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Why We're Publishing "Baptizing America"

Why We're Publishing "Baptizing America"

For the last few decades, I’ve found the worship service on the first Sunday of July a little… uncomfortable. It probably doesn’t matter what hymnal your congregation uses; it likely has a section of songs that invoke God watching over America or thanking God for the divine blessings bestowed on our country. I’ve generally sung along, but I certainly haven’t led the choir.1

I pin my discomfort to the ideal of keeping politics and faith separate. Within view of each other, definitely — our faith should guide how an individual interacts within  the public square as well as the private home but that’s where my faith’s sovereignty ends. My faith does not prevail over another person’s faith. 

Sadly, many Americans are actively working to tear down that ideal. And the most powerful, dangerous tool they use to destroy theological equality is the Christian church itself. We may think Sundays are set aside for apolitical purposes, but that one hour in the sanctuary can be the most politically charged hour of the week.

Brian Kaylor and Beau Underwood’s new book, Baptizing America: How Mainline Protestants Helped Build Christian Nationalism, goes beyond explaining how we now see politicians in the pulpit by explaining how it is our mainline churches played a role, consciously or not, in fusing politics and religion in ways that go beyond our faith influencing our day-to-day lives. The book focuses on congregations in the mainline denominations: the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)2, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and the American Baptist Church. These were the denominations that dominated the American religious landscape for the latter half of the 20th Century — as well as the political landscape, with many  presidents and legislators and judges and mayors having deep roots in those denominations.

We mainliners may find it easy to say, “Christian Nationalism? That’s an evangelical thing — we don’t do that,” but the fact of the matter is that mainliners do engage in Christian Nationalism. As the introduction states, “Addressing the threat of Christian Nationalism requires an honest acknowledgment of all the places it shows up and the historical forces that contributed to its rise.” When we have flags in the sanctuary or sing those patriotic hymns in worship or participate in a government-sponsored religious event, we are supporting Christian Nationalism.

Kaylor and Underwood, whose passion and knowledge on this issue is mind-boggling astounding, dig into the history of the mainliner’s support of Christian Nationalism, noting easily overlooked events like the presentation of the brand-new Revised Standard Version of the Bible to President Harry S. Truman, the origins of the National Prayer Breakfast, and more recent events like the infamous photo of President Donald Trump awkwardly holding up a Bible in front of an Episcopal congregation across the street from the White House. 

Spotting Christian Nationalism may be easier than you think. How can you recognize Christian Nationalism? Scholar Stephen Backhouse suggests viewing an activity as though you were a Martian. In the context of a royal coronation, Backhouse wrote, “If a Martian was watching the coronation service, you’d ask them what [they’d] learn about English religion. And they’d say, ‘Well, it looks like they worship the king.’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’”

Then Kaylor and Underwood offer this: “We suggest a similar test when considering the Christian Nationalism long embedded in our worship services. When one grows up used to a certain way of doing things, it can seem natural. If one’s family of birth fought every night, then one would grow up thinking all families act like that. That’s a danger of the pervasiveness of Christian Nationalism. For those who grew up in White churches in the U.S. — mainline, evangelical, Pentecostal, or Catholic — Christian Nationalism was often in the air. We breathed it in, seeing it as inherently part of what it means to be Christian.”

And once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

Baptizing America may be an uncomfortable read. It may challenge your belief of how church and state should interact — or even if they should interact at all. It will challenge how you think about your congregation’s decisions around public engagement of national holidays. It may even have you looking a bit askew at that pair of flags, American and Christian, at the front of the sanctuary.

Brad Lyons is the president and publisher of Chalice Media Group, a general ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada. 

If you truly feel compelled to sing a hymn about nations, consider “This Is My Song” (Chalice Hymnal #722). It acknowledges our love for our own country but also the love others have for their countries — and it reminds us that God blesses us all, no matter the nationality. Here are some of the lyrics: “This is my song, O God of all the nations / A song of peace for lands afar and mine. / This is my home, the country where my heart is, / Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine. / But other hearts in other lands are beating, / With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.” The lyrics are by Lloyd Stone (1934) and Georgia Harkness (c. 1939) and are copyrighted by the Lorentz Publishing Company and the Presbyterian Board of Christian Education. The musical setting is the sublime "Finlandia" by Jean Sibelius.

2 Chalice Press is the publishing house of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

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