According to Christians Against Christian Nationalism, Christian Nationalism is an ideology that “seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy.” The definition also states that this ideology overlaps with, and has been used to condone white supremacy and racial subjugation. Ableism is not specifically addressed in this definition, though I don’t think this is intentional. White supremacy and racial subjugation need focused attention right now as systemic racial injustice, and violence against racial minorities continues to make news headlines, and people in positions of power are working tirelessly to sugarcoat our country’s history of racial oppression. But I believe Christian Nationalism overlaps with ableism as well.
I am totally blind, the result of a brain tumor that damaged my optic nerve when I was a baby. I was blessed to be born in 1990, the year the Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted, so although I still experienced some adversity, my adversity pales in comparison to the adversity previous generations had to overcome. I would also be dishonest if I didn’t acknowledge that being white and growing up in an affluent suburb also made my path easier. But looking back on my childhood, the adversity that hurt the most was not the fact that some teachers couldn’t plan ahead, so my classroom aid couldn’t get class handouts transcribed into braille in time. It wasn’t even the one math teacher in middle school who seemed to resent having to accommodate me. No, the adversity that stung the most was not being able to attend the same school as my siblings.
I have three older siblings, all of whom attended Catholic school through eighth grade, but because of my special needs, I was told that Catholic school was out of the question for me. They simply did not have the resources to accommodate my special needs. I always accepted this reality without giving it any thought, until I read My Body is not a Prayer Request: Disability Justice in the Church, written by disability scholar Dr. Amy Kenny. In the book, she details how religious leaders actively fought for and won exemption from most requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a history I was previously unaware of. According to a 1992 article in Christianity Today, religious leaders were uncomfortable with the idea of government entanglement with religious institutions, but Amy Kenny also sites documents where religious leaders complained that the cost of renovating buildings to comply with accessibility requirements would be a burden for religious institutions.
Dr. Amy Kenny’s disability came about when she was a teenager, and the teachers at her public high school refused to comply with the education provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. And yet as much as she was wounded by these public-school teachers, wounds she experienced from ableism in the church were deeper. She could almost understand the unfair way she was treated by public school teachers because in secular society, “People have been taught to value product over personhood, profit over people, and cash as king above all else. Disabled people do not produce anything the capitalist market deems valuable, and therefore we are cast aside as drains on the system. It’s eugenicist, but that’s capitalism” (page 50). For many Americans, capitalism is viewed as an essential feature of our American identity, such that anyone who questions it is viewed with suspicion. But Amy Kenny reminds us that “churches are meant to usher in new creation, where all people have dignity and value simply because we are image bearers of the Alpha and the Omega” (page 50).
I was blessed to receive an excellent public-school education from a school district that was willing and able to provide all of the accommodations I needed, and the overwhelming majority of my teachers were kindhearted people who I could tell valued me. And to be fair, my siblings envied me because my elementary school was more dynamic, offered more extracurricular opportunities. Their principal was a kind but serious nun who did not think of sitting on the roof all day and throwing candy down to us on the playground as a reward for meeting our school’s food drive donation goal or participating in the holiday concert as a delivery man bringing another everlasting fruitcake. But I should have been at the Catholic school with them. Having to attend a different school meant that I grew up in completely different social circles from them, and thus always felt left out when I would go to their school events and they would hang out with their friends, while my parents chatted with other parents. I also remember wondering what it would have been like to ride the school bus with them and see them in the hallway, to have religion class integrated into the regular school day rather than having to attend the weekly evening Catholic Formation class offered for public school kids when I was tired from a long school day, to be part of the traditional Christmas pageant the school performed every year rather than sitting in the congregation with my parents, or even to just be able to talk about the same teachers.
I am glad disability rights activists fought for legislation that is far from perfect but does provide some recourse so that people with disabilities can have a fighting chance at realizing our nation’s ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, removing many barriers that used to prevent people with disabilities from accessing public transportation, going to a restaurant or movie theater, even getting an education or finding employment. But it should have been the other way around. If the American church were really serious about living according to Christ’s teaching, they should not even need the Americans with Disabilities Act to compel them to welcome those with disabilities. The recognition that we are image bearers of God should be written on their hearts, and they should have been ahead of their time, prioritizing access for people with disabilities and resources to educate children with disabilities above all else when making financial decisions, with the secular world lagging behind.
When it comes to culture war issues, Christian Nationalism welcomes the power of the state to impose their beliefs on society. But when religious leaders resisted the involvement of the state at the time the Americans with Disabilities Act was being drafted, Christian Nationalism was also at work, as some religious leaders disregarded Christ’s teachings, implying that people with disabilities weren’t worth the financial costs, ultimately corrupting the gospel with eugenicist, capitalistic views.
To be fair, the leader of the Catholic Formation program was a wonderful person who adored me and went out of her way to make sure I was included. And of course, the staff at my siblings’ school had no part in, and most likely weren’t even fully aware of the history behind the exemption of religious institutions from the Americans with Disabilities Act. But the fact remains that the school my siblings attended was wittingly or not, complicit with a precedent that religious institutions did not have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. I should have attended Catholic school with my siblings, and I suspect Christian Nationalism is the ideology behind why I couldn’t.