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Presenters bring passion and scholarly analysis to Ecumenical Advocacy Days workshop

Dr. Anne Nelson and the Rev. Dr. Alvin O’Neal Jackson explain the rise of Christian Nationalism and what can be done to help end it

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Ben White via Unsplash

ARLINGTON, Virginia — Dr. Anne Nelson and the Rev. Dr. Alvin O’Neal Jackson poured passion and scholarly analysis into a workshop at last week’s Ecumenical Advocacy Days 2024 Spring Summit called “God and Country: The Rise of Christian Nationalism.”

Nelson is the author of “Shadow Network: Media, Money and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right,” which provided extensive research for the new documentary, “Bad Faith.” Jackson is the co-founder and president emeritus of the Disciples Center for Public Witness and is also one of the leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call to Moral Revival. From 2001-03, he served as Moderator of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada.

In advance of the workshop, the approximately 80 people participating in EAD viewed the documentary film “God and Country,” which looks at the implications of Christian Nationalism and how it distorts not only the constitutional republic, but Christianity itself.

Nelson, a research scholar at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, grew up in Oklahoma in “de facto segregation. I didn’t understand what that meant as a child.” At 14, she volunteered at a Head Start program. “I saw how people lived and was shocked and horrified,” she said.

Dr. Anne Nelson

“I appreciate the role the church has played opening my eyes — not a perfect role, but a significant role. It gave me experiences I don’t think I would have had otherwise.” Her family is “very diverse” in religious terms. “One thing I appreciate about our country is the founders said, ‘We’re going to live by the rule of law. As long as people abide by our laws, they can worship or not worship as they choose.’” Unfortunately, “there are people now who would impose their theology on us.”

In “Shadow Network,” Nelson lays out how organizations including the Family Research Council, funded by conservative individuals including the Koch brothers, have been organizing pastors and churches, concentrating on political swing states. “Their focus is on suburban counties, where elections are won or lost on a few hundred votes,” Nelson said. “They are working on peeling off African American and Hispanic votes” and are “organizing tent revivals in 19 key counties in seven swing states.”

What is a Christian response to such efforts? “Look at Project 2025,” she said. In response, Nelson wrote “a crib sheet with 10 things you need to know” about Project 2025.

“What you need to help people understand is there are two radically different forms of government on the table,” Nelson said. “One is deeply flawed, and the other has projects that are quite cruel. The idea it’s being done under the guise of Christianity is offensive.”

A few years ago, Nelson journeyed to Israel-Palestine with a biblical archeologist. “We drove past a hill, and she said, ‘That’s where we think the Sermon on the Mount was preached.’ I look back on Jesus’ words and at the time he was really angry with the money changers. I try to hold onto the compassion,” she said, “and try not to forget the anger, either.”

Jackson is from a place in the Mississippi Delta that’s not far from the place where Emmett Till was murdered. After college he planned to go to law school “to go back and make changes in Mississippi.” But a professor had introduced him to some of the biblical prophets, “and I started thinking maybe the way to change things would be ministry.”

The Rev. Dr. Alvin O’Neal Jackson

According to Jackson, the Poor People’s Campaign, which is planning a Moral March on Washington on June 29, is focusing in part on the 15 million low- and moderate-income individuals living in the swing states. “The Poor People’s Campaign might be a short-term and long-term thing we can all do,” he said.

During a question-and-answer session following their presentations, Nelson was asked how people can work in their communities “to get people out of the bubble they’re in.”

Many local newspapers have closed in the past couple of years for economic reasons, she pointed out. “Right-wing talk radio and others have filled in that vacuum, a lot of times with falsehoods or deeply one-sided reporting,” Nelson said. “If someone comes to you with a falsehood, ask them, ‘How do you know that?’ They might say, ‘I learned it on the internet.’ There’s all kinds of things on the internet.”

She advised making alliances with nonpartisan organizations including the League of Women Voters “and other groups that encourage democratic education and engagement.”

One model “could be, everybody talk to 10 people about what the facts are and what’s at stake,” she said. “Look at a map to determine what areas will be the most influential” during the upcoming election.

“You are people of faith, but you’re also educators,” Nelson said. “You’re providing a moral compass. This is not the time to sit on your chairs.”

“No one can do everything, but everybody can do something, and we can encourage each other,” Nelson said. “You need to be audible and visible. You are letting [the Rev.] Jim Wallis and Bishop Barber do the heavy lifting for you.”

“It’s OK to be a white Christian in the Midwest,” she said. “Help those people who consider themselves politically homeless.”

“Go back to the Sermon on the Mount,” Nelson recommended. “It’s all there.”

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