Yesterday I pulled up Miroslav Volf’s For the Life of the World podcast because it was interviewing Jemar Tisby. I am very familiar with Jemar (and his book Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism). But I thought this was still a good interview and especially if you are not familiar with his book and work.
Because I was driving, I let it keep playing to last week’s podcast because I had not heard it. Volf was interviewing Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, sociologists of religion, talking about their recent book “Taking America Back for God”. The book is about Christian Nationalism. And the podcast gives a very good overview but doesn’t delve deeply into the argument. I immediately bought the audiobook and just finished listening to the book.
Short version: these two have developed a measure of Christian Nationalism and have used it in large scale surveys in 2007 and 2017 as well as compared it to other measures of Christian Nationalism. They believe that Christian Nationalism is the best predictor of voting for Trump in 2016 and will also be a good predictor for 2020. They also believe that White Evangelicals is not a good predictor of voting for Trump because many while many Christian Nationalists are evangelicals, not all evangelicals are Christian nationalists.
Christian nationalists and those that lean in that direction make up a majority of Evangelicals, and there are many factors in why that is true, but Christian Nationalists are present in many parts of the Christian church and even some that do not identify as Christian, but who view Christian nationalism as a type of American identify. Where I find the argument interesting is in the other associations with Christian nationalism, that overlap with (but are not necessarily the same as voting for Trump).
According to the authors, there are three aspects of Christian nationalism, power, boundaries, and order. (These are tendencies, so not every person that is a Christian Nationalist is deterministically someone that agrees to all of the following and those that follow any or all of the following are not necessarily Christian Nationalists, but they do hold explanatory power). Christian Nationalists tend to see political power as important and are primarily interested in the results of nationalism’s expression, not as much in the means to get there. So using Trump as an example, they don’t care that much about the ‘pussy-grabbing’ and racist language, although they may find it distasteful, as long as the judges are appointed and the power is wielded.
Secondly, (White) Christian Nationalists draw boundaries. They are not in favor of immigrants, especially refugees, who they see as likely to be Muslim or in other ways counter to their view of what it means to be an American. They distrust Muslims in particular because they are afraid of terrorism and violence, but also other immigrants from places like Central or South America (who tend to be Protestant Christian at fairly high rates) because they are still “other”. And within the US, Christian Nationalists tend to have a White normative view of what it means to be American, so Black and other racial minorities in the US are still ‘other’ and not ‘real Americans’.
(They don’t spend as much time as I wish they would like on this, but they differentiate Black Christian nationalists, who lean toward Christian Nationalism at very high rates, but who use the ideas and language of Christian nationalism as a means of inclusion, not exclusion. So Black Christian nationalists use the ideas of Christian nationalism as a means of saying that Black Americans are, in fact, fully American and not as a way to exclude others from the designation.)
The third feature is an understanding of Order. This includes not only prioritizing policing and authority (Blue Lives Matter types of sentiment) but also family order and community uniformity. They tend to be patriarchal in family order and point to a normative nuclear family as essential to being American in their understanding. They would see breakdowns of the family not as a result of poverty but as a cause of poverty.
The order part also applies to resistance toward gay marriage, neighborhood or school integration, and interracial families, not only interracial marriage but also interracial adoption as contrary to the social order.
Like many sociology books, it is more about description than a solution or prescription. And they call for more research. But there is some discussion about how people that are attracted to nationalistic ideas can be drawn toward more empathy and understanding. But this feels like a significant factor when thinking about the resistance of White Christians in particular to understanding issues of racism. It feels like those that are lower on the Christian nationalism scale are likely those that are more likely to already be in discussions about race and are already crossing boundaries.
At the same time, this points out some of the broader tendencies within the church that seem to be failing in regard to race. Groups like the National Day of Prayer, family advocacy groups like Focus on the Family, and those that highly value institutions will be more likely to have staff and supporters that are high on the Christian nationalism scale.
I was pretty involved in Mission America as a young adult. Through that, I knew several that were on planning committees for National Day of Prayer and many local prayer breakfast groups. As I became disillusioned from these groups for a number of reasons (but mostly from their dominionist theology and utilitarian thinking), I was still Facebook friends or in-person acquaintances with these people.
I started to see how they responded to Obama as an “other” and dangerous (I lived in Hyde Part where Obama was from, I met him first in 1997, long before he became famous and I knew many people from Trinity Church where Obama went and knew that it was not a dangerously radical church.) Most of those relationships faded over time naturally as I moved from Chicago and was no longer involved with Mission America or pastors prayer groups as part of my job. But a few still exist, and this book really felt like it explains many people to me.
One feature discussed in the podcast is that Nationalists groups in Europe tend to be only culturally Christian. Still, many Christian Nationalists in the US are devote, regularly attend church, see their faith as important, but also have an orthopraxy problem with their faith. Some are solely culturally Christian, but at least among those that identify as Evangelical or Catholic or Mainline Protestant, many are still very active in participating with their faith.
Taking America Back For God is clear that most would not self identify as Christian Nationalists, although some would. The groups are based on the answers to six questions and then coded into groups based on the cumulative scores of these questions:
1) The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation.
2) The federal government should advocate Christian values
3) The Federal Government should enforce strict separation of church and state (reverse coded)
4) The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces
5) The success of the United States is part of God’s plan
6) The federal government should allow prayer in public schools