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    people holding flags outside the US capitol

    Faith, Fiction, and Christian Nationalism

    How can Wendell Berry’s novels help us understand love of country and community without stumbling into idolatry?

    By Russell Moore

    June 24, 2022
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    • Ken McAfee

      This is an excellent read, as I have long been a fan of Wendell Berry's poetry and am only now getting into his novels. He gives me great solace, and this encourages me to read him to find some direction in times such as these. However, I am not sure I really understand how he uses John 3:16 as a caricature, I fail to see beyond the slight paper tiger you seem to be debating with here. Perhaps if you could reference or explain the caricature as you see it better, beyond the Jayber Crow quote. Other than this, I do appreciate your winsome treatment of Wendell Berry's work. I feel like Christianity in the US today could use some voices crying from the wilderness, "Repent! Make straight the paths for the Lord!" There is a general lack of trust in the institutions of religion for many of us to believe in the faith but fail to continue our trust in the institutions that proclaim it. I think we need more Wendell Berrys in our churches.

    • Carol Brazo

      This was a helpful read for me. I have felt very alone in my understanding and was reading Berry for comfort.

    • Dave Doel

      Excellent!

    Russell Moore gave this talk in October 2021 at the Rabbit Room’s annual arts conference, Hutchmoot. You can listen to or watch the talk on the Hutchmoot Podcast.

    I’d like to talk about two subjects that don’t seem to have much to do with one another: Christian nationalism and Wendell Berry. I think many people were as alarmed and horrified as I was – as pretty much the entire country was, and the entire world, at least momentarily – about the insurrection on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021. There were many things to be alarmed about in that moment, but maybe the thing that horrified me the most was seeing a sign that said “Jesus saves” in the same mob that had a noose for the vice president of the United States on a gallows made there. Many people have wondered, as they look at this and other expressions of religion used for cultural or political purposes and sometimes even violent purposes around the world: Where does this come from, and how do we answer it?

    If you’re talking about Christian nationalism, I think what we’re dealing with is a malignant form of something that’s much more benign, which is civil religion. The idea that God and country can work together to prop up the order as it is. So you can maintain a kind of unity and patriotism around an idea of a least common denominator: God. We’ve all seen that. We’ve all experienced that. Christian nationalism takes this to an entirely different level. So I would define Christian nationalism around the world as the co-opting of Christian symbolism for a kind of blood-and-soil ethnic nationalism – an ethnic identity or a national identity for which Christ, the cross, the gospel, and other symbols and realities of Christian life are used, often by people who don’t actually have a religion.

    One can see this in some of the nationalist movements in France and the Netherlands and other places where an atheist might be behind a statue of Joan of Arc or carrying a cross and he’ll talk about being Christian. But if you talk to this person, he’ll tell you he doesn’t mean by “Christian” that he believes in Jesus of Nazareth; he means by “Christian” that he is “not Muslim,” not something other than the heritage of that country as a Christian sort of republic.

    The problem is if you’re trying to look at these movements and you’re trying to ask, “How does this start?” Because, after all, we’re dealing with a big global movement that can’t be addressed by any one of us on our own. So we might wonder, “How do we start to get a handle on where this comes from, and how do we start to get a handle on how to address it?” I think one of the places that we should look is, of all places, fiction, and the reason for this is in a little essay that Eudora Welty did on the novelist as crusader. She said, “A plot is a thousand times more unsettling than an argument.” And she went on to say that this doesn’t mean that the novelist doesn’t have moral convictions. She says, instead, “Indeed we are more aware of his moral convictions through a novel than any flat statement of belief from him could make us. We are aware in that part of our mind that tells us truths about ourselves, yet it is only by the way of imagination, the novelist’s imagination to our imagination, that such private neighborhoods are reached.” So that in the novel one is not addressing a crowd; one is addressing a person. It is a means of personal address, and it is able to be done a little bit at a time. So, as she argued, it teaches us not how to change our conduct, but what to feel. And then the feelings inform the intuitions, and the intuitions form the way we think, and the way we think informs and is informed by the way we act.

    people holding flags outside the US capitol

    Photograph by Brett Davis flickr

    Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind, makes this point really well. Most people don’t have a set of ideas and then act on those ideas. Most people instead have a set of intuitions. They’re disgusted by something, they’re horrified by something, they’re attached to something, and then they find the ideas that contribute to that and make that work. So if Eudora Welty is right, I’m going to violate some of her principles here by definition by going through Wendell Berry and asking, “What’s the dynamic at work in his fiction, in his essays, in his poetry that can help us to understand the ways that Christianity can be used in disturbing sorts of new configurations?”

    It’s not so much to find resources to address Christian nationalism, as though the novels or the essays or the poems would be speaking to the Christian nationalist or to anyone else who’s using Christianity in this way. It’s instead to help us to discover or to rediscover something of where those intuitions come from in the first place. We think of Wendell Berry as someone who is probably as far away from some of the disturbing headlines and images that we see on television as one can imagine. A man living out in Henry County, Kentucky, writing poems and novels doesn’t seem to have anything to say to this. But Berry is informed by a religious understanding in kind of the same way Flannery O’Connor is informed by such. Flannery O’Connor, of course, by her Catholicism, but Berry is a Baptist, but the kind of Baptist who’s suspicious of the church and who critiques John 3:16.

    As Jayber Crow puts it, articulating words that sound to me a lot like Berry himself,

    I am, maybe, the ultimate Protestant, the man at the end of the Protestant road, for as I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one. He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temples into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and banks of rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here.

    Now, when Berry talks about an ultimate Protestant, he’s not talking about modern American expressive individualism. As a matter of fact, this is one of the key problems that Berry critiques. As he puts in the mouth of Andy Catlett in one of his novels, “Back there at the pond by myself I could maintain for at least a while the illusion that I was no more than myself, Andy Catlett, as ancestorless as the first creature.”

    Of course, all of Berry’s novels and all of Berry’s essays address and counter that idea of being ancestorless, of being disconnected from the community, even as he talks about the kind of discomfort that comes with community and membership. So when Andy is reacting to his uncle Andrew’s death and he’s there with the rest of the family, he says, “I had an obscure feeling that it would be politest to be somewhere else but that there would be no polite way to leave.” This, in some way, I think expresses Berry’s own mixed feelings about the church and Christianity. He has too much appreciation to leave, even though he finds a great deal to critique. And Berry’s critique, if it’s not individualism, what is it? Well, it’s finding membership, but finding membership not within the church but in the relationships of a community – a bonded community across generations in a particular place.

    Berry will use that biblical language of being members of one another, one body, one body with many members, and apply it to a community – a particular community, not community in the abstract. When I would see Wendell Berry back in Kentucky, he would always critique the fact, since I was at the time the dean of a Baptist seminary, that the preachers in his little community, in the Baptist church there, never stayed. They always come in and they always leave, and he found this horribly offensive. And I would always say, “Y’all pay them $125 a month. They’ve got to eat. They’ve got to go somewhere.” But he saw this as something endemic to at least modern American Christianity, this kind of mobility, this sense of truth as abstracted from neighbor, and a kind of instrumentality to Christian belief in propping up what he believed to be some very disturbing aspects of the status quo.

    He will talk, for instance, about churches that are fairly well attended, but they don’t deal with the hard truths. As he puts in The Art of Loading Brush, “There was nobody to tell you to love your neighbor as yourself if you would rather have a tractor.” So what replaces that? Well, Jayber says, “My vision of the gathered church that had come to me after I became the janitor had been replaced by a vision of the gathered community. What I saw now was the community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of the various sorts of affection.” So Berry pictures what he admits is an idealized representation of this in the fictional community of Port William.

    There’s always going to be the temptation for the church to mirror back a culture, rather than being something that is countercultural, informed by the kingdom.

    In Hannah Coulter, which is tied for me as his best novel, he talks about Nathan Coulter’s sense of ultimate rebellion against the kind of mobility that happened in American society after World War II, where people who had experienced fighting overseas now were expected to leave their hometowns and go make it in the world. Hannah Coulter says, “Members of Port William aren’t trying to ‘get someplace.’ They think they are someplace.” That entails a sense of unity and of purpose. This membership – the integrity that comes with membership, the holding together – what binds it? It’s affection, in his view. When one speaks of lovemaking, one is usually talking about sex, but Hannah Coulter thinks of it in terms of children – her children – her future generations, her marriage, death. Where she says, “And here is where our love for them,” speaking of her children, “was made. Love in this world doesn’t come out of thin air. It is not something thought up. Like ourselves, it grows out of the ground. It has a body and a place.”

    Identity, in Berry’s view, is not enough. He critiques a character named Marcus, who leaves his wife and his children, and the disturbance that this causes – not just in that family, but throughout the entire community – and the way that Hannah is horrified by this and can’t explain it and says, “So how come he ended up leaving his wife and boy talking about ‘fulfillment’ and his ‘need to be free’?” And Nathan Coulter says to Hannah, “It would have been better for Marcus if he had been tireder at night.” The sense of membership comes with not just an identity, it comes also with responsibility and a working together for the integrity of the community.

    Now Christian nationalism doesn’t come from nowhere. Christian nationalism is what happens when we take the kind of cultural Christianity that was often assumed in American life, where the church serves the function of helping people to deal with life and to maintain the status quo, and then membership is subtracted.

    So when the institutions themselves no longer have authority and seem to no longer have integrity, that form of cultural Christianity that one could say is benign but not the gospel becomes something that is not only not the gospel but something that also becomes very dangerous. That has to do with institutions and place. As Yuval Levin warns, these are cycles. So an institution is meant to shape and to form people. When an institution loses trust and when an institution betrays our confidence and fails, people are not shaped and formed, and people who are not shaped and formed then cannot lead to the integrity of institutions. It is a cycle of corruption. The integrity is not formed, and without personal integrity there is not institutional integrity.

    Levin’s solution: Knowing that people are going to ask, “Well, then, what do you do when we look around at institutions that are failing, from churches and denominations to Hollywood to the Boy Scouts, to almost any institution that can be named? What do we do?” Levin says pare down the expectations of what it means to be somebody. Levin wouldn’t use that word, but that’s what he’s talking about. And that’s Berry’s point. There’s always a problem. There’s always going to be the temptation for the church to mirror back a culture, rather than being something that is countercultural, informed by the kingdom. That’s always going to be a problem. But when the culture no longer has integrity, then we get something that becomes much more virulent.

    And the irony is, if we look at these sorts of blood-and-soil movements around the world, where do they come from? They don’t actually come from blood and from soil. They don’t come from rooted people in communities. They don’t come from churches and institutions. They usually come from YouTube. They usually come from a place where people who are not rooted claim an identity, a way of saying, “This is who I am,” in distinction to other people. Berry talks about this. He says, “I cannot avoid the speculation that one of the reasons for our loss of idealism is that we have been for a long time in such constant migration from country to city and from city to city and from neighborhood to neighborhood. It seems to me that much of idealism has its source in the relation between a man and the place he thinks of as his home. The patriotism that, say, grows out of the concern for a particular place in which one expects to live one’s life is a more exacting emotion than that which grows out of concern for a nation.”

    That concern for a nation without regard for neighbors with whom one expects to live one’s life doesn’t work, he says. When you do expect to live out your life with your neighbors, there’s “a discipline and a reward” in this. “The charity that, knowing no funds and foundations is, from the personal standpoint, only an excuse.” It’s not real patriotism, he says. “It is patriotism in the abstract – nationalism – that is most apt to be fanatic or brutal or arrogant.” Now, the problem is, once the gospel becomes the vehicle for anything else – the means to an end to anything else – people are going to inquire what that something else is. And ultimately people are no longer going to need even the pretense of the gospel, because they can see the way that these two things contradict one another and because they no longer need it.

    If what they want is nationalism, they can have nationalism ultimately without Christianity. If what they want is opposition to whoever the other group is, they ultimately can have that apart from any religious sort of movement. And when there’s this incongruence, as Eugene Peterson would put it, between the inner and the outer, and between the religion and its expression, ultimately this cannot hold. So in Jayber Crow, there’s the time when Jayber is cutting hair, and Troy is talking about rounding up all the communists and executing them, and rounding up all the war resisters and executing them. And Berry writes this: “It was hard to do, but I quit cutting hair and looked at Troy. I said, ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.’ Troy jerked his head up and widened his eyes at me. ‘Where did you get that crap?’ I said, ‘Jesus Christ.’ And Troy said, ‘Oh.’” And Jayber says, “It would have been a great moment in the history of Christianity, except that I did not love Troy.”

    That’s a description of exactly where the problem is. And when something else – politics or the identity of a nation or the identity of a group – replaces gospel integrity, people can get all of those things elsewhere. And even the attempt to get it through religious means corrupts the religion, so that one can see the way that even atheists can use Christian symbols, that Christian symbols have power. But the power that they actually have contradicts the way that they’re used. So go back to John 3:16. Wendell Berry, I think, was wrong on John 3:16. I think he’s misreading it. Although I think he does see the way that the misapplication works.

    So he says this: “The churches, with their strong ties to the pocketbooks of racists, felt obliged to see it another way,” meaning the kingdom of God, “the way to heaven was faith; one got there by believing. And to this day that continues to be the emphasis of such denominations as the Southern Baptist: to be saved, believe!” Now, I think that Berry’s locating the problem in the wrong place. The problem here is not new birth. The problem is a lack of the ability to see a new birth, similar to Clarence Jordan, who talks about what it was like for him as a child to hear an African American man being beaten by a man who was singing in the choir at the revival at his home church. There’s a way of seeing that this does not work together. But Berry goes on and says, “The mystical aspects of Christianity completely overshadow the moral in this case, but it is a bogus mysticism, mysticism as wishful magic, a recipe by which to secure the benefits of eternal bliss without having to give up the benefits of temporal vice: corrupt your soul and save it, too!”

    Now, I agree with Berry about bogus mysticism. But the question doesn’t get at the answer. Berry thinks that John 3:16 divides body and soul, divides material and immaterial, divides people from heaven and earth, faith and works, all of these things. But I would argue John 3:16, and the rest of the canon that it sums up, actually unites all of those things and gives an integrity to all of those things so that the New Testament can say of Jesus, “In him, all things hold together.” And that the mystery of God is ultimately to sum up all things in him. John 3:16 and the rest of the canon is a response to both expressive individualism and a hive mentality of blood and soil. It’s an integrity that’s rooted in Christ, which means an integrity that’s rooted in membership. So we are members, then, of Christ, and we are members of one another.

    What political idolatries and nationalist idolatries and any other kind of idolatry seeks to do is to have the person absorbed into a group, absorbed into a hive. Berry says – and I think we’re seeing the demonstration of this – that when you have that, and then you add times of great social stress, what you end up with is, as he puts it, the “sort of behavioral false rhetoric that offers the world two absolute alternatives: ‘If I can’t have it, I’ll tear it up.’…The extremes of public conviction are always based on rhetorical extremes,” he says, “which is to say that their words – and their actions – have departed from facts, causes, and arguments, and have begun to follow the false logic of a feud in which nobody remembers the cause but only what or done by the other side.” That’s what political scientists would call negative polarization: the unity that comes not by a common affection of a group of people or a membership with one another but by opposition to some other group and some perceived threat. As Berry would put it, a political bunch, although politics can manifest itself in any way.

    The gospel, though, answers this not through intimidation. The way that change happens in the way communities are formed is not through intimidation, but through the Spirit, and life in Christ relativizes all of these other commitments – familial, national, political, so forth. All these legitimate loves are subordinated to the love of Christ, and thus put into their right order and their right position. What we see now is a church that often is riven with heresy trials, not over the Trinity or the deity of Christ or the virgin birth, but over allegiance to some group of politicians or to a kind of theatrical outrage. To prove you’re one of us, you have to be as angry as we are.

    Jesus’ way, though, is obviously not that, which is why when he gathers twelve people together, he has both a zealot and a tax collector, people who would not have been able to stand each other in a first-century Roman Empire. He’s forming a community that is based on something other than those ties that people wanted to claim. Now that kind of community requires individual integrity. Berry sometimes critiques individual integrity by saying there’s a loneliness that comes in choosing principle over community, even though sometimes that has to happen. But he says it’s a loneliness, and it destroys the only ground upon which principle can be enacted and renewed. He illustrates this conflict between principle and community with Robert E. Lee. And Berry, at least at the time, argued that Robert E. Lee was right to sacrifice his principles about the Union for his community in Virginia.

    What political idolatries and nationalist idolatries and any other kind of idolatry seeks to do is to have the person absorbed into a group, absorbed into a hive.

    I would argue he was wrong, and I think that Berry is missing the point here, because he’s not seeing a community that could have been created by the church that would have included enslaved persons and would have paid attention to the communion of saints – to not just the group of people who happened to be before one’s eyes at the moment, but the past and the future. But where Berry is right is that principle in community often causes a conflict of communities. So we see, for instance, the apostle Paul in Galatians 1 and 2 stand up to Simon Peter, who refuses to eat with the Gentiles, and say to him that he’s out of step with the gospel. And why is he out of step with the gospel? He’s choosing community over principle in terms of the community he’s choosing. He’s choosing the Jewish community over the Jewish-Gentile community, the community that’s anchored in heaven: the church.

    Berry understands this. In other places he talks about, for instance, the courage that it took for a man to stand up to the coal industry that was destroying a part of Eastern Kentucky. He never quit, he says, he never flinched. But I think we see that even more so when it comes to the preserving of the gospel and of the Christian church. Karl Barth is not breaking faith with community when he breaks with his community that’s subsumed under the German Christian church. He is keeping faith with the cloud of witnesses, and he is keeping faith with a church that is yet to come. And someone who walks this road will find many other lonely people converging together, finding out that there are yet seven thousand, as God says to Elijah, who have not yet bowed the knee to Baal.

    But how did that principle that forms that community get there? Through community. There’s some community that shaped it. There’s some community to which it is going. That, as Berry would say, turns on affection – what it is that we love – and it takes a long time. The sort of community rooted in affection that he’s talking about, much less the sort of community bound together by the Spirit that Jesus is talking about, it cannot happen in a twenty-minute back-and-forth argument on YouTube or a Twitter fight. It has to happen in a fidelity of generations. As Berry would have the mad farmer in his poem put it, “Plant sequoias.” Plant for the future.

    And Berry sees what the alternative is: a kind of crowd mentality, mob mentality, that he talks about in Jayber Crow with the Regulators – a kind of imitation Ku Klux Klan. He says, “He knew them all, but [he] never quite got rid of the shiver it gave him to hear those hooded men speaking. Though they spoke in their own voices, they were not speaking for themselves.” They were instead taking on the sort of hive mentality and the sort of crowd conformity that they needed.

    In order to have genuine community, though, there has to be something other than that, than a kind of enforced conformity, which is what I think Berry is talking about in my favorite of his poems, “Do Not Be Ashamed,” where he says this:

    You will be walking some night
    in the comfortable dark of your yard
    and suddenly a great light will shine
    round about you, and behind you
    will be a wall you never saw before.
    It will be clear to you suddenly
    that you were about to escape,
    and that you are guilty: you misread
    the complex instructions, you are not
    a member, you lost your card
    or never had one. And you will know
    that they have been there all along,
    their eyes on your letters and books,
    their hands in your pockets,
    their ears wired to your bed.
    Though you have done nothing shameful,
    they will want you to be ashamed.
    They will want you to kneel and weep
    and say you should have been like them.
    And once you say you are ashamed,
    reading the page they hold out to you,
    then such light as you have made
    in your history will leave you.
    They will no longer need to pursue you.
    You will pursue them, begging forgiveness.
    will not forgive you.
    There is no power against them.
    It is only candor that is aloof from them,
    only an inward clarity, unashamed,
    that they cannot reach. Be ready.
    When their light has picked you out
    and their questions are asked, say to them:
    “I am not ashamed.” A sure horizon
    will come around you. The heron
    from the hilltop.

    Berry says in this poem he’s communicating the kind of shame that comes with being out of step with some enforcing community, which is exactly what we see all around the world right now and maintained by a social media presence that’s able to enforce it. It’s a kind of membership, but a lonely, disintegrating membership.

    What does it take to go on the other side of that? Well, it takes, as Berry says, candor; inward clarity; a different kind of affection; a refusal to be ashamed for being out of step with all of that; and ultimately then, community. So when Berry’s arguing about change, he says if change is going to come, it’s got to “come from the outside.” He says it’ll “have to come from the margins.” And he contrasts the desert with the temple, giving us the prophets and the colonies with the motherland “that gave us Adams and Jefferson.” And says this is how change always happens. Someone has to walk out from whatever community is seeking to enforce that conformity, and fast, and pray, and as he puts it, “In going alone, he goes independent of institutions.” He goes, and he has an inward clarity that comes from hunger, that comes from desperation, that comes from ignorance of knowing, “I do not know what to do.” And then Berry says, “He returns to the community, not necessarily with new truth, but with a new vision of the truth,” and “he sees it more whole than before.”

    He’s right in the way that this works when it comes to ideology. Christian nationalism is one ideology. There are almost infinite ideologies that can be chosen at any point on the spectrum. And all of them would love to have divine authority behind them. But what has to happen is a kind of authority that is different from fake, manufactured authority. Berry writes somewhere else, “The most destructive of ideas is that extraordinary times justify extraordinary measures. This is the ultimate relativism, and we are hearing it from all sides. The young, the poor, the minority races, the Constitution, the nation, traditional values, sexual morality, religious faith, Western civilization, the economy, the environment, the world are all now threatened with destruction – so the arguments run – therefore let us deal with our enemies by whatever means are handiest and the most direct; in view of our high aims history will justify and forgive. Thus, the violent have always rationalized their violence.”

    But the way of Jesus is a different way, and because we pray, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we are acknowledging that there is no kingdom apart from Christ. So our ultimate affection then does not belong to any group, to any nation, to anyone other than ultimately to Jesus Christ. And because we are in Christ and heirs of a new creation, we don’t look backward to some golden age. We don’t look forward to some moment of inevitable progress. We instead know that our harmony and our integrity is found ultimately in Christ, so we are not outraged as though someone is taking something away from us. We cannot be shaken.

    So I think the kind of harmony that Berry is longing for is John 3:16. It’s the kind that comes through a nature that’s restored by grace. And that’s ultimately the problem with Christian nationalism or any other ideology that uses religion as a means to an end. True religion cannot be a means to an end. True religion as defined by the gospel is that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. So any ideology that seeks to claim the symbols of Christianity for anything other than the express way of Jesus is trying to approach the throne of God and trying to go into the kingdom of God without the mediation of blood – the blood of Christ. And to approach God through anything else – blood and soil, country and civilization, social progress, owning the libs, whatever it is – is to destroy the meaning. It takes something that God has created – a desire to have purpose and meaning, a desire to have mission, a desire to belong to a people – and it turns it in a different direction. It turns it away from that. But the gospel and the church are the membership we need, not the way of these ideologies. Wendell Berry can show us the impulses and intuitions by which to recognize all of these ideologies, but to really answer it, we need John 3:16. We need John 3:16, not the caricature of it that Mr. Berry critiques, and not the way that it’s cited on the flags of insurrectionists. We need instead what the Word tells us: “You must be born again.” So we need to take down those signs and reclaim the words “Jesus saves.”

    Contributed By Russell Moore Russell Moore

    Rev. Dr. Russell Moore recently took up the position of public theologian at Christianity Today. Prior to that, he served as president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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