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Review & Giveaway: Red State Christians
You may not know about Angela Denker. My purpose in writing this review is to change that. While I could spend time telling you about her background as a journalist or her present vocation as a Lutheran pastor, what’s captivating is her mindset and her work.
Many have diagnosed the way polarization is devastating our society. We are increasingly divided not only over politics and religion but over the coffee we drink and the cars we drive. Sorting ourselves into separate enclaves comes with a host of negative consequences. By only encountering people who think and act like us, we become more convinced of our righteousness and deprive ourselves of learning from different perspectives. It’s also far easier to demonize those we disagree with when they are abstract villains versus friends we love and respect.
Humility and empathy are part of the cure for our democratic ills. We need to grasp that our own beliefs do not fully define what constitutes truth. And we need to respect others enough to understand how they see the world, even when our perspectives sharply diverge. Regardless of how much you may despise them, every person you meet bears the image of God and is loved by their Creator. Acknowledging that reality is just one of the many ways practicing the Christian faith makes life more difficult (and ultimately more worthwhile).
Angela Denker understands all this. Faced with ideas she finds difficult to comprehend, her first instinct is not to recoil but to engage. That’s why she spent a year traveling the country to meet, interview, and observe evangelical Christians who supported Donald Trump for president in 2016. She documented her journey and recounted their stories in Red State Christians.
In the book’s introduction, she explained the project sought “greater engagement and conversation at a time when America feels pulled to its extremes, when our first national impulse is to block and unfriend anyone who disagrees with us.” She explained to readers that “her hope is that as you read stories of Red State Christians, you will find surprising commonalities among people who seem quite different from one another, whether you are a conservative Christian or not.”
As seen in the book’s pages, she did an admirable job accomplishing her goals. Her sympathetic depictions introduce you to real people whose convictions lead them both to proclaim their faith in Christ and hold fast to opinions on gun control, immigration, abortion, gender roles, and a host of other topics that more progressive Christians would vehemently disown as antithetical to their faith. You know she’s in that progressive camp herself, which makes her generosity of spirit and detailed reporting all the more impressive.
While Denker deserves plaudits for her attempt at bridging persistent divides, the book does take a lamentable turn. The subtitle to the original edition was “Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump.” The newly-released paperback version carries a new subtitle: “A Journey into White Christian Nationalism and the Wreckage it Leaves Behind.” That’s quite a shift. She explained that it arose out of “prayer, listening, and discernment.”
In a new preface, she described enduring right-wing media attacks after the book’s release, of watching the horrors of the U.S. Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, and the pushback she received in her own congregation for speaking out about Christian Nationalism. Unfortunately, all of these dashed her confidence in what was possible.
“When I first wrote this book, I asked liberal readers to open their hearts to understand conservative Christians. I also held out hope that conservative Christians would read this book, appreciate its empathy towards them, and consider its conviction that the White American church’s idolatry of money and power and White Supremacy was taking it further away from Jesus,” she explained. “Four years later, I no longer hold much of that hope.”
The concluding words of the updated edition carry much sorrow: “What I’ve sadly learned is that conversation will not save us. There are those who enter into conversation as they’d enter a boxing ring, armed with jabs and shots and dodges, wearing head guards to block out any sounds from their supposed opponents.” She then added, “From this position, there is little opportunity for understanding and growth.”
There’s no denying her experiences. Whether foolishly or courageously, she undertook a sorely needed effort only to personally and socially see the situation further deteriorate. Nobody can fault Denker for losing hope. She’s probably received more than a few notes from giddy readers saying, “I told you so.”
Yet, I can’t help but look beyond the pessimistic additions. The original dispatches still inspire me that maybe this collective fever can break. God is relentless in sharing grace with wayward sinners. Denker’s tales are of misguided, though sincere, followers of Jesus replacing the gospel’s message with poor substitutes. Like John the baptizer proclaimed long ago, she offers a prophetic message about our individual and collective need for repentance. You can hear that from her directly in last week’s episode of our Dangerous Dogma podcast (and she just launched her own Substack newsletter, I’m Listening).
Convicted by her witness, we’re giving away a signed copy of Red State Christians to a paid subscriber of A Public Witness. We’ll select that winner this week. So, if you’re not already a paid subscriber, upgrade today for your chance to receive an autographed version of this captivating book from Angela Denker.
As a public witness,
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