SUMMARY: Christian nationalism is not a new phenomenon. Nor is it a fringe element of the Republican party. In The Flag and the Cross professors Philip Gorski and Samuel Perry detail the history of Christian nationalism dating back to the 1600s, define its core beliefs, how it has adapted over the centuries, and suggest ways Americans can stop this substantial threat to American democracy.
“White Christian nationalism is one of the oldest and most powerful currents in American politics,” the duo write. They date the movement back to the 1690’s before America was a country.
“It is a mythological version of history (that) goes something like this: America was founded as a Christian nation by (white) men who were ‘traditional’ Christians, who based the nation’s founding documents on ‘Christian principles.’ The United States is blessed by God, which is why it has been so successful; and the nation has a special role to play in God’s plan for humanity. But these blessings are threatened by cultural degradation from ‘un-American’ influences both inside and outside our borders.”
There are two key points here: white and un-American. These two words detail who is part of the club (Whites born in the United States) and who is not (non-Whites born or not born in the United States). These distinctions create an “other” differentiation. This “other” distinction allows Christian nationalists to define who is part of the ingroup and who is not. If Christian nationalists don’t like telling the shamful incidents from American history, they label it CRT. If Christian nationalists don’t like Jesus being depicted as brown-skinned, they label it as woke.
The authors key in on the “white” part of Christian nationalism, by far the largest, but not only, ethnic group making up the cohort. Some advocates of Christian nationalism try to explain away or ignore the undercurrent of racism laced throughout the movement, but Gorski and Perry call it out. This helps explain some of the inconsistencies with Christian nationalists thoughts on use of force.
“Conservative whites fear and abhor violence in some contexts (for example, from Blacks, immigrants, or Muslims). But they applaud it in other contexts (for instance, by police, soldiers, and other ‘good guys with guns’),” Gorski and Perry pen. “The key that explains the inconsistency, we argue, is white Christian nationalism and its racialized combination of libertarian freedom (for whites) and authoritarian control (over non-whites).”
What Christian nationalism is ultimately about is white people losing, and trying to retain, power. This helps clarify why the majoirty of white evangelical Christians supported Donald Trump more in 2020 then 2016. A taste of power in 2016 led to many white evangelical Christians supporting Trump–no matter what he said or did. In our current context, this is why many self professed Christians are jumping ship to Ron DeSantis as he might have a better shot at winning the 2024 election.
What is truly heartbreaking is that many Christians have been duped into this movement. Within the context Christian nationalism the word “Christian” has nothing to do with Jesus, but is a way to signal belonging to a particular group with a particular ideology. Christian is more associated with capitalism and individuality than with grace and love.
“The word ‘Christian’ remains the right’s most effective signal to white conservatives that ‘our values,’ ‘our heritage,’ ‘our way of life,’ and ‘our influence’ are under attack, and ‘we’ must respond,” Gorski and Perry say. “Clearly, religious terms like ‘Christian’ and ‘evangelical’ are becoming markers of social identity and political views rather than just religious conviction.”
So, how can we work against this toxic way of thinking? First, we must tell the true story of our nation’s history – the good and the bad. We should celebrate the good things our country has done and lament the bad things. This also extends to the church denominations we are part of, the organizations we support, and the people we admire. As Christians who believe in the falleness of man it should not be a stretch to hold the good and bad of humanity in tension with each other.
Second, Christians and secular progressives who share a commitment to liberal democracy must form an alliance. To be clear, the authors are less than enthusiastic that this will happen, but as Christians who are called to live in a pluraistic society and to bring heaven down to earth we must lead in this area by opening dialgue with people who we do not agree with on all topics, cobeligerants as Justin Giboney likes to say, with grace and mercy.
“Whether there will be another American century, and whether that century will be democratic, remains to be seen. Much will depend upon the decisions that individual Americans make in the next few years, and also on the alliances that they forge. Whether they are successful is up to the rest of us.”
The Flag and the Cross is essential reading for understanding Christian nationalism and is our recommended starting point to learning about the subject.
KEY QUOTE: “Reckoning with white Christian nationalism means more than ‘looking into one’s heart;’ it also means reckoning with your tribe’s history. It means confronting, not just your own sins, but also ‘the sins of the fathers.'”
BONUS: Don’t have time to read the book? Listen to Gorski and Perry talk about their book on Footnoes with Jemar Tisby.
BONUS II: If you want to dig deeper, we suggest Taking America Back for God where Perry and his college Andrew Whitehead dig into the nuances of Christian nationalism. We also suggest Paul Miller‘s The Religion of American Greatness for an in-depth historical and theological rebuttal against Christian nationalism.
DID YOU KNOW? Sunday to Saturday has a Good Reads page where we post all of the books we have read – even the ones that didn’t make the cut.
More curated books on Christian nationalism:
Many books taking on the subject of Christian nationalism identify, and rightly so, the idolatry, racism, and tribalism of the movement, but few theologically, academically, historically, and charitably dismantle the movement as well as Paul D. Miller, does in The Religion of American Greatness. But, dismantling Christian nationalism was not his sole goal in writing…Read more
Depending on the places you get your news or the social circles you run in the term Christian nationalism has a positive or negative connotation. With the explosion in conversation around the term since the January 6 insurrection, it is challenging to divorce the definition, good or bad, from today’s context. This is where Taking…Read more
Power of the sword versus power of the cross. Control of behavior versus transforming lives from the inside out. A tribal kingdom versus a universal kingdom. A tit-for-tat kingdom versus a returning evil with good kingdom. One set of characteristics describes a kingdom of the world while another details the distinct way of the kingdom…Read more