As the Trump administration struggled to celebrate its first year amidst a government shutdown, Vice President Mike Pence had a particularly hard week with churches. Determined to soldier on under the mantle of Christian values, Pence did not blink. But his religious troubles are revelatory in the biblical sense. To read them closely is to witness the unveiling of Christian nationalism.
As a symbol of Trump’s commitment to evangelicals, Pence needed to start his week among black Christians on Martin Luther King Sunday. His staff chose Metropolitan Baptist Church outside the beltway in Maryland, but did not anticipate that its pastor, the Rev. Maurice Watson, would, like most black pastors in America, condemn the president’s vulgar denigration of people from African and Caribbean countries.
Christians of African descent are, of course, a minority in the United States. But by Saturday, Pence was in Africa on his Middle East mission, trying to mitigate the impact of the Trump administration’s unilateral decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem on the ground in one of the places his boss had infamously called a “shithole.” The Bishop of the Coptic Church in Egypt – the oldest Christian church in the world – excused himself from meeting with the vice president, citing Trump’s decision to move the embassy “at an unsuitable time and without consideration for the feelings of millions of people.”
Thus Pence, the darling of Trumpvangelicals, was called out in church on Sunday and barred from another church, half a world away, on Saturday.
To the white evangelical base back home in the heartland, the pastor in Maryland and the bishop in Egypt were out of line. How dare they question the integrity of God’s servant and the vice president of the United States? But to most churches in the world – and to a great many Christians here in the United State – Pence’s week unveils the hypocrisy of a movement that has promoted white identity politics in the name of God.
Unbound by the self-deception of slaveholder religion, Coptic Christians know the difference between the heretical values of so-called white evangelicalism and the love, truth, and justice that was proclaimed by a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew 2,000 years ago. To them, the Trump administration is plagued by more than poor policy decisions. It is rooted in and fundamentally committed to an anti-Christian view of the world.
As black and white preachers in America, we see our oldest Christian church’s refusal of fellowship to Mike Pence as a prophetic witness to the spiritual crisis we now face. Current debates in our common life about immigration and health care, tax policy and military spending are not simply democratic negotiations between liberal and conservative political positions. These are moral issues because the Republican Party in the United States has been hijacked by extremists who deny in practice the basic claims of Scripture: that all people are created in the image of God and that no accident of birth is grounds for a distinction that would affect our status or worth. As St. Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal.3:28-29).
Mike Pence and his evangelical supporters are quick to condemn any explicit statement of racism or white supremacy. But they have blessed and pray daily for the chief policy aim of white nationalists: the Wall and harsh immigration enforcement. When they accused Democrats last weekend of choosing “illegal” children over American citizens by demanding a DACA deal, they exploited the same nativist sentiment that the Klan and Nazis play to in their call to “Unite the Right.”
This is not new. Since plantation owners paid preachers in the early 19th century to defend slavery against the clear moral arguments of abolitionists, American Christianity has been infected by slaveholder religion. This false religion has not only propped up political powers that hurt poor people of all colors; it has also diminished the souls of those who inhabit its hypocritical contradictions. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council told Politico this week what every evangelical Trump surrogate knows: that moral character matters little to the heirs of slaveholder religion, so long as they get access and results on issues that matter to them.
The real challenge for Perkins and Pence is that all of this is happening in plain sight. White Christian nationalism has been unveiled by its unlikely alliance with Trump. And so we must each answer the question Jesus asked followers in his day: “What do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your soul?”
William J. Barber II is president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is director of School for Conversion and author of Reconstructing the Gospel. Together they are touring U.S. seminaries this year with a Mobile Course in Public Theology & Moral Activism, which will be hosted by Duke Divinity School on Saturday, Jan. 27.