BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. And this week, we put Christianity under the microscope. We examine the role of the religious right in U.S. politics.
ANDREW WHITEHEAD Evangelicals want the power and the privilege that comes with Christian nationalism. And who delivers that to them? They don't care as much.
BOB GARFIELD And how the religious left is harder to define.
JACK JENKINS I mean Native American spirituality is not the same thing as covering an Episcopal priest, which is not the same thing as covering on the Muslim community.
BOB GARFIELD Also, the myth of Christian martyrdom.
CANDIDA MOSS Uh, no. Christians never cowered in the catacombs. That's actually a tourist myth.
BOB GARFIELD And what race is Jesus anyway?
MBIYU CHUI It was kind of like a revelation, I said. Oh, wow. I never even considered the idea that Jesus could have possibly been black. Who could have thought of this?
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up after this.
From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. You know, you wake up on a Friday morning to wrap up your show after a long night of tweaks, edits and reconsiderations, and now there's no time left except a mix the show and send it out. And then you see stories broken so fast moving it can't be addressed in any way. That would last more than 15 minutes. So you throw up your hands. It's not for us, you say. Thank God, you think. Now if you're a believer in God, these days you might think that despite Einstein's dictum, God really does seem to be playing dice with us. Maybe you would consult the holy books for some insight into God's mysterious ways with regard to the diagnosis of Donald J. Trump with COVID 19. The Quran says that if a plague victim is patient and trusts in Allah's decree, he will be rewarded as a martyr. The New Testament says that the prayer of faith will save the sick and the Lord will raise them up. And anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. The Old Testament says God is teaching you a lesson when he whacks you, one you'll never forget. Now, Trump's family pastor was Norman Vincent Peale, who preached the prosperity gospel, that if you have health and wealth, you deserve it. And if not, well... In this hour, we probe American Christianity as a political force right, left and center and look into the face of Jesus.
President Trump, despite a strong evangelical following, doesn't exert much effort on displays of personal piety. It's not really part of his brand.
[CLIP] REPORTER I'm wondering why one or two of your most favorite Bible verses are.
TRUMP I wouldn't want to get into it, because to me, that's very personal. You don't want to talk about the Bible is very personal. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And he's often caught off guard by questions about his faith.
[CLIP] INTERVIEWER You used the word Christian. Have you ever asked God for forgiveness?
TRUMP That's a tough question. I don't think in terms that I have I'm a religious person. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Nevertheless, Trump's strategy as defender of the faith has been a political win, at least among his base. He spoke about that on Thursday in a virtual address at the annual Al Smith dinner.
[CLIP] TRUMP One of my top priorities is to defend religious liberty and the cherished role of faith and faith based organizations in our national life. To protect your God given rights, I was recently honored to nominate one of our most brilliant legal minds, Judge Amy Coney Berrett. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE A Catholic judge popular with the religious right to the Supreme Court. Fox News was quick to call out the Democrats for bias.
[CLIP] TUCKER CARLSON So it's bad when she takes her faith seriously, but good when Joe Biden does it. But to my original question, is any other faith at risk of being mocked the way Christianity is by our media? [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Trump's base often is characterized as largely white evangelicals, but that's misleading. According to sociologist Andrew Whitehead, author of Taking America Back for God, Christian Nationalism in the United States, there's a crucial distinction between evangelicals and Christian nationalists.
ANDREW WHITEHEAD Christian nationalism is a collection of myths and narratives like the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation. But it also includes symbols and value systems that come along as a package deal. A bunch of assumptions about nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, authoritarianism and militarism.
True Christian nationalists mostly are white evangelicals. Take V.P. Mike Pence, who subbed out the word Jesus for the red, white and blue at the Republican National Convention.
[CLIP] MIKE PENCE Let's fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents. [END CLIP].
BOB GARFIELD But roughly a quarter of white evangelicals either reject or resist Christian nationalism. Those who do subscribe to it have much more in common with each other, regardless of their faith or even lack thereof than with the dissenting evangelicals in Christian nationalism. The Christian part seems to be negotiable. What draws the movement together is not devotion to God or religiosity, but rather to quote "people like us", usually white and American born.
ANDREW WHITEHEAD They want the power and the privilege that comes with Christian nationalism for them in the public sphere. And who delivers that to them? They don't care as much.
BOB GARFIELD But no matter what you personally believe, you do have to contend with Christianity in America because Christian nationalists make up more than half of the electorate. Of those, according to Whitehead's study, 20 percent fiercely endorse Christian nationalism.
ANDREW WHITEHEAD When Americans are able to create symbolic boundaries about what it means to be an American, and if they're able to say that to be a citizen of the U.S. is to be Christian like us. And again, in quotes, then those symbolic boundaries get translated into social boundaries. Where others don't have the same access to political parties or office or social services or even identifying who is a real citizen or who can vote in when groups legitimate their political positions and policies with the sacred. Then really all bets are off, because if God has willed it, they should be willing to do whatever they need to by any means necessary to ensure that it comes to pass.
BOB GARFIELD But then there are what Whitehead calls accommodators. Fully 32 percent of us not so strident, but not unsympathetic.
ANDREW WHITEHEAD I think many of those Americans, they want to see Christianity play a role in American public life, but not to the extent that others are excluded completely. And so I feel as though the more that they're exposed to different voices on the margins or different news sources that highlight the dissonance between perhaps teachings of Jesus that they might begin to see, we need to start to move away from that.
BOB GARFIELD One of the principal tactics of Christian nationalism ambassadors in recent years is to testify endlessly about their religious persecution, which is baseless.
ANDREW WHITEHEAD This is a more recent turn using that rhetoric of religious freedom to support their views of how social societies should work. It isn't as though Muslim Americans or Jewish Americans or non-religious Americans should have equal say. It's that religious freedom means I should be able to live out my faith and see my country reflect my views at the Center of American Life.
BOB GARFIELD Andrew Whitehead is a professor of sociology at Indiana University, Purdue University, Indianapolis, and author of Taking America Back for God. Christian Nationalism in the United States.
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