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A Political Imagination to Challenge the Status Quo

Written by: on September 3, 2020

Our imagination for engagement with the world stems directly and without exception from our cultural framework. Our actions, furthermore, necessarily emerge from how we imagine the world. This imagination is molded and shaped by the stories that captivate our hearts. “Our hearts traffic in stories,” theologian James K. A. Smith teaches (Imagining the Kingdom, 32 and 108). Decisions, then, aren’t something to be ordered à la carte, but are in sync and grouped in an overarching grand story – a worldview.

Sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry extend this storied truth to the political sphere in their recent work, Taking America Back for God. Motivated by curiosity, these political theorists sought clarity and a fuller picture of the simple statistic that 80% of white Evangelicals voted for Trump in the 2016 election. What they discovered through one of the most quantitative and qualitative studies to date (one third of the printed book’s pages are devoted to their methodology and research), was that no single issue serves as a reliable predictor for voting. However, they unearthed an unparalleled predictive measure they call “Christian nationalism.”

Christian nationalism, as defined by Whitehead and Perry, is “a cultural framework—a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems—that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life” (10). They spend the rest of the book investigating power, boundaries, and order, heralding their arranged graphs through the lens of this framework. Whitehead and Perry are honest to admit their description is a particular type of Christianity, that holds America as sacred, supports conquests, encourages boundaries, approves of hierarchies, baptizes authoritarian rule, justifies righteous violence, and glorifies the patriarchal, heterosexual family as the cornerstone of thriving civilizations (152). What they describe is probably best defined as an ideology than a religious understanding.

While there is much to grieve from the results of their findings, Whitehead and Perry provide great hope for those Christians holding a conflicted allegiance in and to the United States. Multiple times, these authors describe the “great paradox [where by] Christian nationalism and religiosity often influence Americans political views in the exact opposite direction” (84). As the rituals and rhythms of the faith increase – church attendance, prayer, and Scripture reading –  views move away from exclusion and toward embrace of the other (for example). The authors will go on to distinguish between Christian nationalism and religiosity in relation to racial and religious boundaries (114). Surprisingly, their solution lies inherent in their findings.

While Taking America Back for God does a convincing job of piecing together a narrative, there are a couple of points still lacking. Fundamentally, the interview questions they use to distinguish the index for Christian nationalism leave too much room for interpretation and variety. In particular, the question, “The federal government should advocate Christian values,” assumes agreement on the definition of “Christian values.” Is gun control a Christian value? What about the openness to foreigners and immigrants? Too much interpretation provides skewed results, especially in ethnic minority demographics. In addition, Whitehead and Perry need to dive further into their original premise and curiosity as they admit many of the Christian nationalists “happen to be white.” If narratives and ideologies drive action then there is no “happens to be.”

Imaginative Response

The way in is the way on. Martin Luther King Jr. did not ask his white antagonists to be less Christian, but more. Whitehead and Perry ultimately give the needed prescription: increased participation in those rituals that form the people of God. We need to re-narrate the Christian experience. Political theologians have suggested swapping narratives. America is not so much the promised land as it is a time in exile. “Conquer the nations” is replaced with “Seek the shalom and prosperity of the city.” Thriving in the exile includes living in a community of committed relationships, providing a level of comfortability with doubt, living counter-culturally, possessing a compelling vision for home, and providing consistent reminders of the Story.

The given reality begs the question, who benefits from a change in the status quo? Adversely, who stands to lose or is threatened by a change in the status quo? Whitehead and Perry warn, “those who have historically benefited from the status quo not only marshal justifications for the old order, but rally a coordinated response among those who stand to lose the most if that old order topples.”  They crescendo by adding, “Christian nationalism has provided the unifying myths, traditions, narratives, and value systems that have historically been deployed to preserve the interests of those who wish to halt or turn back changes occurring within American society” (151). That status quo is vulnerable.

As we move beyond the here and now, new imaginations, and particularly redemptive political imaginations, are sorely needed. There is no preserving or returning to a mythic society (105), but only forward – further up and further in. In a COVID-19 era, many long-held patterns find their end. Might innovations in political discourse, social concern, and re-narrating practices  burst forth. Whitehead and Perry astutely conclude that the election, and politics in general by extension, are an arena of competing stories (56). Might not just any story, but the Story captivate a people who have the courage to imagine something fresh, something life-giving. And might sociologists in years to come scratch their head with the same curiosity Whitehead and Perry possessed trying to make sense of this generative movement.

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Andrew L Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God (New York: Oxford Press, 2020).

James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013).

About the Author

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Shawn Cramer

10 responses to “A Political Imagination to Challenge the Status Quo”

  1. mm Dylan Branson says:

    Shawn, there’s a strong feeling of hope interwove through your post. Hope is the driving force that moves us along; when we lack hope, we become stuck where we are. A lack of hope that things will change leaves us wanting and trying to hold on to the mythic, but is that really what God wants us to latch onto?

    In your reckoning, what to you think the “generative movement” going forward would look like?

  2. mm Greg Reich says:

    Shawn,
    James K. A. Smith in his book How (Not) to be Secular when discussing Taylor’s, A Secular Culture explains that once Pandoras Box is opened there is no way to close it. The question now becomes how do we live out our faith amidst the secularization process. To me Christian Nationalism is some grieving Americans way of trying to put the cover back Pandoras.
    Note: (Jamie Smith was one of my professors during my masters program:-))

    • mm Shawn Cramer says:

      Well, now I’m insanely jealous! His work on story and forming rituals continue to form my thinking of the power of worldview, especially how it informs the imagination for what could be.

  3. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    Shawn,
    You noted, ““great paradox [where by] Christian nationalism and religiosity often influence Americans political views in the exact opposite direction” (84).” The findings that those who actually participated in religious communities were less likely to embrace Christian nationalism is fascinating. Makes me wonder where the breakdown in discipleship is? How can that be overcome?

    • mm Shawn Cramer says:

      Like sex, most churches are silent on the issue, or overly partisan. Probably the best thing we could do is see Jonathan Haidt become a Jesus follower. haha. Seriously, though, teaching thoughtfulness, second-ordered thinking, and civil conversation skills would be a beginning.

  4. mm John McLarty says:

    I wholehearted agree with your suggestion that the solution is more Christ, not less. The challenge lies in deconstructing, then reconstructing the plane while we’re in the air. Teaching that calls out the places where US American Christian nationalism has co-opted the gospel of Jesus is often met with skepticism and caution at best, and usually contempt, suspicion, offense, and outrage. And rather than stay and work through the messy and uncomfortable conversations, people just bail out and leave to unite with congregations that do not ask such questions or invite such critical self-reflection until all that remains is a small, faithful, thoughtful remnant- committed to following Jesus and being good Americans- but unable to fund the ministries or pay the salaries to keep the church going. Thus the Church’s dissenting voice- her voice of conscience, her “Lorax”- dies, and her imagination along with it.

    • mm Shawn Cramer says:

      Great visuals in your response. It reminds me of personal sin. Most sin is taking something good and making it an ultimate issue in our lives. Same politically, some (maybe most) of the issues are okay take to a degree, but when they are made ultimate issues, then the problems arise.

  5. mm Chris Pollock says:

    Hi Sean, I really appreciate your writing and viewpoints. In particular, in this BlogPost the statement, ‘The way in is the way on’, followed by reference to Martin Luther King Jr., that he ‘did not ask his white antagonists to be less Christian, but more’ stands out for me.

    What will come of this movement ‘to be more Christian’ but, to be less attached to a worldly empire, vis-a-vis (United States of) ‘American’?

    There is a wonderful, eccentric patriotism that is just great, when you’re from the country that is the ‘greatest’. Connecting ‘religion’ and such a glorious ‘state’, something to be fairly proud of, I suppose. However, there’s a problem I think that followers of Jesus Christ can find themselves quite conflicted by between church and state, ‘You cannot serve two masters’ (Matt. 6:24).

    To be more Christian, what does this mean beyond mere ‘ritual’ and developing an attitude of life-loving ‘toward our neighbour and God’? Community in exile. The story of such an experience may come about as God determines his presence and protection over such a city; community in exile, remembering and taking heart in the story of God.

    ‘The destruction of Jerusalem represents a comprehensive disaster that challenged the self-perception of God’s people. It was an “event without precedent in the history of Israel, and it would become a turning point in Jewish religious development’ (Soong-Chan Rah, Prophetic Lament).

    ‘The way in is the way on’. Profound.

    God bless you, bro. With you, caring and prayerful.

    • mm Shawn Cramer says:

      I will say that the church without its building in COVID-19 is forcing many churches to ask, “What are we if not just a Sunday gathering place?” That’s super healthy!

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