A pastor comes to terms with the church’s idols of Trump, money and power | Opinion
Biblical Christianity — forged in the cross, humility, and poverty — has been at war with a co-opted Christianity that forgets Jesus’s gospel of liberation
LYNCHBURG, VA – MAY 13: U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and Jerry Falwell (R), President of Liberty University, on stage during a commencement at Liberty University May 13, 2017 in Lynchburg, Virginia. President Trump is the first sitting president to speak at Liberty’s commencement since George H.W. Bush spoke in 1990. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
By Angela Denker
(Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from “Red State Christians: A Journey into White Christian Nationalism and the Wreckage it leaves behind,” available everywhere books are sold.)
On Sunday, January 10, 2021, I woke up early, stepped out my back door into frigid, biting air, and drove from one America into another.
I drove from leafy, liberal southwest Minneapolis, west from metro Highway 62 onto US Route 212, which runs from Minnesota into South Dakota, dead-ending in Yellowstone National Park in wild, ultra-conservative Wyoming.
I wasn’t going that far today. Just fifty-five miles or so through purple Carver County, which flipped in 2020 to Biden from Trump in 2016, helping ensure that Minnesota stayed blue, into further west and rural McLeod County, where Donald Trump won 67 percent of the vote two months earlier.
I drove into red America to lead a tiny rural church in worship that Sunday morning, but before I did so, I took a deep breath and told my church members about the time that I was a victim of right-wing white Christian terrorism.
Maybe terrorism is too strong a word, but I was terrified when Breitbart News took a screenshot of my interview on CNN in December 2019 and blasted it across their front page. They initially called me a “liberal pastor” who said American Christians had “lost the gospel of Jesus Christ” and instead embraced a gospel of wealth, power, and Christian nationalism.
Breitbart didn’t misquote me, but their framing of the interview led to a barrage of online harassment and threats, from the bizarre (a message suggesting my “swollen, lumpy throat” indicated cancer) to the scary (bleak and violent threats).
I combed my online presence and made sure my home address wasn’t visible anywhere. I ensured Facebook posts with pictures of my kids were no longer public for the most part. But Breitbart’s goal wasn’t actually to harm me or my family.
It was to silence me.
My clear analysis of the distortion of the gospel in American Christianity posed a threat to the right-wing white Christian empire of wealth and power, an empire encompassing publishing houses, TV networks, churches, colleges, universities, and schools. It shakes hands with corporate America to ensure that no one upsets the apple cart of an agreement first made in imperial Rome some 1,700 years ago, when Emperor Constantine first attempted to colonize Christianity under the guise of empire.
For all these years since, biblical Christianity — forged in the cross, humility, and poverty — has been at war with a co-opted Christianity that forgets Jesus’s gospel of liberation and instead seeks to use his story to entrench wealth and power in the hands of a few white men.
This battle has ebbed and flowed over the years through the Reformation in Europe and the colonization and subjugation of Africa by so-called Christian missionaries. It has continued through the rise of the Black Church in America, abolitionism and the Civil Rights Movement, the reckoning of clergy abuse crises in the Catholic church, to America in the second decade of the twenty-first century, with a white American Church that blatantly sold itself out on the altar of power and money, culminating in the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
My rural church members weren’t really thinking about any of this when they jammed their Trump flags into the ground next to their cornfields in September 2016. For them, mostly farmers, factory workers, medical workers, teachers, and police officers, voting for Trump was axiomatic. To be a rural, white American Christian obviously meant being a Republican. And Trump gave them permission to have a little fun, to stick their thumb in the eye of those annoying liberal elites in Minneapolis and Washington, DC, who had no idea how hard it really was to work for a living.
For them, Trump wasn’t like that. He said the quiet parts out loud, cursed, and laughed. But also, they earnestly hoped, he prayed and really did care for the “rights of the unborn.”
With a halting voice, I told my congregation anyway how it felt when I watched would-be insurrectionists carry Bibles and Christian flags into the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, suggesting that their violent overthrow of a democratic election was God-ordained.
I felt vulnerable saying these things, but I also trusted that my congregation would listen. We had a shared bond, a shared trust, a shared relationship. I baptized their babies and stood vigil in my clergy collar at the local cemetery as a military band played taps and a veteran’s ashes were laid to rest. I led prayer at the local Memorial Day picnic after rounds were fired into the air, the names of lives lost were read, and children scattered into the street to grab the spent bullets.
They knew that I’d marched with clergy for racial justice after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin just six miles from my home. They hadn’t all liked it very much that their pastor was out there supporting “the Blacks,” as some people put it. But others sent me messages about their Black family members and the racism they’d faced in rural Minnesota. They were glad I was bearing witness on behalf of a Savior who did not come to redeem only white Americans.
We’d settled into an uneasy truce, my church and I. They tolerated my NPR and CNN appearances, but they preferred it when I quoted country songs in my sermons and we could joke together about my former career as a sportswriter. Gingerly, we trusted each other, forgave each other, and listened to each other.
Even though I knew better — that the roots of rot in American Christianity went far deeper than Trump — I briefly retreated into my white, middle-class privilege and imagined that an election could make it all go away.
When Joe Biden was finally declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election on November 7, 2020, four days after Election Day, I naively thought the raging battle could finally end. The big orange albatross around the neck of the American church could be sloughed off, and we could return to debates around liturgy and music.
I knew deep down that what had been revealed in the past four years meant we could never return to what was, but nostalgia tempted me to believe that maybe the hatred and division and racism wrought into white American Christianity weren’t as bad as I had thought. The trouble in the church and in our country was somewhere else, some other Christians — but not most of us, or not the people and churches I knew. Surely, I could insulate myself from feeling further pain or distress, maybe pretend it had all been a bad dream.
On Sunday, January 10, I couldn’t believe that anymore. I’d known deep down that Trump was a symptom, not a cause. I’d known the idolatry of wealth and power had deep, deep roots in American Christianity, and that our worship of whiteness was just conveniently claimed by Trump, revealed by him, and that his absence from the Oval Office would not absolve our sins.
A part of me thought the very good Christians of my church’s little rural Midwestern town would take down their Trump flags on their own after the attempted insurrection. I thought they’d see the lives lost at the Capitol, the willful assault on American democracy, the shouts of the n-word at the Capitol police officers from the Trump-supporting rioters, and decide that simply wasn’t the association they wanted to claim any longer.
Like I said, I was naive. For many of the good white Christians I knew — not only in my church’s little town but across America, whom I’d interviewed for this book throughout 2018 — and for my dear friends and family members, January 6 was nothing to be ashamed of. Violence had always been necessary to sustain wealth and power for the white ruling class, and violence was also required to sustain the support of the rural white Christians who’d tied their fate to their economic overlords in New York City, California, and DC, with Rs behind their names.
As I concluded my story about the threats I’d received for simply suggesting that Jesus would not condone the violent and racist Christianity lifted by Trump and the Republican Party, I made a request of the Christians I loved in this little Midwestern church.
I asked them if now, two months post-election, maybe they’d consider taking down those Trump flags. I asked them if maybe they could see now what those flags had come to represent: much, much more than merely conservative politics. I asked them to see that by continuing to fly those flags, they were condoning violence and hatred.
They were saying to me, to Black people, to immigrants, to LGBTQ people, to anyone who didn’t fit into their desired white Christian box, that we did not belong and were not welcome in their town.
I honestly didn’t think it was that much to ask. The election was long past. I’d spent a lot of time now not just in this little town but in red states and counties across America, and I’d trusted that the Christians and Christian leaders I’d met really didn’t want to send a message of violent exclusion and hatred.
So, I thought if I could just explain it in the right way, show them how much it hurt ordinary people like me, for example, maybe the insanity could end. We could rebuild the American church again on the foundation of civil rights, and children’s rights, and the dignity of the human soul.
No one said much to me that Sunday. Most of the church was watching online due to the raging pandemic of COVID-19 that had hit our county hard.
When it was time to go back home, I realized I was almost out of gas. There was a little double-sided pump just a block away from church, across from the Congregational church that no longer had a pastor, next to a vending machine that sold cans of pop to schoolkids who drove up on four-wheelers after class.
I pulled up to the pump and opened my door, aware of a prickly sensation running up and down my arms as I stepped out of the car. I shivered as the icy air hit my cheeks, but this feeling was not limited to the Minnesota winter weather. Here, in this little town where I knew almost everyone and almost everyone was related, across the street from the police station where I had the chief’s cell phone number, I tasted the bleak metallic tang of fear.
I’d just had the audacity — me, a woman pastor of all things — to suggest to these people that they needed to smash their idols, to tear down the objects in which they’d placed their faith. They wouldn’t like it. They’d be mad. They had guns.
Reading this now and thinking about the kindly elderly folks who attend my Bible study, I feel a little embarrassed that I was afraid. No one was going to do anything to me. Right? Right?
Probably not. But like Breitbart News, the intention of the still-flying Trump flags in this little town was not really to hurt me. It was to make me be quiet. To question my words. To refrain from telling the truth about what happened to the gospel in white Christian America.
I began writing the first version of this book almost four years ago, a year after leaving my Southern California megachurch, when it became clear that my writing critical of Trump would not be tolerated by my church’s biggest financial backers. I had approached my travels across red, conservative Christian America with an open heart and a desire for empathy, hoping that I would somehow find reason and understanding, common ground and forgiveness. I found those things in pieces: in a dying congregation while receiving the Eucharist in Appalachia; at a youth group worship service in tony Newport Coast; and finally, while praying with my own Trump-supporting family members in rural Missouri.
Four years later, my earnest and open heart has been torn in two.
Bright red “Make America Great Again, Again!” signs are popping up all over my church’s little town. Two families, whose homes I’d visited earlier that year, left the church without telling me. They left for male pastors and a more conservative denomination, saying they just didn’t “connect” with me and the “politics” were always an undertone of discontent.
No matter how many times I prayed for military members and law enforcement officers and veterans, it didn’t matter. I prayed “too much” for racial justice. I’d had the audacity to talk about the Trump signs two months after the election. I’d stepped out of my prescribed place, so there was no longer room for mutual understanding or shared peace.
Sunday after Sunday, I’ve come back anyway to bow at the altar and lead the confession and forgiveness, even on the Sunday after I presided over my unvaccinated forty-three-year-old brother-in-law’s funeral, after his death to COVID-19. In these years of white Christian denialism and betrayal, the smell of death hangs in the air of all white American churches.
At the front of the church, behind the simple wooden altar, is the simple wooden cross. A condemned and dying Jesus watches us worship and listens to our economic anxieties and fears for our children and our planet. He judges our anger and violence, even while he is righteously angry at a church that has bought and sold his image for fame, power, money, influence, and Twitter followers.
With this Jesus in mind, this Jesus who is decisively not American and wholly not white, I invite you to read the rest of this book with his instructions in mind: “See, I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
When I first wrote this book, I asked liberal readers to open their hearts to understand conservative Christians. I also held out hope that conservative Christians would read this book, appreciate its empathy towards them, and consider its conviction that the white American church’s idolatry of money and power and white supremacy was taking it further away from Jesus.
Four years later, I no longer hold much of that hope. How can I think my writing will do what nearly one million American deaths due to COVID-19 have failed to do? How can I imagine that people unmoved by a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol and an attempted assassination of the vice president will somehow read this book and rethink their entire belief system?
No, I am resigned that many have become irredeemably lost, left only to the work of the Holy Spirit. My hope is for the rest of you. The ones who aren’t yet convinced that Christianity is a fairy tale devised only for the wealthy and powerful, who worship white Jesus on Sunday and steal from the poor on Monday. My hope is for those of you who have abandoned hope that your salvation lies in the American church, but who still believe that somehow, somewhere, love, hope, faith, and — ultimately — truth really do exist.
God, we’ll save for later.
The Rev. Angela Denker is a Lutheran pastor and journalist based in Minneapolis, Minn. This essay first appeared in the Minnesota Reformer, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.
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