When Religion Sins: Evangelical Zeal and the False Gospel of Christian Nationalism

Recently, an African American friend and I were talking. She complimented me on a comment I made based on months of reading about the profound historical legacy of racial exploitation in the U.S. She remarked, “Of course we knew that, but it’s still nice to hear a white person say it.” I laughed and replied, “Yes! Every decade or so, the scales fall from my eyes!”

I have spent much of my career learning I am wrong.

This phrase—“scales fell from my eyes”—comes from the Biblical account of the conversion of Saul, the vicious persecutor of the early Christian church (Acts 9). Distinct from many sinners whose lives are transformed by an encounter with Jesus, the sinner Saul comes from an exceptionally pious line of Jews. Unlike the prostitute or tax collector, he is driven not by lax morals or greed, but by profoundly misdirected religious zeal, another kind of immorality.

Saul heads to Jerusalem, where he plans to carry out his most significant purge of Christians yet. But a blinding light strikes on the Emmaus road and a voice—of the risen Jesus—asks, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Told to go to the nearest town and wait, Saul remains sightless for three days. Then Ananias, a follower of Jesus, receives a supernatural command—to go to the house where Saul is staying, lay hands on him, and pray for his sight to be restored. Ananias fears for his life, yet obeys. As he does so, “something like scales fall from Saul’s eyes.” Baptized on the spot, Saul, now rechristened Paul, begins to proclaim Jesus the Messiah.

At some level, Saul’s case is hard to stomach. We can all relate to the story of the immoral prostitute who turns away from sin, or of the thieving tax collector who resolves to return ill-gotten gain with interest. But Saul’s sin stems from immoral religious practice. Saul, persecuting the very one he claims to serve, has defected from God’s way. But he has wrapped his sedition in religion.

Twenty days ago, the world witnessed another terrifying demonstration of sedition wrapped in religion—at the US Capitol. In the aftermath, the faculty and staff at North Park Theological Seminary (where I serve as Trustee) wrote on Facebook, “The idolatrous pairing of Christ’s name and cross with symbols of hate has been seen across the nation and world, compromising the witness of the gospel and underscoring the complicity of a false gospel.” I couldn’t agree more.

But it is not only those who stormed the Capitol carrying “Jesus Saves” flags that frighten me. It is those many Christians across our nation who are complicit with the false gospel of religious nationalism used to sanctify this insurrection. I am deeply worried about Christians who employ extreme versions of “us versus them” to demonize those who don’t embrace their political cause. And I am alarmed by Christian leaders who insist that those who don’t embrace their political agenda are under the spell of Satan.

I pray that for my sisters and brothers, the bright light will come and that they heed it. But I also pray for wisdom, keenly aware that while criticizing others, I am no doubt blind to “the log that is in [my] own eye” (Matthew 7:3 NASB).

The scales of Whiteness still blind me when I least expect.

I’m living in an ongoing road to Emmaus moment, about the many ways in which the evangelical movement is seeded, nurtured, and fed by White Supremacy – and then used to sanctify that cause. This is my movement – I was raised in this tradition. And I fear for it. Looking back, I suspect a younger me would hesitate even contemplating the Evangelical movement playing a central role in maintaining White Supremacy. Growing up in northern Minnesota, I was naïve to issues of race as they took the stage in the 1960s and 70s, much less in the decades that came before. Angela Simms’ narrative about growing up in a Black household in the shadow of these events paints a picture so different from my own experience – where they barely penetrated.

I have loved Jesus from an early age and pursued the study of poverty because of Christ’s concern for the poor. My husband and I choose to live in multiracial neighborhoods whenever possible. We adopted two daughters of color. I have authored many books about social injustice and have crafted policy proposals to address it. And yet, the scales of Whiteness still blind me when I least expect. They are powerful and enduring, even as they ebb and flow. The best cure for the blindness of Whiteness comes from an ongoing quest for maturity – a journey that honors our Creator.

I have spent much of my career learning I am wrong.  And I’ve come to enjoy discovering I’m wrong (at least most of the time). But in order to enjoy it, I’m learning to hold my views lightly, in anticipation that they might be overturned. Not all of my beliefs are on the table. For example, I believe in the basic tenets of the Apostle’s Creed (though their meaning will no doubt be deepened as my faith matures). I believe in truth, science, and democracy. I believe the Bible commands us to love and serve the poor. These are foundational.

But I will continue to hold most other opinions lightly, with hope that I will encounter more bright light, and once again feel the scales falling from my eyes.