With white evangelicals, America’s most pro-Trump demographic, currently in the news for sex scandals, committing violence, and defending violence, we once again find the meaning of Christianity being debated in the public sphere. The Christian crowdfunding site GiveSendGo is under fire, as it should be, for hosting a campaign to raise money for the legal defense of Kenosha, Wisconsin killer Kyle Rittenhouse after the seventeen-year-old domestic terrorist slaughtered two Black Lives Matter protesters and wounded a third with an assault rifle he was not legally old enough to possess in the state of Wisconsin.
As Roxanne Stone reports for RNS, Episcopal Reverend Nathan Empsall claims GiveSendGo’s hosting of a fundraiser for Kyle Rittenhouse is contrary to Christian values. Referring to the famous Beatitude “Blessed are the Peacemakers,” Empsall, whose organization Faithful America is hosting a petition to GiveSendGo to take the fundraiser down, reportedly said, “Crossing state lines to take up arms against Black Lives Matter is not making peace. And it’s certainly not siding with the oppressed or the marginalized.”
Liberal Twitter was also quick to jump on the bandwagon of questioning the Christian faith of those who support Rittenhouse.
As a Christian I'm horrified to hear that a so called "Christian" site raised $275,000 for accused killer Kyle Rittenhouse.
How can someone call themselves a Christians and support a killer?
— Grandma Grit (@grandmagrit) September 1, 2020
— AprilDRyan (@AprilDRyan) August 31, 2020
— Speak4tomorrow (@Speak4Tomorrow) August 30, 2020
Meanwhile, GiveSendGo cofounder Jacob Wells defended his decision to host the fundraiser, and told Stone, “as a platform, everything we do and what our platform delivers is Christ-centered.” I, for one, take him at his word—GiveSendGo is Christ-centered, with respect to how Wells and the numerous donors to Kyle Rittenhouse’s legal defense fund understand Christ. Further, I maintain that those of us who insist on adjudicating the Christianity of others in the public sphere are only serving to reinforce the Christian supremacism that is so baked into American society that too often we don’t even notice it.
This Christian supremacism, however, which is very much white Protestant inflected, overlaps heavily with white supremacism. Inasmuch as the two are intertwined, it’s impossible to dismantle the one without tackling the other. It may seem like an innocent reaction on the part of progressive Christians to denounce their authoritarian coreligionists as “fake Christians” or “not following the teachings of Jesus,” but it’s neither innocent nor accurate, as I have previously discussed on my blog and at Playboy.
The Jesus portrayed in the Bible is a complex and contradictory figure, and there’s nothing resembling a universal consensus among Christians about how to interpret the teachings attributed to him. Christianity has, since the fourth century, frequently gone hand in hand with imperial power, and the existence of liberationist strains of the faith does not negate the existence of these punitive, power-grabbing strains.
Finally, when Christians deflect from addressing the bad behavior of other Christian individuals and groups by writing them out of “true” Christianity, they’re essentially equating Christianity with goodness at the direct expense of nonbelievers and religious minorities who are afforded no equivalent deference. Christians are as capable of atrocities as members of any group and adherents of any ideology, and so long as polite American society proceeds as if this isn’t the case, polite American society is complicit in the normalization of Christian extremism.
I asked Jeremy Forest Price, assistant professor of education and chair of the Jewish Faculty and Staff Council at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis, to weigh in on this issue from his Jewish perspective. He expressed concern with how refusing to understand that “true” Christians can commit horrible deeds “denies the violence Christians have committed—in the past and in the present—in the name of Christianity.”
He also observed that this denial “collapses the world into ‘true Christian’ (good) and ‘not true Christian’ (bad), so that anyone who is not Christian is lumped into the ‘bad’ category,” adding that this “flattens Christianity and denies the diversity that is inherent within Christianity.”
Further, Price maintains, “When this happens, because of the power and status of (white) Christians, the diversity of others’ traditions, beliefs, and practices is also flattened into ‘not Christian,’ reinforcing the idea of good versus bad.”
Let me be clear: it is deplorable that GiveSendGo is lending its platform to a fundraiser for Rittenhouse—a fundraiser that as of this writing has raised over $330,000. But the fact that the actions of those behind the site and those donating to Rittenhouse are deplorable doesn’t make these actions in any empirical sense “un-Christian.” Such categories can really only be debated internally, within the realm of Christian theology, and debating theology in the public sphere is counterproductive.
As an ex-evangelical, however, let me assure you that evangelicals find all sorts of biblical justifications for their misogyny, racism, and anti-LGBTQ animus. In any case, as far as our pluralistic society is concerned, both mainline critics of GiveSendGo like Empsall, and those Christians who support violence against people protesting for racial justice, are Christians.
In stating this, I am in no way defending the authoritarian Christianity in which I was raised; I am instead maintaining that Christianity is far from always benign. The very fact that I have to spell this out explicitly is as much a reflection of the extent to which Christian supremacism pervades American society as is the fact that we spend so much time debating Christian theology in the public square. If we want to move forward toward a more robustly democratic, pluralist future, we must “resist the temptation” to shout Fake Christians! when we come across toxic Christianity.