Mark Wingfield posted a query on Facebook that deserves a deeper look. He wondered about the evangelical response to the death of Queen Elizabeth. And he asked the simple journalistic question: Why? I venture a partial response.
The evangelical support and adulation of Queen Elizabeth suggests a deep empathy and compassion. At the same time, the expressions of this support hide a darker motivation. The support of the monarchy as an institution, and the queen as a model woman, feels comfortable among certain evangelicals because monarchy lives within an orbit of other words — slavery, colonialism, Christian expansionism at the expense of indigenous peoples.
“God save the queen” becomes “God save our way of life.”
With the monarchy under pressure, its future in doubt, these monarchial Christians experience the same fear they have about being replaced by minorities and immigrants. “God save the queen” becomes “God save our way of life.”
The irony gets thick here because evangelicals are such stout individuals. They demand rights, stomping around like the big ghost visiting heaven in a C.S. Lewis tale. When the American Revolution started, the Baptists, more than any other group, rallied to the cause of independence. Demographic studies by denomination have shown that in every war, Baptists always have been more numerous in signing up to fight. “Those fightin’ Baptists” puts together words that feel natural.
And there’s freedom. If anything represents the Baptist way, that way is freedom, especially in matters of the soul. When I was ordained in a country Baptist church, they told me I was a Baptist and therefore I was free to think my own thoughts, interpret the Scripture on my own, and speak whatever I thought God wanted me to say. God, I miss those days.
“If anything represents the Baptist way, that way is freedom, especially in matters of the soul.”
Now, preachers are more likely to leave the ministry because hard-core political members of congregations harass, intimidate, accuse and dismiss preachers for speaking their minds. But the Baptist way always has been freedom.
Isaac Backus and John Leland, a pair of Baptist preachers, helped make possible the First Amendment to the Constitution. Now, Baptists are traitors to that fundamental freedom. Without the freedom-loving Baptists and Congregationalists there might never have been a United States of America.
Baptists have, from time to time, gotten the wrong end of the stick. There’s that awful period prior to 1860 when our pulpits filled with “biblical” defenses of slavery. Baptists in the South, in 1845, insisted that slavery was the will of God and became Southern Baptists. Many Southern Baptists were in that number that attempted to maintain segregation in the nation by opposing the Civil Rights bill. There have been a couple of “sort of” apologies for slavery and segregation, but Baptists are still the least likely to snuggle up with a copy of James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree.
Irony aside, some evangelicals see Queen Elizabeth as a symbol of one more “lost cause.” Whenever evangelicals reach for symbols, there’s always a mess in the kitchen, because all the utensils there are the knives and forks of literalism. Mixing metaphors, missuing symbols comes as natural to some evangelicals as the KKK using the Cross.
The KKK took the Cross, the sign of God’s suffering, sacrificial love and they turned it into a symbol of fear. They put on white hoods, rode into a neighborhood, planted a large wooden cross in somebody’s yard and set fire to it.
“Monarchy has been more responsible for demeaning, enslaving and exterminating others in the name of God than any other form of government.”
Always be suspicious of evangelicals using metaphors. “Queen Elizabeth” represents monarchy, and monarchy has been more responsible for demeaning, enslaving and exterminating others in the name of God than any other form of government. As evangelicals grab for political power, they are as attracted to authoritarian forms of government as Trump to Putin and Orban. There’s something in the baptismal waters these days that has disturbed a once-great faith.
The evangelicals are moving away from Thomas Jefferson’s moving statement: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Now they are more interested in a political power that would make them kings and queens of the rights of others — especially women, African Americans, gays and immigrants.
If you were to read a sermon on the divine right of kings from an earlier century and a sermon from 1845 supporting slavery as God-ordained, the words would be different, but the messages would rhyme. The same irrational insistence on authoritarianism lives in both of these monstrous allegations.
What Baptist doesn’t still remember the insistent voice of Thomas Helwys challenging King James of England: “For men’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king shall not answer for it. Neither may the king be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure. This is made evident to our Lord the King by the Scriptures.”
No wonder Helwys couldn’t stomach King James. After all, King James made clear that: “The State of MONARCHIE is the supremest thing upon earth: For Kings are not only GOD’S Lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon GOD’S throne, but even by GOD himself they are called GODS.”
The idea of divine right of kings has a deep history. That doesn’t give the idea an endorsement from God.
Even now, certain evangelicals wish to have the divine right to rule over others. The current outbreak of Christian nationalism is rooted in previous movements like dominionism. Dominionists believe man must conquer and subdue institutions like government, commerce and media to usher in Jesus’ return. Many believe in a Christian theocracy for government. It’s another version of the divine right of kings.
The divine right of kings, even that of benevolent kings, ends in dehumanization. This is a conversation centuries in the making. David Livingston Smith, in Less than Human, points out that “18th-century Europeans embraced a certain type of dehumanization, but so did the Athenians during the fourth century before Christ, the Germans of the 1930s and ’40s, and the Eipo tribesmen of New Guinea.”
Wherever humans go to spoil the environment in search of riches, the ground cries in blood of the travesty. A Dominican missionary named Bartolome de Las Casas wrote about the Spanish depredations during the colonial period: “They pitilessly destroyed (the Indians) like sheep in a corral.” He also says, “It was a general rule among the Spaniards … to be extraordinarily cruel so that harsh and bitter treatment would prevent Indians from daring to think of themselves as human beings.”
Willie James Jennings, recounting the first auction for the sale of Africans in Portugal, argues that the most important part of the event on Aug. 8, 1444, was the ritual. “This ritual was deeply Christian. Prince Henry, following his deepest Christian instincts, ordered a tithe be given to God through the church. Two Black boys were given, one to the principal church in Lagos and another to the Franciscan convent on Cape Saint Vincent. The prince also claimed that his motivation was ‘the salvation of the soul of the heathen.’”
The royal chronicler Zurara narrates the ritual of slave capture and auction. Surprisingly, he sets the scene in a penitent prayer: “O, thou heavenly Father — who with thy powerful hand, without alternation of thy divine essence, governest all the infinite company of thy Holy City, and controllest all the revolutions of higher worlds, divided into nine spheres, making the duration of ages long or short according to as it pleaseth thee — I pray thee that my tears may not wrong my conscience; for it is not their religion but their humanity that maketh mine to weep in pity for their sufferings. And if the brute animals, with their bestial feelings, by a natural instinct understand the suffering of their own kind, what wouldst thou have my human nature do on seeing before my eyes that miserable company, and remembering that they too are of the generation of the sons of Adam?”
“Monarchy always has robed its horrors in liturgy and language.”
Monarchy always has robed its horrors in liturgy and language. Language always has been the companion of empire. He who controls the metaphors rules the world. All the embroidery of gold and finery never can cover the blood spilled on this planet in the name of the monarchies that sanctioned colonialism, slavery. Never lose sight of the brutal reality that monarchy’s support of colonialism is deeply tied to the problems of racism and oppressive economic practice. There’s some of the ancient evil of Pharaoh in all humanity.
There’s every reason in the world to grieve the death of Queen Elizabeth. Our sympathy and compassion are rightly extended to the royal family. This does not mean we should now have some Christians attempting to use the symbol of royal power to promote their anti-freedom, anti-democratic propensities to lord it over the rest of us.
Christians always have had another voice — a voice that speaks to power, a voice of truth. From Moses speaking truth to power, to Paul speaking truth to Agrippa, to Jesus speaking truth to Caesar, always there is the counter truth that power is not divinely ordained and that monarchy, dictatorship, one-man rule and authoritarian governments are always wrong. As Foucault saw clearly: “The war that is going beneath order and peace, the war that undermines our society and divides it into a binary mode is, basically a race war.”
I grieve with evangelicals the death of Queen Elizabeth, but I also grieve for evangelicals in their delusions about having the right to dictate to the rest of us.
Rodney W. Kennedy is a pastor in New York state and serves as a preaching instructor at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is the author of nine books, including the newly released The Immaculate Mistake, about how evangelical Christians gave birth to Donald Trump.
Womanhood, white Christian nationalism and Queen Elizabeth | Opinion by Greg Garrett