WTL Conversations [S2E14]: White Supremacy, Christian Nationalism, and the Fragile Future of the American Experiment

My Closing Lecture at the Chautauqua Institution

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Dear #WhiteTooLong community,

I hope this finds you all navigating the transition from summer to fall schedules well. Thanks for your patience over the last couple of months. I’ve posted fewer times than normal as I’ve been working diligently to finish a new book (manuscript submission deadline one week from today!). I’m excited about that project and will expound more on that project in a future newsletter. In the meantime, I’m sharing a video from a recent speaking engagement, where I reflect on the connections between white supremacy and the rise of Christian nationalism in our time.

On August 26, I had the honor of delivering the final lecture of the summer 2022 season at the Chautauqua Institution. The week was co-sponsored by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and organized around the theme, “A Vibrant Tapestry: Exploring Creativity, Culture, and Faith.”

You’ll have to tune in to the video for the full lecture, but here’s a partial transcript and teaser…..

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White Supremacy, Christian Nationalism, and the Fragile Future of the American Experiment

I’m so pleased to be back with you at Chautauqua for the third time and particularly to be speaking to close out the summer with this important theme for this week—faith and the tapestry of the future. It’s useful to envision the American experiment in democracy as an unfinished tapestry still on the loom. On one end, we can see the already formed cloth in the last 500 years that is the context for the country as we know it today. And on the other, the warp threads stretched vertically on the loom await the new horizontal weft threads yet to be run.

One way of thinking about my talk today is that I’m inviting you to see a fatal flaw in that pattern already on the loom, one that has continually marred the potential of the overall image. To put it concisely, that flaw is the idea that America was divinely ordained to be a promised land for European Christians. And underneath that vision, is its presupposition, that white people were superior to all other races because they were the bearers of “civilization” and Christianity. This is the logic of the Doctrine of Discovery with its Christian justification of white supremacy.

But 200 years ago, we also began a project of weaving together a pluralistic democracy. These fundamental contradictions, one threatening the coherence of the other, remain with us today.

Each generation, including ours, has the brief opportunity to run the shuttle across the loom, adding a few threads to the whole. The danger is that we will, obliviously, simply perpetuate the flaw in the pattern that, particularly those of us who are Christian and of European descent, find nearly impossible to see.

Over the last seven years, I’ve been diligently looking more closely at that fabric to see what I’ve been unable to see before, and in some cases what I’ve been told isn’t there. This lecture is an invitation to accompany me over to a different place in the room, one that lets the light hit the tapestry at a different angle. If we are patient, if we let our eyes adjust, we may yet see clearly enough to weave something genuinely new.

It's important to note at the outset that we white Christians have only maintained our naiveté about this fatal flaw by an energetic willful ignorance. We have built theologies, philosophies, and entire cultural worlds to hide it from ourselves….

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Although our schedules didn’t permit us to hang out, my good friend Eboo Patel, president and founder of Interfaith America, opened the same week I spoke. I was proud to see our books anchoring one of the featured on one of the tables at the bookstore. If you haven’t read Eboo’s new book, We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy, I highly recommend it. You can purchase it below. (Note: Purchases through the Bookshop links support my work and the WTL newsletter.)

And to dive deeper into the content of my lecture, you can read more of my story in White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity by purchasing the book here.

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