KTF Press
Shake the Dust
Creating Community as MAGA Changes the Church with Brandi Miller
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Creating Community as MAGA Changes the Church with Brandi Miller

Season 4, Episode 3

This episode, Jonathan and Sy talk with the incredible Brandi Miller about:

-        How faith and churches change when we engage with the political idolatry of the American church

-        The spiritual and political fruit of the MAGA movement

-        The good things people still want and can find in Jesus and Christian community amidst all the nonsense

-        Developing inner lives that can sustain political engagement and community building

-        Plus, Jonathan and Sy discuss some fascinating numbers about the political views and voting patterns of the average Black Christian versus the average overall Democrat

Mentioned in the Episode

-            Our anthology, Keeping the Faith

-            Brandi’s podcast, Reclaiming My Theology

-            Her other show, The Quest Church Podcast

-            The article on Black, Christian political beliefs and voting

Credits

-        Follow KTF Press on Facebook, Instagram, and Threads. Subscribe to get our bonus episodes and other benefits at KTFPress.com.

-        Follow host Jonathan Walton on Facebook Instagram, and Threads.

-        Follow host Sy Hoekstra on Mastodon.

-        Our theme song is “Citizens” by Jon Guerra – listen to the whole song on Spotify.

-        Our podcast art is by Robyn Burgess – follow her and see her other work on Instagram.

-        Transcripts by Joyce Ambale and Sy Hoekstra.

-        Production by Sy Hoekstra and our incredible subscribers

Transcript

[An acoustic guitar softly plays six notes, the first three ascending and the last three descending – F#, B#, E, D#, B – with a keyboard pad playing the note B in the background. Both fade out as Jonathan Walton says “This is a KTF Press podcast.”]

Brandi Miller: God made people in God's own image, and people's job is not to conform into your pastor's version of following Jesus. It's to conform more into the likeness of Jesus as you become more yourself. And so instead of going to a pastor who is essentially saying, “Follow me as I follow Jesus,” you say, “We're following Jesus, and you're gonna discover who you are along the way.”

[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “I need to know there is justice/ That it will roll in abundance/ And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]

Sy Hoekstra: Welcome to Shake the Dust, seeking Jesus, confronting injustice. I'm Sy Hoekstra.

Jonathan Walton: And I'm Jonathan Walton. We have a fantastic show for you today. We are talking all about church and politics with the great Brandi Miller, who many of you know. And we're doing our new segment, Which Tab Is Still Open?, diving deeper into one of the recommendations from our newsletter. This week, a closer look at the political beliefs of the average Black Christian versus the average Democrat. If you think those are pretty much the same, you've got stuff to learn [laughter]. So stay tuned.

Sy Hoekstra: Brandi Miller is the host of the podcast, Reclaiming My Theology. As she calls it, a space to take our theology back from ideas and systems that oppress. She's also now newly the host of the Quest Church Podcast, which is unsurprisingly for Quest Church in Seattle [laughs], where Brandi has the staff position of Chief Storyteller. Before that she was a justice program director with a college ministry working at the intersection of faith, justice, and politics. If you know Brandi, I don't have to convince you that this is a good conversation. If you don't, just, you need to get to know her, so [laughs].

Jonathan Walton: Yes, yes, yes.

Sy Hoekstra: Get ready for this one.

Jonathan Walton: Yeah, we talked to her about her perspective on evangelical politics, how she sees people's faith changing as they engage with the American church's idolatry, and what Jesus has to offer as a vision for us in this political landscape. There is a lot in the episode, I hope you're ready. Her article in our anthology was called, “Left Behind: What American Evangelicalism Has Lost and Needs to Find.” And of course, you can get the anthology at keepingthefaithbook.com.

Sy Hoekstra: And before we get started, just a reminder that we have been telling everyone we need your subscriptions [laughter], please. The best way, if you are into what we do, helping people try and leave the idols of White America and seek Jesus through this media and you want to help us build something that can do that in an effective and far reaching way to people, we need your support. We have been doing this as a side gig for a lot of time. For a long time it's been me and Jonathan in our rooms with laptops trying to make things work, and they have worked [laughs]. But if you wanna see that stuff grow and you wanna see this stuff continue for a long time into the future, we really do need your support.

So go to KTFPress.com, please become a paid subscriber. Get access to all the bonus episodes of this show. Get access to our monthly subscriber chats that we're starting, get access to comments on our posts and support everything we do centering and elevating marginalized voices. If you cannot afford a subscription, like if money's the only barrier, please just write to us, info@ktfpress.com, and we will give you a free or discounted subscription. Whatever you ask for, no questions asked. We want everyone to have access to all the stuff that we're putting out, but if you can afford it, we really, really want the support.

Actually, one of the things that you'll be supporting now is that our newsletter is free. So anybody can go to KTFPress.com, sign up for the free mailing list. You get news about KTF press, you get all kinds of stuff like that, but you also get recommendations from us every week that are things that we think will be helpful in your political education and discipleship. And you will also get things from us that we think are helpful in staying grounded and hopeful in the midst of all of the difficult issues that we are all seeing in our news feeds and in our politics and everywhere else and in our churches. So please, KTFPress.com, become a paid subscriber. Thank you so much in advance.

Jonathan Walton: Yep. Thanks in advance, and here is the interview with Brandi.

[the intro piano music from “Citizens” by Jon Guerra plays briefly and then fades out.]

Jonathan Walton: Brandi, thank you so, so much for joining us on Shake the Dust. We really appreciate it.

Brandi Miller: Of course. Glad to be here. Always glad to get to spend time with you all, so.

How Does Faith Change When We Engage with The Idolatry of the American Church?

Making Our Political Theology Accessible to Everyone

Jonathan Walton: Yeah, I mean, now you wrote this bomb essay. Okay. And so something that you said, which [laughs] is still true in 2024: " The result of the syncretism of American religion, propaganda-based iconography and political power is cultish religiosity centered on Donald Trump as God’s Messiah sent to buttress patriotism, political power, and global dominance. Regardless of his lack of demonstrable Christ-likeness in his politics, it is clear that pandering to his constituents’ desire for Christianized power in the United States has framed him as the president who will ‘bring America back to God.’ This is a trade-off: Christian practice and the way of Jesus for American Christian power and utopianism.” End quote.

Monstrous, amazing text, right? [laughter] Now, after you wrote this, you became a staff member at a church, right?

Brandi Miller: Mm-hmm.

Jonathan Walton: And you have a large community of people following and engaging with you online. And as you try to teach and disciple people out of this syncretism slash nonsense, how have you seen their faith change?

Brandi Miller: Well, one thing I'll say is something that's changed about myself first, because even as I hear back my own words, I can hear how inaccessible they are to a common regular person. Like how many four to six-syllable words can I use to say Donald Trump does not look like Jesus, and that does not matter to most Christians who follow White American religion. That is what I was trying to say, that there is a propaganda based way of doing religion that has indoctrinated a ton of us into a traumatic type of spirituality that we cannot hold. And so I think even a critique of myself in a way that I've changed is trying to ask, how do I take what is a political reality rooted in a current religious moment and strip it down in a way that a regular person can understand?

Because if I am theologizing people out of their own experiences or trying to pull them out of a demonstrably terrible politic and they can't understand where we're going, then that's on me. And so I think that part of my trying to engage with a lot of this stuff has been my own change around how I engage with it so that people who are trying to follow Jesus outside of this kind of syncretism with American nationalism can actually come along.

When People See the Idolatry, Staying in Church Community Is Hard

Brandi Miller: That being said, I think that, I mean, it's been kind of bleak honestly. Like I think that the church that I work at is a church that is people's last stop on their way out of Christianity specifically for these issues. Because they can see the ways that American politics have more say in the lives of people who identify as Christian than Jesus does.

And when that is the case, it is really hard to be a part of a Jesus community. And so what I'm seeing a lot is people trying to figure out, can I actually trust community as I follow Jesus? And a lot of people can't. And it makes sense to me, and they leave. But what ends up happening is that people are like, “Well, I can follow Jesus outside of the church,” and I actually believe that some people can do that. But I think because community is at the core of following Jesus, when you leave in those contexts without any kind of community to buttress your faith at all, it's really, really hard to, with integrity, continue to live out those values, and it's really easy to become increasingly cynical in the media ecosystem that we have.

And so I don't really know what to tell people pastorally, right? Because there are many ways that I could say, “No, no, no, just come back to the church,” but the church isn't trustworthy. And I can say, “No, go on your own,” but with a lack of community, a lot of the faith stuff falls apart because it's meant to be done together in a non-westernized religious context. And so I'm finding that to be a pretty sad and frustrating space to occupy. So I think that'd be my first bid.

What People Can Still Get from Church Community Even after Seeing the Idolatry

Jonathan Walton: I have so many thoughts, but I’m going to let Sy ask his question.

Sy Hoekstra: No, no, no, go for it, Jonathan. We have time.

Jonathan Walton: [laughs] So in the midst of that, this new like re-imagining of what community would look like, independent of the colonized faith, what we call it at KTF, White American folk religion, what I call it in Twelve Lies, are there any fireworks of imagination that have happened that you're like, “Oh, that looks nice. That might be something that is hopeful,” for a group of people who are on this subway stop at the end of the line?

Brandi Miller: Well, I mean, I think that people still want all the good stuff, right? I think people want connection and community and gentleness and kindness and meekness and self-control and the fruit of the spirit, and the beatitudes. I think people still want the Jesus stuff. People want to live in an accessible and just world where people can be fully themselves, where the image of God in me meets the image of God in you, and somehow in that magic we're transformed. I think people still want that, and I think when people come and get a taste of that, it's really, really beautiful. Because what it results in really is friendship and friendship results in systems change and system change results in world change and political change.

Jonathan Walton: Right, right, right.

Brandi Miller: And so, I think that what I've seen happen is a lot of progressive spaces have done one of two things. One, said like, well, the individual transformation doesn't matter. And I'm like, that's actually not true. The health of the individual and the health of the system are always a cycle that are moving over and over and over again. And so we're like, “Well, F individual transformation and let's just like go do the system change.” And I'm like, yeah, but if like people don't change, then they're not gonna be alongside you as you change the systems and not understand why the systems change would be good for them. And I think churches do that too.

Jonathan Walton: Right?

Brandi Miller: So I think a lot of progressive media culture does that on one side, and then the other side uses all of this abstraction to describe what the world looks like when it changes, which is, I don't know, right now sounds like the end of postmodern empire. Like we're in empire collapse right now. And I'm like, “No one knows what that means.” Most normal average people do not know what it means. So they're like, “Let's find creative ways to engage post empire collapse.” And I'm like, can you just say that the United States is participating in all kinds of evil, and when our comeuppance happens, it's going to result in a completely different societal structure that we are not ready for.

And so, what I'm always looking for are glimpses of what could life look like after that? Which I think is what you're asking. And a lot of that looks like people choosing to care for each other well to build more simple lives rather than more complicated ones, to choose work that isn't their entire identity and allowing themselves to explore who they are outside of the kind of enculturation that happens when we don't have a life outside of that. And that is what I've seen change people's politics. It's not like having a fancy activist job. It's seeing how your neighbors are suffering and doing something about that together, or getting a measure on a ballot that changes things for folks.

And so I think that I'm seeing glimpses of people entering into more embodied, simple space that is actually transformative and actually grounding and does a lot to downshift some of our very present anxiety. And I think that's been really good. And so I think there's some structural and systemic things I've seen too, but a lot of the stuff that I'm seeing is people trying to make sense of this abstracted language and say, what does this actually mean for my life in real time, and how can that be good?

The Fruit of the MAGA Movement

Sy Hoekstra: One thread there that kind of leads into my next question is, you said that the idea that your church is the last stop on a lot of people's road out of Christianity, when I was a kid, I would, in evangelical churches, I would hear the sentiment a lot that—I would hear that sentiment a lot actually. I would hear like, “Oh, when you go to a progressive church, that's just, you're just on your way out [laughs], so don't ever go there.” That was the kind of, that was the warning, right?

Brandi Miller: Yeah [laughs].

Sy Hoekstra: But basically, what I hear you saying is the reason that it's their last stop or the reason that they're on their way out is not because of they've lost their way or a lack of integrity, they don't really care about Jesus, whatever. They actually care about Jesus maybe more than the places that they left, and got so hurt as a result that that's why they're on their way out. And that's, I think that's a reality that Jonathan and I see a lot too, and I just wanted to point that out to people. But also this kind of gets a little bit into what my next question was, which I also had a big long quote here, but I'll just summarize [laughs] because Jonathan already read a big long quote [laughter].

Jonathan Walton: I did.

Sy Hoekstra: You basically talked about how there are a lot of masks that evangelicals wear to cover their support for Donald Trump's racism. So it's like the sanctity of life or pro-gun politics or pro-Israel politics. And that it basically that the result of that is you're not talking about the racism of Donald Trump, you're talking to people about those masks and saying, “If you're not willing to wear this mask, then basically you're an enemy to be negated because you're a baby killer, or you're an anti-Semite” or whatever it is. But I wonder if four years on having seen so much more of the fruit of the MAGA movement, if there's anything that you would kind of add on to this description of how it operates.

Shifting Acceptable Political Discourse Far to the Right

Brandi Miller: Yeah. So one of the main things I think about right now is the Overton window. So for folks who aren't familiar with the Overton window, it's essentially the range of acceptable political thought from left to right. And so there is an acceptable range of political thought, I'm doing some writing and thinking about this right now, but that what is considered far on the left and far on the right changes as that window shifts farther left or right. And what we've seen in the last four years is the Overton window shift so far to the right, that stuff that would've been considered so extreme, so outlandish, so problematic as to not be acceptable is now mainstream.

So when George Santos can have an entire political campaign and multiple years of being in the public spotlight, and everyone be like, “Ah, this is just kind of like normal run-of-the-mill American politics,” that's wild.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah.

Jonathan Walton: Yeah, yeah [laughs].

Brandi Miller: When Donald Trump can have dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens of criminal, like of criminal… or like he has so many, so many things that are happening right now at felony levels, and we're like, “Oh, I mean, he's just like working through it.” That is so wild to me, that the Overton window has shifted so far to the right that Marjorie Taylor Greene can do every bit of chaos that she's doing. That Mike Johnson is considered a normal speaker of the house.

Jonathan Walton: That is, ugh… [laughs].

Brandi Miller: We’ve moved so far right, that now what used to be considered moderate is considered hyper progressive. That being like, hey, like… maybe we should give people… that we've actually reversed, like with Roe v. Wade, we've reversed rights for people and we consider that normal. Like the Overton window has shifted so aggressively to the right that it is so, so damaging. And that has just continued over the last four years.

Shifting Acceptable Religious Thought Far to the Right

Brandi Miller: The thing I am observing and doing a lot of work around right now is what does it mean when the Christian range of political or range of acceptable religious thought also shifts to the right? And so I've been asking the question, what is that?

What we're talking about really is orthodoxy. We're saying there is this range of historically acceptable Christian thought, but when that gets chain linked to the Overton window and shifted to the right, the way of Jesus that gets to be considered left or moderate or something becomes completely unidentifiable to most Christians. And when that happens, the only response that we have in those super conservative spaces or that have moved to the right that much is to parrot political actors and call it holiness. And that is what I'm most concerned with and what I'm seeing most right now, is that people can't even have conversations because of those things like, yeah, you're an anti-Semite or you're a baby killer, or whatever.

You can't even have the conversations about why that ideology became important to someone, because even questioning the ideology itself or that indoctrination feels like it's a deviation from holiness because your religion is so connected to nationalism that to separate those feels like sin.

Sy Hoekstra: It's almost, it's like the way that you might get a question shut down in church because if of something you're asking about some orthodox doctrine or whatever, like expressing a doubt of some kind.

Brandi Miller: Yep.

Sy Hoekstra: You're saying that's not just religious anymore basically. That is political. Or the politic—because the religious and the political are so closely linked that your political doubt is religious doubt almost.

Brandi Miller: Yes. Yes, most certainly. Connected to God's connection to a nation.

What Is the Good That All the Idolatry Is Overshadowing?

Jonathan Walton: Yeah, I got in this conversation with a… Sometimes I opt into the online debates to get fodder for more posts [Sy laughs]. And I asked someone what they meant by Orthodox. They were saying “Israel is God's nation. The United States should support Israel because we are also God's nation, we're mirror countries of each other. This is an orthodox view.”

Sy Hoekstra: Whoa.

Jonathan Walton: They had obviously no, like no image or thought about the non-evangelical 200-year-old, 50-year-old, 25-year, 2-year-old church that they were in [laughter], you know? But all that to say, as you talk about Jesus on your show, talk about Jesus in your writing, talk about Jesus in your church, talk about Jesus with us. We're constantly trying to get people to look at the Jesus of Nazareth and not the Jesus of nationalism. Right? What would you say in this era, like with the church and politics, what value do you think Jesus's teaching, Jesus's witness, his life, death, resurrection has to offer us this election season? And what is the good that all the syncretism that we're talking about is just completely overshadowing?

Following Jesus Helps us Find Ourselves and Resist Structures That Demand Conformity

Brandi Miller: Well, right. The Jesus story is a continuation of the Hebrew story, and that story is centered on a God who cares about righteousness. And righteousness is not adherence to political doctrine, it's right living in harmony and wellbeing with other folks. Dr. Randy Woodley talks about shalom in the community of creation and that you know that the world is well when the marginalized say so. And the Hebrew scriptures follow that journey really, really closely. Even if the people fail in it, God's calls stay consistent to make sure that the orphan and the widow and the foreigner are cared for. And that we know that a whole community is healthy and well and living rightly when that's the case. And Jesus lives out that same story.

And part of that story requires that people are given the chance to be themselves. That if we believe in this kind of, there's a lot that I do not believe about how we extrapolate Genesis one and two, but I think one of the core things is that like God made people in God's own image, and people's job is not to conform into your pastor's version of following Jesus. It's to conform more into the likeness of Jesus as you become more yourself. And so instead of going to a pastor and essentially saying, ‘Follow me as I follow Jesus,” we say, “We're following Jesus and you're gonna discover who you are along the way.” And that is what Jesus does with his disciples. Right? Jesus invites a diverse group of wackadoodle dudes to come and be themselves [Jonathan laughs]. And they change a lot. They change a lot, but they don't change away from themselves, which I think we see in the story of Peter, right? Peter's a fisherman at the beginning and he's a fisherman at the end. And the way in which he's a fisherman is really different, but he is still at his core in some ways who he is. And I know there's some conflation with vocational and whatever, but there are ways that people are, that people who were zealous in the beginning are zealous, but in a more refined way at the end. People who were engaging with the people in a particular way are doing so less judgmentally at the end.

So I think there's a way that there is an invitation to become fully ourselves that we do not get in church spaces because we're told that sanctification or that honoring the death and resurrection of Jesus is to become less like yourself. It's to do this… I think we just take the John the Baptizer quote, “more of him, less of me” out of context when you're like… y’all, the reason he's saying that is because they think he's the Messiah and he needs to make some stuff really clear. He's not saying, I need to become less of myself. John needs to become more and more of himself in order to do what Jesus has invited him to do.

Jonathan Walton: Yes.

Brandi Miller: And so, because in the church we often say, let's collapse our identities into one social, political and religious identity, people lose themselves. And so I think part of the invitation and the good that we offer to people is that you get to be yourself. And that justice work, this other side of the coin in the Hebrews text around justice and righteousness is making things right when righteousness, when people's ability to live fully as themselves to live original blessing is not in place. And so I think that there's an invitation in the way of Jesus to live fully as ourselves and to make right the spaces where people are not offered space to live the life that is abundant.

Jonathan Walton: May it be so in churches and spaces this fall [laughs] where that could be extrapolated. And as you were talking, I was just like, yeah, “God loves you,” should not be a controversial statement.

Brandi Miller: Right…. Woof…

Jonathan Walton: Right? Like it shouldn’t [laughs].

How Has Brandi’s Calling Changed around Political Engagement?

Sy Hoekstra: Alright. So, on your show, you're often talking about theology and culture. You obviously have a ton to say about politics though, and I've heard you say on the show you'd be kind of more interested in getting into that somehow at some point in your life. And you took a break from the show recently. Basically, you're in the middle of a season on purity culture, and you kind of took a break from the show because you felt some tension between talking about theology and church culture and purity culture with everything that's going on in Gaza. And I'm just wondering how the last four years have affected your sense of calling or your desire to engage politically from someone who has largely played a pastoral role.

Helping People Develop Inner Lives that Can Sustain Political Engagement

Brandi Miller: Yeah. Some of what I'm learning is that regardless of whether there's an urgent political moment that people are still entering into these spaces in a lot of different ways. And so me stopping the podcast because of everything happening in Gaza and trying to figure out how to respond wasn't actually as helpful as I had hoped it would've been. It didn't make more space for people, it just disengaged people from one of the only spaces that they're engaging with religion at all. And so pastorally, I think what I ended up doing was leaving people behind. And I didn't, I think I was so at that point unsure of how to respond to what was happening in Gaza and didn't know what my role would be, and felt like as a person who's, it's a little bit like one of my Jewish friends was talking about the parable of the virgins and the oil.

Some of us just showed up really late to this party, and we know so little, we've showed up so late, that it feels pretty impossible to show up effectively. And so I was trying to be responsible with what I did and did not know about Israel, Palestine, Gaza, all of that. Instead of just saying what I could unequivocally say, which is that violence in all forms, particularly genocide, is an egregious violence against God, against people and needs to be dealt with aggressively. Like, I can say that without any… we can say, “Free Palestine,” because that is an easy thing to, it's pretty easy for me to say, to agree with that idea. What I did though in being like, oh, purity culture isn't connected, was to say that people have on-ramps to these kinds of justice expressions that are far away.

And maybe it's like [laughs], I hate to use this metaphor, but like, or parallelism rather. Yeah, I hate to use this parallelism, but when I think about how QAnon feeds into conspiracy theories, I think there's a lot of ways that progressive Christianity can feed people toward better, more just politics. And so when I take away the on-ramps, I take away people's opportunity to enter into a more just spirituality. And so me choosing to not talk about sex for four weeks or whatever, for me it felt like it was a solidarity practice, but it really was just cutting off people from a community that they cared about. So I think I would say that that was like one thing that I'm learning.

And that is, and I think that what I'm trying to figure out is, as a person who primarily plays a pastoral function, what does it mean to invite people into a discipleship that can hold the politics that they're engaging with? Because one of the things I learned from 2016 was that many of us had a ton of passion, a ton of anxiety, a lack of knowledge, and we weren't able to hold onto the activism at the level that we held it during Black Lives Matter. We just weren't able to do it. And so, I think I'm trying to ask how do you build people's inner lives and community orientations in such a way that we can actually hold the political movements that we want to see happen?

So how do we become community organizers locally and nationally when our inner lives aren't able to hold even the basics of our day-to-day lives? And that's not a knock on anyone, it's just a, we don't know how to cope. We don't know how to be in therapy. We don't know how to ask good questions about our lives. And so I think that I'm still asking the question, what is the role of the pastoral in the political, when most of my examples of the pastoral and the political is just telling people how to vote once every four years indirectly so you don't lose your funding, and nothing else otherwise.

Helping People Learn and Grow through Curiosity and Questioning Assumptions

Jonathan Walton: Yeah. I care a little bit about that, the inner life, peace [laughter]. I write, you know, I have a whole thing about that. So as you're talking, something I feel like I've run into is, I had a conversation with someone and they said to me, “The church discriminates against queer people? What do you mean?” And I looked at them and I was like, they were not being facetious, they were not joking. And like, and so I watched this train wreck happen in her brain, right? Where it's like, so then I just said, “You know, let's just talk about conversion therapy.” I said, “Let's just start there…” UN resolutions that say this is to—like all she, you could see it on her face she's like, like she did not know.

And so I watched it happen and couldn't stop it. So Brandi, when someone is sitting across from you and you see this lack of knowledge and the capacity to harm. Right? So there's this lack of knowledge, but they're gonna say the homophobic terrible thing whenever somebody asks them, and you are the pastoral person in residence with them. What habits, practices, tactics do you employ not to destroy them, like intellectually? How do you not reduce them to their ideas? How do you love them and meet them where they're at so that they will be at church next week? They will be, like all those kinds of things, to stay on the journey with you.

Brandi Miller: Yeah.

Sy Hoekstra: And stop hurting people.

Jonathan Walton: And yeah, and stop hurting people.

Brandi Miller: Yes. Yeah, I mean, you become a master of caveats, and that's the easy thing. The hard thing is to believe that people are trying their best. I think that most people, and I'm really learning this and trying to learn this in the best ways I can right now, is that if you're not just like on the internet where I know people are not trying to do their best, they're just being mean, like in real life with people who are sitting, who you don't have to question whether they're a bot or not, people are trying to do the best they can and the best they can might be terrible. And that's okay, because when people are trying to do the best that they can, and when people are given the benefit of a doubt, they are more open to engaging with things that are embarrassing or challenging or confusing.

And so a lot of what I do is ask questions in the context of my own experience. I'll say, “Hey, when you say that, that hits me in a really strange way, and it's kind of hurtful and I can see where this would be hurtful for somebody else. Can you help me understand where that idea came from for you and how that became so important to you?” Or like, “I can hear that this is really important to you, can you help me understand why?” Because if I can understand that why, I can create a human connection that allows me to walk someone through, like, “Yo, when you say to me as like a partnered queer person, that my future marriage is not God's best, when did that become so important to you? When did thinking about like queerness in this way become so important to you?

And how big, like on a scale of one to 10, how big does that feel for you? And what would that feel like for you if I said something back to you like, ‘You’re heteronormative marriage where it looks like your wife doesn't really like you that much, you're kind of a jerk, isn't God’s best for you,’ what would you say back to me?” Like what a strange thing for you to say to me. And so I think I do a lot of assuming that people are doing their best and asking a lot of origins questions. Because I think that most of evangelicalism is more concerned with indoctrination than it is with development and discipleship. And when you can expose the indoctrination, it opens up a lot of space for questions. Because I know a lot of people that have said to me things like, “I have never thought about that before,” or, “I have never considered that before.”

Or, “It came from this book.” And I'm like, “Well, have you read these other books?” Or they're like, “It came from this verse.” And I'm like, “Well, have you read the equivalent verse in the gospels that exists?” And the answer usually is no. The people have not done their due diligence to come to their own ideas. They have parroted because parroting in the church gives you survival, and I understand that. I understand that being able to parrot ideas gives you belonging. And so to fall outside of that, to ask questions outside of that risks your belonging. And so I try to create spaces where people's stories can belong, even if their ideologies need to be questioned and engaged with differently. So I think that's the main way that I engage with that pastorally at least.

Jonathan Walton: That is amazing. So being able to sit down with someone, see someone across difference in a way, and turn to wonder, awe and curiosity as opposed to prejudice, judgment, and condemnation. That’s great. Amen.

Where Listeners Can Find Brandi

Sy Hoekstra: Can you tell our listeners where they can find you or your work on the internets.

Jonathan Walton: Or in real life. Or in real life [laughs].

Brandi Miller: Yes. Yeah, you can… if you're not being a weirdo, you can find my church, Quest Church out in Seattle [laughter]. We're doing the best we can out there. I work there, I'm a regular person out there, so don't be a weirdo [laughter].

Brandi Miller: But I'm online in several spaces. Primarily, I have a podcast called Reclaiming My Theology, that takes a topic.

Jonathan Walton: Five stars, five stars, five stars.

Brandi Miller: [laughs, then says very quickly] If you'd give it, it takes 30 seconds to do [laughter]. Yeah, that is exploring different types of problematic or oppressive ideologies and how they wiggle their way into our interpretation of the Bible and Christian culture and how they create Christian culture. We're working through a series on purity culture now that feels like it's never ending, but it’s like a perfect intersection of a lot of the other forms of oppression that we've talked about. So we'll be in that for a little bit. And then I just launched a podcast with Quest Church, talking to people about formation practices that make them feel at home with God. And so if you're looking for more of a formational storytelling bend, I'm interviewing folks around those practices right now, as well as the stuff that I'm already doing on the podcast that takes a little bit more of an academic theological bend.

Sy Hoekstra: What's the name of that one?

Brandi Miller: The Quest Church Podcast.

Sy Hoekstra: Oh, okay, got it [laughter]. Okay, cool.

Jonathan Walton: Cool, cool. Nice.

Sy Hoekstra: Thank you so much for that. If you go and listen to Reclaiming my Theology, you'll hear some familiar voices like Jonathan Walton and Tamice Spencer-Helms and other people that you know. Brandi Miller, this has been fantastic. I'm so happy you joined us [the sound of clapping]. Jonathan's actually applauding, I don't think that’s ever happened before [laughter].

Jonathan Walton: She's great. She's great. Lovely.

Sy Hoekstra: Thank you so much for being with us.

Brandi Miller: Yeah, delighted to be with you all. Thank you so much for the opportunity.

[the intro piano music from “Citizens” by Jon Guerra plays briefly and then fades out.]

Sy and Jonathan’s Thoughts about Christian Community and Communicating Theology Well after the Interview

Sy Hoekstra: Okay, Jonathan, that was fantastic [laughs].

Jonathan Walton: It really, really was.

Sy Hoekstra: What are you thinking coming out of that? Where are your thoughts at?

Jonathan Walton: Yeah, so I'm actually stuck on the first thing that she said.

Sy Hoekstra: Oh, okay. After that you blacked out and then you don't remember the rest of the interview.

Jonathan Walton: [laughs] Well, I remember it. But one of the… I thought to myself, you know, I've changed a lot in the last four years since we wrote the essays that we did and since KTF started and all those things. And so it really pushed me to reflect. And when I was in journalism school with Peter Beinart, who is an amazing writer and commentator, especially right now.

Sy Hoekstra: Who you’ve mentioned before, yeah.

Jonathan Walton: Yes. Yeah, I mean, his work is just amazing. But something that he said in class was, you need to write for the language of the bleachers, like between a fifth and eighth grade level. And that is not a knock on people who are not educated or didn't go to university. It's more like we don't talk like this on a regular basis.

Sy Hoekstra: You mean you don't talk the way that highfalutin people write [laughs]?

Jonathan Walton: Exactly.

Sy Hoekstra: Gotcha.

Jonathan Walton: Right. And it was one of those things where I was like, huh, I wonder, would I say things the same way now? Or how can I say them so that people leave saying, “Oh, I know what he meant and I understood what he said,” versus, “I don't know what half those words meant, but it sounded really good [Sy laughs]. Thinking of reflecting on how Jesus spoke to people and who he called and how he called them was something that I just, just struck me about that response. And then obviously we also threw out some big words, some large terms and all those things. And one of the things that stood out to me that I didn't know about was the Overton window that she said. I'd never heard of that before.

Sy Hoekstra: Oh, okay.

Jonathan Walton: Yeah, but what has become normal. Having a term for that's just helpful. For me, like [laughs] I think I've mentioned this before, is that when I feel anxious, when I feel worried, when I feel concerned, one of the places that I go is information. I need to put it in a box. I need to have words to just feel grounded to engage. And now I can just say, “Oh, the Overton window has shifted [laughs], and that helps me have a place to stand [laughs] in a lot of our discourse and gives me more space to do what she talked about at the end, which is like, can I love people across difference? And when I have cohesive frameworks and information especially like in context, and I can do that more effectively. So I learned a lot. I was challenged and I'm really grateful.

Sy Hoekstra: I think actually the thing that stuck out to me, kind of, I end up in a similar place, even though I'm coming from a totally different angle. Which is that the thing that she articulated about the how political doubt becomes religious doubt in like our current, kind of nationalist Christian nationalist landscape was really interesting to me. Because you hear it, so it's such a common thing if you think about it, right?

Jonathan Walton: Yes.

Sy Hoekstra: At least I've heard so many times people just be like, how can a Christian possibly vote for the Democrats? Right? Or asking like doubting Republican orthodoxy is actually grounds to doubt the foundations of your faith or the seriousness of your faith, when Jesus had absolutely no issue having people who he called disciples who were wildly politically different from each other.

Jonathan Walton: Right.

Sy Hoekstra: So when she talks about wanting to talk across difference like that, or wanting to how Jesus helps people become a better version of themselves, he was doing that with people who were like the Roman empire is fine and I work for them and I get rich off of them and that's great, like Matthew [laughs]. Versus the Roman Empire is the enemy and we need to throw them off via murder and other forms of violence, AKA Simon the Zealot. And like they're just sitting together with Jesus. They're both followers of Jesus, no question.

Jonathan Walton: Exactly, right.

Sy Hoekstra: And they have opposite political views. And one of them is like really earnestly advocating and killing a bunch of people [laughs]. Right?

Jonathan Walton: Right.

Sy Hoekstra: And that is like, it's just a, I don't know, in the context of some of the church context where I grew up or some of the… like it's just a lot of the conservative Christian context now that is unthinkable, but it is also the absolute norm for Jesus [laughs].

Sy Hoekstra: So that gives you a sense of when you're a place where your church culture is off, when something that is unthinkable is the norm for Jesus [laughs].

Jonathan Walton: Exactly. Exactly. That is what I hope we would say when someone says, what is syncretism?

Sy Hoekstra: So syncretism is another one of those big words. I'm not sure we defined it right. Syncretism is a word that a lot of White westerners use for basically poor Black and Brown people, and sometimes Asian people.

Jonathan Walton: Right.

Sy Hoekstra: When it's like, oh, you are a Christian, sure, but you're also practicing this native thing. Like my wife's family's from Haiti, right? You are Catholic, but you're also doing this voodoo stuff. And so that's not real pure Christianity, that's syncretism. And now…

Jonathan Walton: Exactly.

Sy Hoekstra: You were saying Jonathan, sorry, that was… go ahead.

Jonathan Walton: No, but like, so Brandi's just turn of phrase when she said, oh, when someone's political foundations are shaken, their religious foundations are shaken. That is syncretism.

Sy Hoekstra: Right, yes. Exactly.

Jonathan Walton: And so putting it in that language just makes it more effective, more practical, more illuminating for people as opposed to saying, “Well, you're political and social and religious ideologies are enmeshed with one another, but creating an agenda…” It's like, we don't need to talk like that [laughs]. You know what I mean? We can just say it plainly and things God can meet us in that.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah.

Which Tab Is Still Open?: Average Black, Christian Voting Patterns and Political Beliefs vs. the Average Democrat

Jonathan Walton: Alright Sy. Let's jump into our latest segment that we introduced during the bonus episodes, and now we're bringing to you on our wider feed, is Which Tab Is Still Open. Out of all the highlights we've sent around lately in our newsletter, what's still standing out to us? And so, Sy, this one's yours. So go for it.

Sy Hoekstra: This one, yeah, this one is mine. It was an article that I had in the newsletter recently by a professor named Ryan Burge, who is a political science professor and a statistician. He's basically one of the go-to experts in America for a lot of media and other sources for data about religion and politics, like surveys, pollsters, et cetera. So he's a professor at Eastern Illinois University, but he's also an American Baptist Convention pastor [laughs]. So this article is about the average Black church attending Protestant. In a lot of these polls and surveys they ask people how often do you go to church, as a measure of your religiosity. Just like an estimate basically, of your religiosity.

So he says for the average Black regular church attending Christian, what is the kind of differences in their political beliefs between just the average overall Democrat? And we talked about this in one of our, in the March bonus episode, that for like a lot of people don't realize the distance between… a lot of White people don't realize the distance between [laughs] average Black voter and average Democrat voter, because Black people always vote Democrat, right?

Jonathan Walton: Right.

Sy Hoekstra: So if you're not kind of familiar with the culture or the politics, then those, the Black people and Democrats can be synonymous. So basically what he said was the average Black church goer is like a self-identified moderate. Is like almost in the middle of the political spectrum. Is more moderate than the average Democrat on abortion, immigration, policing, all kinds of stuff. Not conservative, but more moderate than the average Democrat. And they've become more moderate in recent years. And so there's an actual kind of statistically significant shift toward the right, but voting hasn't changed at all. Or there's been very little change in actual votes.

And then the other interesting thing that he pointed out was the average… they do these polls where they have people rank themselves on a political spectrum from one to seven. So one is as liberal as it gets, and seven is as conservative as it gets. And then they also have people rank the Democrat and Republican parties for where they are, like the party overall. And in the last 10 years, the average Black church going Protestant assessment of where the Republican party is, has not changed at all, like in any significant way.

Jonathan Walton: Yes.

Sy Hoekstra: So meaning when Donald Trump is the standard bearer, no significant difference in how radical or how right the Republican party is than when Mitt Romney was the standard bearer [laughs], right?

Jonathan Walton: Yep.

Sy Hoekstra: So you're saying that, “Yep. I get it, totally.” I think to a lot of people, that is some pretty stunning news [laughs].

Jonathan Walton: Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

Sy Hoekstra: So, I don't know, the interesting points to me are just how our assumptions are like about voters in general are based on how White people vote, because White people vote very ideologically and Black people just don't. Like I've seen other polling data where it's like, basically Black people self-identify as liberals, moderates, or conservatives at roughly the same rate as White people. They just don't, Black people just don't vote ideologically. That's the difference, right? And then yeah, that thing where there's no difference between Trump and Mitt Romney is so interesting [laughter].

Not no difference between those two men, but no difference between the parties under those two men. And by the way, the rest of the Democrat, the average Democrat thinks the Republican party is far more to the right than it was 10 years ago.

Jonathan Walton: Yes.

Sy Hoekstra: So, basically what I'm saying is Black people knew the whole time [laughs], Black people knew what was up with the Republicans, and the assessment hasn't changed. I don't know, that to me is just a thing that people need to know. I don't know. When people say like, you hear sometimes from progressive people, “Listen to Black people, listen to Black women.” It just gets thrown out there, is like a, what I think to some White people probably sounds like just this weird ideological platitude that people are saying. But this is the reason [laughs]. The reason is marginalized folks in a system understand the system better than people in the dominant positions of the system, and have a, I don't know, have a kind of a clearer sense of where things are, have a more practical view of how to handle themselves in that system, which I think is the non-ideological voting. And yeah, all that stuff is really interesting to me. And I'm wondering what your thoughts were since this was my recommendation.

Jonathan Walton: Yeah. I mean, I've… there are so many things that come to mind as we're talking about this. One thing is that the Overton window, as Brandi mentioned [laughs], it has shifted for some people, right? When we talk, when Randy Woodley talks about how people in the United States do not have the luxury of saying, “Oh, it doesn't matter who's president.” Marginalized people know it matters who is sitting in a political position. If it doesn't matter to you, then that creates a different set of problems. And I think another thing I think we have to remember is that [roughly] 70 percent of the voting population in the United States is White. The people who are registered, the people who turn out.

And so there's, I think just there's a lot of context to layer over top of this that can obscure just the basic reality of the emancipation and the passing and Civil Rights Act. And the reality is, Black people voted for Lincoln because he wanted to stop slavery. Lincoln was a White supremacist. Lincoln literally argued in his presidential debate in Illinois that he did not believe that Black people were equal and could never be cultured to be with White people.

Sy Hoekstra: And therefore we should send them back to Africa.

Jonathan Walton: And therefore we should send them back to Africa. That is Lincoln. But why did we vote for him when we finally got the chance to vote, kind of with… [laughs]? It's because he said he did not want to have slavery exist anymore. Now, fast forward to the Civil Rights Act. Why did we all turn into Democrats? Because they said, “Hey, you should actually have civil rights.” Not equal rights, not full rights, not decriminalization. Not all, just some basic civil rights. Bam, now we're in that camp. This has always, always, always been about survival. The statistics are great. You could do the analysis, there's wonderful data that comes out. But at the end of the day, I'm gonna listen to my mama [Sy laughs] and say, “Oh yeah.”

It would be preposterous of her to vote for anyone who is for the active destruction of her community. And the reality is, most of the time that is Republicans. Now, there are destructive policies against Black people that come from the Democrats. The difference is, just like we see here, the difference is this thing called White supremacy. One party says White supremacy exists. The other party says it doesn't. One party says White supremacy exists and desires in rhetoric to make it stop, even though they pass policies that continue to perpetuate it. The reality is though, there are more Black people, more people of color, more women in the party that has a donkey and not an elephant. And therefore, we will ride donkeys [laughs].

And so that does not mean that we are for… we, when I say Black Christians, are for anything that the Overton window to use Brandi’s saying again, has expanded. So Black folks' views on abortion, Black folks' views on war, Black folks' views on policing. Again, we like to be safe too. And unfortunately, a lot of times in communities of color that equals calling the police. That equals saying, “Hey, can someone help me?” Right? In Baltimore, in Chicago, in over policed parts of New York City, Black folks still have to call the police. Like it's not some utopia where we're just gonna let everything go. That doesn't exist in our communities.

We still actually desire for the systems to work for us. We do not desire the system to destroy us. And so we use the systems and desire to make them better. And so these numbers I think are exceptionally informative at illuminating the, or illuminating the reality that many people in marginalized communities already know. But hopefully there'll be a common place for us to talk about it. Now there is a resistance to academia and research in progressive and conservative circles [laughs]. And so someone may say, “Well, that's just not true because it's not true for me.” But hopefully it will create some common ground to be able to have a cohesive conversation about Black folks, the Democratic party and progressive and conservative politics.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah, that's what we're trying to do. Political education, man [laughs].

Outro and Outtake

Jonathan Walton: Lord have mercy.

Sy Hoekstra: Lord have mercy. This has been a great conversation. We were so happy that Brandi came on. And thanks for talking as always, Jonathan.

Jonathan Walton: Yes.

Sy Hoekstra: We will see you all in a couple of weeks. Our theme song is Citizens by Jon Guerra. Our podcast Art is by Robin Burgess, transcripts by Joyce Ambale. And as I'm gonna start saying a lot, I'm stealing this from Seth at Can I Say This at Church? This show is produced by our subscribers [laughs]. Thank you all and we will see you all in two weeks.

[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “I need to know there is justice/ That it will roll in abundance/ And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]

Jonathan Walton: And he loves wackadoodles, I'm gonna use that one. Loves wackadoodles [laughs].

Sy Hoekstra: That I have never heard. Is that because I'm not from the south that I've never heard that? Was that… [laughter]?

Jonathan Walton: Well, no. Brandi's not from the south either.

Brandi Miller: Also, you know I'm big up north here. I'm a Pacific Northwest girly full on. There's no doubt there [Jonathan laughs].

Sy Hoekstra: Is that a Brandi quote? Is that from you?

Brandi Miller: No, I'm certain that come from somewhere.

Sy Hoekstra: I'm just lost. It's fine.

Brandi Miller: Maybe it's Black. Maybe that's what it is.

Sy Hoekstra: Well, obviously if I am the confused one and you're not, that's my first thought as well. So [laughter], there's always, there's just like, I'm so used to that point in conversations at this point in my life where I'm like, “Oooooh it's because I'm White” [laughter].

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Shake the Dust
Seeking Jesus, confronting injustice–Shake the Dust features candid interviews and informed discussions that guide us as we resist the idols of America.