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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.


The artist, Benjamin Winans, burning pews in the making of "Reckoning."

Before Thomas Jefferson penned that “all men are created equal,” while also himself enslaving people, Christianity had ideas of justice and the inherent equality of people embedded in its teaching of human beings as Imago Dei: the image of God. As historian and author Jemar Tisby notes in his book The Color of Compromise:


“Nothing about American racism was inevitable. …[D]uring the initial stages of European settlement in North America, … [r]ace was still being made.”

The first victims were the indigenous peoples whom Christopher Columbus saw as nothing more than “blank slates on which Christian missionaries could write the gospel,” according to Tisby. This patriarchal view of evangelism, where the “unchurched” are as children who need guidance to find their way, is still very present in the American church of today. When the indigenous tribes proved capable of fighting for themselves, refusing the message of European religion because it meant a loss of tribal identity; or, when they were wiped out from disease, colonizers turned to slavery to meet the demands of European trade. In the fervor that was Christianity in America, however, a unique conundrum presented itself that would eventually lead to civil war: How was it possible to reconcile the enslavement of another human being with the recognition that that person was also made in the image of God?


Colonizers to the Americas adopted a religio-cultural language to describe themselves. To be European was to be Christian and to be anything else was to be heathen. The goal of evangelism is to save the soul of heathens, and they believed they were doing just that by “civilizing” tribal societies. A sort of doublethink was adopted by Christian missionaries and their Christian enslavers: One could carefully craft a version of Christianity that would focus on the eternal reward of heaven after living a life of obedience on earth, thereby erasing all sense of cultural belonging and undermining social constructs already well-established in African communities. This is the message enslavers embraced to ease their own “Christian conscience,” by redeeming the souls of the lost while still maintaining the deplorable institution of slavery itself.

1808 "Slave Bible" | Fisk University

The stories of liberation and freedom throughout the Bible were conveniently ignored and excised—there were even “Slave Bibles”, which omitted important stories of liberation. Obedience became the only way to freedom, and this freedom would be achieved upon death when the vast riches built up by earthly servitude would finally be granted. This bastardized gospel message continues throughout evangelicalism and has spawned a prosperity gospel where the more one gives of themselves, the more they will receive, and maybe even on this earth. A mentality developed among all Christians, Black and white: that self-control and obedience are the only ways to eternal salvation.


Please keep in mind that these are not necessarily biblical constructs—they are social constructs supported by a selective interpretation of the Bible. There were many pastors that tried to resist, many joining the abolitionist movement. Books have been written on Christian views of the institution of slavery before and during the Civil War, from the northern and southern points of view. The issue itself is complicated, but an overly-simplified understanding will be adequate for the purposes of this writing: Generally, northern churches opposed slavery, and generally, southern churches supported it—even within denominations.


I grew up as a Southern Baptist.


My parents were Southern Baptists and my grandparents were Southern Baptists. Before 1845, the Baptist denomination in the United States was unified under one doctrine. It had outreach organizations such as the Baptist Home Mission Society (BHMS), responsible for sponsoring missionaries throughout the United States as they evangelized to unbelievers and spread the gospel.

Am I Not a Man and a Brother? | by Josiah Wedgewood

In 1844, the divide between the northern and southern Baptist churches was made apparent. Northern Baptists were generally averse to slavery while southern Baptists found biblical justification for chattel slavery. In an effort to get the northern Baptists to take a stance on whether or not it was a sin to enslave people, southern slaveholding ministers applied to become missionaries in the BHMS. Tisby writes in The Color of Compromise that the southerners were denied, with northern Baptists issuing a statement saying, “If ...anyone should offer himself as a Missionary, having slaves, and should insist on retaining them as his property, we could not appoint him. … One thing is certain; we can never be a party to any arrangement which would imply approbation of slavery.”

In May of 1845, nearly twenty years before the first shots of the Civil War, battle lines were drawn and a new association was formed called the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Tisby writes that the first president, William Bullein Johnson, explained the separation: “These [northern] brethren, thus acted upon a sentiment they have failed to prove—that slavery is, in all circumstances sinful.” The SBC would not formally apologize for its support of slavery until 1995, and it wasn’t until 2017 that the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary—the SBCs flagship institution of higher education—released a formal investigation into the racism and support of slavery that played a part in its origin and growth. The president of the seminary at the time, Albert Mohler, Jr., wrote:


“We have been guilty of a sinful absence of historical curiosity. We knew, and we could not fail to know, that slavery and deep racism were in the story. We comforted ourselves that we could know this, but since these events were so far behind us, we could move on without awkward and embarrassing investigations and conversations.”

The Freedmen's Bureau | by Alfred Waud, Harper's,1863

The Civil War marked a turn. White power in the south was threatened—and not close to vanishing—and the economy was in shambles. This was because of the war, but also because the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution made slavery illegal (with the exception of punishment for a crime—itself deeply problematic), wiping out an entire economy built on the backs of free slave labor. Five years later, the Fifteenth Amendment gave all citizens the right to vote. South Carolina had a Black elected majority between 1867 and 1876, and they set about rebuilding the shattered economy by levying land taxes, mostly falling on personal property held by professionals, bankers, and merchants. Historian Heather Cox Richardson describes the policies implemented by this majority, writing, “The legislature then used state funds to build schools, hospitals, and other public services, and bought land for resale to settlers—usually freedpeople—at low prices.”

Though South Carolinians objected to the race of these elected officials, there was an awareness that an argument against the officials based on race would not work in the rapid changes of the time. They instead turned to an argument that would recur throughout the twentieth century and affect us to this very day. That argument was to promote the view that Black members of the legislature were nothing more than “lazy, ignorant field hands using public services to redistribute wealth.” This argument not only undermined the elected status of officials in South Carolina, but also planted the seeds of white resentment of Black success. It also shows that the conservative fear of “socialism” started long before the Bolshevik Revolution and the American “Red Scare,” as its origins were based solely on racist views.


The script was flipped: whites wanted to remain in power and viewed Black success not only as a threat, but as persecution.


This mentality cast white society as the hard-working victim of Black freeloading greed, and a reaction was necessary to maintain the status quo. The reaction came in the form of Jim Crow legislation, that codified segregation into law and stripped Black people of their rights as citizens of the United States of America.


It is long past time for a religion-wide reckoning into the role Christianity has played in undermining the personhood of Black people. For too long, religious leaders have grown comfortable with the power they have held, and it has brought harm to the marginalized, women, the LGBTQ+ community, and yes, even white men who were complicit in the deceit and conditioned to believe they were above all others because God had made it so.


A viewer contemplates "Ex Americus" from the blood-stained pew of "Communion" | by Benjamin Winans

The Art


As an artist, I process through the act of making.


Researching history through the lens of my own family’s involvement in missions alerted me to the colonialism disguised as the spiritual liberation of Christianity. And that knowledge hurt. So many of my works began this way: a deep place of grief and mourning as I fought my own past, tearing it apart, and remaking it in new and more complex ways. These pieces were my attempt to seek my own sort of redemption. It is too early to know whether I found any.


For this reason, I stained a pew in blood, imbuing it with violence, and staged it across from an altered American flag. I removed the red stripes, representative of the blood and courage of patriotism shed for the freedom of Americans—a story which very much echoes the crucifixion of Jesus. When I hung the flag on the wall opposite the blood-stained pew, I realized that the form of a Klansman’s hood was made manifest, floating ominously on the white wall. Without its stripes, the flag becomes an emblem of whiteness. [Click to Tweet!]


Meanwhile the pew itself sits, mundane yet covered in blood: at once the essence of life and an unclean biohazard, inverted and implicated as are the viewers brave enough to sit and contemplate the flag.

Reckoning | by Benjamin Winans

Another flag, the counterpart of the altered American one, was made shortly before the events of January 6th, when insurrectionists and rioters stormed the United States Capitol to halt the counting of votes and thereby overthrow the democratic transfer of power. It is an altered Christian flag, recognizable to any who grew up in Southern churches, as both the American flag and the Christian flag were ubiquitous symbols on stage behind the preacher. The flag is white with a blue union, like the American flag, only a red cross replaces the fifty stars. In my flag, the white is replaced by red stripes, symbolically representing blood, tainting the purity of the Christian standard. After January 6th, this flag became a representation of Christian nationalism, and I was afraid it would be co-opted by the Religious Right if I were to leave it as it was—a symbol of the end-goal of Christian Americans: a theocracy ruled by human interpretation of biblical law. I ended up staining it in sumi ink—a Japanese ink made from pine soot—and including it in a sculpture made from burned and broken pews arranged in the form of the famous National US Marine Corps Memorial. I call it Reckoning.


While Reckoning adopts the language of monumentality—a piece fixed in time—closer inspection reveals detritus and structural degradation: it is deconstructing itself, bursting from the plinth it is set upon, holding onto its pieces, and struggling to hold its flag high.

A meditation on the references used to craft Reckoning reveal the sources’ imperialist origins hidden under benevolent intentions—whether the revolutionary period where the American ideal was being defined, staking claim to land that was already stolen; or, the heroic image of the American flag being planted on foreign soil. In WWII, America was fighting against the tyranny of Japanese empire, but it was also expanding on its own. In less violent ways, my own family was responsible for ideological imperialism, teaching the people of Japan about a version of Jesus rooted in American cultural mores. This deconstruction of my own complicity in their ministry was an important starting place for the sculpture.


Phantom Limb | by Benjamin Winans

Finally, the key to all my work is Phantom Limb. The half-burned away pew floats ominously above a wooden plinth supported only by a bronze leg, referencing both the form and materiality of a monument, but the work was made in mourning, thinking about the belief systems that prop society up, and the public memories we choose to evoke.


When one passionately lives as a committed Christian, one is said to be “on fire” for God. I was on fire for a large part of my life, born again in the evangelical faith and baptized into the Southern Baptist church at the age of nine. When I was a senior in high school, I began to falter in my faith, eventually giving it up altogether. What is left when the fire of faith burns out? [Click to Tweet!]


Originally, Phantom Limb was made to explore this sensation. While preparing the pew for burning, I discovered a diseased leg and amputated it around the same time I read an essay by author Sara Novic called Remission in which she writes:


I say I have sloughed off religion like a diseased limb, like it is no longer of use to me, but that’s not entirely true. Without it I am unsteady, vulnerable in a way I couldn’t be when I was not of this world. The thing about religion is that when you have it, it feels good, and, like any opiate, the withdrawals are painful.

Phantom Limb | by Benjamin Winans

I spent twenty years of my life dedicated to the sole purpose of dying to myself, taking up the cross of Jesus, and advancing the Kingdom of God. It was the ultimate truth, the defining factor of my life. When I gave it up, I thought I was left a ruin—burned out, broken, and left to make what I could of the fragments.




What is there to be redeemed?


What I have found through the experience of growth, and what I argue with the thesis work that is my art, is that the complete deconstruction of a worldview I once held as an ultimate truth has led to a remarkable resilience. I was raised to die for my beliefs, to spread the gospel no matter the cost. I now fight with the same ferocity for the right to hold doubt. In that uncertainty, I find empathy and beauty.


I have fought Christian ideology, anger, and grief my entire life, and this struggle gave me the urge to deconstruct what I had known so well. I leaned into the impulse—only instead of ideologically deconstructing, as is the term used in many ex-evangelical and ex-Christian spaces, I underwent a physical clash with the material symbols of my past, breaking pews, burning them, staining them in blood. From ruin, I was made aware of lineage and of new possibilities, and new ways of experiencing the icons.


Deconstructing offered me historical transcendence and reimagining. Though the work I have presented bears the enormous weight of history and memory, it is hopeful. I believe that the American political structure and American evangelical Christianity have caused incalculable harm to not only this nation, but to the globe. I also believe that the tenets of forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation have the potential to provide healing and allow us to create a whole and healthy society for future generations.


This is the underlying lesson of my work: that, once deconstructed, the fragments of our past can relocate our sight, breaking through historical narrative and allowing us to reimagine a future built on justice, compassion, empathy, and love.


 

Benjamin Winans (b. 1987, Raleigh, NC) is an installation artist, printmaker, and scholar whose work addresses the intersection of evangelical Christianity and American culture, loss of faith, and the search for grace and redemption. He graduated in 2021 with an MFA in visual art from Stamps School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan and earned his BFA in Painting and Printmaking from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2018. Winans has exhibited nationally and internationally, including a solo show at Gallery Edit in Richmond as well as group shows in Richmond, Ann Arbor, Providence, Wichita, Lucknow, India and Tokyo. His work has been published in Studio Visit Magazine and was featured as the cover of VCU’s Amendment Literary Journal in their 2016 Annual. He is currently living with his wife and two cats in Ann Arbor, MI where he is exhibitions assistant and museum technician at Stamps Gallery.


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