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Blood, Fire, Flag, and Monument: An Artist Examines White Supremacy in Christian Nationalism

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

A guest blog post by Benjamin Winans. What you'll find in this piece:


• The Artist—a look at the author's Christian background and deconversion

• The History—how Christianity was used to enslave people in the United States and the racist origins of the Southern Baptist Convention

• The Art—how the author reckoned with his past through sculpture


Deconstruction Self-Portrait | by Benjamin Winans

If you were to enter my mind, I like to imagine that you would enter a vast sanctuary filled with the broken icons and artifacts of my upbringing in southern evangelical Christianity. I would welcome you and offer you a sort of communion. It would not be the sacred ritual of the Church, sharing the symbolic body and blood of Christ in remembrance of the “gift” of his death and supposed resurrection, but the definition of communion: the sharing and exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings. This is done in order to create and strengthen community, and to open conversation. I want you to know me so that I may also know you, and together we may pursue the truth of understanding.


I recently completed my master’s thesis where I propose my art practice as communion. The body of work I presented then I now present to you—sculptures and installations made from repurposed, destroyed, and corrupted church pews, remade American and Christian flags—proposing a way of interrogating belief and questioning symbols. I want to share with you my doubts and my loss of faith. The works are artifacts of a fight within me, an attempt to answer a question: “When we examine the systems of belief that define us, what is exposed?”


I do not answer it, but the pursuit is so worth it.


Ex Americus | by Benjamin Winans

The Artist


What can art teach us?


It is a simple question, but one that I believe has been lost in the popular fixation on the commodity aspect: big-name artists generating massive wealth; gallerists and museums working in tandem to generate value in the arts economy; artists themselves who are caught in the middle, fighting to eke out some sort of living while maintaining a certain integrity to their voice and practice. All of this is forced against the viewers themselves, attempting to balance what they are told is “good art” while also trying to find meaning in any particular work. Try to ignore the maelstrom of contemporary art. Instead, consider the powerful moment when viewer and artwork come together.


Quiet.


From the silence, material speaks.


This is the story of testing my upbringing, and what I learned about a belief that once defined me, one that saw my role as an accommodator of the American quadripartite cord: Christian nationalism along with white supremacy, patriarchy, and individualist capitalism. [Click to Tweet!] We now very clearly see this quadripartite strangling democracy and threatening to tear the country apart.


I write these words as an artist with a story to tell. I hope you will listen.


I was raised in a Southern Baptist family. My dad was a minister of music in churches in North and South Carolina from when I was born until I was 10, when my family left America to follow in my maternal grandparents’ footsteps to become missionaries: first to the island nation of Mauritius, and then to Japan where I lived until my high school graduation from the Christian Academy in Japan (CAJ) in a suburb of Tokyo. It is important to know that when my family became missionaries, I mean my whole family. My two younger sisters and I needed to be “called” just as much as my parents, and so we served as soldiers for Christ in those nations, sharing the gospel of Jesus.


I loved being a missionary kid (MK). I loved the experience of living in another country. I loved that my dad wasn’t ruled by the church as he had been for my entire upbringing, working himself to the bone and neglecting his family as he gave everything to the church. Though I enjoyed my life outside of America, I bought into the idea of American exceptionalism. The idea that we as Americans had been blessed by God with freedom, and that we had the responsibility of that blessing to share freedom with the world was the perfect mirror to my own Christian worldview where the call to share the freedom found in Christ with the world was the ultimate expression of faith.


Then my deconversion began.


1984 | Art by Germano Facetti

It was 2006, the last semester of my senior year in high school. Our class read George Orwell’s classic novel 1984, and I saw in Big Brother the God I had been conditioned to believe in: manipulative, all-controlling, all-powerful. The whole class talked about it. Our Christian teacher expressed that her faith was shaken. Class discussions became about how we could reconcile free will with a God who predestined and controlled everything. “It is not for us to understand. We need to have faith”. This seemed to be the consensus, and our class for the most part was happy.


I was not.


From that moment, it was as if my mind had been dealing with a benign mass that grew suddenly, becoming malignant. I fought hard. I read everything I could get my hands on. My dad, in an attempt to help me reconcile my doubt, took me to see the late Christopher Hitchens debate Frank Turek, author of I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. The college-aged youth group my dad took was left convinced of the truth of the Scriptures, marveling at how Hitchens had been pushed.


Were we watching the same debate?


It was then that I understood debate was pointless in convincing others of a point. I was left with more ammunition for my doubting mind and more focused questions. My deconversion was a refutation of a worldview that suddenly made no sense when I stopped to focus on it.


The History


Prior to 2017, I had never included my struggle with faith in my work, though I’ve been an artist for as long as I can remember. It was easier to talk about “bigger”—read, more ambiguous—concepts. So I made work about America’s warmongering and about the American culture that I thought had become foreign to me after spending my formative years away.

Council of Nicaea 325 | Fresco in Capella Sistina, Vatican

Four years ago, however, triggered by the evangelical embrace of Donald Trump that led to his inauguration into the White House, I began to dig into my own past, fueling a piece called Historical Weight on an Artist Trapped in a Paradox. It was an archive where I detail my history, tracing an ideological lineage that went back to Roman Emperor Constantine the First when he called the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E. This council codified Christian orthodoxy, linking Christianity and the Roman Empire together in an alliance that has immense repercussions today.


A faith with binary views on good and evil, light and dark, joined with the most powerful empire in the world at the time.


Christianity was not aligned with power until the 300s CE. It found itself on the outskirts, tolerated by leaders in the best of times but mostly persecuted. When it officially became the Roman Church, it was appropriated to declare war, label outgroups (non-Christians, heathens, pagans), and, most importantly, spread via colonization. This became an integral part of Christianity. To save the unbeliever from their own sinful ways came to be a code phrase for conquering others, further becoming a justification for holy wars in the name of spreading the message of Christ throughout what is now Europe and the Middle East.


This was the research I conducted over the past two years as a Master of Fine Arts candidate at the University of Michigan. I physically and mentally grappled with the deconstruction of my faith seen within the greater context of history and contemporary events that unfolded at the very moment I was myself articulating their lineage. The focus of my making was the church pew: a ubiquitous symbol, so common and often overlooked. I spent two years reacquainting myself with the material. The pews became for me a representation of church congregants themselves. Each sculpture taught me something new of the embedded quadripartite cord in American—and American-Christian history.