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The Christ-Washing of the American Identity

Written by: on September 1, 2020

Identity and narrative are two of the most powerful driving forces in our lives. The questions “Who am I?”, “Where have I been?”, “Where am I now?” and “Where am I going?” influence not just the way that we see ourselves, but the way that we see the world. But what happens when our narratives and identities come into conflict with others? When worlds collide, how do we navigate the tensions that inevitably ensue?

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Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry’s book Taking America Back for God seeks to provide context to the narrative of Christian nationalism that has taken root in the American identity.  The duo defines Christian nationalism as “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.”[1] They identity four types of Americans when it comes to Christian nationalism – each with their own narratives of what it means to identify America as a “Christian nation”: Rejecters, Resistors, Accommodators, and Ambassadors.

During the 2016 election, a question that I kept seeing over and over again was over the conservative evangelical response to Donald Trump. “How could a Christian vote for a man like this?” popped up across social media with people both defending Trump and attacking his character. Simultaneously, one saw attacks on and defense of the Hillary Clinton campaign. While one can argue it was the mentality that Trump would defend the “Christian heritage America holds so dear” and Clinton would destroy it, the issue at hand goes much deeper than that.

A war for both power and identity has been raging. Being away from America for six years has given me both an insider’s look and an outsider’s look into what is happening. The language and narrative that I’ve heard used is one of fear – fear of a loss of power. The conservative response to Donald Trump’s rise to power blew me away as conservative evangelical leader after leader gave Trump a moral pass on the grounds of the hope he would restore the nation’s “Christian” identity. We feel most vulnerable or hostile when we perceive that the identity we hold closely as our own is under attack. In this case, the narrative became “If you’re a true Christian, you will vote for Trump.” The idea of an American identity was hijacked using Christian language. What believer could stand against a blunt accusation of, “How could you, a Christian, not vote for someone who wants to reinstate Christian values?” Though between the lines, they were saying, “Why do you not want to reestablish the place of power we once held?”[2] If I learned anything during the election, it was that much of American evangelicalism is a political party that masks itself with the name of Christ.

One of the beautiful parts of America is that it is a nation that is composed of many people groups from around the world and brings with it a myriad of cultures. However, this brings with it a set of challenges in and of itself in its heterogeneity. Everyone has a different idea of what it means to be an “American”. I often wonder if there is any such universal idea that truly binds Americans together in a common identity. When I read the news or scroll through my friends’ social media accounts, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s “Untruth of Us vs. Them” becomes ever clearer as the language of fear is used to mobilize one group against the other.[3]

America is and has been suffering from an identity crisis. How do we navigate the American identity going forward? We say that America is a Christian nation and try to “Christ-Wash” our history and identity, but this only adds to the myriad of competing narratives for America’s identity. Can America be “taken back for God” if its identity was never truly founded upon God? At the end of the day, what does it mean to be “Christian” and “American”?

 

Footnotes

[1] Andrew L. Whitehead & Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 10.

[2] I do want to note that these were my observations from afar and these are reflections I have had over the past four years. I recognize that the media may present these ideas in a different light, so please forgive and correct any misgivings that I may have.

[3] Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind (New York City: Penguin Books, 2019).

About the Author

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Dylan Branson

Small town Kentuckian living and learning in the big city of Hong Kong.

11 responses to “The Christ-Washing of the American Identity”

  1. mm Greg Reich says:

    Dylan,
    I appreciate your statement, “We feel most vulnerable or hostile when we perceive that the identity we hold closely as our own is under attack.”
    I often wonder if the identity we often covet is really the identity Christ wants us to have. We look at life through a single lens without the understanding that the God we serve is multi-faceted and wants us to find our identity in Him not our IQ, our gifts and talents, or where we live. It isn’t who we are but whose we are.

    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      Agreed. I think one of the most fundamental conversations I’ve had came from our discussion with Pablo about identity while we were in London. We talked about how any identity that isn’t Christ (whether it be ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, profession, etc.) will eventually crumble. Instead, with Christ as the center of our identity, we begin to see world and ourselves through His eyes.

  2. mm Jer Swigart says:

    A question of allegiance comes to mind as I read your post.

    Namely, where is one’s allegiance located. In this case, is my allegiance committed to the ideals and identity of a nation-state or the person of Jesus and the Kingdom of God that he lived, narrated, and invited us into? I’m not sure that one can commit one’s allegiance to two such opposing realities.

    As I read further and noticed your mention of fear, it made me consider how our response to fear exposes our true allegiances. That is, my response to fear uncovers what I most value.

    For those who understand themselves as a part of the movement for Christian Nationalism, what would you identify as their primary fear and primary response to that fear?

    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      In one sense, I would think a loss of power is one of the primary fears. However, I wonder if the deeper fear is the one of being wrong and losing who we thought we were. When we’ve been fed a narrative our whole lives – in this case, America was founded as a Christian nation with Christian ideals – we weave it into the fabric of our identity. For some, this could be the thread that holds their identity together and without it, the rest may unravel.

      When we fear our identity is under threat, we grasp at the smallest straws that could be taken out of context to prove to others (and to us) that we are who we say we are. We may willingly or unwillingly misinterpret signs because we fear the discombobulation that is just over the horizon.

      I the end I think we’re striving for some measure of control. When we feel we’re losing it, it can drive us to do things we wouldn’t otherwise do.

      • mm John McLarty says:

        Losing control is one of the most difficult things for us to accept, even for Christians (maybe especially for US American Christians.) Yet time and again, Scripture reminds us that 1) we’re not, nor have we ever been, in charge, and 2) God can and will provide when we trust.

  3. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Dylan, I’m reminded of the Counselor who asks Hagar the penetrating questions, “Where have you come from, and where are you going?” (Gen. 16). Hagar names God, “The God who Sees” as a result. As identity and vulnerabilities are challenged, one hopes the unchallengeable core Identity might be formed.

    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      We ask, “Where have you come from?” and “Where are you going?”, but do we pause to ask, “Where am I NOW?” Maybe part of our identity crisis is that we don’t pause enough to reflect on who we are in the moment.

  4. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    Dylan,
    I so appreciate your thoughts on identity, and agree wholeheartedly that the lack of a common identity is a driver for the existing divisions. The questions you ask at the end are big. I wonder if there’s a way to slice them a little thinner to begin to get a little closer to the heart of the matter? What does it mean to be a Christ-follower? or to be transformed into the image of Christ? If that truly is our key identity, then answering those questions seem paramount.

    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      That’s a good point. The sum of the parts may help to inform the whole in the end. We can have a basic idea of the common identity – what is it to be Christian for example – and then start slicing the little pieces to come to a greater understanding of that broader identity. It’s tough because there are always so many moving parts to it, but that exploration is half the fun haha.

  5. mm John McLarty says:

    “…much of American evangelicalism is a political party that masks itself with the name of Christ.”

    You hit the nail on the head. And yet sadly, fundamentalist American evangelicals don’t see this as a problem. In fact, I think they see it as the only way of maintaining order, power, and appropriate boundaries as Whitehead and Perry described. It’s an ideological, existential struggle.

    What truly saddens me is how many moderate, centrist, more “mainline” Christians, even those of us who would still like to think of ourselves as evangelical (though decided something different than how that word is seen in most circles,) get caught up in the argument. It’s tough to be try to live between authentic Christian discipleship and celebrating what’s best about US American citizenship.

    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      I think it’s interesting to pay attention to the language people use in the arguments. We use language to evoke and provoke a response. One person I know who is a hardcore conservative throws out terms like “squishy moderates”, which usually instigates a response from people. We have this false dichotomy where it’s either you’re in or you’re out; you support the cause you or you don’t; you’re one of us or you’re one of them. It’s hard living in the tension of the middle ground and being true to our identity.

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