Some may be surprised to learn that Wendsler Nosie Sr., former chairman of the San Carlos Apaches and a non-Christian, was at the center of an event that may someday be seen as a quiet turning point in the history of the struggle against the Christian Right. The Battle for the Bible: Christian Nationalism and the Movement to End Poverty, a one-day conference held in late January, went entirely unnoticed by the media. But the event nevertheless highlighted a burgeoning effort to reclaim a prophetic version of Christianity, history, and religious freedom while building power on behalf of the poor.
Nosie, a traditional Apache has, like many other indigenous and minority religious leaders, joined forces with this movement which asserts that much of Christianity has been “hijacked” by people who are wittingly or unwittingly undermining justice, supporting the destruction of the planet, and even promoting violence. Rooted in the values of religious freedom, pluralism and separation of church and state, it’s led by the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and Union Theological Seminary’s Kairos Center, which jointly sponsored the conference.
Nosie, who now leads Apache Stronghold, an organization that seeks to “battle continued colonization, defend Holy sites and freedom of religion,” thanked Campaign co-chairs Rev. William Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis for what he called “the opportunity.”
“The reason I say opportunity is because I believe we have never been at the table when it comes to discussion of religion in this country. For 500 years,” he said, before adding: “It’s been a long time.”
Introducing the theme of the conference, Barber said, “It should not surprise us that there is a battle for the Bible… This book, if taught properly is a major challenge [to the forces of injustice].” From the beginning, he said, “there had to be destruction of it outright or a hijacking—and the forces of injustice chose the hijacking.”
Barber, perhaps best known for bringing down the house at the 2016 Democratic Convention, said that one of the manifestations of hijacked Christianity, was “slaveholder religion,” which not only justified the horrors of slavery and genocide against indigenous people, but in doing so, excised the parts of the Bible that emphasize liberation—because of the threat it posed to their power.
Theoharis added that the Bible is “one of the only forms of mass media that has proclaimed justice and righteousness for all who are oppressed. We cannot concede this…. We have to engage in this battle for the Bible.”
The event, which was held at The People’s Forum in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, is but one stop en route to the Mass Poor People’s Assembly & Moral March on Washington on June 20. The Campaign is a 50th anniversary continuation of the Poor People’s March launched by Martin Luther King Jr. and continued by Ralph Abernathy after King’s assassination.
Freedom from Christian nationalism
The day’s first panel featured two of the leading authors in the study of the religious and political Right. It’s unusual, perhaps historic, that campaign like this one has so publicly centered an understanding of the Christian Right as part of its efforts.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove of the Poor People’s Campaign and author of Revolution of Values: Reclaiming Public Faith for the Common Good, led the conversation with investigative journalists Anne Nelson and Katherine Stewart, both of whom have recently written books on the conservative movement and infrastructure. Stewart discussed some of what she learned in researching her forthcoming book, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, which focuses on the development and implications of Christian nationalism. Stewart in fact devotes a chapter to the contemporary state legislative campaign called Project Blitz, the story of which was broken by Religion Dispatches. Nelson spoke about the findings of her book, The Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right, which documents the powerful political and economic forces that comprise the shadowy Council for National Policy, which intersects with the major entities of the contemporary religious and political Right.
In the afternoon, several films and clips were screened, including a documentary on the Apache struggle to save their people’s most sacred site from a rapacious mining company. Later, during the evening plenary, Nosie spoke further about the effort.
In the Apache tradition the waters at Oak Flat, about 65 miles east of Phoenix, Arizona, are the source of all life. A holy site for thousands of years where Apaches come to pray, it’s now threatened by corporate interests that want to dig a massive open-pit mine for copper ore.
Wendsler Nosie says that in this, and matters affecting other tribes, “Native American religion has been excluded from the areas of concern and value.” The Poor People’s Campaign agrees, and says that, in addition to being an historic injustice and an example of political corruption, it’s actually a major religious freedom issue.
‘My people were deceived’
In addition to Nosie, the evening discussion featured Barber and Wilson-Hartgrove, and was moderated by Theoharis. “This evening,” she declared, “I have the honor of introducing some of the prophets of our day” who are taking on what she called, “[a] heretical theology that blames people for the problems that our structures of society have caused, and tries to tell us that we should just settle for less.”
Wilson-Hartgrove, who grew up in the Southern Baptist church in North Carolina told the audience that Baptists have historically been committed to two things: “the Bible and religious freedom.”
He became a Baptist minister, but feels he had to free himself from damaging political and religious orthodoxies that he was once convinced were true. As a young man, he had served as a foot soldier in the Christian Right. “My people” were deceived, he said, and as a result “I’ve had to learn both how that deception happened and what is needed to be free from it.”
The religious and political Right of his youth, he said, were intent on keeping oppressive systems intact. Citing the work of historian Randall Balmer, he told attendees that the origins of the Christian Right were not a response to the legalization of abortion, but simply the continuation of institutional and social racism. The White Christian academies installed in Southern churches in response to the desegregation of the public schools in the 50s and 60s were, by the 1970s, threatened by the potential loss of their tax-exemptions.
Southern political leaders realized that times had changed and that direct appeals to racism were no longer going to work. So the honchos of what was then called the New Right, turned to anti-abortion activism in the years following Roe v. Wade and created the “pro-life” movement.
“So it has absolutely nothing to do with concern for children,” he said. “It has everything to do with being angry at the IRS for not letting you get away with explicit racism.”
“Recognizing that,” he told the audience, “helped me realize how much we had been deceived.”
This repackaging of old-time racism as “pro-life family values,” was the way that the powers that be of the segregationist South, according to Wilson-Hartgrove, persuaded Christians to “to keep the same people in power.” That, he says, was the message that “was sold to my people with organizations and lots and lots of money.”
“They started telling us that people were trying to take away our religious freedom. For Baptists, there is a long history of recognizing that the state can use its power to take away religious freedom.”
The kind of religious freedom the panelists discussed, of course, isn’t the Orwellian distortion posed by the Christian Right in both its Catholic and evangelical wings, in which religious freedom is invoked in order to justify the oppression of others, but the liberatory idea of religious freedom for all, including the non-religious, that traditional Baptists have championed for 400 years in North America.
The panelists also pointed out that part of getting free from this kind of deception is finding fresh insights in conversation with one another.
Wilson-Hartgrove declared that Nosie, traditional Apache, “is the greatest single example of the principle of religious liberty that Baptists passed on to me,” and that, “[although Nosie is] bringing this wisdom from a different place than I’m familiar with—it resonates with me.”
Barber called Nosie “America’s Gandhi,” partly because of the way that his annual march from the reservation to Oak Flat recalls one of Gandhi’s famous campaigns of non-violent civil disobedience against the British Empire.
We all live on reservations
Toward the end of the evening, the panelists sought to transcend the ways that race has been used to divide people against one another, and to recognize and grapple with our often multiple racial identities. Rev. Barber noted that he’s White, Tuscarora (a Native American tribe) and African American, and has had to “recover from some deep hatred” from the time the Klan burned a cross in front of the home of his uncle—who provided him with a shotgun in case they came in through the back door.
Nosie added that it’s vital to stay on “the spiritual path” to avoid becoming like what we oppose, but he warned that it won’t be easy. “By fighting these fights and standing for these issues… its coming two, three four times strong against you, to keep you from being a part of the healing.”
“We are all in this together” he continued, emphasizing that everybody needs to be decolonized—“its not just us!” Everyone, he said, needs to understand those forces “that are keeping you where you are at.” Referring to those he encounters across the nation as he rallies support for Oak Flat, he told his people: “I don’t think the people who call these places towns and cities understand that they are living like us: on reservations.”