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Three Problems with Danny Shelton’s Idealized Christian America

3ABN's Danny Shelton accepts the term

Spectrum reported in The Current earlier this week on a 3ABN Today Live episode called “Should The Government Enforce Morality” in which former 3ABN president Danny Shelton described himself as a nationalist. While Shelton’s self-application of the term was terribly problematic, even more distressing was the conversation about race that took place around the statement. The four participants in the conversation stated clearly that racism is a stain on American history, but they argued that because there has been progress on the issue, those who bring race into conversations of religion, theology, and prophecy are being unnecessarily divisive. 

The problems with their racial analysis compounded with each successive sentence. I found their reasoning circular regarding racism’s connection to prophecy, and unhelpful in providing ways to think about the issue in our past and our present. The only thing that seemed clear to me was that we need more productive, diverse conversations about race in our church if we ever want to be able to form bonds between members that will allow the church to solve these problems denominationally and societally.

I noted three major themes that I took as emblematic of the ignorance I felt in their conversation:

First, their connection of the history of racism to Revelation 13 was convoluted and circular. Shelton named race as a tool some people use to critique the idea that America is the beast of Revelation 13. How could America be the lamb-like (Christ-like) beast of Revelation 13 when America legalized and promoted slavery (or slaughtered the Native Americans for that matter)? 

This question unfortunately put the panel in the position of having to argue that despite the horrors of slavery, America was still founded on Christian principles. I think we can all see the problem. It is hard to argue that a nation is moral and Christian when its conduct, we all agree, is reprehensible. One panelist argued that what makes America speak as a dragon is its ongoing curtailing of First Amendment freedoms. Apparently, the fact that the enslaved did not have any of those First Amendment freedoms at the founding of the country was irrelevant to the conversation. 

Danny Shelton analogized that America at its founding was like someone who had just come to Christ but had not rid themselves of all their sinful behaviors. An apt analogy, I guess, if we are willing to equate the capture, denigration, and enslavement of an entire race of people to a bad habit. From a theological perspective what made the entire conversation odd was that you do not have to read being “like a lamb, and [speaking] as a dragon,” as consecutive states of being. They could be concurrent, in which case America being a proponent of slavery would be consistent with how Revelation describes the beast.

(I surmise that the panel reads Revelation 13 as they do because they want to hold on to the belief that America was built on a good Christian foundation, not an economic foundation fueled by the cheap labor that enslaved people provided.)

The second point connects to the first. Because the analysis must fit their understanding of prophecy (and not the other way around), issues related to race are sacrificed on the altar of “Adventist” concerns. In other words, the panel believed their ability to preach the gospel is being curtailed by people in society who advocate for ideas that they deem to be against the word of God. This is the problem for them now, and so now must be the time that the beast of Revelation 13 is speaking like a dragon. 

The lasting, repeated, and current harms of racism are not the problem the panel is concerned with, so racism cannot be the hypocrisy that the text lays bare. The speakers (and the things that offend them) must be centered in the prophecy so it is unfathomable to them that racism could be part and parcel of the very idea they want to express–that America will act in ways that are contrary to the word of God. 

Third, and finally, the panel discussed issues of race as if they were past events with no effect on current events. For the panel, issues of race ended with the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement is only the most insignificant of addendums. There was no discussion of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, how the aftereffects set back African-Americans economically in ways that the nation has never addressed. There was no mention of how the legacy of the Jim Crow Era in our country still affects issues like housing and education. No conversation about how people of color are still disproportionately mistreated by police and the criminal justice system, or the differences in treatment in our healthcare system. But, it was important for them to slip in a mention that the real racism happening now is racism against white people. 

Despite their insistence that they are independents not in one camp or the other, it sure seemed as though their discussion of race came straight from conservative talking points. To be fair, they did criticize the Religious Right of the 1980s for wanting to break down the wall of separation between church and state. Of course, that seemed odd considering they also criticized the American Left for passing laws against the word of God.

I do not know if Danny Shelton is a nationalist, notwithstanding his acceptance of the term. I have no reason to think he or anyone else on the panel is racist, at least not in any conscious way. However, it seemed clear that everyone on that panel believes in American exceptionalism, and that America’s exceptionalism comes from its Christian foundations. This false notion of exceptionalism, and a unique brand of American Christianity, colors their ability to see the pervasiveness of racism in America’s history and present. Race and racism will always be the fly in the ointment of the idealized Christian America they wish existed, and that they want us all to believe in as well.

About the author

Jason Hines is an assistant professor in the Department of Healthcare Administration at AdventHealth University. He has a PhD in religion, politics, and society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University, an MA in religion from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, a JD from Harvard Law School, and a BA in political science from the University of Connecticut. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at More from Jason Hines.
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