Christian Nationalism: Our “Seamless Garment” Problem

GOP Dominionism Christianity

When I was a very new academic, I loved attending conferences and listening to scholars from various institutions deliver papers that illuminated issues with which I’d struggled.

One of those issues was my puzzlement about why some religious folks seemed unable to “live and let live”–to understand the Bill of Rights as a list of things that government wasn’t supposed to decide. You go to XYZ church, I go to ABC–government shouldn’t be involved in those choices. I read such-and-such books, you consider them evil. Not government’s concern. Etc.

I certainly understood that people of good faith could disagree on where lines got drawn, but I lacked a description for those insisting that government use its power to impose their religious beliefs on everyone else. Then I attended a conference presentation that gave those people and that insistence a label: the “seamless garment” folks.

Seamless garment folks are people who see government and religion as one inseparable authority; when government won’t legislate their beliefs, they experience that refusal as discrimination.

The frustration of the Seamless Garment folks is arguably what has led Evangelical Christians to support Donald Trump (and especially his Seamless Garment Vice President, Mike Pence.) Their insistence on using government to require others to act (or not) in accordance with their beliefs has now eclipsed their attention to such biblical admonitions as caring for the widow and orphan and adhering to the Golden Rule.

What have we seen from these folks during Trump’s first year? A writer for Vox supplies a list.

In my first year at Vox, I’ve covered a range of religion stories — from witches casting spells against Trump to controversial debates over the alt-right at the annual Southern Baptist Convention conference. In that time, I’ve noticed a few distinct, related patterns emerging. Most notably, Christian nationalism is getting stronger — even as that nationalism has both caused divisions within the evangelical community and led to wider politico-religious divisions in America, cleaving white evangelicals, from, well, everybody else.

The article lists five “take-aways”:

  • Religious minorities are experiencing a spike in discrimination. Muslim communities have been particularly hard-hit; anti-Islamic incidents have soared.   There’s been a 44 percent rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes and a 57 percent increase in Islamophobia overall. Anti-Semitism has increased as well.
  • Evangelical solidarity is showing fissures. Their demographics are changing and their communities are becoming more diverse; like other young people, young evangelicals have different priorities than seniors, and are significantly less anti-gay. Many of them are uneasy being tied to the Trump presidency– the Southern Baptist Convention, a body that represents nearly 40 percent of evangelical Protestants in America, passed a near-unanimous resolution condemning the alt-right.

And, of course, there was Roy Moore. His Alabama special election campaign, late in 2017, seemed to capture the religious zeitgeist, as evangelicals wrestled with the question of whether to support a man who had been accused of molesting teenage girls if it also meant supporting a pro-life, even theocratic candidate. The reasons for white evangelical support of Moore were varied, but the outcome of the election — which showed the growing influence of evangelicals of color — revealed that changing demographics, not changed minds, were responsible for Democrat Doug Jones’s victory.

  • Spiritual but not religious is becoming a significant voting bloc. The author noted that many of the people she interviewed said that the need for inclusive, LGBTQ-affirming spaces had alienated them from the religions they had grown up in or near, and left them in search of something different.
  • On the other hand, Christian Nationalism is on the rise. The prominent Evangelicals around Trump believe Christians should take over America, and run it in accordance with biblical law. (In fairness, many other evangelicals see them as charlatans.)

The article ended with speculation about the role Evangelicals will play in 2018. This  paragraph, especially, struck a chord:

The greatest trick Christian nationalists — or their more explicit cousins to the right, white nationalists — have up their sleeve is to claim they are being persecuted. Central to the narrative of Christian nationalism in the White House, no less than the explicitly white nationalist protests in Charlottesville, is the idea that the “liberal media” and “PC police” have banded together to silence the “true” speakers of truth — a dynamic that, in the rhetoric of Christian nationalism, turns into a full-on war between good and evil (just consider how Roy Moore’s defenders compared him to Jesus during the last days of his campaign).

Unfortunately for the Seamless Garment members of the Christian Taliban, the U.S. Constitution specifically rejects the “seamlessness” they seek, and leaves matters of religious belief and observance to our individual consciences.

Fortunately for the rest of us, His Trumpness can’t change that.

 

[Originally published at SheilaKennedy.net on January 28, 2018]

Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..

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