The rise of Cotton Mather, Puritan justice, and slavery.
To many, July 4, 1776 is the official date of the creation of the United States of America. Colonists, though, had occupied this part of the world since 1607, starting with the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia.
In a sense, the great American experiment had existed long before Independence Day. Since 1607, colonists had clashed with their indigenous neighbors and claimed the British Protestant way of life as civilized, instituting a racial hierarchy that put them at the top. Later in 1619, the transatlantic slave trade would initiate with 20 kidnapped Africans landing off the coast of Port Comfort in Virginia.
Many of these white colonists left their countries of origin because of religious persecution. This included the British Puritans, who settled in the New England colonies.
The Puritans sought to purify “popery,” or Roman Catholic traditions, from the Church of England (Anglican/Protestant). To them, the Church of England possessed too many of these practices, and they had to change that.
They wished to reform it by way of moral and religious zeal and dedication to the Biblical scriptures and to bring in the predestination doctrine of Calvinism.
Predestination believes that God determines each human being’s salvation — whether going to heaven or hell — before birth. No matter how giving you are to others, devout or connected to God, you already have a space in heaven or hell, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Within this, a hierarchy exists.
Of course, predestination goes against the original teachings of Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?…I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:7-10 and John 14:2, New International Version)
Predestination melded with the Puritans’ moral and religious zeal to create their “covenant theology.” This theology claimed God had elected them as his chosen people to live out his commandments as individuals and as a community.
Through this context, the Puritans likened themselves to the Hebrews of the Old Testament in the Christian Bible, with Moses leading his people out of Egypt to a new homeland.
If you’re not familiar with it, the Old Testament describes the Hebrews as their God’s covenant partners (similar to two people in a marriage) and the guiding light to the nations around them. According to this testimony in the Old Testament, God directed the Hebrews “to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt” and “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19 and Leviticus 19:34, New International Version)
Unlike the Hebrews, however, the Puritans had assembled their own exclusionary belief system. The Calvinist predestination doctrine made it so, along with their literal interpretation of Biblical texts that distinguished how other Protestants looked “weak” or “not serious enough” devotees to the Christian God. As the Puritan Perceval Wilburn detailed in 1581, this religious community was the “hotter sort of Protestants”; in 2015, journalist Jim Sleeper then described them as “America’s first Very Serious People.”
In the colonies, the Puritans soon saw New England as their Promised Land, a New Israel. Yet, there was the issue of the indigenous people they were constantly fighting. Because of the “heretics” — Baptist and Quaker dissenters — one Puritan, Cotton Mather, believed these wars were a result of the heretics who had breached their covenant relationship with God. To Mather, if Baptist and Quaker dissenters were the reason for a breach, then the indigenous people were God’s instrument. Sociologists Philip S. Gorski and Samuel Perry in The Flag and the Cross summarize his thought process, “the Puritans’ wars were holy wars, the native lands were to be Puritan lands, and the expulsion and extermination of the natives was a righteous sacrifice to an angry God.”
This belief in holy wars and the expulsion and extermination of indigenous people, “the other,” would begin to thread the deep toxic story of white Christian nationalism: white Americans are at war with two things — what is rightfully theirs and the spiritual forces of good and evil, all of this to prepare the modern world for Christ’s return.
The rest of the New World (or colonies) continued to transform, including the farming of cash crops like tobacco and sugar. From this expansion, the British Royal Africa Company and the Dutch West India Company took shape, and the kidnapping of African slaves became their foundational workforce.
People who were forcefully taken from their homeland — that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Remember these Biblical verses: There is “neither slave nor free…for you are all one in Christ Jesus” and “Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Many more verses support the idea of love for the immigrant or racial other. See here.)
The Egyptians had enslaved the Hebrews of the Old Testament, forcing the Hebrews to build their cities and accrue power. Why could Christian businessmen of the New World continue to justify the transatlantic slave trade?
Theologians had to create a new justification. They did so through concepts of “pre-Adamism” and “Noah’s curse.”
Pre-Adamism believed in the formation of two separate humans, pre-Adamites and Adamites, and Adamites were humans with souls (meaning black people didn’t have souls).
Noah’s curse stemmed from the Old Testament account of Noah, the man God divined to build a large wooden ark. After saving humanity from God’s de-creation flood waters, Ham, Noah’s son, witnessed his father drunk and naked. God then placed a mark on Ham that condemned his offspring to a life of servitude, including enslaved black people, said pro-slavery theologians.
By 1700, these concepts had melded into what historian David Whitford calls the “Curse Matrix.” Whitford breaks down The Curse Matrix into three components: 1.) “black skin was the result of God’s curse”; 2) black skin also came from Africans’ seemingly “hypersexuality and libidinousness”; 3.) slavery was a blessing to Africans because it revealed Christianity and civilization (of white Europeans) to them.
Here begins the careful, considered weaving of racist ideologies with Christian beliefs and stories to single out “the other,” a foundational piece of white Christian nationalism.
We continue to see this type of justification from modern white evangelicals, Trump supporters, QAnon followers, and the like.
Now let me explain why none of this is Christian or what Jesus had intended.
Why white Christian nationalism isn’t Christian at all.
For many of you, this might be the first time you encounter this history. Like you, I believe in an American democracy that is multicultural, upholds religious liberty, and gives everyone fair and equitable representation. This is intrinsic to my beliefs as a progressive and follower of Christ.
If you haven’t already checked out my About page, I’m on a mission to peel back and reveal the malignant theological and historical misinterpretations of white Christian nationalists. Not once have I ever believed that Jesus Christ — the self-proclaimed Messiah of the Hebrews, an oppressed people group — would have advocated for the violent words and behavior we saw on January 6, 2021, or in the news from Trump, his supporters, evangelical leaders, and Conservative Republicans. In fact, the Jesus I know would have been the polar opposite.
First and foremost, the Jesus of the Gospels (“Good News”) would have never aligned himself with anyone who oppressed others for personal gain, spewed words of hatred, and championed violence toward others.
Jesus consistently called out these kinds of people and their behavior, including the Jewish leaders of his day. To him, their words didn’t reflect their actions. Being in a position of power over others, this behavior was unacceptable to him — the God they followed held them to a high standard as stewards of his word and way in the world.
Because of their religious and political persuasion over others, these leaders resided in the highest privilege of wealth while average citizens were at the mercy of their Roman occupiers, paying exorbitant taxes with little room for everyday living expenses. (Rome bore a heavy tax burden on its subjects, says Alan D. Campbell for The Accounting Historians Journal.)
One noteworthy instance in the Christian Bible has Jesus “calling woe” to the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, a group of Jewish practitioners who, because of their moral superiority, ensured people met Jewish laws.
The Christian Bible calls this “The Seven Woes on the Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees.” (Matthew 23: 13, New International Version) In each “woe,” Jesus names these leaders “hypocrites,” “blind guides,” and “brood of vipers” for their faulty leadership and greed. One “woe” notably claims the leaders have “neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”
Earlier in this chapter, Jesus also states to crowds of ordinary Israelites — the poor, the “sinners,” and the clean and unclean (terms for Jews who respectively were or weren’t allowed to worship in the Jewish temple) — to “not do what [these leaders] do, for they do not practice what they preach…Everything they do is done for people to see.” (See cases of Conservative Republicans who don’t practice what they preach here, here, and here.)
Jesus even goes on to say that true leadership requires “a servant,” someone with empathy and care for the people he leads. “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Based on this, it’s clear to me that the Jesus of the Christian Bible would be against Donald Trump’s empty gestures, grandiose claims, and derision of oppressed people groups — even more so as Trump makes these claims in Jesus’ name.
The reality is that the Jesus of the Christian Bible put a light on what is right, fair, and just; he never directed hatred toward the vulnerable or racial other (unlike Trump and his supporters).
Based on all of the above, some might call Jesus a “populist,” and yet he never called for violent revolution or violence as a means to create impactful change. This is important to remember because white Christian nationalism views violence as the cornerstone of its triune of law, order, and violence.
Jesus’ critics — the Jewish leaders, particularly — often scorned him for treating the barrel-bottom of society as equals. These members of society were sex workers, women, sinners, tax collectors (publicans), the ill and societally “insane,” and Gentiles (non-Jews).
In Jesus’ care for everyday people, he elevated them to a sacred place of dignity. He gave them an honored seat at the table, eschewing Jewish protocols and law, to heal and see them.
By preaching to everyone — women, children, and men — he invited people to change their idea of equality with love for the other and the enemy. “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners,” as he told the Jewish leaders. (Mark 2:17, New International Version) Not once did he vilify people for their skin color, country of origin, gender, or disability, or direct his followers to do this to others. (Sexual orientation is a new cultural phenomenon, but Jesus did command us to “love your neighbor as yourself,” according to the Gospels in the New Testament, specifically Mark 12:31.)
While honoring everyone’s dignity, Jesus was crystal clear in his stance on violence. It was so clear and resolute that, at the time of his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem, he told his disciple Peter to put away his sword “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26: 52, New International Version)
Even more resolute and resounding was Jesus’ death: trial by the people (who chose Jesus Barabbas, the violent revolutionary, as the prisoner who deserved freedom) and torture and humiliation by the Romans, ultimately ending in crucifixion. Bloody, bruised, naked, and humiliated, Jesus continued to love others while it was physically and spiritually difficult, and most importantly, never resorted to violence in the process.
As he struggled to breathe on a cross meant to kill him, he forgave the people who condemned and tortured him. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:24, New International Version)
Why, then, does violence in word and action breathe life into the white Christian nationalist when the Christian Bible shows Jesus teaching peace and love instead?
Because the leaders (most notably white evangelical leaders) have revised this image of Jesus. They see the original Jesus as “a wuss” or “neutered and limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy” and have transformed him into “Straight White American Super Jesus…tall and strong, fair and handsome, a warrior and fighter, a leader and an entrepreneur.” (Philip S. Gorski and Samuel Perry, The Flag and the Cross)
Did you know this? Have you ever seen those flags with Trump as a Rambo-like warrior man with bulging muscles, a semi-automatic machine gun, and a sweat rag?
Remember this trinity of white Christian nationalism: law, order, and violence. White Christian nationalists believe that Jesus openly carried a sword, pushed down his cross, and beat the (socialist) money changers outside of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.
Like John Wayne and the frontiersman of the early colonies, Jesus developed into a new savior, an American one, that could meet their ideals of freedom and order — freedom, that is, for white Americans only.
It’s why many people at the Stop the Steal rally and Insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 believed that Jesus himself had endorsed and advocated their words and actions. The protesters trusted that violence, toughness, and roughness were in his holy wheelhouse.
Yet people around the world symbolize Jesus and his teachings with a simple cross, sometimes with Jesus nailed to it, to remember what he did — died at the hands of violence with love in his heart instead.
Bloody, bruised, and humiliated — all to inform humanity there is another way to enact change and be in the world through love, peace, and equality. Equality belongs to everyone, including the immigrant, gay person, black person, brown person, indigenous person, Atheist, Agnostic, Buddhist, and Muslim.
Wouldn’t you agree that White Christian nationalism doesn’t meet this image?
Even if you don’t share my personal beliefs as a follower of Christ, I invite you to join me in reversing the toxic narrative of white Christian nationalism. After all, our democracy is at stake, and we need everyone on board.