either of commission or omission, to understand that history, and to move forward in a spirit of reparation and justice.


Jada Williams: My name is Jada Williams. I am a dual degree student at Wake Divinity pursuing a JD/MDiv and will graduate in 2024. And my question for Dr. Leonard and Amanda is – As we find ourselves on the heels of the Brianna Taylor verdict, I’m wondering how the implications of the verdict are related to Christian nationalism and what this means for our understandings of biblical justice?


Bill Leonard: That’s an amazingly insightful and complex, and in many ways, passionate question, that I think, that particular circumstance as one illustration of police violence against African Americans in this country, just in this year, has punctuated for the entire culture. I think that it calls us back to energizing, and the energizing, of both local and national groups who speak out against this on behalf of justice, and on behalf of fair treatment, and behalf of police reformation. One of the things that I hope, Jada, would encourage you for this is the fact that significant religious communities and religious leaders in Louisville have played a very important role in even helping to get this case brought to trial and to have a public forum regarding those kinds of issues.


I lived in Louisville for 17 years and know many of these religious leaders and have been in touch with him, but they, both many of them, took to the streets in public protest with others who were dissenting both against the action of the police and now the judgment of the grand jury. But they also went straight to the mayor and other political leaders and made their case for how reform was necessary and respond to this particular issue, and Brianna Taylor’s family, especially, needed to be much more intense and explicit. And I think that’s given me some hope for the future in the way in which religious communities responded to this terrible action and the crisis, political and regional, that it evoked.


Amanda Tyler: And I would just add, I agree. This is a really complex question, and it helps really understand how understanding Christian nationalism can help us understand how different faith communities might approach this topic. I think speaking for the other faith communities who either spoke out in favor of law enforcement or the verdict or stayed silent in the face of what is an obvious miscarriage of justice here. How could they do that, how does Christian nationalism play in? One of the key biblical texts on which Christian nationalism relies is Romans 13, which I think is a very misunderstood and misinterpreted section of Paul’s writings, which talks about submitting to the authority of state. It has been misused by oppressors over many centuries for that very use, and so it should not be surprising, but it should still be horrifying when we see even modern-day people using Romans 13 to somehow justify an unjust justice system. Instead of speaking that voice of dissent about what real justice might look like. And it also speaks to the caution of those who are so reliant on state power for their religious power that then their voices are silenced when otherwise, their faith tradition would call them to speak truth to power in a moment of violence and oppression.


Rebecca Wiggs: Hi, I’m Rebecca Wiggs, I’m an attorney in Jackson, MS, in private practice, and I also serve on the Wake Divinity Board of Visitors. Here’s my question for Dean Leonard and for Amanda. 


Two Supreme Court justices have now signaled their wish to “fix the problem” the court created in the Obergefell decision, the 2015 order that allowed for same-sex marriages. Where the court endorsed, in their words “a novel constitutional right over the religious liberty interests explicitly protected in the First Amendment.”


How might Baptist react to another shift in this particular load we’ve just gotten adjusted to carrying? And does our history and our polity give Baptist communities a way to remain supportive of both religious freedom proponents and our LGBTQ family of faith members?


Bill Leonard: I think that’s the test that is one of multiple tests that the changes in the Supreme Court have made or are talking about making or will make. And this is going to be a very controversial moment in the Supreme Court, particularly if one more judge is appointed who moves toward the right on any of these issues. It does raise this question again of religious privilege. One of the interesting things to me has been that this question related to religious liberty and LGBTQ laws and protection and now the marriage issue has been really asking people to shape their religious freedom in terms of their own biases. This was not uncommon with the effort against Brown versus the Board of Education, or many of the legislative efforts of the civil rights movement. I think this is very problematic, particularly that they have come out so quickly on these statements in the midst of a political year and a highly politicized moment in the culture. And so I think that this is going to put Baptists in a situation where the diversity of interpretations of religious liberty which we’ve been talking about today are becoming more pronounced and divisive in terms of how individual Baptists and Baptist denominations and individuals, pastors, and congregations are going to divide over these matters. And this is going to be a long struggle. And I think we need to be clear, those of us who have talked about Christian nationalism and its role in these kinds of decisions for people on the margins. We’re going to have to be clear about our own convictions and our willingness to respond to the changes that are being, I would say threaten.


Amanda Tyler: Yeah, and Rebecca, I would just add, I think that this statement from the justices – it was a short statement that Justice Thomas wrote and was joined by Justice Alito – that it really is a perfect example of what I was talking about earlier when people claim a severe infringement on their religious freedom, and they are talking about a loss of religious privilege. It really is in the eye of the beholder, because what they’re reacting to was the opinion, written by Justice Kennedy, in Obergefell, which BJC said at the time, treated religious interests in a very respectful way. But in their, in Justice Thomas and Alito’s perspective, they read that same opinion, and saw, Justice Kennedy, calling religious dissenters on this issue of gay marriage, calling them bigots. And so they’ve really turned up the dial on this conflict between an expansion of non-discrimination in the United States and certain religious liberty interests. I think it’s really important for Baptists who have long-championed religious freedom for all to help understand that religious freedom does not mean that the state will enshrine your morality into law. And when the state, in trying something that is contrary to your religious views, that the state will work with you to provide accommodations when possible. But just enshrining something that is contrary to your religious values is not necessarily an infringement on your religious freedom. And if we can be very clear about where those lines are, and not as these justices did, engage in some kind of hyperbolic response, that’s really unhelpful to what is a very difficult debate right now. I think that’s how we can best show a witness here, is one that we will be fighting for some time now, that the changes in the Supreme Court are just making this more difficult. And that’s when we have to be more clear and hew more closely to our founding principles.


Rev. Darnysha Nard: Hello, I am Darnysha Nard, a Wake Div candidate from 2017. So, I think many of us, particularly those of us on this panel, tend to think of white nationalism as monolithic and easy to see. Throughout my lifetime, I have seen it evolve, especially now into something more nuanced. Recently, applying for ministry jobs, I have seen this nuance in action. During a recent interview for a majority white church, someone from HR stated that they had done some sleuthing and saw my social media. They claimed to be supporters of Black Lives Matter and other social justice stances and movements but had “raised eyebrows” about my recent post about protest and supporting bail funds for those who are wrongfully charged and arrested. They asked if I was hired, would I be willing to remove said post and solely support the position of the organization. So that’s my question: What does it look like to use church privilege to take a stance against white nationalism in congregations that do not politically lean left or right but maintain steadfast in the middle? When is the time to follow or lead a congregation against white nationalism? And as a woman of color, how do I encourage my peers to join me, or is this another thankless solo mission?


Amanda Tyler: Well, thanks, Darnysha, for your question, for your vulnerability, for your honesty. I think that’s a very brave move and one that’s needed – this kind of truthtelling in this moment. You know, I would say initially that this kind of conversation is exactly what BJC hopes to have with the Christians against Christian nationalism project. We think it’s really important for us to understand Christian nationalism, or white nationalism, how it shows up in subtle ways and nuanced ways, as you put it, for us to draw attention to it, to interrogate those assumptions, to understand it. And so this initiative, these materials that we have are there for congregations all across the theological spectrum. I think that they’re sometimes uncomfortable conversations for congregations to have, to really start to interrogate what some of these assumptions are. Back to where I started at the beginning, talking when I was defining Christian nationalism, that Christian nationalism is pervasive; that it impacts all of us. And so coming at that from a place of humility and understanding that we’re not out there just to call out the most violent extremes of it. There we’re there to help recognize how Christian nationalism is holding us back as a society, and yes as a church, and as a religious people so that we can start to move forward all together.


And so I certainly hope that efforts like Christians against Christian nationalism will bring your peers out of the woodwork to help support you because this has to be something that those of us who are most impacted, and yes, who have most benefited from Christian nationalism, we have to be the ones to lead and call it out. I hope to be your peer, standing right there with you as we try to dismantle both white supremacy and Christian nationalism from our culture and from our churches.


Bill Leonard: Darnysha, I’m going to agree very much with Amanda, and given what she said, I’m going to go deep into the story, the illustration that you use. I have long valued you as a minister. You were ordained in the church that my family and I attend, and I was honored to participate in that service. And I know about your deep convictions, not only in terms of the gospel but in terms of the way in which the gospel is to be expressed on issues of justice reconciliation and compassion. 


So here’s what I would say: if they ask you to drop these kinds of responses that you have made to issues of justice from your social media, they will ask you to drop other things along the way. And there are some situations where knowing that going in, means you shouldn’t go in at all. Because these days, churches and church-related organizations are being impacted by major forces that contribute to division in those congregations or those organizations already. The declines in the engagement in religious life across the spectrum, in denominations and religious life, has created a sense of great angst, great struggle, and in some cases, fear in these organizations as they see their constituencies aging or their budgets declining, or those kinds of institutional realities. And so the division around these issues is only increased by the times, but in this particular incident, you do illustrate, again, some of the things we’ve been talking about today. I think if I can get, probably, too gospel about it, there are places where you need to shake the dust off your feet and know that you’re going to be asked to continually compromise if the entering-in process involves that kind of compromise and, please use the pun, the whiting-out your web page.


Darrell Hamilton: So I’d like to thank you both for joining our Common Conversation today. I’d like to thank the people who came and offered thought-provoking and insightful and passionate questions. I’d like to end by saying if the audience, if anybody here who came and really appreciated this conversation today, if you would like to learn more about BJC and Christians against Christian nationalism, visit and you can also visit Again I want to take a moment to just thank our guests here, our experts, for their wisdom. For their passion, for their prophetic preaching of the gospel, which is for the sake of justice, compassion, and reconciliation for us all. And so, thank you, Bill. Thank you, Amanda. For giving us your time and giving us portions of yourself today.


Amanda Tyler: Well, thank you, Darrell, and Bill. As always, I learn every time we have a conversation about this. I learned from those who asked questions today, and I’m grateful to be on this path with both of you, and our audience, as we try to dismantle Christian nationalism.


Bill Leonard: I also am grateful for this opportunity and to learn from everyone who’s had a voice in this gathering today. I do want to say as a longtime friend and in many ways beneficiary of the Baptist Joint Committee, that I hope our listeners will know that this committee benefits persons inside and beyond the Baptist network and world and that their engagement in amicus briefs and friend-of-the-court responses across the political and theological spectrum has been a model since the 1930s of ways in which persons of Baptist identity can engage and encourage religious liberty in the best sense. The early Baptists of the 17th century would be delighted to know that their vision continues through organizations like the Baptist Joint Committee. So thank you for today.


Darrell Hamilton: Outstanding. Well, again, thank you all, everyone. This was a wonderful and full gospel education. If I can take anything away from my time at Wake Forest Divinity in my time as a student under Dr. Bill Leonard, is that the man definitely knows how to preach a good gospel education so that carries forward into our conversation today. So everybody, be blessed. Stay tuned for more coming from Common Conversations and Wake Divinity programming.


Natalie Aho: If this is your first Common Conversation, then I encourage you to join us for all three this fall as we talk about the weight of racism. Don’t miss the discussions on the load of Christian Nationalism and Baptist history in October; Black Baptist burdens and White Baptist pressures in November and the gravity of trauma of these enmeshed communities in December. And stay tuned for future series next semester. 


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