Drew Strait on Let’s Talk About “Christian Nationalism”

Image: Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
Image: Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Drew J. Strait

Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary

In a recent viral Tweet, Rainn Wilson (best known as Dwight Schrute from The Office) wrote, “The metamorphosis of Jesus Christ from a humble servant of the abject poor to a symbol that stands for gun rights, prosperity theology, anti-science, limited government (that neglects the destitute) and fierce nationalism is truly the strangest transformation in human history.”

Wilson’s Tweet struck a nerve. How’d we get here? What is Christian nationalism? Is America, in fact, a “Christian nation”? For over two centuries, this last question has rippled through the heartland of America from sea to shining sea as Americans grapple with their origins, identities, and relationships with God, one another and the world. For some, “Christian nation” is an oxymoron—an exclusive notion in a land where many faith traditions reside. For others, “Christian nation” is a form of political idolatry, a weaponization of the church’s mission and suppression of our history of building a nation with free labor on the backs of enslaved Africans and indigenous peoples. Still, for others, “Christian nation” is a controlling narrative and vital part of their theological identities. Historians, theologians and political scientists have offered their perspectives through book-length treatments. But never has someone offered an empirical, large scale, data-driven sociological analysis of Christian nationalism in the USA.

In comes Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel Perry’s new book (henceforth, TABG). Whitehead (Associate Professor of Sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, previously at Clemson University) and Perry (Assistant Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at University of Oklahoma) frame the question around new methods, metrics, and data to animate the inner-workings and values of Christian nationalism. To be clear, Whitehead and Perry do not put forth a new historical analysis of whether America is a Christian nation (for that, one needs to read Mark Noll, John Fea, et al.). Rather, their focus is on putting flesh on the mechanics of Christian nationalism through the interpretation of data. In other words, this book does not contain the latest musings on what a scholar thinks is happening; rather, it comprises a scientific, real-time analysis of what Americans believe in this moment based on data from the Baylor Religion Survey. In addition to large-scale data, the authors draw on fifty in-depth interviews and engage in participant observation at large (mostly mega-church) events in Texas, Oklahoma, and South Carolina, including the Freedom Sunday Celebration led by the controversial Robert Jeffress. For the authors, it does not matter “whether the United States is or ever was a Christian nation. What matters is that a significant number of Americans believe that it is” (p. 4, emphasis original).

In this review I will summarize portions from each chapter and then offer some suggestions for why this book is important for pastor theologians. For purposes of full disclosure, I am not a social scientist, nor am I unbiased on this topic. Moreover, I do not pretend to have the computational skills to double-check data analysis (for the data nerds, there are three appendices on data/methods). I review this book from the perspective of a New Testament theologian who is deeply concerned that state power has coopted our theological imaginations.

The introduction of TABG profiles Christian nationalism. In contrast to civil religion, which the authors see rooted in the traditions of justice, mercy, and humility in the prophetic Old Testament, Whitehead and Perry define Christian nationalism as:

a cultural framework—a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems—that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life … the ‘Christianity’ of Christian nationalism represents something more than religion. As we will show, it includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism. It is as ethnic and political as it is religious. (p. 10)

With data to address six questions about the role of God in the USA (pp. 7-8), the authors identify four postures toward Christian nationalism: Rejecters, Resisters, Accommodators, or Ambassadors. Key predictors of Ambassadors of Christian nationalism include identification with political conservatism, belief in the Bible—including belief in the Bible as the literal word of God and as perfectly true—religious practice, belief that America is on the brink of moral decay, belief that God requires the faithful to wage war for good, and belief in the rapture (p. 12).

A major thesis of the book—and a surprising one for me—is that religious commitment is not always a vector for Christian nationalism. In fact, Christian nationalism “often influences Americans’ opinions and behaviors in the exact opposite direction than traditional religious commitment does” (p. 20). This dichotomy—between Christian nationalism and religious commitment—is animated by survey questions that clarify the moral priorities of each group. Statistically significant predictors for religious practice include caring for the sick and needy, economic justice and consuming fewer goods. For Christian nationalists, on the other hand, these moral priorities are either statistically insignificant or negatively associated. Of equal interest, Christian nationalists see military service as a vital component of “being a good person.” Religious practice, on the other hand, tends to cultivate a negative association with military service (14).

With this peek under the hood, Whitehead and Perry problematize our working assumptions about the purported marriage between white evangelicalism and Christian nationalism (a classification reinforced by pollsters [p. 20]). A much stronger predictor for the rise of Trumpism, anti-black sentiments, xenophobia, resistance to racial justice and the repudiation of women in politics is Christian nationalism. Religious commitment can, in fact, have the obverse effect of driving one to condemn these aspects of Christian nationalism. Of course, there are exceptions—a point on which I wish to press the authors for more clarity.

Chapter 1 further fleshes out the four orientations to Christian nationalism. Rejecters make up 21.5 percent of Americans and comprise those individuals who are most educated and resistant to implementing Christian values in American public life. One-third of Rejecters associate with a Christian religious tradition and tend to be wealthier and to populate urban centers, the Northeast, or West regions of the country. Resisters make up 26.6 percent of Americans and share key demographics with Rejecters, with the exception of being slightly less educated. Resisters are more religious than Rejecters (80 percent believe in a higher power, compared to only 40 percent of Rejecters). While Resisters are suspicious of the declaration that America is a Christian nation, they might be comfortable with the presence of religious symbols in public places. It is notable that Resisters and Rejecters make up almost half of the U.S. population as a whole.

Accommodators make up 32.1 percent of America and lean toward Christian nationalism while holding some ambivalence toward it. Accommodators are older, include more women than Rejecters/Resisters, are more religious (a third are evangelical Protestant and a third identify as Catholic), and, like Resisters, tend to be political moderates (47 percent identify as such). Ambassadors make up 19.8 percent of America and are the least educated and oldest of the four groups (average age is 54, whereas the average age of Rejecters is 43). For Ambassadors, the founding fathers were Christians and America’s prosperity hinges on obedience to God’s law in the Bible (but with strong preference for Old Testament texts). Notably, only 16 percent of Ambassadors reside in cities.

The chapter includes several tables that further profile each orientation, including racial and geographical data, concluding with a simple point: Christianity is in slow decline in the U.S.; therefore, so too is Christian nationalism—hence, the nostalgia Christian nationalists feel for the past. This trend, however, is malleable and can change alongside sociopolitical unrest. For example, Christian nationalism intensified after 9/11 but slowly waned by 2014. The election of Donald Trump may stimulate a similar resurgence, especially as he appeals to nativist and fascist rhetoric.

Chapter 2 addresses the relationship between Christian nationalism and political power. Whitehead and Perry argue that Christian nationalism has little to do with personal religiosity and everything to do with acquiring and leveraging political power around key issues like Islam, immigration, abortion/patriarchy, militarism, gun control and sacrificial allegiance to the flag (including blood sacrifice; see pp. 77-80). Obsession with power explains why Ambassadors and Accommodators overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election while overlooking the many ways that Trump’s personal life is at odds with Christian ethics. Again, Trump’s personal religious piety is of little significance—what matters is that he pulls the right ideological levers to shape America into the image of Christian nationalism, to reclaim a mythical past. Herein lies the most provocative idea in the book: one does not have to go to church or hold to orthodox Christian beliefs to be a Christian nationalist.

Chapter 3 explores how Christian nationalism embraces and constructs boundaries to exclude the ethno-religious other. The chapter opens with jarring quotes from interviews with Ambassadors, who appeal to Jerusalem’s walls, the Pope’s walls and the New Jerusalem’s wall in the Book of Revelation to divinely legitimate fortified borders. Christian nationalists, then, appeal to biblical justification to construct an “us” (i.e., “white” Christians) versus “them” (heathen) caste system, wherein immigrants, BIPOC, LGBTQ persons and women are subordinate. This segregated worldview attempts to monopolize power among white, native-born Protestants to control social and political institutions. Notably, when this hegemonic cultural power is questioned, the use of force is a viable option to curtail opposition (cue the recent Lafayette Square conflict).

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Source: Christianity Today