After the Jan. 6 insurrection, many wanted to understand how signs declaring “Jesus Saves” mixed with gallows and chants of “hang Mike Pence!” The answer, according to some sociologists and political analysts, was Christian nationalism.
Ever since Jan. 6, 2021, the term “Christian nationalism” has proliferated in discourse, but the precise definition is up for debate. Is Christian nationalism only applicable to those who welcome the label, like Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who sells “Proud Christian nationalist” t-shirts, and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler, who said he wasn’t going to run from Christian nationalism on a recent podcast episode? Or can it be applied to hanging images of Jesus in congressional offices and the post-rapture book and movie series Left Behind?
In their latest book, The Flag and the Cross, sociologists Samuel L. Perry and Philip Gorski explain Christian nationalism as a constellation of beliefs — that the founding of the United States was “divinely inspired” or that God is invested in the success of the U.S. — that manifest in political goals.
Christian nationalism, they write, exists on a spectrum, measured by agreement with statements like, “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation,” or “The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces.”
Strong agreement with these Christian nationalist statements, however, does not immediately manifest in the political goals that are a threat to democracy and pluralism; Gorski and Perry specifically identify “white Christian nationalism” as the threat. Christian nationalist beliefs alongside white racial identity creates the political vision that seeks hegemonic power for white people.
Gorski and Perry spoke with Sojourners’ associate news editor Mitchell Atencio to discuss critiques of their work, debates over terminology, and whether white Christian nationalism is solely a conservative ideology.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mitchell Atencio, Sojourners: What is the importance of the term “white Christian nationalism?” Why not use more historically popular terms like “white supremacy” or “Christo-fascism”?
Philip Gorski: This is a question that’s very much on Sam’s and my mind: Is white Christian nationalism just another way of saying “fascism, American-style?” There’s a quote, often misattributed to Sinclair Lewis, that “If fascism ever comes to America, it will come draped in the flag and carrying the cross.”
If you look at white supremacism historically, we tend to think of the Ku Klux Klan as an anti-Black organization — which, of course, it was — but it was also antisemitic, anti-Catholic, nativist. It was a white Christian nationalist organization. So it’s really tricky to think about this — both analytically and politically. How should we talk about that? I don’t have a settled opinion.
I do think that the one benefit of calling it “white Christian nationalism” has been that it has stimulated some productive and healthy debate among American Christians, connecting it to their faith traditions and making them think about whether or not there are assumptions they’ve been carrying around or a pair of political glasses that they’ve had on and helping them to maybe see that and reflect on that a little bit. I think that has been productive, but it still leaves a lot of open questions.
Samuel L. Perry: I’m with Phil. I don’t have a settled strong opinion on [the term] or some kind of stake in keeping the terminology as it is.
I think I have liked “white Christian nationalism” in that it allows these views to be considered as a spectrum of allegiance to this ideology that America is for people like “us,” meaning ethnically or culturally white conservative Christians.
I think people throw around the term, “Christo-fascism,” which, in my opinion, is rather unwieldy. Christo-fascism sounds ugly, and even broaching the topic of fascism is an immediate conversation stopper; it evokes the idea of literal Nazis. To try to ask somebody whether their political views or their cultural views approach fascism is a little bit different than saying white Christian nationalism can exist on a spectrum, and the more we move right on this spectrum of Christian nationalism, the more we approach something that we could call a nascent or proto fascism in that it links religion and nation and ethnicity in a very extreme way. I don’t necessarily think we need to jettison the terminology yet, but I’m not so wedded to it.
Early in the book you write that, “White Christian nationalism is one of the oldest and most powerful currents in American politics. But until the insurrection, it was invisible to most Americans.” As the term has become more visible, more popular, and more politicized, how do you hear folks misuse or abuse the term?
Samuel L. Perry: I think about this all the time. We have tried our best, honestly, to try to prevent [misuse.] We do this in a couple of ways.
First, I don’t really like calling people Christian nationalists; I prefer to talk about the ideology itself, and somebody could be more or less adherent to it. Calling somebody a Christian nationalist is like calling somebody a racist or a fascist — maybe it’s appropriate, and yet, at the same time, you better be ready for the conversation to stop there.
Ryan Burge, a political scientist, was bouncing around this tweet the other day, looking at the popularity of the term. Since Marjorie Taylor Greene referenced it, searches for the term have gone up.
If you’re left of center and you think anything on the right that smacks of authoritarianism or Christianity in politics is now “Christian nationalism” or “white Christian nationalism,” I think that’s dangerous.
We have tried our best to indicate that it is something concrete, it’s not a slur to throw at people we disagree with, it is something that is actually influencing people’s beliefs, and it is embedded in the system in some ways.
[Abuse of the term] is a real danger. We are trying our best to make sure we are specific when we use that term and encouraging other people to do that as well.
Philip Gorski: There’s two dangers. The first danger is conceptual overreach, that it turns into an umbrella insult that you hurl at people you don’t like — like [how the right uses] “socialism” or “woke.”
The other danger is that the term gets used too narrowly, that it gets reserved for only the most extreme manifestation.
So you say, “Christian nationalism, that’s Doug Mastriano.” Yes, but that is an extreme version of it. And, as Samuel emphasized, it is a spectrum. There are folks who might not hold views as extreme as Mastriano who are nevertheless nodding along when they hear him talking. If one danger is exaggerating the threat, the other is minimizing the threat.
Going forward — not just for academic reasons, but for political reasons — it’s gonna become important to start talking about kindred ideologies that are similar, but not identical to, Christian nationalism so that it doesn’t become this catchall term for every variety of conservatism that a secular progressive doesn’t like.
Is white Christian nationalism always conservative?
Philip Gorski: One of the interesting things that I discovered doing the research for this for [my previous book] American Covenant and The Flag and the Cross was that the big cheerleaders for Christian nationalism in the United States 100 to 150 years ago were not conservative Protestants; they were liberal Protestants.
I was reading about some of the debates within American Protestant denominations about America’s entry into World War I, and discovered that Shailer Mathews — a prominent liberal Protestant theologian in the interwar years and dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School for several decades — was on a barnstorming tour on behalf of Woodrow Wilson talking up American entry into the war. By the same token, some of the most vocal opponents of American engagement in World War I were conservative white evangelicals from the South, folks who were also proponents of the fundamentalist project that emerged during that period. So it’s not the case that [white Christian nationalism] has always been a conservative white evangelical thing.
Another kind of interesting figure in this regard is William Jennings Bryan, the three-time unsuccessful Democratic candidate for president — who many also remember as the person who was a prosecution witness in the Scopes Monkey Trials. He was somebody who had very conservative theological beliefs, which we would now think of as fundamentalist or evangelical. And yet he was very progressive on many things — with the very important exception of race.
How does that all get reshuffled in a way that Christian nationalism becomes not a liberal Protestant thing, but a conservative Protestant thing? How do conservative evangelicals become cheerleaders for America? How do they then reconcile that role with open support for white supremacism and Jim Crow and racial segregation?
Samuel L. Perry: We do find, in survey after survey, that Black Americans usually score just as high, if not sometimes higher, than white Americans on our indicators for Christian nationalism. But one of the things that is obvious as soon as you dig into the data is that those questions are interpreted differently for Black Americans compared to white Americans.
Black Americans tend to read questions on Christian nationalism through the lens of civil religion — an aspirational ideal, a “wouldn’t it be great if America actually lived up to its professed values to be this kind of Christian nation.” The kind of language, frankly, that you hear from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Frederick Douglass. The aspirational language is accountability.
White Americans hear the language of Christian nationalism — “Christian nation,” “Christian heritage,” or “Christian values” — and they perceive a nostalgia, or it makes them think nostalgically for when “people like us,” held political and cultural influence. They think, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could go back to America as we knew it?” It evokes this kind of idea that the right culture is losing and on the defensive and that we need to take something back to gain something that was lost. As far as the data suggests, I think there’s a powerful difference between Christian nationalism as we see it manifested in historically disadvantaged minority groups versus in white Americans.
I don’t like throwing around the term “nationalism in a positive way” — because in most people’s minds it means “our nation above all the others” — but there are positive manifestations of nationalism when it means people are advocating for their own liberty, freedom, and sovereignty over their own personhood.
Christian nationalism within a context of historically disadvantaged minority groups is more of that positive nationalism. Whereas, with white Americans, it’s more of an ethno-nationalism that is illiberal.
Part of what I hear you saying is that historically marginalized groups wouldn’t see the Christian nationalist statements as about returning to a time where they had less rights, but rather as an aspiration.
Samuel L. Perry: Spot on. And I’ll give you an example. My colleague Cyrus Schleifer and I were looking at some data that asked Americans if we should support our country even when it’s wrong.
And we found that the more white Americans subscribe to Christian nationalist ideology, the more likely they are to affirm that statement. So for them, Christian nationalism is about a country that is morally pure, sacred, and something that you defend as good. “It has to be good because it’s our country.”
African Americans and Latinos though, when they affirm Christian nationalist ideology, it doesn’t make them any more likely to say we should support the country when it’s wrong. African Americans and Latinos/Hispanics don’t equate Christian nationalism with the idea that my country has always been good, has always been a force for good, or always been on the side of good. They know that’s not the case.
Are there any particularly good critiques of your work or of the book?
Samuel L. Perry: None that I can think of — I’m just kidding! This is a great thing to talk about. Academic books aren’t supposed to be Bibles where they’re the last word on a subject. Ideally academic works — especially works of sociology — are based in the best data that we have available, the best construction of concepts and arrangement of variables, and so on. And sometimes we get better data. Sometimes we get better measures. So I think it’s really important to acknowledge that we are watching change before our eyes. People are discussing this. We are going to look back at that book and say, “Gosh, I wish we had given more attention to this or that.” So that’s a blanket statement I would say over any academic work.
Philip Gorski: The one point that’s been raised to me a couple of times, most insightfully by Joseph Lowndes at the University of Oregon, of what to do with figures like Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.). [Lowndes has asked,] “In what sense is white Christian nationalism white? Are you really sure that you’ve nailed that? Maybe it’s becoming something other than “white.”
Some believe “white” is people who identify as white and people who would be identified by others as white. And then, at the other end of the spectrum, there is thinking about whiteness as a culture or ideology. In that line of thought, a person of color could be white culturally; I don’t think we really thought through that carefully enough.
I also wish we could gather more data on how the racial order is in flux right now. One question that’s really on my mind is about Latinos — particularly evangelical and Pentecostal Latinos. Latino itself is already a kind of problematic category because people come from all different countries, some people’s ancestors have been here 250 years, some have been here two and a half years, so why should we expect all those people to think the same? These questions are about whiteness and in what sense it is changing. Is Christian nationalism becoming “color blind?”
Samuel L. Perry: Another thing we would expand on, and this is something I’m now turning my own work toward, is white Christian nationalism as a political strategy.
For example, Donald Trump wouldn’t consider himself a white Christian nationalist in that he really believes those kinds of things. I don’t think Trump believes in anything except “winners and losers,” “victory,” and “ratings,” but he sure as heck knows that white Christian nationalism is an effective strategy. He knows the rhetoric of Christian nationalism and a lot of Trump surrogates and copycat Republican progeny have embraced that rhetoric and language.
Often people are wondering, “Hey, is this white Christian nationalism?” when [politicians] seize upon religious rhetoric in a political context. And that’s not exactly what we mean by white Christian nationalism. We’re referring to the use of “us versus them” language to make a claim about a country that once was “ours,” that “we’re trying to take back,” that “rightfully belongs to people like us.”
All of that is to say: It’s unfair, a mischaracterization, and really a dodge to look at the Black church and say, “Oh, they do Christian nationalism all the time.” That’s not really how we’re describing it. [The Black church] is not trying to go back to a time that they feel nostalgia for, a time where the “right people” were in power and they wanna take it back. They actually just want the country to live up to its supposed founding ideals. I don’t think that’s really in the proximate range of any kind of Christian nationalism.