The Jericho March and the Capitol Riot of Jan. 6th both produced a surge of interest in “Christian nationalism.” Whitehead’s and Perry’s Taking America Back for God attempts to define, characterize, and explain this phenomenon. Although there is undeniably a real, dangerous form of religious belief which syncretizes patriotism with Christianity, their book casts too wide of a net and fails to grapple with even basic questions of political theology. As a result, it offers a handful of helpful insights but ultimately obscures discussions of “Christian nationalism” both inside and outside the church.
What is “Christian nationalism”?
Any debate over “Christian nationalism” has to begin with definitions. While the authors recognize that “Christian nationalism” is “not a single idea… but rather a more dynamic ideology incorporating a number of beliefs and values,” (p. 7) they do offer the following definition: “Simply put, Christian nationalism is a cultural framework–a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems–that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civil life” (p. 10). They go on to state that Christian nationalism “includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism….[it] contends that America has been and should always be distinctively ‘Christian'” (p. 10).
Given this definition, we must next ask “how can Christian nationalism be measured?” Most of the authors’ conclusions were based on a 2017 survey which asked participants to respond to six statements (see above) with “strongly disagree,” “disagree,” “unsure,” “agree,” or “strongly agree.” Each answer was scored on a scale from 0 to 4 and the results were totaled, so that each participant was placed on a scale from 0 (lowest support for Christian nationalism) to 24 (highest support Christian nationalism). To facilitate interpretation of data, the authors then grouped participants into four categories by total score: Rejecters (0-5), Resisters (6-11), Accommodators (12-17), and Ambassadors (18-24). Each category represented approximately one-quarter of the U.S. population (21.5%, 26.6%, 32.1%, and 19.8% respectively). Accommodators and Ambassadors were both characterized as being “supportive” of “Christian nationalism” while Resisters and Rejecters “opposed” Christian nationalism.
This survey formed the basis for the bulk of the book’s analysis. What should we think of it?
First, many of the questions contained serious ambiguities. For example, is the statement “the federal government should advocate Christian values” in Question 2 asking about “Christian values” in general, which are often shared by other religions, or about “uniquely Christian values”? The survey doesn’t clarify, but this distinction makes a huge difference. Nearly everyone thinks that U.S. law should recognize that murder is immoral, which is surely a Christian value. But few Christians think that U.S. law should recognize that premarital sex or blasphemy is immoral, although these are also Christian values. Our answer to Question 2 will then depend on how we interpret the ambiguous phrase “Christian values.”
Or take the statement in Question 5, “The success of the U.S. is part of God’s plan.” Is this true? It depends on what the authors have in mind. A biblical view of God’s sovereignty entails that everything, whether the success of the U.S. or the rapid industrialization of China or the death of a sparrow, is part of God’s plan. What the authors really seem to be asking is whether the United States’ success is a reward for obedience.
Or what about the statement in Question 6, “The federal government should allow prayer in public schools”? Well, obviously, they should allow prayer in schools; isn’t the real question whether prayer should be mandated or led by a teacher?
Of course, participants could try to guess what the researchers meant when they asked these questions, but the necessity of this kind of guess-work is exactly what social scientists should try to prevent by asking clear questions. It’s possible that the authors were constrained in reproducing the wording of previous surveys for continuity’s sake. But because of the questions’ ambiguity, we often have no idea how they were interpreted by those who responded. Two people who “strongly agree” and “strongly disagree” with the “strict separation of church and state” might actually hold identical beliefs but might simply be interpreting “strict separation” in two different ways.
Second, because of how responses were scored, a person who marked “unsure” for all six questions, would receive a total score of 12, and would consequently be classified as an “Accommodator” who is “supportive” of Christian nationalism. That doesn’t make much sense.
While we might dismiss these considerations as nitpicking, they seem to have had serious consequences with regard to who was classified as supportive of “Christian nationalism,” as we’ll see in the next section.
Who is a “Christian nationalist”?
When people warn about the dangers of “Christian nationalism,” they usually have a particular profile, or at least particular images, in mind: Rabid QAnon fans. A man roaming the U.S. Capitol wearing Viking horns. Tiki torches at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.
While Whitehead and Perry do acknowledge the uncertainty and ambiguity of their four categories, they seem to affirm this same understanding of “Christian nationalism.” For instance, they make statements like: “Christian nationalism [is] Christianity co-opted in the service of ethno-national power and separation” (p. 145). Or “Christian nationalism… co-opts Christian language and iconography in order to cloak particular political or social ends in moral and religious symbolism” (p. 153). Or “Those who embrace Christian nationalism insist that the Christian God formed, favors, and sustains the United States over and above the other nations of the world” (p. 164). Or, quoting sociologist Philip Gorski, “[Christian nationalism] is political idolatry dressed up as religious orthodoxy” (p. 21).
Taken altogether, this characterization seems to fit how most people use the term “Christian nationalism” colloquially. But if that’s the case, we need to ask whether the survey created by the authors actually measures “Christian nationalism” in the sense that it’s understood by most people and by the authors themselves. To put it another way, is the survey identifying only those people who support “co-opting Christianity in the service of ethnonational power and separation”? Based on the authors’ results, I’m skeptical.
For example, we would expect (or fear) that Evangelical Protestants would overwhelmingly support “Christian nationalism” and that is indeed what the survey shows: 77% of Evangelicals Protestants are supportive of “Christian nationalism” (38% Accommodators, 39% Ambassadors). However, other survey data is surprising. The survey also found that 67% of Black Protestants (40%, 38%), 52% of Mainline Protestants (22%, 19%), 41% of “Other” (32%, 9%), 21% of Jews (20%, 2%), and 13% of “No [religious] affiliation” (10%, 2%) are supportive of “Christian nationalism.” Surely, if 21% of Jews can be characterized as “supportive of Christian nationalism” something is amiss.
Other results are even more surprising. While 81% of Republicans are supportive of Christian Nationalism (44% Accommodators, 37% Ambassadors), so are 42% of Independents (28%, 14%), and 38% of Democrats (27%, 11%). Again, do we really think that 38% of Democrats are supportive of “co-opting Christianity in the service of ethno-national power”?
Similarly, Donald Trump is the figure most strongly associated with contemporary “Christian nationalism” and he is discussed at length in the book. Yet ~38% (~47%, ~23%) of people who were “supportive of Christian nationalism” did not vote for President Trump in 2016.
Most surprising of all, using Whitehead’s and Perry’s data, Blacks are slightly more supportive of Christian nationalism than whites: “Sixty-five percent of African Americans are supportive of Christian nationalism, which is the largest proportion of any racial group” (p. 41, see above). If we examine the data in more detail, Blacks had a slightly higher proportion of Ambassadors (those with the highest levels of support for Christian nationalism) than Whites: 21.2% vs. 20.8%. They also had a significantly lower proportion of Rejecters (those with the lowest levels of support for Christian nationalism) than Whites: 8.8% vs. 24.2%.
In summary, Whitehead’s and Perry’s methods find that 38% of Democrats, 67% of Black Protestants, and 21% of Jews are supportive of “Christian Nationalism,” that 38% of people who were supportive of Christian nationalism didn’t vote for Trump, and that Blacks are more supportive of “Christian nationalism” than Whites. Given these results, I think we should question what they’re actually measuring.
Why is “Christian nationalism” bad?
At the beginning of the book, the authors make an important observation: sociology should primarily be a descriptive, not a prescriptive, endeavor. In other words, sociologists should try their best to impartially describe what is the case instead of prescribing what ought to be the case. Of course, no work of sociology can be completely impartial, and that is certainly true of Taking America Back for God. Like most people, the authors view “Christian nationalism” as a corruption of genuine Christianity. After all, the authors’ repeated claim that Christian nationalism “co-opts” Christianity for political ends implicitly assumes that Christianity’s primary ends are not political. I happen to agree with this sentiment, but it is a theological judgment. So where does it come from? Unfortunately, the authors never say because they engage in no explicit political theology (and really, no explicit theology of any kind).
This omission is troubling because the author’s implicit theology shows up in a number of places. For example, the authors write: “Today ‘religious liberty’ is being redefined to mean something more than the freedom to worship (or not) a particular God or gods in a certain way. Various Christian legal defense organizations and the clients they represent argue that religious liberty is the freedom or right to follow the dictates of one’s religion in the public sphere” (p. 119). This passage is remarkable given that it is precisely backwards. Freedom of religion has traditionally meant “freedom to practice one’s religion in the public sphere” and has only recently been reinterpreted by some to mean “freedom of private worship” (see, for example, McConnell’s lengthy historical survey in “The Origins and Historical Understanding of Free Exercise of Religion,” Harvard Law Review 1409, 1989; H/T Timon Cline).
But apart from this historical perspective, the authors are making an implicit theological claim: Christians must not impose their beliefs on others or bring them into the public square. Why think this claim is correct? Although the authors mention in passing that “Christian nationalism” did not begin with Donald Trump in 2016 or even with the Moral Majority in the 1980s, their earliest historical reference is to early 20th-century Dutch Prime minister Abraham Kuyper. They say nothing about the close relationship between church and state in Puritan New England or about the lengthy discussions of the role of the Civil Magistrate by the 16th-17th century Reformers or about the theology behind Roman Catholic control of Europe during the entire Medieval period. I’m not arguing here that any of these views were correct, but history shows that the modern secular nation-state is the historical anomaly, not “Christian nationalism.”
To be clear, I firmly believe that a robust (but precisely-defined) separation of church and state is important, primarily for the spiritual health of the Church. Unfortunately, the authors never make such an argument and simply take it for granted that the views of “Christian nationalists” are attempts to “co-opt Christianity.”
Finally, I’m not convinced that the authors are particularly consistent in their thinking about “separation of church and state” and “keeping religion out of politics.” As many theologians have pointed out, the idea that we should keep “religious” values out of the public square is naïve at best and discriminatory at worst. All laws are rooted in some foundational system of value that cannot be empirically demonstrated and that not all people share. Try telling an orthodox Marxist that private property ought to be protected or an LGBTQ activist that you shouldn’t be compelled to use anyone’s preferred pronouns, and you’ll discover that people disagree quite strongly on even basic questions. Consequently, the law will unavoidably privilege some values and exclude others. The idea that we can have laws based on no values at all is a pipe dream.
For this reason, it seems inconsistent for Whitehead and Perry to talk about how “Christian nationalists” seek to impose their values on public policy without recognizing that all people are imposing values on public policy, in one way or another. To take two prominent examples, the authors show that support for “Christian nationalism” correlates strongly with the belief that “Abortion is always wrong, even if the family cannot afford the child” writing “only religious commitment is more predictive of [peoples’] views [on abortion] than Christian nationalism” (p. 75). They also argue that Christian nationalism “glorifies the patriarchal, heterosexual family as not only God’s biblical standard, but the cornerstone of all thriving civilizations” (p. 152), which is why support for Christian nationalism is strongly correlated with opposition to same-sex marriage (p. 133).
In both these cases, the authors seem to take it for granted that, in contrast to “Christian nationalists,” Rejecters and Resisters do not want to impose their values on society. But this simply isn’t the case. A pro-choice Resister wants to codify a particular value (the value of the woman’s “right to choose”) into law. A pro-same-sex-marriage Rejecter wants the legal definition of marriage to reflect his beliefs about sexuality. Even a libertarian who believes that the government should not take any position on a particular issue is implicitly saying that the value of freedom ought to be paramount (and even libertarians have their breaking points; they don’t think the government should refrain from taking a position on the enforcement of private contracts.) No one’s political views are value-free.
To put it another way, a politically-liberal Christian who advocates for open borders, gun control, and universal health care shouldn’t excoriate “Christian nationalists” for trying to “impose their values on society.” This is especially true given that politically-liberal Christians will, when pressed, often insist that Jesus would support their public policy recommendations and will invoke the Old Testament prophets in defense of them. In reality, both groups of Christians are seeking to codify a particular set of values into law, values that they attempt to derive from their Christian beliefs. The only difference is that “Christian nationalists” do so explicitly.
Lest I be misunderstood, I’m not trying to argue here that the policy prescriptions of “Christian nationalists” are right or wrong (although it’s certainly eye-opening that Whitehead and Perry see opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage as hallmarks of “Christian nationalism”). I am mainly trying to prevent Christians from imbibing the false and foolish idea that we need to keep our religious beliefs out of the public square, as if that were even possible. Moreover, I want to prevent people from browbeating Christians with the charge of “Christian nationalism” if we don’t walk in lockstep with progressive values. By all means, let’s debate issues of immigration, gun control, tax policy, abortion, and same-sex marriage. But let’s not allow anyone to use “Christian nationalism” as a conversation stopper.
Despite its shortcomings, there are positive aspects of Whitehead’s and Perry’s book which are worth noting.
First, Whitehead and Perry are emphatic that their “Christian nationalist” categories do not constitute monolithic groups (p. 38). Similarly, they insist that pollsters should be much more circumspect in talking about “evangelicals” or “white evangelicals”: “Being an evangelical was not an important predictor of which Americans voted for Donald Trump in 2016; supporting Christian nationalism was” (p. 20). And “It is inaccurate to assume, as many have done recently, that ‘white evangelical’ is synonymous with Christian nationalism or that all Democrats want religion banished from the public sphere” (p. 44). This is a welcome and much-needed clarification.
Second, as of the writing of this book, they do not see evidence that Christian nationalism has grown significantly in the recent past or that it will grow significantly in the future: “[Evidence] points to a long-term trend of slow but stable decline in the past 30 years regarding support for Christian nationalism” (47-48). ” “[T]his evidence leads us to question anyone who believes a large-scale increase in support for Christian nationalism is imminent” (p. 51). These statements should quell fears that the U.S. is just one mid-term election away from a Handsmaid’s Tale dystopia.
Third, Whitehead and Perry call attention to a real problem, even if it is obscured by their definition. On Twitter, Perry pointed out that 68.4% of white born-again or evangelical Christians affirmed that “I consider founding documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to be divinely inspired.” This is a very alarming statistic and I was disappointed that it was not mentioned in the book (it was part of a later survey). Most depressing of all, 28% of white Accommodators said that they would be “not at all comfortable if [their] daughter married someone who is black” (p. 101), a statistic that is sadly consistent with numerous other surveys on interracial marriage. Criticism of this book or of the authors’ conceptualization of “Christian nationalism” should not cause us to turn a blind eye to problems like these.
Finally, Taking America Back for God offers an important, indirect lesson for those of us who are concerned about the inroads that critical race theory is making in the church. In response to outcry over the Jericho March and the Capitol Hill Riot, many evangelicals worried that they would be unfairly tarred with the brush of “Christian nationalism.” They expressed concern that the term was often poorly-defined and was being used as nothing more than a bludgeon and a scare-tactic. But the same concerns apply to the label of “critical race theory.” It’s legitimate to worry that vague accusations of “critical race theory” or “intersectionality” will be used to silence disagreement, just as it’s legitimate to worry that vague accusations of “Trumpism” or “Christian nationalism” will be used to silence disagreement. The solution to both problems is to focus on ideas rather than on labels. Rather than asking whether some claim is “Critical Race Theory” or “Christian nationalism,” we should ask “is it true?” “is it biblical?” and “is it supported by evidence?”
Given that no single definition of “Christian nationalism” exists, it’s a difficult label to apply. Moreover, the particular way in which Whitehead and Perry operationalize “Christian nationalism” is far too broad. It correlates both with good, biblical perspectives (“abortion is wrong”) and bad, unbiblical ones (“interracial marriage/adoption is wrong”). It can be based on both orthodox theology (“Christians should work for just laws”) and heterodox theology (“America is God’s chosen nation”). As with “critical race theory,” I’d urge Christians to be as precise as possible rather than leveling imprecise attacks against nebulous targets.