'Lynchburg Revival' Activists Warn Of Rising 'Christian Nationalism'

Apr 7, 2018
Originally published on April 10, 2018 10:22 am
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Last Sunday, my colleague, Sarah McCammon, sat in for me, and she spoke with a small group of white evangelical leaders about how they see their movement in the age of Donald Trump. The president has delivered on some important promises from many evangelicals even as he repels others with his personal conduct and political style.

Today, Sarah is back with us with more reporting, this time from Lynchburg, Va. That's home to Liberty University, an evangelical Christian institution with an important place in Republican politics. That continues under President Trump, who spoke at graduation last year and has enjoyed the support of Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. This weekend, though, a group of Christian activists are gathering for what they call the Lynchburg revival, which is an effort to push back against Falwell's association with Trump.

NPR's Sarah McCammon is in Lynchburg covering the event, and she's with us now. Hi, Sarah.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So tell us more about the gathering. Who's behind it? What are they hoping to accomplish?

MCCAMMON: So it's largely organized by progressive or left-leaning evangelicals. They say they're concerned about what some describe as a rising Christian nationalism and a conflation of Christianity - especially evangelical Christianity - with Republican politics. One of the leaders is evangelical activist Shane Claiborne, who we heard from last week on the program.

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SHANE CLAIBORNE: I think one of the biggest challenges of Christians in America is keeping our Christianity from being colonized by American nationalism. And by that, I mean, like, it's - here we are. We say we're a Christian country. The test for something being Christian is, does it look like Jesus?

MCCAMMON: And Claiborne and others here, some of whom are Catholics, some of whom are mainline Protestants and others are evangelicals - they would say that it does not.

MARTIN: So what did this group want to do? What are they hoping to accomplish?

MCCAMMON: Well, they say they want to disentangle Christianity from politics. But, at the same time, many people I talked to acknowledge it's hard to do that. You know, the focus here has been on issues that are traditionally more liberal - things like universal health care, systemic racism, LGBT issues. And that's not really surprising because this isn't a typical white evangelical gathering. Women, Latinos, African-Americans have been playing prominent roles. Here's Dr. David Anderson, an African-American writer and preacher who spoke this weekend.

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DAVID ANDERSON: We need to call each other to repentance. And one of the things we need to repent of as the Church of Jesus Christ is racism in America.

MCCAMMON: So the focus is really spiritual and political, I would say.

MARTIN: How have Liberty University or Jerry Falwell Jr. individually responded to this?

MCCAMMON: A couple different ways. They haven't responded to my request for comment. A student journalist told me that she was asked by President Falwell not to cover the event for the campus newspaper. Liberty Police issued a letter to some of the organizers saying that they'd be arrested for trespassing if they entered the campus. But the university did issue a statement to the local newspaper saying all Christians have the free will to make whatever political choices they deem best for their country.

MARTIN: Sarah, quickly, before we let you go, is this connected to another move by more conservative evangelical Christians to try to shore up support for the president? You've reported previously, just a day ago, that there was an effort made to put a big group of evangelical leaders together to meet with President Trump later this spring. Is this connected to that?

MCCAMMON: It's a totally different group with a totally different set of motivations. I think some of the concern we've heard may be coming from some of the same issues surrounding the president. I think the more conservative groups may be more concerned about their voters staying home while others say they're not that worried about that - that they think there's a lot of support for the president. The folks here today in Lynchburg are really more concerned about what President Trump and the association with Evangelicalism with Republican politics means for sort of the reputation of the church going forward.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Sarah McCammon reporting from Lynchburg, Va.

Sarah, thank you.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

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