Taming tongues and navigating nationalism

February 20th, 2024

“With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse people, made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth comes a blessing and a curse. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”
James 3:9-10 (NRSVUE)

This article seeks to introduce three resources as tools for Methodists to use as we personally and corporately reflect upon our state of being in the United States: Crucial Conversations, The Flag + the Crossand "A Catholic Spirit."

In the midst of lingering schism, economic uncertainty, and vitriolic politics, it is evident that many of us known as Methodists reflect our broader society’s lack of conversational civility. This ought not be so. Followers of John Wesley’s Methodist movement have always engaged in debate, dialogue, and disagreement. Addressing conversational civility, Wesley wrote a sermon entitled “A Catholic Spirit” highlighting the importance of how we engage one another with our words and what it means for our spiritual well-being. But a goodly number of us United Methodists lost our Catholic Spirit, and its absence continues. We codified divorce rather than develop deeper fonts of baptismal shared meaning. It has been said that our schism was as much about power, authority, and the politics of our day, as it was biblical. This is a major concern for our state of being as we move forward as a church in our society. 

Finally, mass media holds reign as the influencer of our social context as a free democracy. It has been said that we handed over the catechesis of the church to cable news and angry talking heads. Social media and cable news feed us religious, political, and economic philosophies that permeate our churches, our businesses, and our politics. Uncivil conversations fill the internet, the television, and the digital world. Misinformation is largely unchecked. Fear-mongering dominates our intuitive need for security. Our mental and emotional well-being is under attack and our children suffer from anxiety. This ought not be so. 

The business world recognizes that conversational incivility is a problem when it surfaces in the corporation's environment. Lack of civil discourse ought not be so in the work-place if a business is to operate at its maximum. Joseph Grenny and his coauthors wrote an excellent book, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High. The authors define a crucial conversation as one in which opinions vary, the stakes are high, and emotions run hot. More times than not, crucial conversations are unproductive as survival instincts of fight or flight surface between or among conversation partners. The conversation becomes a winner/loser proposition rather than the best solution to a challenge. Using simple conversational tools, the authors teach that a successful crucial conversation is not necessarily to achieve agreement across the board, but to develop a deeper pool of shared meaning among corporate colleagues for the good of their business and corporate well-being. The authors’ first advice: start with heart. 

As a Methodist, when we hear “deeper pools of shared meaning” does it not remind us that this type of dialogue is a sacramental way to hold a conversation? Is not “starting with heart” a reclamation of the biblical understanding of the heart as the emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and physical center of a person in which our motivations and desires are revealed? “Starting with heart” means to examine one’s own heart with compassion. This leads to compassion for the conversation partner’s heart. We can cease dehumanizing those with whom we disagree and recognize their dignity at the very least as someone made in the image of God, our imago dei.

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As Methodist schism lingers, national election season approaches, our economic uncertainties wallow, wars in Europe and the Middle East wage, our nation is engaged in harmful schismatic rhetoric. With so much God-talk by angry politicians and culture wars aflame; now is a pressing time for us to reflect on how the roots of Wesleyan faith inform and shape our crucial conversations regarding the body politic and the danger that fuels what has become an explosive mix known as Christian nationalism. In their book, The Flag +The Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy, Philips S. Gorski and Samuel L. Perry explain the complexities of Christian nationalism and the important role racial identities shape our understanding of Christian nationalism. Using politics as a tool, many Christian nationalists seek the inclusion of church with state in an effort to solidify exclusive national policies that affect the well-being of our spiritual, economic, and physical lives. Christian nationalism’s current rise is a crucial conversation that presses virtually all of our society’s hot-button issues. It is worthy of denominational attention as we seek to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

In the January 6, 2021 storming of the Capitol, crosses commingled with flags. A hangman’s noose awaited a devout evangelical Vice-President and a devout Roman Catholic Speaker of the House. Pictures of the Prince of Peace were held high for his likeness to bless the event. As violence covered the Capitol, in our ransacked legislative chambers a self-proclaimed Q shaman prayed in the name of Jesus. Legislators prayed for protection. Proud Boys prayed to the Lord. Chaplains prayed for police while other chaplains prayed for rioters. Our history is filled with national transgression of moral beliefs in the name of moral beliefs. Many Christians in the United States today check their “Christian” character at the door as they seek to defend “Christian” character while promoting the ideals of their understanding of Christian nationalism. Cable news commentators, conspiracy theories, and the echo chamber of social media algorithms are seemingly more valued sources of inspiration and motivation than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

The Flag + The Cross explores our current reality based on extensive research. Methodists who take the time to reflect upon this book and what it means for self-reflection and future crucial conversations, will have an informed opinion of current rhetoric, code-words, and goals of conversation partners whether they agree with the conclusions of the book or not. We are asked to consider the core beliefs we hold about our country and the role of faith in its establishment and the current social trajectory of these beliefs. Are our beliefs fueled by fact or myth? Was the United States really founded by Pilgrims and Puritans? We're Ninety-eight percent of America’s inhabitants “evangelicals” at its founding? Has it ever been illegal to pray in public school? Does the Constitution say anything about God, the Bible, or the Ten Commandments? Whether one’s beliefs are based on facts or misinformation, the future of our democracy as we know it is at stake. Gorski and Perry write, “It is important to recognize how differently white Christian nationalism functions from ‘religious commitment’ as social scientists traditionally measure it. As other studies have shown, white Christian nationalism and religious commitment are not the same, and often they move white Americans in different directions on issues of social justice and equality. In this case, white Christian nationalism goes in the opposite direction of religious commitment. That is to say, once we account for Christian nationalism in our statistical models, white Americans who attend church more often, pray more often, and consider religion more important are less likely to prioritize the economy or liberty over the vulnerable. Why is this the case? Because white Christian nationalism is about ethno-traditionalism and protecting the freedoms of a very narrowly defined ‘us.’ Religious commitment, in contrast, can expand what philosopher Peter Singer calls the ‘circle of empathy,’ our ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes.” 

Basic statements Gorski and Perry presented in their research include: 

“…the founding documents like the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution are divinely inspired.”

“The success of the United States is part of God’s plan.” 

“The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation.”

“The federal government should advocate Christian values.”

“The federal government should enforce a strict separation of church and state.”

“The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces.”

“The federal government should allow prayer in public schools.”

What sources inform our answers to the above and how do we separate fact from myth? What role do holy scriptures, reason, experience, and the tradition of the universal church play in our discernment? As you grapple with concepts introduced by The Flag + The Cross and/or Christian nationalism, how do they shape, strengthen, and/or challenge your faith? Do your emotions run hot? Why?

John Wesley was a priest in England’s nationalist church. In “A Catholic Spirit," Wesley acknowledged the reality of crucial conversations among Christians. Wesley’s concern was with how Christians are informed about their faith walk and how Christians engage and react to crucial conversations. He preached:

“… Where are even the Christians who ‘love one another as he hath given us commandment’ how many hindrances lie in the way! The two grand, general hindrances are… they cannot all think alike and… secondly, they cannot all walk alike…

…But while he is steadily fixed in his religious principles in what he believes to be the truth as it is in Jesus… and while he is united by the tenderest and closest ties to one particular congregation, – his heart is enlarged toward all mankind, those he knows and those he does not; he embraces with strong and cordial affection neighbours and strangers, friends and enemies. This is catholic or universal love. And he that has this is of a catholic spirit. For love alone gives the title to this character: catholic love is a catholic spirit.” 

Jesus summed the law and prophets (Mark 12:30-31, Matthew 22:36-40, Luke 10:27) as loving God and loving neighbor as one loves one’s self. Jeusus taught that one should love one’s enemies (Matthew 5:43-48, Luke 6:35). How does this love guide our crucial conversations? Should love be part of political and business rhetoric? How do we compartmentalize love in our crucial conversations? What are the hindrances to love? Should national policy be influenced by love?

Perhaps we would do well to reflect upon the gift of grace that 1 John 4:19 reminds us: “We love because God first loved us.” A second helpful self-reflection is: what does loving myself as God loves me look like in the narrative I tell myself about myself? Is the way I love myself a reflection of how I perceive God’s love? Is God’s love conditional? In all likelihood, we will love our neighbor the same way we love God and ourselves. God of wrath? God of grace? God of judgment? God of forgiveness? God of a hierarchy of human value? God of every nation and race? Who is worthy of God’s love? Is my love of others limited to one status or another? Does this love apply to public policy? 

Catholic spirit? Christian nationalist? Let the crucial conversations begin.


A suggested order of study: 

1st: Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, Ron McMillin, Al Switzler, and Emily Gregory Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High (McGraw Hill)

2nd: Sermon 39 - A Catholic Spirit by John Wesley, https://www.resourceumc.org/en/content/sermon-39-catholic-spirit

3rd: Philip S Gorski and Samuel L Perry, The Flag + The Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy (Oxford University Press)


Further resources:

Pamela Cooper-White, The Psychology of Christian Nationalism: Why People are Drawn In and How to Talk Across the Divide (Minneapolis: Fortress Press)

Christians Against Christian Nationalism;  https://bjconline.org/christian-nationalism/

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