One Nation Under God?

God and country

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Original Air Date: 
March 09, 2024

In 2020, Donald Trump won 84 percent of the white evangelical vote. Lately, he’s been leaning even more deeply into the rhetoric of Christian nationalists. Who are they, and what’s their role in the evangelical church? We talk with some Southern Baptists today, whose views may surprise you.

God and country

Donald Trump won 84% of the white evangelical vote in 2020. To shore up that base, he’s now moving beyond conservative Christian values, to Christian nationalism. That nationalism, journalist Jeff Sharlet argues, represents a real and present threat of "simmering violence."

hands raised in worship

Beth Allison Barr is a Southern Baptist from Texas who was raised evangelical, married a pastor and had two children. She’s also a feminist professor of medieval history at Baylor University, and the author of a book that isn’t winning her many friends in the evangelical world: “The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth.”

John Onwuchekwa

Five years after opening its doors, the pastor of Atlanta’s Cornerstone Church, Reverend John Onwuchekwa, led the entire congregation of more than 400 people to officially leave the Southern Baptist Convention. His reason for leaving was tied to their long history of oppression and racism toward Black people.


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- [Anne] It's "To the Best of Our Knowledge". I'm Anne Strainchamps. January 6th was an unprecedented day of political violence for the United States. But can it happen again?

- [Steve] Yeah. We had just in July...

- [Anne] How do we make sense of the apocalyptic rhetoric of Christian nationalism that inspired so many of the insurrectionists?

- [Steve] These skylights are Would you like those closed?

- [Jeff] No, that's fine.

- [Anne] Well, let's make some coffee and meet a journalist who's been tracking the fusion of Christianity and right-wing politics.

- [Jeff] My name's Jeff Sharlet. I'm sitting here with a copy of my most recent book, "The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War." Sitting here in my dining room, sitting here in this kind of lovely blue bubble of Vermont, although not as much of a bubble as people. Oh, want me to close this window? Yeah, that's probably a good idea.

- [Steve] Yeah.

- [Jeff] Yeah.

- [Anne] As Steve Paulson sat down with Jeff Sharlet, he wanted to know about that subtitle of his book about civil war, and whether Sharlet means that literally.

- [Jeff] I don't think we're going to erupt into a reprise of the 1860s, the blue versus the gray.

- [Speaker] We founded America on God.

- [Speaker] God made this man president.

- [Jeff] I think we exist in a situation of simmering violence, some of it institutionalized. I just saw recently someone saying, "Well, there was no political violence-related deaths in the year after 2021. I think that has a lot to do with how you define political violence.

- [Speaker] I see a civil war coming. I do.

- [Speaker] God is behind us, and that's what it's about. That's why we're here.

- [Trump] Remember, every communist regime throughout history has tried to stamp out the churches, just like every fascist regime has tried to co-opt them. And in America, the radical left is trying to do both at the same time. There's never been anything like this.

- [Jeff] I'm interested in all the iconography that people adorn their trucks, their cars, their houses, their flags, their T-shirts, threatening violence.

- [Speaker] Christianity is the true religion.

- [Jeff] Almost every week somewhere there's a group of Proud Boys or Oath Keepers or Three Percenters or local knuckleheads, and they're lining up outside a library, a school, sometimes a hospital. Maybe it's anti-vax, maybe it's a drag show. Often they're open carrying and they haven't opened fire.

- [Interviewer] Who should have influence in our society?

- [Trump] Christian leaders.

- [Interviewer] White Christian men.

- [Trump] White Christian men.

- [Jeff] We're striking matches, right, and flicking them into the grass. And so far the fire hasn't caught. And so we're saying, "I guess it's fine. Let's keep striking matches."

- [Anne] Sharlet says the great match-thrower of our time is former President Donald Trump. His rhetoric, Sharlet argues, incited actual violence on January 6th.

- [Trump] They want to silence me because I will never let them silence you.

- [Anne] Lately, Trump's speeches have taken a surprising turn. He's now explicitly appealing to Christians.

- [Trump] They're not after me, they're after you.

- [Anne] Especially to the fears of evangelical Christians.

- [Trump] I just happen to be standing in the way.

- [Speaker] I'm excited because he's doing stuff for the Christians now.

- [Anne] Donald Trump won 84% of the white evangelical vote in 2020. And to shore up that base, he's now moving beyond conservative Christian values to Christian nationalism.

- [Trump] They want to tear down crosses where they can...

- [Speaker] We should be able to say, "In Jesus' name."

- [Trump] and cover them up with Social Justice flags.

- [Anne] Many Christian nationalists believe that the American Constitution was inspired by God, and they call the United States a Christian country. They also advocate ending the separation of church and state.

- [Speaker] There is one person that is the truth.

- [Speaker] They'll find the true God.

- [Speaker] We come a Christian nation.

- [Trump] But upon taking office, I will create a new federal task force on fighting anti-Christian bias.

- [Anne] Let's go back to Jeff and Steve for a far-reaching conversation about Christian nationalism, political violence, and how Donald Trump has tapped into various threads of American evangelicalism.

- [Jeff] The first was the prosperity gospel. This idea that God wants you to be rich. And prosperity preachers, how do they show you that God wants you to be rich? Well, look how rich they are. "Look at my fancy car. Look at my beautiful suit." Trump's perfect for this role, right? And that's what he said. "We're going to win so much, you're going to be tired of winning." That's part one. Campaign two is what I call a kind of Americanized bastardized gnostic gospel. This is an ancient heresy. This idea that the God you see is not the real God, but just a front, and that the real wisdom is behind that. And only a few understand this, but that there's this vast bureaucratic apparatus of the church that's trying to hide it from you, the deep state. But if you're an initiate, if you have learned QAnon, or maybe you've just picked up some, you know what's what, you know about the vaccine and so on. Conspiracies, dark secrets, as Trump himself says at a key point when he starts, instead of just pedaling the conspiracy theory, kind of believing it himself, right? In the book, I been covering Trump since 2016, going to the rallies, always looking at them not in terms of horse-race politics, but more in terms of actually performance. What is the performance here?

- [Steve] Tell me about that. 'Cause I know you... As you say, you've gone to a lot of Trump rallies. You don't sit in the media section, the part that's sort of fenced off, where the crowd and Trump himself jeers at the media. You sit with the crowd there. What's that like?

- [Jeff] I've been a journalist for 30 years. I think I've had a press pass once in my life and I was ashamed. Look, it's important for reporters to go and do those things and so on. But it's also important for us as writers, and especially I think in this moment of authoritarian threat or even the F-word, if we want to say that this is a fascist movement, to say, "How do we tell political stories?" And I think that has to do with not just paying attention to the broadcast, right, what the politician is saying, but the reception. How is this felt in the crowd? You go to a Trump rally in 2016, you go to one in New Hampshire right now, the press will be put in a metal pen in the middle. And it always stunned me that my colleagues would agree to do this, because Trump, a man well-versed in wrestling, would use them as a prop. There's a moment in every rally where he says, "Look at those scumbag there, the enemy of the people," and the crowd turns around, and you can't see this on the radio, and that's appropriate, but they're all flying the bird, two fingers up and so on, and screaming. They're having a good time because the press is being used as what in wrestling is called the heel. Why they keep agreeing to be the heel, I don't know. But what happens when you go into the crowd, you get a much greater appreciation for Trump as a performer. You see his control, his ability to move laughter or fear. I remember a rally I went to, and I write about in the book, in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and a prolonged story of violence, talking about how the cities are... Philadelphia is deliberately releasing undocumented illegals, rapists into the countryside to terrify people and describing decapitations, disembowelments, I mean...

- [Steve] This is all what Trump is saying?

- [Jeff] This is what Trump is saying, and it's a horror movie. And what was the coverage of that rally? Trump made a joke about maybe he would stay for 12 more years, right? And that was just Trump with his fishing rod. He knew how to bait the press that that's the line they're going to do. And there's no coverage of that. Or even Trump's post-indictment speeches. If we look at it as just theater, it's a little bit like... Have you ever been to the theater? Has it moved you?

- [Steve] I mean, obviously you're describing a gifted performer, but you also reject the idea of this as just theater. It does sound like theater.

- [Jeff] It is theater. It's not just theater. It's the "just" that is the reassurance to us, "Don't worry, that's not real." Think about the most powerful performance you've seen. Think about the stories. As Joan Didion says, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live the stories that make you who you are." That's not just theater. That's theater. That's powerful. And if we recognize Trump, and I know this is a controversial term and I will defend it historically, as part of a fascist movement, not a fascist regime, a fascist movement, theater is the essence of fascism. Not ideology, theater and performance.

- [Steve] Let me ask you what you're doing here. So you go to Trump rallies, you go to these extremely conservative churches, hear the sermons, you hang out with QAnon followers, militia leaders with big stashes of guns, white supremacists. What are you looking for? What are you trying to figure out?

- [Jeff] The undercurrent of "The Undertow" is grief. And grief over a number of things. And I think that living in this very broken country at this time of a disintegrating climate, through the pandemic, has filled us all with a lot of grief. And I think grief that is unprocessed curdles. We lost... I think a lot of white people lost a privilege of some naivete. A lot of right-wing white people have been losing some white privilege. And I think we make a mistake if we say, "Well," and I do, like, "good, you should lose it. That's a thing to get rid of." But it's still a loss.

- [Steve] You started this whole business, your reporting, covering religion, right? Not politics, religion.

- [Jeff] Yeah.

- [Steve] You're covering a certain brand of very conservative evangelical Christianity, I guess. Christian nationalism, maybe. What has changed specifically, sort of, in that version of Christianity then to now?

- [Jeff] Well, I would say actually that term, "Christian nationalism," which is a controversial term, although less so now. Marjorie Taylor Green says, "I'm a Christian nationalist." More and more right-wing politicians are just owning and saying, "Yes. Yes, that's the idea." What Trump did is really important in the history of American religion. Trump comes down the golden escalator in 2015, and I say, "Here he comes, bringing a fascist aesthetic, the strong man. Will it be received?" It was. And I think people say, "It's not fascism 'cause there's no jack boots." Remember, it's an aesthetic and it's a movement. It's not 1936 Germany, but that cult of personality, that's a really key difference. And that takes it out of evangelicals. Most of them line up and support.

- [Steve] And yet Trump, it's always kind of mystified me why all these...

- [Jeff] Thrice married.

- [Steve] Yeah, doesn't seem to have a pious bone in his body. Why this very conservative evangelical brand of Christianity has rallied around him?

- [Steve] So Christian nationalism is different than evangelical Christianity. If you go to a Trump rally... Most of the people I meet in this book, except for those at churches, don't go to church. Evangelicals, most of them line up and support. Each rally would open with some of the hardest right preachers I've ever seen, and people would be cheering. These were angry preachers. And I would talk to them. They weren't churchgoers, but they love the idea of it. Now, I've reported in Russia as well, and Russia has some of the lowest church attendance in the world, but they love Putin's invocation of a Russian faith, the Russian Orthodox faith. That's Christian nationalism. And some people say, "That's not real Christianity." That is one of them.

- [Steve] Yeah.

- [Jeff] There are others and there are beautiful ones, but that is one of them. In Omaha, Sunday morning, and when I'm out reporting on Sunday mornings, I go to churches 'cause I want to see what's happening. It's called Lord of Hosts church. The pastor, Hank Kunneman, is a regular on a show called "Flashpoint," a Christian right show. Trump has also been a guest. I would describe it as an openly pro hot civil war show. And Pastor Hank, who's a fantastic preacher, he's good at what he does, with this large congregation, which again, against odds, is much more diverse than... Steve, we met at a unitarian church in Woodstock, Vermont, which was almost all white. This was was not. Preached a civil war sermon, a violent civil war sermon. "Thy rod and thy staff," he said, quoting Psalm 23. "Thy rod is thy gun." And he accompanied it with a weird sexual hip thrust.

- [Steve] This is a preacher who is just calling for violence to the whole congregation.

- [Jeff] There are so many militia churches now. And when I say militia church, I mean I go to a church in Yuba City, California, and the Wednesday night is women's night and Monday night is youth night. Tuesday night is militia new recruit night. This is the church listeners might have seen, because a little video clip of it went viral. They presented General Mike Flynn, Trump's former National Security Advisor and a leader of QAnon idea. They presented him with a customized AR-15 on stage, and that little clip went viral. What people missed was that they also presented their own pastor with a customized AR-15. His had Joshua 1:9 in Hebrew carved in it. And Joshua 1:9 is... People remember the book of Joshua. "This is Jericho. We're going to surround the city. We're going to blow the horn seven times." It's a difficult work of scripture because then God commands Joshua to go in and kill everybody. It's a genocidal text. Now, scripture demands our interpretation. It demands our engagement. You don't have to read it like that, but you can. And that's why I saw Proud Boys wearing Joshua 1:9 shirts with guns. Guns with Joshua 1:9 on it. It's a very popular battle verse. So here he is, the pastor, with his AR-15, talking about January 6th breaking his heart. "We seized the castle and then we lost it. But not all hope is lost 'cause blood is coming."

- [Steve] Wow.

- [Jeff] But there are theologians working on this. I mentioned briefly in this book a guy named Lance Wallnau, who in 2016 had a bestseller called "God's Chaos Candidate". And "Trump," he said, "is here as a wrecking ball. Trump is here to destroy." Remember what I said about Joshua 1:9, the book of Joshua. Joshua is ordered to take Jericho and kill everyone in it. Well, that doesn't seem very godlike. But you go to churches now, the Lord of Hosts in Omaha, Church of Glad Tidings in California, there are many more, and they say, "Now is a time of war theology."

- [Steve] And this is different than when you were doing this reporting 20 years ago. And sort of like the guns weren't in churches back then.

- [Jeff] There was some, but there wasn't civil war talk. Civil war talk was so, so fringe. This is the mood. And in Omaha, I sit through this sermon. There's always been the past like, "Oh, there's no mistake that you came to this church, this compound, whatever, and so on, obviously God sent you." Or, "Maybe you're not going to be converted, but it doesn't matter because God's going to use you to carry our words out." Now they don't care. I'm trying, in the parking lot, which is a public parking lot, I'm trying to talk to three women who had driven four hours from Ohio to be there. They're talking about civil war, looking forward to it. And an usher and a gunman in full armor come out. I thought the gunman was a off-duty cop. And turns out he wasn't. And it's just this little exchange. "You can't talk here." "But I'm just talking and this is public space." "No, you can't." My heart is beating. My blood pressure is high. The usher's blood pressure is high. There's his veins. He's got a tattoo of a girl praying on his neck and you can see the vein pulsing through. And I've been in enough situations simmering with violence to know that grade-school bullies puff out their chest and stick out their chins. Usually that means you're okay. Because if someone's really going to hit you, they don't stick out their chin. This guy is curling in his chest. This guy is grinning. That's scary. He's baring his teeth. And I just saw my miscalculation. I saw my miscalculation that I thought that this was still, I could talk my way through this. And I said, "Oh, these people are... I don't know if they're going to shoot me. They're ready to hit me." And I just backed up. I get into my car, turn the air conditioning on, and I felt this move to check the glove compartment. Because I'm driving across the country. I had two purposes. One, to investigate this myth. Two, to go to Colorado, where my stepmother had died, and to pick up a portion of her ashes from her son that I was going to distribute, and then drive across the country. So I'm driving across the country. Now, you can't help but think, "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust." It just suddenly felt like I my calling here was not to stay and be confrontational with that. My calling was to mourn. My calling was, in a sense, to carry those ashes, literally. And to ask people about why they believe civil war was a good idea, and to listen to those answers with empathy, not sympathy.

- [Anne] Jeff Sharlet is the author of "The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War." And that was Steve Paulson talking with him. Coming up, think all evangelicals are the same? Stay tuned for some conversations that may surprise you.

- [Beth] One of my favorite medieval prayers is of a woman named Marjorie Kempe. I talk about her in the book. I talk about her. She's in the 15th century. She's a woman of amazing faith. There's this moment where she finds herself surrounded by people who are very unhappy with her. And in fact, she fears for her life. And it's just this moment where, suddenly, she stops and she looks out, and she says, "God, you brought me to this place for love of you. Be with me and have mercy on us." And that has become a prayer that I pray all the time, "God, you've brought us here. Be with us and have mercy."

- [Anne] It's "To the Best of Our Knowledge," from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Beth Allison Barr lives in Waco, Texas, and she is what's popularly called a born-again Christian, a Southern Baptist who was raised evangelical, married a pastor, and had two children. And if that makes you think you know something about Beth Allison Barr, well, I should also tell you she's a feminist professor of medieval history at Baylor University and author of a book that is not winning her many friends in the evangelical world. It's called "The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth." Blanket apology in advance. I grew up secular, so a lot of the world that you're describing is not so familiar to me. But I think I wanted to start with what you love about your church and your faith. What you loved about it growing up.

- [Beth] Oh, yes. So I still identify in faith. I'm still married to a Baptist pastor, so in fact, I'll be at church tonight. And so I think, just from that, it shows that there's something more than just the negative parts that are out there and the problems that we see. And in fact, I don't think I would have written "The Making of Biblical Womanhood" if I didn't love my faith. I have very fond memories of the church that I grew up in and the church that I still am in today. But that doesn't make me blind, or that doesn't make me unable to recognize the problems that are in it.

- [Anne] And thinking specifically about the problems in the church and the church's attitude toward women, when would you say... I mean, you grew up in your church. At what point did you become aware, do you think, that boys and girls were getting mixed messages, that there were very different gender roles and visions of what it would mean to be a little girl and growing up to be a woman? At what point were you aware of that?

- [Beth] I know now as a historian that my experience was at the very beginning of the hard gender shift. And so I actually remember when there was a shift in our church. When I first grew up, when I was smaller, I remember women being more present and women being more active. And so I remembered women being more visible. And so it was really in my early high school years that I began to notice more of a shift in how...

- [Anne] I didn't realize there had been a very deliberate, determined shift. What happened?

- [Beth] There was a shift. I didn't know it at the time. I was a teenager in the late eighties, early nineties. And what I didn't know is that about 10 years earlier, when I was four years old, there had been something called a conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist world. And the goal of the conservative resurgence was to take over the Southern Baptist seminaries as well as begin to take over the churches and start pushing them more towards what they called a biblical understanding of gender, which was reinforcing male authority and female subordination. And this starts trickling into the churches. And in fact, in the 1990s, we start seeing a wave of publications coming out that start reinforcing what we call this biblical womanhood, including John Piper and Wayne Grudem publishing their book, "Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood." And really just the movement exploded after that point.

- [Anne] It's such a fascinating both history and concept to me, because I didn't grow up with this idea, so even the phrase "biblical womanhood" was new to me. Tell me what's subsumed in it.

- [Beth] Yeah, no, that's a very good question. So I've gotten a lot of criticism for how I define biblical womanhood. I'm not exactly sure why, because it's pretty much the way it is defined. It is that God created gender roles for men and women. Men's gender roles are to lead, women's are to follow male leadership. And that's pretty much it. That's what biblical womanhood is. And if I can quote Dorothy Patterson, whose name probably isn't familiar to you, but she is the wife of one of the major movers in the conservative resurgence. And her husband is connected to Paul Pressler, who's the judge in Texas who has all of the sex abuse scandals against him right now. But she wrote a really significant book for pastors' wives. And one of the things she said in it is that a pastor's wife, the job was to hold the ladder for her husband to climb. And in some ways that kind of is the image of biblical womanhood, that you hold the ladder. You hold the family together, you hold the ladder so that your husband can be successful.

- [Anne] Well, the other really problematic aspect of this, and you write, is, women are not allowed to lead in church. They're not allowed to be pastors.

- [Beth] Yes.

- [Anne] You were told not to teach. Am I right?

- [Beth] Yes, that's exactly right. Yeah. I think, thinking from an outside mindset, I of course was trained in women's history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. So I had this very disjointed world where on the one hand I was a evangelical pastor's wife, and on the other hand I was in the women's studies program at Chapel Hill. And so it was just really interesting, so I kind of saw both sides of the coin. I saw what it looked like on the outside, and then I also saw what was going on on the inside. And I think that helped me understand how strange it was to make an argument that women, simply because of their gender, because of their bodies, that they are not able to teach men. And I was able to see the danger behind that. I mean, if you tell men that there's something about women that they cannot learn from them, what is that telling men about women? And what is that telling women about their own worth if they are told that, by design of God, their voices don't matter as much as men's voices?

- [Anne] Your book, "The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth," first of all, I imagine that just that title, you've gotten some pushback on that.

- [Beth] Oh, yeah.

- [Anne] Has it caused a, I don't know, kerfuffle in the SBC?

- [Beth] Oh, yes. I would say I'm a persona non grata with many in the SBC. It was funny, when I was in the archives in Nashville, I requested to see some files, and I received pretty immediate rejections. They would not let me in to go see their files.

Editor's note, 3/14/24: An earlier version of this transcript included a mention of Barr being denied access to official archive materials of the Southern Baptist Convention, part of her studies rendering her "persona non grata" in the eyes of the SBC. She misspoke. The archive materials in question were the personal archives of Paige Patterson, a prominent figure in the SBC; the official archives of the SBC, the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, were helpful in Barr's research. "I am exceedingly grateful for their assistance as I would not be able to do my research without them," says Barr in an email. We've struck out the incorrect statement.

- [Anne] Interesting.

- [Beth] My name precedes me in this. And I know that my name has been in the conversation of a lot of what's going on. They were unable to ignore me, which I'm really glad about. But at the same time, I don't think any of them were willing to listen to what I had to say. And in fact, since "The Making of Biblical Womanhood" has come out, what we have seen in the Southern Baptist Church is we have seen even harder stances on women, including this, not only can women not be senior pastors, but women can't carry any pastoral title. Now, that's sort of what's moving forward, it's called the Mike Law Amendment, and it's that women should not have any sort of pastoral in their title. That is about as hard-lined as one can get. I think the next step moving forward from that is this idea that to be biblical woman, that women should not even work outside the home. I mean, I think this is kind of the natural progression of where this is going if you subsume women completely under male leadership,

- [Anne] Can we talk some about the harm that letting patriarchal attitudes like this persist, in any institution?

- [Beth] Yes.

- [Anne] Because it's one thing to say to limit women's roles, but when you begin to constrain any set of people, it's a short walk from subjugation to submission to actual harm. There's been a big sex abuse scandal in the SBC, in the evangelical movement, as there has been in other churches as well. Where are things right now with the... There's a #ChurchToo movement, I think.

- [Beth] Yeah, no, you're exactly right. And that's one of the arguments that I make in "The Making of Biblical Womanhood." It's one that's also gotten me a lot of pushback. And I argue that when you teach that there is something about any group of people that simply because of the way they are born, that makes them worthy of being under the authority of someone else, that is dangerous, that it's a dangerous attitude. And in fact, that's exactly what we have seen. We have seen a system that has built on male authority and male power, and has been trained to protect that male authority and male power, which means that when there are problems, and because there aren't any women at the table, there aren't any women who are involved in these higher decision-makings, that when there is a problem, the goal of the church is to protect the pastor and to protect the men in leadership instead of to protect the victims. And there was, in the Guidepost Solutions report, which is the firm that was hired to investigate the sex abuse scandal in the Southern Baptist Convention, there is this really horrific letter in there where Paige Patterson, who's one of the architects of the Southern Baptist Convention, he writes telling a church how to make sure that if they are sued for any sort of sex or child abuse, that they will win that case. And so the concern is not about being sued for this, the concern is about how to win the case. And so he tells them to bring in an outside firm, even if they don't agree with them, just to do like an hour training module on how to protect your children and how to protect against sex abusers. And he said, "If you do that, then that will help. That'll go a long way in the court to protect you from being sued." That whole attitude just shows the problem with this, that the goal is about protecting systems, protecting people in power.

- [Anne] Protecting men.

- [Beth] Protecting men instead of protecting the victims, the women and the children, and anyone, actually, who is not in that power. It's not all men. As we know, patriarchy privileges only some men. And so anyone who's outside of that privileged power is not protected in this system.

- [Anne] Well, and then women's faith got sort of held up. There were women who were told they should just work on forgiving their rapists.

- [Beth] That's exactly right.

- [Anne] Which seems to me like such a perversion of a woman's faith.

- [Beth] When "The Making of Biblical Womanhood" first came out, I had a lot of people who were in the church that we were in who reached out to me, and I had a lot of really good conversations. A lot of them were happy to know just what had actually happened, et cetera. But I remember this one woman, and it really surprised me. And when she reached out to me and the first thing she asked me, she said, "Beth, I just have to know, I just have to make sure you've forgiven them." Before anything else, that was the question. I was like, "Yep, this is the world. This is the world where what matters most is not the harm that has been done, but if the people who the harm has been done to, they have to have the right attitude. They have to forgive." I mean, it's so damaging, but that is what we are taught. And I'll put myself out there. And that is what we are taught.

- [Anne] There is a hashtag out there, #ExEvangelical. I'm curious, what do you say to a woman who comes to you and says, "I read your book. I can't do this anymore. I'm leaving the church."

- [Beth] Yeah. I mostly just tell her I'm sorry. That I'm sorry for what has happened to her, I'm sorry for the experiences that she's had, and that my hope inside is that maybe one day she might be interested in returning not to that church, but to a faith, a different sort of faith. But at the same time, I totally understand why she's walking away. People ask me all the time why I didn't walk away, and I think part of it's because...

- [Anne] That was going to be my next question.

- [Beth] Was it? Well, I mean, so I'll preempt you on that. I mean, part of it's because I'm a historian, and I know that the Christianity that we see in modern American evangelicalism is a very small blip in the long river of Christian history. And I work with people whose faith is deep and strong, and all the way back to the very earliest moments of Christianity. And I read their faith and how it makes them better, that they believe that God is calling them something bigger and better than this world. And it enables me to know that God is bigger than white American evangelicalism. And so I think that that is part of it. I've never had a faith crisis through this whole thing. What I have had is a crisis with how people have portrayed the faith. And so I think that's where my beef is. But as for my faith itself, being a historian has helped me stay strong in it.

- [Anne] That's beautiful. Near the end of your book, you say that, when you finish classes, finish teaching, you often end with kind of a benediction. What do you say to your students and what would you say to us, to our listeners?

- [Beth] Yeah, so it was sort of funny how I ended my book with that. But what I always say to my students is I say, "Go be free." And that really is what I want women in the evangelical church as well as beyond. I mean, patriarchy hurts all of us. And patriarchy hurts men too. And it's just really time for all of us to be free. And so that actually is my prayer for beyond the church as well.

- [Anne] Thank you so much. It was just a pleasure talking with you. Thank you very, very much.

- [Beth] Thanks.

- [Anne] Beth Allison Barr is a professor of medieval history at Baylor University, and her book is called "The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth." Coming up, what is it like to be a Black Southern Baptist pastor? We'll have a conversation about a struggle, a departure, and a deepened love for Jesus. It's "To the Best of Our Knowledge," from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Thinking about what Beth Allison Barr said about patriarchy and sexism in the Southern Baptist Church, or SBC, I realize there's another issue inside that church that we need to talk about, race. So, a little history first. The Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845 in Georgia for Christian evangelists who owned slaves and who wanted a church that supported slavery. After the Civil War and well into the 20th century, the SBC endorsed racial segregation and opposed interracial marriage. Since then, the church has formally repented of racism and it's apologized to African Americans. But it is still predominantly a white church, with an 85% white membership. It's also the largest prominent denomination in the US. So that's the background. Charles Monroe-Kane, who produced this hour, wanted to talk with someone for whom the Southern Baptist stance on race is personal, Reverend John Onwuchekwa, the son of Nigerian immigrants and co-founder of Atlanta's Cornerstone Church. Five years after opening its doors, Reverend Onwuchekwa and the entire congregation of more than 400 people officially left the Southern Baptist Convention. Charles Monroe-Kane sat down with him to find out what happened.

- [Charles] Why don't you take me back? What led you to start the Cornerstone Church in Atlanta?

- [Rev. Onwuchekwa] Yeah. I had been pastoring for eight years at the time. So at 22 years old, started seminary, helped to plant a church out in Denton, Texas. At 25 years old, moved from Denton to Atlanta, Georgia with 25 other people to be the co-pastor at a church plant there. When we got to Atlanta, the church that we planted had grown substantially to a good size. But I think the segment of our church that we missed out on was the lower-income demographic, right? So a couple of years prior to us starting that church, so this is 2012, there was a group of folks that were like, "Hey, there is this place that nobody else wants to go to, and we just have this heart to be a part of this communal rebuilding project." So this group moved in, paid full rent in Section 8 housing. They cut kids' hair that lived across the street. They made birthday cakes for people that were outside. They were a part of community cleanups. And they found themselves at a place where they had achieved such a good reputation with people that were on the inside of the community, that you have folks that lived in the West End that would say things like, "Listen, man, we really don't mess with Christianity or Jesus or all this stuff" because of the experience that they had in the past. But they say, "Yo, there's something about y'all, the way that y'all love us and love one another," that they're like, "Yo, if y'all were to start a church here, we would explore and we would come." And so that was what started the conversations of, what does it look like to start a church in a place like that?

- [Charles] So when you started the church, you became a member of the Southern Baptist Convention. Why join the Southern Baptist? What were the reasons?

- [Rev. Onwuchekwa] I didn't know much about the SBC at the time, except for the fact that we had a friend that was involved at the time and said, "All you may know is that they used to own people." But he's like, "No, things have changed. It's come a long way. There's a group that's really trying to make things right." We got involved with the group because it seemed like the people that we knew had a genuine desire to partner and to come alongside. There was a group of people that all they really wanted was diversity, and it was more than enough for them to get Black faces in the joint. But there was a smaller segment of folks that it seemed like they really wanted solidarity, right? They really wanted to like help in the work that we tried to do. So we found some good relationships and friendships. And in some ways, the group was very supportive of the work that we were trying to do.

- [Charles] I think it's important to hear the history of Southern Baptist. I think it's very important to this story.

- [Rev. Onwuchekwa] Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. So the geography in the name is tough because it's misleading. Southern was not just about geography, it was and ideology. So you had a group of folks that were like, "Oh, no, no, no, no, no. We think it's okay to tell people about the freedom that's found in Jesus while we still have Black and Brown folks in chains. So at the end of the day, we're going to form our own group where we own slaves." And so in May of 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention was formed primarily around the issue of slavery.

- [Charles] And then, of course, as you go forward through Jim Crow, through the 1960s, that group, and let's be clear, that group is the largest Protestant denomination in America. It's a pretty big group.

- [Rev. Onwuchekwa] Right. Yeah.

- [Charles] The Southern Baptist were against interracial marriage. They were against the Civil Rights Act. They were against all sorts of things. You guys were fired up. You were serving the poor. You're saving souls. You're living in the community. It must have been pretty beautiful. But there must have been people you were interacting with who were like, "Eh."

- [Rev. Onwuchekwa] The interesting thing about being Black in America, anywhere that you go, any organization that you're involved with, there's folks like that. "I bank with Wells Fargo, but they've had things that have gone on," right? Anywhere that you go. So there is not an institution in our country, faith or otherwise, that you don't run up against that. We personally stayed for as long as we did because early on I was convinced that the majority of the opposition came from an old guard that was fading away. I felt like the thing that kept me in it for so long was focusing on the potential of all the good work that could be done, right?

- [Charles] Right.

- [Rev. Onwuchekwa] So the SBC, to this day, is a billion-dollar organization. They spend a billion dollars on ministry each year. And so I remember all the years that we worked for just kind of fighting for a voice and for resources to be allotted to the work that we were trying to do. But 2016 became a line of demarcation where it's like, "Oh, wait a minute. Oh, I thought that the old guard was a minority, but wait a minute, 81%?"

- [Charles] That 81% of evangelicals voted for Trump.

- [Rev. Onwuchekwa] Yeah. Yeah.

- [Charles] So in 2020, you left.

- [Rev. Onwuchekwa] Yes.

- [Charles] Not just you, the entire church left. Why did you leave?

- [Rev. Onwuchekwa] Yeah. Why did we leave? Beginning in 2013, there was like one major thing that went on each year, and whenever it went on, I would raise my hand or stand up in a room and be like, "Hey." 2013, they had this big conference nationwide, and they talk about the history of the convention and slavery's not mentioned.

- [Charles] Are you serious?

- [Rev. Onwuchekwa] Yeah. So I raised my hand, "We need to talk about this." And I was hit with a, "Oh, yeah. Oh, that's a great point. We're definitely going to do it. It's too late in the game to change it, so not yet." And on and on and on, right? There were all of these things, and it was continually like, "Not yet, not yet. Now is not the right time." Summer 2020 became clear for me, where it was like, "Oh, people are saying not yet, but I think it's not ever." Because after George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor were all killed, there was this collective reckoning in our world where, for the first time, it became not just socially acceptable, but even economically advantageous for people to take a stand. NASCAR took the Confederate flag out. Mississippi changed their state flag. So all these things go on in the world. And SBC at the time, in 2020, became very, very clear to me that it's a, "Oh, if the destination is racial justice and solidarity, that destination is an island, and the Southern Baptist Convention is a bus. And I don't care if a bus is headed in the right direction, you cannot drive a bus to Puerto Rico. Yeah, this is the wrong vehicle for the task that we have at hand." It was a decision that should have been made earlier, but when it was clear, it was one of the easiest decisions that we ever made and slept like a baby since we've left.

- [Charles] We've been talking about racial justice. One thing we haven't talked about is Jesus, because that's the whole reason for all this, right? Evangelicals are about evangelizing, meaning witnessing and asking people to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. And a lot of efforts and money are put into that. On one level, Southern Baptists are very effective at saving souls.

- [Rev. Onwuchekwa] Right. Yeah. So this is where it's so hard. Being involved with the group for 10 years, you see lots of genuine people that desperately want to help, right? There are tons of examples of people there who talk about the kindness of Jesus all the time, but it's like what I don't see is courage. And so I think I stayed around for a long time because people said, "No, there's a lot of good guys on the ship or on this board, or lots of good guys in charge." And I think towards the end of my time, I realized I do not care how many good men are in power. I care how many courageous men are in power. And I did not find, I personally. I knew some, but I did not find many.

- [Anne] That's Reverend John Onwuchekwa speaking with Charles Monroe-Kane. He recently stepped down as pastor of Cornerstone Church in Atlanta, though he's still an active member. His organization, the Crete Collective, plants evangelical churches in Black and Brown neighborhoods, and his book, "We Go On," is a reflection on the book of Ecclesiastes. Before he left, Charles asked Reverend Onwuchekwa to give us a benediction, a blessing to end the hour.

- [Rev. Onwuchekwa] Suffering doesn't make anybody stupid. Slaves did not ignorantly adopt the religion of their slave masters. But what they did was they looked through the thin veneer of the hypocrisy that they saw, and they instead saw a solidarity with Jesus, a man who was innocent and at odds with the powerful religious hypocritical elite who persecuted this innocent man for his faith and lynched him and put him on a tree. And they saw solidarity with him. And so I think that, yes, there is a lot to lament and there's a lot to critique in this world. Sometimes God saves his children from the fire, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Sometimes God saves them through the fire. Jesus constantly talked about his death, but one thing that you see is that he never talked about the future injustice that would be his death without mentioning the future glory that would be the resurrection. And so, as we have heard a lot about hypocrisy and death, let's be reminded that as far as the gospel is concerned, death is never God's final word. It's always a preparatory word for a future resurrection. Out of darkness comes light, and I am convinced that the glory of God will shine through all of this. That the evil that we've seen is just a beautiful backdrop for the diamonds of the goodness of God to shine.

- [Anne] "To the Best of Our Knowledge" is produced at Wisconsin Public Radio and distributed by PRX. Charles Monroe-Kane produced this hour. He had help from Shannon Henry Kleiber, Angelo Bautista, and Mark Riechers. Our technical director and sound designer is Joe Hardtke with help from Sarah Hopeful. Additional music this week comes from Ketza, MacKay Beats, , the Trumpeters, Flying Cloud, and Maestro One. Steve Paulson is the executive producer of "To the Best of Our Knowledge," and I'm Anne Strainchamps. Be well and come back often.

- [Automated Voice] PRX.

Last modified: 
March 15, 2024