An op ed piece by sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry uploaded yesterday to Time magazine’s website connects some important dots. Authors of Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (Oxford, 2020), they conclude white Christian nationalism is “fundamentally a threat to a pluralistic, democratic society.”
Here’s what I shared to Facebook this morning:
This essay in Time magazine is crucially important, as sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry connect the dots between the Jan. 6 insurrection, the GOP suppression bills in 47 state legislatures and white Christian nationalism, a growing movement that sees immigrants, people of color and religious minorities as a threat to their political power. Their nut graf(s): “For all their rhetoric of ensuring “fair elections” and claims of “proven voter fraud,” one might believe that these Americans, the insurrectionists and lawmakers and the millions who support their efforts, are driven by an abiding passion for democracy.”
“But that’s not what the data tell us. Or history.
“In order to understand what led to the deadly Capitol insurrection and the spate of proposed voting laws we must account for the influence of Christian nationalism, a political theology that fuses American identity with an ultra-conservative strain of Christianity. But this Christianity is something more than the orthodox Christianity of ancient creeds; it is more of an ethnic Christian-ism. In its most extreme form it legitimizes the type of violence we saw on Jan. 6 and the recent flood of voting restrictions. Violence and legislation not in service of democracy, but instead for fundamentally anti-democratic goals.”
I think it also ties back to my study of Swedish immigrant churches in the 1850s, another time of swift political transition, polarization, hostility to immigrants and religious minorities, and even an epidemic (cholera). I have to give more thought, but the early stirrings of white Christian nationalism in the 19th century connect some important dots to the 17th-century New England Calvinists before then and the self-identified “religious right” of today. For example, Whitehead and Perry say this about today’s Christian nationalism:
As a political theology that co-opts Christian narratives and symbolism, Christian nationalism has its own version of the “elect,” those chosen by God. They are “people like us,” meaning conservative Christian, but also white, natural-born citizens. Moreover, in a prosperous nation, only “the elect” should control the political process while others must be closely scrutinized, discouraged, or even denied access. This ideology is fundamentally a threat to a pluralistic, democratic society.
It is important to note that by “Christian nationalists” we don’t necessarily mean all white theologically conservative Christian groups. In fact, we show in our book that traditional indicators of religious commitment and Christian nationalism oftentimes influence people in opposite directions. The threat generally comes from Christian nationalism, embraced by many conservative Christians as well as non-Christians, rather than from all committed Christians.
Though its modern-day proponents might not be so explicit to speak in terms of “the elect” or chosen citizens, throughout our nation’s history and even before, Christian nationalism has sought privilege for and ascribed moral worth to an “us” (white, natural-born, cultural conservatives) over and against a “them” (everyone else). It baptizes a quest for power and privilege in the public sphere predicated on ensuring only certain Americans feel welcome to fully participate in civic life. This includes voting, the cornerstone of any functioning democracy.
They say it traces it back through Jim Crow to the time of the Civil War. I would push it back a little farther, at least to the violent anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant furor from the 1830s through the 1850s … even to Puritan New England, where the franchise was limited to church members, who had to document a conversion experience qualifing them for the “elect” in the theological sense. Whitehead and Perry don’t take it that far back, though. Their focus is primarily to today’s polarization, and its origins in race relations since the time of the Civil War:
These ideas were powerful even before the November 2020 election. The election aftermath where Trump and his supporters continuously pushed false charges of election fraud only served to reinforce and activate them. It is no surprise, then, that so many Americans who embrace Christian nationalism and support Trump were ready to believe any narrative of a stolen election.
Read More: The Secret Bipartisan Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election [I’m leaving in this excerpt an embedded link to a Time cover story on coordinated legal efforts to challenge ex-President Trump’s efforts to overturn the election in the courts, both after Nov. 3 and during the months running up to the vote when Trump telegraphed he was going to try to overturn it.]
The relationship between Christian nationalism and anti-democratic attitudes has a long history in this country. Limiting access to voting and employing violence in order to disrupt the democratic process are not aberrations. After the Civil War and throughout the years of Jim Crow, Christian leaders routinely provided the theological arguments needed to rationalize limiting Black Americans’ access to participation in the democratic process. They explicitly tied these efforts to their desire to protect the purity of a “Christian” nation.
Whitehead and Perry based their study on survey data, and they work the cross tabs pretty hard … saying 20 percent of adult Americans, about 30 million people (whom they call “Ambassadors”), share the premises of Christian nationalism. This, they say, puts them in broad agreement with the premises behind the political agenda of Trump’s MAGA movement.
The threat of Christian nationalism is buried within the seemingly harmless language of “heritage,” “culture,” and “values.” But within this language is an implicit understanding of civic belonging and relative worth. Study after study shows Christian nationalism is strongly associated with attitudes concerning proper social hierarchies by religion, race, and nativity. These views naturally extend to whom Americans think should have the right to participate in the political process and whether everyone should have equal access to voting.
Pair this hierarchical thinking with the propensity of Americans who embrace Christian nationalism to believe in conspiracy theories, trust Donald Trump above all other sources of information, and baptize violence in the name of protecting the United States. Doing so illuminates why so many would support a violent insurrection in the name of Jesus or pass laws aimed at limiting minorities’ access to the democratic process in opposition to the results of a fair and free election.
White Christian nationalists see the nation as their own both historically and theologically and so any Presidential election that does not produce the desired result must be illegitimate. True patriots, in this understanding, have the right―the duty, even―to take it back, by force if necessary.
Whitehead and Perry conclude — I think quite accurately — by saying Christian nationalism long preceded Trump and will long outlast him:
This threat will not disappear, no matter which party controls the three branches of the federal government. Christian nationalism will not fade into obscurity any time soon. It has survived over decades and permeates much of our civic life and culture. The violent, anti-democratic impulses of Christian nationalism still course through the veins of our body politic, waiting for the next opportunistic strongman willing to put them to use.
Just as the January 6th insurrection and recent voting laws are not aberrations but a reflection of similar events in our nation’s history, they too may be a bellwether of events to come if we do not acknowledge and confront Christian nationalism. Our democracy is at stake.
Citation: Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, “The Growing Anti-Democratic Threat of Christian Nationalism in the U.S.,” Time, May 27, 2021 https://time.com/6052051/anti-democratic-threat-christian-nationalism/.