Excerpt from Red State Christians, chapter 1
Christian conservatives across America have watched their beloved social causes lose again and again in the Supreme Court, elections, and popular-opinion polls. The majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage and government-sponsored birth control. The white male patriarchal leadership that continues to be the norm in many conservative churches and families has been challenged on the national stage, especially in the midst of the #MeToo movement and the widely publicized alleged sexual misconduct and damaging misogynistic theology of several prominent Evangelical pastors and leaders, including Willow Creek founding pastor Bill Hybels and former Southern Baptist Convention president Paige Patterson, both of whom were forced to resign from their leadership positions in the second year of Trump’s presidency.
In response, Red State Christians have turned toward the flag, feeling their patriotic fervor and nostalgic desire for a more Christian America (where kids used to pray in school). This desire to turn back the clock is more about national identity than Christian identity, though the two are inextricably tied together for many Red State Christians. They want to be the ones who get to define what America is, and for them, it must be conservative, and it must be Christian. Otherwise the country—and their Christian faith—will utterly collapse.
Two years into Trump’s presidency, the Pew Research Council released a new religious typology to categorize American Christians. Among the 39 percent considered highly religious, 12 percent were called “God and Country Christians,” for whom American conservative values and national Christianity are most important. You can see this throughout the early twenty-first century at Southern Baptist churches across America, where even Christmas and Easter are subsumed by a sort of civic religion that worships God, Guns, and Country (really, the military), lifting up Veterans Day, Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July to the same place of honor as religious high holy days.
In my years as a pastor and churchgoer, I’ve attended my share of impressive megachurches, so at first glance, Prestonwood in Plano, about forty minutes north of downtown Dallas, didn’t look too different. The massive worship center and surrounding buildings rose like a mirage miles from the interstate, down the broad roads of suburban Texas. Still, as I turned into the enormous church parking lot, I noticed a distinguishing feature. In front of the worship center, off the main road, was an impressive football stadium, as large as any high-school stadium I’d reported from as a sportswriter in football-crazy South Florida. “Five-time state champions,” read the banner: 2017, 2015, 2010, 2009, and 2005. In Friday Night Lights territory, this was no small feat. Prestonwood Christian Academy also boasts seven state titles in boys’ basketball (including three recent years in a row) and eight in competitive cheerleading. NBA power forward Julius Randle attended Prestonwood before heading to Kentucky for a one-and-done scholarship year, and former Philadelphia Phillies catcher Cameron Rupp is also a Prestonwood Academy grad. Prestonwood likes winners.
When I got there for Saturday-night worship, I found out that Prestonwood had a big Fourth of July celebration planned for that Wednesday night, the actual Independence Day. Pastor Jack Graham promised at the beginning of Saturday worship that they’d be “celebrating our freedoms as a country . . . and singing patriotic songs,” as well as offering a pastor dunk tank, games, and refreshments in the Dallas summer heat. Still, weekend worship would not be devoid of national celebration. Already when I walked in, I noticed that the entire sanctuary—an arena-style worship space that seats seven thousand—had been covered with red, white, and blue American flag bunting. Flags festooned the stage, and most of the screen designs and backgrounds were red, white, and blue.
As Graham concluded his welcome for the evening service, he said, “We’re going to start with the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Anthem, and honoring our servicemembers.” I had not said the Pledge of Allegiance since elementary school, and I could not help but think of the Ten Commandments—ostensibly as influential here as the Pledge of Allegiance. The First Commandment itself warns against behavior like this, against worshiping and pledging allegiance to a flag and not to God:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:1–6)
These words should strike fear into the heart of any God-fearing Evangelical, especially one standing before the cross in a house of worship and pledging allegiance to a flag, but no one around me seemed to mind. So I put my hand on my heart and mouthed the words. I felt a strange compulsion to conform, not to draw attention to myself, as if the polite but stern-looking ushers might carry me out screaming if I dared go against the spirit of the service. We then sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” We were invited to sit as the songs for each branch of the armed forces played, and veterans and active-duty soldiers were invited to stand when their branch was called, and we applauded. In their faces, I saw the faces of so many veterans I had met while working as a chaplain at the VA hospital in Minneapolis. I knew that not all would call themselves heroes, that not all were proud or grateful for their service. I also knew that most were humble, grateful to be recognized, carrying the weight of a country’s wars and conflicts in their own fragile bodies, and carrying too the wounds of those conflicts in their bodies, their minds, and their hearts.
After this display of patriotism and honor, the service went on. Another staff member came forward to share fantastical numbers that must be inconceivable to the average American church: 5,500 children attended vacation Bible school, including 312 who made decisions for Christ. More than seventy people went on global missions that summer. Seventy-eight high-school students made decisions for Christ on mission trips, and sixty were baptized in the Gulf of Mexico. Seven hundred sixty-three children attended elementary camp, and a hundred of them made decisions for Christ.
In reciting numbers, Prestonwood was merely an old-school Baptist church, emphasizing the altar call and the sinner’s prayer, in which Jesus is asked into the individual heart of the believer. Once in there, though, Jesus better make room for America. And you couldn’t tell which was taking up more real estate.
Pastor Graham came forward next, introducing that weekend’s theme: “America, Israel, and the Road to the Future.” Prestonwood had decided that in order to sanctify its American patriotism and its embrace of Trump’s America First foreign policy, the preacher would make the Bible fit a narrative of American exceptionalism (not unlike American Mormons’ suggestion nearly two hundred years earlier, that the twelve tribes of Israel had an American connection).
The idea of American exceptionalism having a biblical justification is not new, but Prestonwood made it fresh. They had bright and compelling red, white, and blue graphics with retro black-and-white photography, a guest preacher who specializes in travel to the Middle East, and even a special song. The video montage and song came next, followed by the guest speaker. But first, Graham had to play a little American politics. Again, he forced the Christian narrative into its Trumpian box.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” Graham said casually. “Children’s shelters at the border. We’ve been speaking almost daily with our friends at the White House . . . , who are working to reunite children with their parents. . . . Irrespective of all our problems with immigration and all the chaos, it’s the call of Jesus to help hurting people.” Graham spoke in 1984-style Newspeak at its best, as America had been reeling for days about the stories of thousands of immigrant children forcibly separated from their parents at the United States–Mexico border; two young children being held in detention had died. Most of them were traveling dangerous journeys from crime-ridden, poverty-stricken Central American countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Many of the families said they planned to claim asylum in America, the one country in the world founded upon the idea of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” expressed in Emma Lazarus’s words on the Statue of Liberty. Trump wished instead for your wealthy, your educated, your beautiful models yearning to invest in America, and his Homeland Security Department made a strategic decision to quell Central American migration by separating children—some infants and still breastfeeding—from their parents, according to comments from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly.
Images of children in detention centers designed for criminals, stories of children being injected to keep them calm, recordings of children crying for their parents—America was abuzz with questions. Had the most generous nation on earth lost its heart? At Prestonwood, all was good. In fact, Trump’s daughter Ivanka earlier that week had donated $50,000 to Prestonwood’s efforts to “care for children at the border.” Her donation represented an especially cunning twist, as was Graham’s statement that the White House was “working to reunite children and families,” when in fact American government officials had separated children from their families in the first place.
Also note Graham’s euphemistic language. He referred to “children’s shelters,” as opposed to what these centers had been called for years, beginning with the design and construction documents: detention centers. If you want to control the narrative, control the language. Graham did that masterfully, coming across as compassionate, conservative, and patriotic. He insinuated that America was taking care of migrant kids, despite all the problems on the border. Yes, you could feel good about that. All those recordings of children crying, the devastated families: fake news.
Just as quickly, Graham turned the congregation’s attention to the video screens for a return to Christian Nationalism. The images were stirring. First, cameras panned to the Iwo Jima Memorial in Washington, DC, and then we saw service members saying goodbye to their children before being deployed, followed by Marines holding back tears at a military funeral. The song playing in the background, written by Prestonwood’s musicians, was equally patriotic and tear-jerking. Along with the images of service members, the chorus rose, repeating that we would never forget their sacrifice, never forget the way they lived and the way they died. The greatest love on earth was to serve and die in the American military, the song suggested.
It’s a good song. Even hearing it months later, I could sing it and fill in the words. Watching the video, I thought of my dad’s dad, who fought in the Pacific in World War II, was shot in the stomach, and nearly died. He was airlifted to Australia and lived the rest of his life with war wounds, internal and external. I thought of my father-in-law, a brave farm kid from rural Missouri drafted into the army and flown to Vietnam in 1968, just in time for the most tumultuous year in American history. My heart swelled with pride, and I nearly cried. At the end of the song, I looked around, and nearly everyone in the massive sanctuary was standing in rapt attention, staring lovingly at the flags on the stage and applauding feverishly. This time, I stayed seated, still thinking about the First Commandment. My love for my country and my love for my God warred within me.
The words of the song were dangerously close to a take on the penal substitutionary atonement theory most popular in contemporary American Evangelical theology—the idea that Jesus’s death on the cross is the ultimate sacrifice, that by his blood, our sins are forgiven and we are healed. Yet tonight we had sung these words about military veterans, not Jesus. Words that fit a theological framework were being morphed into a nationalist framework instead. The sacrifice of Jesus and the sacrifice of military veterans were conflated. Whose love was greater—that of Jesus or the veterans? The song said the world knew no greater love than the love of those who had served and died for America. But surely biblical sacrifice and great love exists outside America. Surely every country has soldiers who leave their families, who sacrifice and die for what they believe to be a righteous cause. Surely we could not consider military sacrifice, as selfless as it is, akin to Jesus’s sacrifice. One is particular and limited by human frailty; the other is universal and limitless.
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