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I constantly battle a myth within me. It formed me—as ancient stories do—and its logic crops up unbidden as I go about my life. I notice it as I walk along the shore of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga and the land vibrates with history. Making my way over the bridge to the business district, the streets swarm with students and tourists visiting an aquarium, a museum, a theater, and restaurants. In the midst of business, I remember that my city is known for being a Bible-based city. It is one of the most Christian towns in the nation.
When I descend the steps to the river’s edge, another story emerges. Native symbols line the stairs, and murals mark our essential elements of wind, fire, earth, and sun. The walls call to the four corners of the earth, lending me a compass that grounds me as I honor the Cherokee Nation that once thrived on this land, before their forced removal created a Trail of Tears along which thousands of people died from disease, starvation, and exposure.
As I stand at the water, I remember how I’ve prayed along these shores with their members and elders. Our chants matched the rhythm of beating drums as they scattered ash into the flowing river, lifting up those who died along the terrible path. When I walk along the river, my internal mythic battle ensues.
As a white woman who grew up as a conservative Christian, the European colonizers’ story mixed with my theology in awkward ways. I internalized those triumphant ideas of Manifest Destiny—that the American people hold special virtues, that we are exceptional, and that it is our divine right and destiny to remake others in our own image. In our history, as settlers moved west to take more land, Manifest Destiny reverberated through pulpits, proclaiming that we were a Christian nation, a ‘shining city on a hill.’
Growing up, the Religious Right echoed this message and I often heard it. We co-opted the stories of the Jewish people. In our Sunday school classrooms, we learned under the glowing visage of Warner Sallman’s Jesus. The curriculum recounted narratives with flannel-graph figures in the shape of a blonde Moses leading his pale-skinned followers through the wilderness to the Promised Land. As our teacher tried to make the lessons of an ancient nomadic people applicable to our 10-year-old 1980s lives, we understood that the U.S. was our Promised Land, given to us by God, so that we could have religious freedom.
As we moved from our classrooms into the sanctuary to hear the pastor expound, our national narratives became more confused with the stories of the Bible. We learned that God blesses certain nations, and God was blessing America. It was our duty to defend our country, fight for its Christian identity, and inspire its people to uphold the highest moral purity.
The clear evidence of God’s favor was our wealth as a country. We were to be a light to all nations. In my pew, the words of Jesus began to sound a lot like Ronald Reagan’s addresses. When we belted out, “Onward Christian Soldier” and “God bless America,” our hearts soared and our eyes watered, because we believed that we were exceptional. We had reached the Promised Land, and we intended to defend it against any physical, religious, or moral threat.
Now, thirty years later, I have broken with my Religious Right heritage and have written about healing from the damage it has caused. I became a social justice Christian and a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA). As I walk along the shores of the Tennessee River, I realize how mixing God and white nationalism together has had devastating effects on my country, particularly when it comes to inciting wars, suppressing religious freedom, and encouraging the spread of unbridled capitalism.
First, in the military actions of the United States, we have heard the echoes of crusader language coming from those who want to use religion to frame armed missions abroad. Conjuring God to ignite warfare has been an effective mobilizing tool since the days of the Emperor Constantine, but peace between nations is impossible when suspicious politicians drag faith onto their battlefields. President Trump’s ban on immigrants from seven Muslim countries shows how the war on terror has been set up as a religious war, and how politicians have used ‘God and country’ rhetoric to incite public support for it.
In order to stop this flagrant use of Christianity to foment violence, we must realize that American soil is not the Promised Land. Instead of allowing faith to be dragged into war, we have to unravel our deepest beliefs from the possession of property and economic gain. Only then we can look to the ancient wisdom of different religions to inspire peace, forgiveness, and dignity between faiths.
Second, the concept of religious freedom—the right of people to practice their faith and not persecute people of any other faith or none—has long been upheld by the religious Right. Yet instead of understanding this right as celebrating all faiths in a diverse country, they perceive themselves as persecuted. Conservative Evangelical Christians often understand the idea of religious freedom to mean that they have the right to uphold certain beliefs, even if that belief causes discriminatory action or physical harm to another citizen.
For example, they might explain that a baker should not be forced to bake a cake for a couple’s religious ceremony if the baker does not agree with same-sex marriage. Or they might maintain that a business owner should not have to provide insurance coverage for a woman’s reproductive health. But when the rights of Muslims are severely curtailed, many of these Christians don’t seem to feel the same passion to defend religious freedom.
When we understand that American Christians are not God’s chosen people we can begin to uphold the right of all people to practice religion, or not to practice it. If we begin to uphold the religious convictions of all people, then we must recognize the dignity of those who celebrate a religious ceremony, women who need access to reproductive health, and refugees who travel across borders for sanctuary, because above all, we are people who have been called to lives of love.
Third, the idea of a God that blesses people with wealth has seeped into our national dialogue so deeply that many Christians do not begrudge an economic system that encourages the increasing disparity between rich and poor. In fact, they have baptized it as holy, because they imagine people with wealth and health are blessed by God. On the other hand, those who struggle to pay their debts or cannot access medical care are seen as morally flawed. But the American system of high student loans, limited access to healthcare, and low wages makes solvency untenable for most of the population. As U.S. influence expands to other countries, the economic interests of the USA have taken on a missionary fervor.
Yet Christians must know that their faith has been co-opted. When they go back to their texts, they see that Jesus claimed that the poor were blessed, and he compels us always to be looking after the “least of these.” Jesus said that when we feed a hungry person, clothe a naked person, or welcome a stranger, we welcome God.
As I look over the Tennessee River and stand with the ghosts of the past, I’m reminded that Christianity does not condone wrapping Jesus in the American flag so that we can wage wars, claim exceptionalism, and justify the expansion of U.S. business interests. America is not the Promised Land. Instead, Jesus calls out over troubled waters in a nation which still has to recognize its great atrocities, and he encourages love for our neighbors as for ourselves.
When faith is used by its most pernicious elements to incite violence, oppress religious diversity, and create economic disparity, we need to reclaim the truth of our moral core: we need to relearn love.
Carol Merritt’s new book is Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God after Experiencing a Hurtful Church.