Home/Rod Dreher/Religious Liberty And ‘White Nationalism’

Religious Liberty And ‘White Nationalism’

Gregory Thornbury, back when he was president of The King's College (Still from TKC video)

One doesn’t expect much in the way of fairness in a Rolling Stone article about Evangelicalism, so there shouldn’t be any surprises in this one, titled “The Christian Right Worships Donald Trump”. We know well that there are a huge number of white Evangelicals who adore Trump, but the headline — which the piece’s author, Alex Morris, almost certainly didn’t write — is wildly misleading, making no distinction between Evangelicals and non-Evangelical conservative Christians, or between Evangelicals who are cheerleaders for Trump, and those who support him unenthusiastically, but because he’s better on the issues they most care about than Democrats are.

The article says more about its author, a progressive Evangelical from a conservative Evangelical family in Alabama, than it does about the state of Christian political thought on the Right. The last section of the piece recalls a painful conversation with family members back home (who consented to being recorded) talking about politics and Trump. Morris plainly loves these people, and is understandably vexed by their political and theological beliefs. As a religious conservative who is not nor ever has been Evangelical, I find some of what they say to be weird (e.g., that Christians shouldn’t care about the environment because Jesus is coming soon: “Alex, the Earth is going to be all burned up anyway,” my aunt says quietly. “It’s in the Bible.”). But I agree with some of it, e.g., “I don’t think he’s godly, Alex,” my aunt tells me. … “But with the abortion issue and the gay-rights issue, Trump’s on biblical ground with his views. I appreciate that about him.”).

Morris’s mom sent him an Evangelical book about the Apocalypse, and says, “If you want to know what the religious right thinks, read this book.” Well, I have no doubt that quite a few conservative Evangelicals and charismatics believe that stuff, and that every religious conservative Mrs. Morris knows believes that stuff. But you simply cannot say that every Trump-voting Christian conservative in America believes it. If you are a reader of Rolling Stone, and you come away from this piece thinking that you have learned the recipe for the secret sauce of Trump-supporting Christians, you’re wrong.

I appreciate how painful this topic is for Alex Morris. This graf struck me:

I was in my early twenties, living in London, when my mother called to inform me that if I did not cast my absentee ballot for George W. Bush, I could not possibly be a real Christian. She was adamant, unyielding. So entwined had the policies of the Republican Party become with her faith that it seemed to me she could no longer untangle them.

That is nuts. No wonder the younger Morris reacted so strongly against this Republican-Party-at-prayer definition of the church! Readers should understand, however, that this is the reality for only some conservative Christians.

Again, though, you don’t go to Rolling Stone looking for insight about the complex reasons for why Christian conservatives vote for a man like Trump. I would not have bothered commenting on the article, which is really not much more than its author’s deconversion story away from conservative Evangelicalism … except for the remarks in it by Gregory Thornbury.

Until 2017, Thornbury was president of The King’s College, a conservative Evangelical liberal arts school based in Manhattan. Thornbury, an ordained Southern Baptist pastor, left the college in 2018; I don’t know why, and have not been able to find anything online that explains it. He now works as an arts fundraiser in New York, and in his public statements has moved rather significantly to the theological left. He is, in a word, woke.

Believe me, I have Evangelical friends who can’t stand Donald Trump, and who are anguished by what the Trump era’s politics have done and are doing to their churches. I respect them for the stances they’ve taken, and they know what doing so entails: accepting the fact that Democrats, if they come to power, will push for legislation and policies that are bad for the pro-life cause, and bad for religious liberty. Among my anti-Trump Evangelical friends, the belief is that Trump is even worse for the country and for the church, and they are conscience-bound to oppose him. I believe that honorable Christians can take that stance, and that honorable Christians can side with Trump. I also believe there are terrible reasons for Christians to support or oppose Trump.

Here, from the Rolling Stone story, is one of them:

“The white nationalism of fundamentalism was sleeping there like a latent gene, and it just came roaring back with a vengeance,” says Thornbury. In Trump’s America, “ ‘religious liberty’ is code for protection of white, Western cultural heritage.”

That leftist cant infuriates me, especially because it comes from a person who, until recently, was leader of a conservative Evangelical institution, which gives it a lot of credibility in the eyes of the Left — this, despite the fact that it is a shocking lie, and a malicious slander. I wanted to make sure Thornbury hadn’t been misquoted before I wrote about it, so I posted this on Twitter:

Thornbury responded:

No, let’s not. What’s the point? He’s a grown man, the former president of a college. He has to have people of color around him to explain and defend his views on religious liberty? Who does that? Seems to me that Thornbury is invoking them here as talismans to ward off a hard (for him) question that has nothing at all to do with race. Maybe he knows that he made a big mistake here with his religious liberty remark, and he’s trying to shield himself from criticism by dragging persons of color into the argument.

Of course “white nationalism” affects persons of color — but that is not what I asked. Thornbury told a national magazine that “religious liberty” is a code word for white nationalism. Period. And when I asked him about it, he obfuscated. He surely must know, deep down, that he has slandered good people here, and spoken a baldfaced lie. That’s why he’s trying to turn this into a racial issue, when it is not.

The religious liberty questions that motivate conservative Christian voters all have to do with the clash between LGBT rights and religious liberty. Note well: I’m not saying those are the only religious liberty questions in the public square today (ask Muslims about the travel ban, for example). I’m saying that these are the religious liberty issues that drive conservative Christian political support for Trump. Race has nothing whatsoever to do with any of it. The gay rights vs. religious liberty court battles ahead are going to affect black, Latino, and Asian churches and religious institutions as much as they will affect white ones.

Moreover, it is appalling, just appalling, to characterize the work of religious liberty-focused public interest law firms like Alliance Defending Freedom and Becket (which advocates for non-Christian plaintiffs too) as a smokescreen for white nationalism. In Holt v. Hobbs (2015), a Becket lawyer won a Supreme Court victory on behalf of the religious liberty of a black Muslim inmate. Where’s the white nationalism there? ADF, which represents Christian clients exclusively, won a religious liberty case last year for former Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran … who is black. Where’s the white nationalism there?

It doesn’t exist.

Go to the Alliance Defending Freedom website, and search its cases from top to bottom. You will find zero evidence of white nationalism. Same at the Becket site. These are the top lawyers on the front lines of religious liberty legal battles. To be clear, their cases don’t all revolve around the gay rights issue. The point is, there is no white nationalism anywhere in their work. What Thornbury said is a disgusting smear. In his tweeted answers to me, he wrote,  “My point was that this is the key to explain $funding$ to the people & institutions who talk about these matters, often very selectively.” There are no more prominent institutions that “talk about these matters” than ADF and Becket. Does Thornbury seriously expect people to believe that people who give to those non-profit public interest law firms do so to advance the cause of white nationalism?

Maybe Thornbury, as a college president, had a problem with potential TKC donors on this front. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that he did. But even if that were true, by what right does he trash everyone who works for and donates on behalf of religious liberty, including Catholics? One of the most articulate, committed, and brilliant institutional advocates for religious liberty is Sherif Girgis, who is a Catholic of Egyptian parentage. This guy is the servant of white nationalism? Really?

If Thornbury wants to say that “religious liberty” is a code word for “homophobia” — that’s the usual charge from the Left — I would say that he’s wrong, but at least it would make logical sense from a certain perspective. But that’s not what he said. He said it’s “white nationalism.”

If he wants to say that white Evangelicalism has a “white nationalism” problem, I would need to know more about the specifics of the charge before I said he’s right or wrong about that — he might well have a point. Others have made the same charge. It seems clear to me that a lot of white Evangelicalism is tied up in an unhealthy way with nationalism, but that’s not the same thing as racialism. But again, that’s not what he said. He told Rolling Stone magazine that “‘religious liberty’ is code for protection of white, Western cultural heritage.”

Just like that, every one of us Christians — fundamentalists, charismatics, Evangelicals, Catholics, Mainline Protestants, Orthodox, all of us — concerned about the state forcing the Little Sisters of the Poor to fund something that violates their conscience, or worried about small-town florists like Barronelle Stutzman being driven out of business and financially ruined because she wouldn’t do flowers for a gay wedding, or fearing for the accreditation of Christian colleges that hold to Biblical orthodoxy on sexual orientation and gender identity matters — and who vote on that, or who direct our charitable giving to organizations and institutions who share our concerns? Hey, we’re all closeted Richard Spencers, according to the recent past president of The King’s College.

Am I making too big a deal of this? Maybe. But I know that Thornbury’s words are going to be weaponized by progressives to justify their relentless and unprincipled crusade against the First Amendment guarantee of religious liberty — “Even a former conservative Evangelical college president admits that…” — and to smear we who stand up for that bedrock constitutional freedom as racists or racist-adjacent. If he wants to tear down the college that he led by trashing its financial supporters — “Who is an evangelical college president going to talk to, to raise $10 million a year? Right-wing crazy people” he told the magazine — that’s his business, and the school’s, though I feel sorry for the current leadership of King’s, which will now have to live and work in New York City with the stigma of its recent past president saying that the school is a pet cause for rich conservative lunatics. The few people I know who are associated with TKC are not in the Trump universe by conviction, or anything else. One of its more prominent professors is Anthony Bradley, a black scholar who denounced my Benedict Option book as a tool of white supremacy, or some idiotic thing like that. If rich right-wing crazy people are pouring money into The King’s College to fund Trumpism, it seems to me that they’re not getting much of a return on investment.

If Thornbury wants to allege that conservative Evangelicalism has lost its mind and its soul by supporting Trump, that’s fine — it’s not a hard argument to make, but at this point, neither is it a novel one. The Rolling Stone piece offers nothing that we haven’t read a thousand other places by now. But “‘religious liberty is code for protection of white, Western cultural heritage'”?! Look, Thornbury’s old friend Russell Moore is paid by the Southern Baptist Convention to lobby and advocate for religious liberty, as head of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Does Thornbury really believe that Russell Moore — Russell Moore, for pity’s sake! — is in any way, shape, or form a white nationalist dupe?

Get woke, go crazy, I guess. I don’t know what Thornbury stands to gain with any of this, though I suppose nothing launders the C.V. of a conservative Evangelical now working as an arts fundraiser in New York City like going on record denouncing your old church community, and the people who called you friend, as a pack of Jesus-freak crypto-Kluckers. His leaving The King’s College, whether it was voluntary or he was pushed out, must have been some kind of ultra-bitter parting of the ways.

UPDATE: A couple of readers, in the comments, have objected to Thornbury’s indicating that wanting to preserve “Western cultural heritage” is immoral. It was a weird thing for the former president of a liberal arts college to say. I went to the King’s College website to see what they’re teaching there out of the Western cultural tradition. It looks like a good school. Here are some screenshots:

It all looks pretty great to me. Here is a liberal arts college in one of the great cities of the West, giving its undergraduate students a solid background in Western thought and culture. Why is this wrong? What does any of this have to do with religious liberty?

If Thornbury believes that there’s something racist  with wanting to protect “Western cultural heritage” (which, prior to America in the 20th century, is white by definition, because Africans and Asians weren’t in the West in significant numbers), well, then it’s probably best that he doesn’t run a liberal arts college.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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