We declared our independence on July 4, 1776.
We fought and defeated the British in the Revolutionary War.
We expanded across the West.
We won World War II.
Statements like these were common in both my early homeschool education and in my private school AP history classes. There’s nothing too remarkable about them. Everyone present was a U.S. citizen, and it went without saying that the story of the nation was something “we” could identify with, something that served as “our” story.
I made none of the choices that built America. I wasn’t alive during most of its history. Even my ancestors (though some of them arrived on the Mayflower) couldn’t have been personally involved in many decisive events. But as an American citizen, I inherited the story nonetheless. It became my story; it gives me a past long before my birth; it explains many things about my life today. I share in the civic tradition. I share in the historic victories. I share in the pride. And if any doubt remained as to whether I have a share in America’s past, it would have been removed every childhood year as I participated gleefully in Fourth of July celebrations, sometimes even with my face painted red, white, and blue — as if to say, “America is me.”
Most Christians I know would applaud my young patriotism. They, too, would happily hear and repeat statements like those above: “We won our independence,” and so on. But when other, similar, statements are proposed, like “We perpetrated genocide against Native Americans,” “We enslaved millions of Africans,” or “We have persistently withheld full and equal participation in American society from Black people and other people of color,” a completely different reaction is typical.
“That wasn’t me.”
“I didn’t enslave anyone.”
“My ancestors lived in (or fought for) the North.”
“I am friendly to every Black person I meet.”
“I’m not racist.”
“I shouldn’t have to feel guilty for things I didn’t do.”
What’s interesting here is not really whether individuals are implicated in a collective story that predates them. Most of those Christians who claim no share in American racial sins are perfectly comfortable accepting a share in the glories of American history. Of course we can identify personally with a collective past, and most of us do it all the time.
The issue I want to probe is what we are willing to include in that defining history. What is essential, and what is accidental? What is at the center, and what is peripheral? If I identify with America and its history, what am I making myself accountable for?
For Christian nationalism — the view of American history I learned as a child, still extremely influential — everything rides on the way we tell American history. This is because Christian nationalists believe God himself instituted the United States as a Christian nation, a beacon of light for the rest of the world. And as I have gradually sought to expand my understanding of history, and to investigate the unspoken questions I harbored about race, I have come to see that the way Christian nationalists tend to talk about America makes it impossible to see endemic racism in America. Here are three curtains I have had to pull back along the way.
- It’s about good Americans, not good humans. When Christian nationalists are thinking about American society and how it works best, even if their discussion seems to ignore the interests of non-white people, it still makes very little sense to them to suggest they are racist. This may be because they are primarily talking about what makes a good American — not a good human. Racism, I learned as a child, was the belief that some people are inherently less valuable because of the color of their skin. But I was also taught that God values everyone equally. No matter where you live, no matter what you have done, no matter how much money you have, no matter how intelligent you are. So, by this line of thinking, it is coherent to think that Black people might be (whispered) less intelligent — and God still loves them. They might commit more crimes — and God still loves them. They might not be very good with money — and God still loves them. Now, when the conversation turns to talk about who belongs here, there might “unfortunately be some people who aren’t a very good fit for the U.S. and its culture. And they can live happily somewhere else. But remember, those people are ultimately just as valuable — so, no, I’m not racist.”
- It’s about the story, not skin color. As Christian nationalists tend to see it, they aren’t racist, because what makes you a good American isn’t what you look like; it’s the story you tell about America. You could be the Black African immigrant who sings America’s glories, and you will be celebrated by Christian nationalists. You could be the Columbian refugee, who applied for entry through official channels and is grateful for the rescue. You will be welcomed with open arms, because you provide confirmation that America saves. You could be the Black American who grew up impoverished in the inner city but made it through college and to a professional career. Just credit your success to individual determination and to America’s eagerness to reward it, and Christian nationalists will delight in sharing your story.
But here’s where this step does double duty: it hides racism while reinforcing it. The story of American greatness necessarily minimizes injustices done to Native Americans, Black people, and other non-white people. It puts these aspects of American history inside parentheses, or notes them with an asterisk. The authorized version is that justice for all has always been the true America, though there have been complications. Now, really: with only a small amount of empathy, a white person can see how this version of the story would be difficult for non-whites to accept. A Native American is not likely to proudly adopt a version of American history that downplays the genocide of his people (though a few do adopt it). Nor is a Black American likely to tolerate a narrative that presents four hundred years of her people’s experience as a mere “exception that proves the rule” of American equality (though, of course, there are some who do this).
By allowing anyone to qualify as a good American by accepting the myth of American greatness, Christian nationalists avoid overt racism. But because of the very content of that myth, an overwhelmingly white group of Americans self-select to become its adherents. And that’s the group that comprises Christian nationalists’ “good Americans.”
We should note, too, that since the myth maintains that America is fundamentally a Christian nation, it tends to keep non-Christians from fully qualifying as “good Americans” on exactly the same grounds. Yet more confirmation, to those on the inside, that Christian nationalism is not racist.
- Because God founded the country, it can’t have been founded on injustice. According to the Christian nationalism I learned, the United States is God’s country. It was established by God’s providence to provide a Christian witness to the world through prosperity and justice. By this guiding principle, it makes sense to think that America departs from its divine calling — its essential self — as it becomes less dominated by Christians. It is thus easy to see and decry things like legalized abortion and the decline of marriage. But it is impossible to believe that crimes against humanity, such as genocide and slavery, are essentially entwined in America’s “Christian” past. God has staked his reputation on America; America’s glory testifies to the truth of Christianity. So for Christian nationalists, to slander America’s basic righteousness is tantamount to blasphemy.
So, what to do?
For one thing, we must teach and learn American history as complex and morally compromised, not a straightforward story of greatness. While the U.S. has made unique, positive contributions to the world, which we can claim with pride, it is still a human nation. Heeding both the gospel and the historical record, we find that nowhere is our legacy unmixed with sin and the abuses that come with power. We must therefore be wary of the dangers, both intellectual and spiritual, in the concept of a “patriotic education” in history.
Next, those of us who readily identify with American greatness must also be willing to identify with its shame — especially its pattern of racial injustice. If it is our story, all of it must be our story. Now, is the “guilt” the same kind we should feel in response to wrongdoings we have committed personally? I don’t think so — which is why most people don’t call it “guilt,” unless they’re defending themselves against it. But just as in personal repentance, the important thing is not how bad we feel, but whether we name the truth and accept the responsibility to set a new course.
This process of reframing will be psychologically intolerable if our identity as Americans provides the bulk of our self-worth. This brings us to the third step: we must hang our identity less on being American, and more on being in Christ. We must let Christ disentangle us from other sources of self-worth, whether it is American greatness, prosperity as a sign of God’s favor, distance from “the least of these,” or even our own guiltlessness.
In the process of becoming more Christian than American, we should also learn about global Christianity — especially the Christianity that precedes the Reformation and the colonization of America. Christians from the more distant past aren’t morally pure either, but they can certainly expose many blind spots of American Christians. So far, Christians from the past have challenged what I thought of as God’s mission on earth. They have challenged what I thought of wealth and poverty. They have expanded the way I tell the gospel. So, if you want to be more Christian than American, I suggest allowing the Christian saints to become a more important part of your own history than the American “founding fathers.”
And in the process of becoming more Christian than [any other identity], wouldn’t it be important to seek out Christians who do not share that identity? Wouldn’t it be important to see if Jesus says different things to them than he does to us? We wouldn’t want to find ourselves governed by the pet virtues of white culture, which we mistake for holiness — or affluence, which we mistake for God’s favor — or nationalism, which we mistake for Christianity.
Abigail Woolley Cutter is a Ph.D. candidate in Christian Ethics at Southern Methodist University.