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Religion & Liberty: Volume 33, Number 1

The Existential Threat of Anti-Christian Nationalism

    In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic—well beyond the initial two weeks to flatten the curve, but in August of 2020—the New York Times reported, in an article entitled “Your Coronavirus Test Is Positive. Maybe It Shouldn’t Be,” on scientists’ worries about the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. The means by which public health workers and government officials (not to mention journalists) were assessing the spread of the virus was, some feared, too sensitive. People were testing positive who “may be carrying relatively insignificant amounts of the virus.” Results from three states (Massachusetts, New York, and Nevada), the story added, showed that “90 percent of people testing positive carried barely any virus.” In other words, 85% to 90% of people testing positive would have been technically COVID-free if the test’s sensitivity had been recalibrated.

    Worries about the rise of Christian nationalism abound in both popular and scholarly circles, but are they warranted? Some historical perspective is in order.

    Christian nationalism is not obviously connected to COVID-19, but the recent work of sociologists indicates that testing for this strain of patriotism is as important as the PCR test was for the pandemic. One of the parallels between Christian nationalism and COVID is the level of hysteria that both provoke among those who keep the gates of information in the United States (and western societies more generally). Christian nationalism has not generated international conferences of scientific experts presenting papers the way climate change and COVID have. But thanks to Donald Trump and the events of January 6, 2021, many editors, scholars, and government officials regard people who think America has a Christian character a threat to liberal democracy. To find the Americans carrying this religio-political virus (CHRISTNAT-21?), sociologists have created a test. Actually, it is a social science survey the answers to which indicate whether someone carries the contagion of Christian nationalism.

    Both Taking America Back for God and The Flag and the Cross rely on virtually the same sets of polling data.* This is not surprising since both coauthored books share one author in common, Samuel L. Perry, who teaches sociology at the University of Oklahoma. (The other authors, Andrew L. Whitehead [Taking America Back for God] teaches sociology at Clemson University, and Philip S. Gorski [The Flag and the Cross] teaches sociology at Yale University.) Both books use the following six statements to discern levels of attachment to Christian nationalism:

    • “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation.”
    • “The federal government should advocate Christian values.”
    • “The federal government should enforce strict separation of church and state.”
    • “The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces.”
    • “The success of the United States is part of God’s plan.”
    • “The federal government should allow prayer in public schools.”

    The Flag and the Cross uses one more statement from a different data set: “I consider founding documents like the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution to be divinely inspired.”

    The Ten Commandments displayed at the Texas State Capitol

    This difference does not prevent the books from establishing a metric by which to detect strains of Christian nationalism. On a spectrum of 0 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree), the authors arrive at totals (0­–24 or 0–28, depending on the survey) that in turn place respondents in the categories of “Rejecters” (opponents), “Resisters” and “Accommodators” (undecided), and “Ambassadors” (“wholly supportive”). The totals (from Whitehead and Perry) indicate that 19.8% of Americans are Ambassadors, 32.1% Accommodators, 26.6% Resisters, and 21.5% Rejecters.

    Compared to the alarm that journalists implied with headlines about the 81% of white evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump, the numbers are not obviously frightening. But calm is not the tone of these books. All three authors are fearful about the threat posed by Christian nationalism (and indirectly, white evangelicals) to a liberal democratic polity. This is still the case even though Whitehead and Perry observe that white evangelicals are no more prone to Christian nationalism than other American Christians. For instance, in 2016 even 25% of Resisters (undecided) voted for Trump. And not all (75%) Ambassadors (wholly supportive) cast a ballot for the Republican. Meanwhile, the category of Ambassadors (wholly supportive) included 85% of evangelicals, 83% of mainline Protestants, and 79% of Roman Catholics. Perhaps one of the most surprising findings from Whitehead and Perry is that evangelicals account for 27% of Rejecters (opponents) compared to zero for mainline Protestants (Roman Catholics were 4% of this group).

    Christian nationalism is not obviously connected to COVID-19, but the recent work of sociologists indicates that testing for this strain of patriotism is as important as the PCR test was for the pandemic.

    Just like the PCR test in its take-home version, readers of these books can also take their own Christian nationalist temperature. (Forgive the use of the first-person singular, but I know no other way to report on my own responses.) Bottom line: I tested positive, though at the low end of the Accommodators (which runs between 12 and 17 on the 0–24 spectrum). For instance, I strongly oppose the federal government issuing a declaration that the United States is a Christian nation (0 points). But for the government to advocate Christian values, like banning murder, lying, and stealing, I am unsure about the way to do this (2 points). On the strict enforcement of separating of church and state, I tend to disagree (1 point); the word “strict” is the hang-up, because zeal in doing so can wind up with French-style laïcité, which has never been the American version of relating church and state. On government’s allowing for religious symbols in public spaces (agree 3 points) and prayer in public schools (agree 3 points), I put a lot of weight on “allow.” The verb suggests that government is not going impose such religious expressions but will stand back and let other institutions decide (like local governments or neighborhood associations—even teachers unions). As for the idea that the United States’ success is part of God’s plan (agree 3 points)—how could anyone who believes in a sovereign God not believe some divine purpose is responsible for America’s place in the world? At the same time, “success” is imprecise, since it could indicate approval of America’s emergence as a superpower or it could mean approving of religion’s remarkable prevalence in American society.

    All of which is to say that, as with many pollster questions, these phrases are either misleading or imprecise in ways that hardly invite firm conclusions about a response’s meaning. That said, my total points (12) make me a Christian nationalist, a classification that would surprise many who have criticized me in the past for divorcing faith from politics and arguing that the church should mind its own business. (For more on that, see my A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State.) If a conservative Presbyterian who has long argued that the church should stay out of politics tests positive for Christian nationalism, someone could wonder if sociologists need an equivalent to what epidemiologists have in asymptomatic carriers of COVID. Can a class of Christian nationalists exist who have no strong symptoms of this political virus? If so, do they need to be in political isolation?  

    President Donald Trump holding the Bible in front of St. John's Episcopal Church after it was damaged in June 2020
    (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

    January 6 and All That

    The ambiguity of the survey questions extends to the repeated use of “federal government.” Not to be overly precious, but the federal government does have three branches of government. What sorts of results would surveys have yielded had they inserted “executive order by the president” in one or “law passed by Congress” in another, or if “the Supreme Court ruled” in yet another. The repetition of “federal government” not only ignores the branches and agencies in Washington but also trips over respondents with localist or states’ rights convictions. If prayer in public schools admits of everything from a football coach praying with his team before a game to a student crossing herself after praying over a meal in the cafeteria, the use of “federal government” as a stand in for nationalism borders on silly.

    Still, these books rely on imprecise social scientific instruments to sound the alarm about the threat that Christian nationalism is to American society and institutions. In Whitehead and Perry’s book, published in 2020 and so written before the drama of January 6, 2021, the danger of Christian nationalism is not as immediate as in Gorski and Perry, published with January 6 in view. On the eve of the 2020 general election, Whitehead and Perry clarified that Christian nationalism was different from both support for Donald Trump and white evangelicalism. Indeed, Christian nationalism was a greater predictor of support for Trump than evangelicalism. But in their conclusion, they worried that Christian nationalism might tip the scales in Donald Trump’s favor. This religious and political outlook, they predicted, would be part of the president’s appeal to his voters and distract from his moral failings. Their concerns went beyond the election to a fear that Christian nationalism hurt a proper understanding of the Christian religion. Warning about this toxic form of nationalism, then, might help evangelicals recover their true faith. One of Taking America Back for God’s epigrams (the other a quotation from Reinhold Niebuhr) is Colossians 2:8: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” For sociologists to hold this up as a standard is a tad awkward, since they are not using Christ as the standard for their academic procedures.

    The danger posed by Christian nationalism for Gorski and Perry rises to existential because it was responsible for January 6. That riot frames the book from the introduction to the last chapter, entitled “Avoiding the Big One” (i.e., the “Capitol insurrection”). The kaleidoscopic display of symbols at the January 6 uprising—Confederate flags, “Don’t Tread on Me” banners, “Jesus Saves” T-shirts, wooden crosses, and wooden gallows—becomes coherent under the tent of “white Christian nationalism.” The presence of this ideology on January 6, combined with similar polling results to that recorded in Taking America Back for God, prompts Gorski and Perry to worry, by the end of their book, that another coup might occur. They also believe Republicans will be responsible for it. Restrictions on voting rights, gerrymandering, and even “support for the Electoral College,” policies they associate with the GOP, all correlate “highly” with support for Christian nationalism. Possible scenarios include: MAGA types might migrate to Dallas and Orlando, college-educated whites to Seattle and Chicago, with secession or civil war based on this regional isolation. For this reason, Gorski and Perry warn that “Trumpist America would not be Hitler’s Germany,” but it would not be “far removed from Putin’s Russia either.” Making America great would likely result then—despite the comparisons to Hitler and Putin—in a nation “chaotic and poor.”

    The change in tone between the two books, from never-Trumpish to apocalyptic alarm, is striking but likely indicates more about the authors’ own fears than it reflects the actual state of affairs in contemporary America. This essay is not—underscore not—part of a sanguine assessment of contemporary America. Wealth gaps, unimpressive political leadership, incoherent foreign policy, and heightened partisanship that inspired both months of urban riots and January 6—these are just a few reasons for worrying about the United States. At the same time, if authors describe America in ways that lead them to comparisons with Hitler’s Germany and Putin’s Russia, and then describe the dire situation as merely “chaotic and poor,” readers may reach the end of The Flag and the Cross relieved, which is the opposite of the book’s intent.

    Gorski and Perry also end with a set of prescriptions designed to save America. They call for a “popular front” to defend liberal democracy. This alliance needs to include democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders, classical liberals like Bill Kristol and David French, #NeverTrump evangelicals like Russell Moore and Tim Keller. That is an odd list that gives a huge berth to white evangelicals and ignores real political figures among Republicans at the federal and state levels. For evangelicals who join, they will need to confront their history of providing theological justification for “racism, imperialism, and exploitation.” Mainline Protestants also have some explaining to do: They will need to own up to their previous support for eugenics, imperialism, and nativism, and in contemporary America lending aid to a society that breeds “workism,” “meritocracy,” and “technocracy.”

    U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (1888–1959)

    Even so, this practical advice is underwhelming compared to the threat the authors describe. If Gorski and Perry are right, as they insist in the penultimate sentence of the book, that Trump and his followers “have rejected America’s experiment with multiracial democracy in favor of white Christian nationalism,” how is a historical reckoning going to allow time for forming a popular front? The very last sentence, not one typical in a work of scholarship—“Whether [Trump’s supporters] are successful is up to the rest of us”—turns the book into the proverbial red pill that is supposed to provoke action (like applying for work with the FBI?). Such activist scholarship (an oxymoron?) rarely produces understanding of the subject under scrutiny, and The Flag and the Cross suffers from this defect. And yet, both books are standard-issue university press publications with all the apparatuses of end notes, bibliographies, and scholarly protocol. The calm necessary for such academic communication implies that America is more calm than it is under siege.

    Nationalism, Mom, and Apple Pie

    Historical perspective could alleviate some of these sociologists’ fears. An earlier generation of scholars wrote about Christian nationalism, admitted it had its problems, all the while keeping their heads. For instance, a little over five decades ago, Martin E. Marty and Robert T. Handy, two prominent figures in American religious history, wrote books showing that Christian nationalism was as basic to America as mom and apple pie. By no means did they approve of it. After the tumultuous 1960s, any scholar worth his social awareness needed to address race relations and the status of women, not to mention the anti-Catholicism that had been such a prominent part of the Protestant experience in the United States, as well as the Western chauvinism that had been part of foreign missions. Neither book celebrated or apologized for Christian nationalism. Nor did Marty and Handy conclude that either the churches’ standing in American society or the nation itself was illegitimate.

    For instance, in Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America, Marty wrote calmly that evangelical Protestants (he was using it in the pre–Moral Majority sense of the wide family of denominations that traced its origins to Britain most recently and then to the Reformation more generically) set out to create an empire in America. In this realm, Protestants “set out to attract the allegiance of all the people to develop a spiritual kingdom, and to shape the nation’s ethos, mores, manners, and often its laws.” From this followed policies to turn public schools into agencies of social engineering that would assimilate ethnic immigrants into the American way of life. So, too, came reforms like women’s suffrage, Prohibition, and even an interventionist foreign policy based on, in FDR’s words, the cosmic struggle between God and Hitler. Although those pieces of Christian nationalism may have raised dilemmas for church folk and academics by the 1960s, the churches’ support for civil rights, thanks in part to Martin Luther King Jr.’s own Christian nationalism, made American hopes for a righteous empire look not so bad.

    In A Christian America: Protestant Hopes and Historical Realities, Handy echoed Marty’s narrative, observing matter-of-factly that, from the beginning, “American Protestants entertained a lively hope that someday the civilization of the country would be fully Christian.” The outworkings of this ideal—hold on to your seats—varied over three centuries. But through it all, Protestants drew direction and inspiration from a vision of Christian America. That outlook “cut across denominational differences and furnished goals toward which all could work.”

    The sociologists under review here could well counter that Marty and Handy were writing at a time when Christian nationalism was receiving a much-needed correction and was also receding from a prominent part of the American Protestant denominations’ self-understanding. This is fair, though it does not explain why Whitehead, Perry, and Gorski do not highlight the high levels of Christian nationalism among mainline Protestants. Nor does their heightened awareness of white evangelicals do justice to the real power that mainline Protestants who were government officials during the Cold War had (think John Foster Dulles in the State Department and his brother, Allen, as head of the CIA) compared to the atmospheric shenanigans of evangelical MAGA-hat-wearing protesters and television evangelists in bright suits.

    Why did scholars 50 years ago practice restraint compared to the hysteria that characterizes academic literature on Christian nationalism today?

    Just as important is the refusal of scholars in the generation of Marty and Handy to rush from the evidence of Christian nationalism to a conclusion that questioned the United States’ legitimacy as a liberal democracy because of Protestant hegemony. Handy, for instance, when describing the loss of Protestant consensus and influence in the 1930s, observed that Protestant nationalism had “left the nation with a complex heritage of impressive achievements and visible limitations.” On the plus side, Handy included various reforms, such as education, expanding suffrage, protection of children, efforts to curb runaway wealth, religious freedom, civil liberties, and even the end of slavery. To be sure, many of these reforms came with negative examples (eugenics and Prohibition) and failed to be implemented as extensively as they might have been thanks to blind spots, self-righteousness, and downright bigotry. But, as Handy also wrote, “Either to mourn, to praise, or to condemn indiscriminately what has passed is not as helpful as an effort to understand it for what [Christian nationalism] was and for what it tried to do, and for what its continuing influence on the nation and its churches is.”

    The Fear Factor

    Why then did scholars 50 years ago practice restraint compared to the hysteria that characterizes academic literature on Christian nationalism today? One obvious explanation is the election of Donald Trump and the support he received from white evangelicals. With the exception of Trump’s Christian-friendly signals, like saying “Merry Christmas” or holding a Bible for photographers after protests over policing in June of 2020, he was not obviously a spokesman for Christianity. If Trump did not add the Christian religion to Christian nationalism, white evangelicals do provide a measure of spiritual substance. At the same time, evangelical support for Trump was close to what it had been for George W. Bush (only three percentage points more), the president who came closest arguably to being a born-again Republican executive.

    Fear is another factor, since many of the most highly regarded interpreters of American society have viewed Trump since November 2016 as little more than a fascist. With a figure like him at the head of the federal government’s executive branch, scholars need not explain but merely rally opposition. Simply understanding a phenomenon will not address the immediate threat. Indeed, the threat is no longer a possibility. January 6 proves Christian nationalism is alive and ill.

    Combined with urgency is a set of associations that today’s academics, fresh from the first African American president, never imagined possible for the United States. How could America go from Obama to Trump in one election? This is why the comparisons between today’s scholars and those like Marty and Handy is instructive. That older generation did not need to imagine but knew how bad America was thanks to racism, sexism, and nationalism. They had lived through the riots, protests, legislation, wars, and cultural revolutions of the 1960s. But they nevertheless studied the place of Protestantism in that dark American past (even as self-identified Protestants) responsibly.

    They were scholars who worked on campuses that provided space for tributes to notable figures from the past with monuments or names of buildings. Neither Handy nor Marty taught at the University of Pennsylvania, but they worked in the shadows of luminaries like evangelist George Whitefield, whose statue until 2020 graced the institution’s Dormitory Quadrangle. Those older scholars understood that figures like Whitefield were not pure but still worthy of honor. Yet, when the administration at the University of Pennsylvania decided to remove the evangelist’s statute, a man with close ties to the university’s founder, Benjamin Franklin, its report indicated surprise about Whitefield’s mix of sin and sanctity. The “case for removing Whitefield is overwhelmingly strong,” the report explained. “He was a well-known evangelical preacher in the mid-eighteenth century, who notably led a successful campaign to allow slavery in Georgia.” Slavery, consequently, became “undeniably” one of Whitefield’s “principal legacies.” For that reason, honoring him was “inconsistent with our University’s core values.”

    Statue of George Whitefield at the University of Pennsylvania, prior to its 2020 removal

    Of course, scholars will disagree about a historical figure’s principal legacy. Still, for most of American history, scholars identified Whitefield with the religious enterprises described in Franklin’s Autobiography. The university’s verdict stemmed not from scholarship but the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd. Historians had long known that Whitefield went back on his opposition to slavery under the practical need for labor in Georgia. Or is it the case that the history department at Penn was unaware of colonial American developments and so failed to alert the administration to the awkward messages sent by Whitefield’s statue?

    Like the University of Pennsylvania, Whitehead, Perry, and Gorski selectively employ U.S. history to support their arguments. In Taking America Back for God, the authors spend almost no time on previous examples of Christian nationalism. In their endnotes, Whitehead and Perry do refer to books that trace the history of their subject. But in one noticeably long reference, they list 11 books most of which were published after the election of Donald Trump. Only four were published between 2006 and 2014. Whitehead and Perry also recommend that future scholars research Christian nationalism among blacks and ethnic minorities. There they observe that leaders like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. took seriously “the Christian heritage of the United States” and did so to call Americans “to live up to the promises of freedom and equality inherent within the Christian religion.” What goes unmentioned is any distinction between good and bad versions of Christian nationalism. From the premise that American exceptionalism is a threat to Christianity’s integrity, what do Whitehead and Perry do with the black church’s mix of biblical morality and national ideals in advocating civil rights? To raise that question could jeopardize solidarity with black Protestant reformers. To avoid the predicament, the authors could define Christian nationalism in a way that makes some forms legitimate. But they do not.   

    A lack of history is not true for Gorski and Perry. The Flag and the Cross adds a hashtag to the American history wars—the #1690Project. This was the year that Puritans first fused racism, apocalypticism, and nationalism. Their dating is not exact. “It was around 1690, following King Philip’s War, that the deep story first crystallized in the form of white Protestant chosenness.” This date allows the authors to feature the humiliating treatment of indigenous populations by Europeans. Why Gorski and Perry did not choose an earlier date is a mystery, since English settlers in both Virginia and Massachusetts treated natives wretchedly as soon as they arrived. But identifying 1690 as the start of Christian nationalism in its ugliest form does begin their brief (one chapter) narrative of woe—wars with Native Americans, slavery, Manifest Destiny and wars against Mexico and Spain, conquest and imperialism, and Christian nationalism in the fight against communism during the Cold War. It is a story free from historical perspective on the present. And the irony is that Whitehead and Perry in Taking America Back for God acknowledge that Democrats need to develop a “coherent narrative that taps into a powerful national identity” if they are going to defeat Trump in the 2020 election. These sociologists know that narratives matter to national identity, but the times demand a story that is full of horror. That is an admission that national narratives matter. And yet the only one available in either book is a story of evil begetting more evil. Let us see if any candidate can appeal to voters with that.

    America’s Debt to Christianity

    The presence of Christian nationalism in America’s past matters to the sociological investigation on tap in these books because its prevalence in U.S. history explains to a large degree its contemporary pervasiveness. It is part of the historical imagination of many Americans, and also belongs to the narrative that scholars tell about the United States. Its reality and influence is no reason to celebrate it. Nor is it a reason to find it scary, since it has long been part of the American experience. Instead of being alarmed by these sociologists’ findings, readers can simply attribute high levels of Christian nationalism to the American people and the nation’s institutions as they have developed since the colonial era.

    Aside from the errors that afflict single-cause explanations of American greatness or wickedness, attributing the pernicious aspects of the United States to Christian nationalism may represent a greater existential threat to the nation than fusing Christianity to national identity. In fact, if scholars at elite universities who write for university presses, along with history and social science teachers in American high schools, remove the religious component of American exceptionalism and treat Christianity as a problem, what will fill the void to inspire the sorts of collective purpose that Christian nationalism provided? From John Winthrop and George Washington, to Abraham Lincoln and FDR, America’s debt to Christianity as the source of hope, reform, and national mission was large. Now to overturn and dispose of it is an endeavor so radical that it turns even Joe Biden into a threat. After all, when he spoke in Philadelphia from the “sacred ground” of Independence Hall about America’s egalitarian ideals, ones that made the United States “unique among nations” and made the nation a “beacon to the world,” he was in danger of unleashing the very MAGA impulses about which these sociologists warn.


    * The weeds of survey results may elude many readers as they do this author, but a word of explanation may be in order. Whitehead and Perry draw their evidence from the Baylor Religion Survey of 2017—a poll sent through the mail that pays $1 to anyone who returns a completed survey. It went out to 11,000 addresses; 1,501 persons (13.5%) replied. The authors write that this survey compares favorably with one they did not use, the “gold standard” of national surveys, the General Social Survey. They do provide a comparison of the latter and the former and acknowledge differences, but assert that these are not significant. The authors also observe that the Baylor survey “has already begun to appear in a number of peer-reviewed articles in a variety of well-respected scholarly outlets.”

    That does not sound necessarily suspicious. But it does raise such questions as: How reliable is a survey that is only beginning to be used by peer-reviewed publications?

    Gorski and Perry’s data is more troubling than Whitehead and Perry’s. They use the Public Discourse and Ethics Survey but do not include the results in the book except for roughly 20 charts placed throughout the text. To find the regression tables upon which the charts are based, Gorski and Perry inform readers that the tables are available at the authors’ department webpages (Yale and Oklahoma, respectively). Neither professor’s webpage includes the survey, and an email exchange in April with one author instructed me to ask the other author, who did not reply.

    As a historian who does not use surveys or tables, I am not sure how normal these seemingly less-than-transparent methods are.

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    D.G. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College and is the author most recently of Benjamin Franklin: Cultural Protestant (Oxford, 2021).