Flag and Cross
The title for this post (and series) sounds like a British pub’s name but it isn’t. It’s the name of a new, important book that will be the featured book of our next Tov Book Club. The book is by two professors, Philip Gorski and Samuel Perry, and their new book is called The Flag and the Cross. I became aware of Perry first in a book he wrote with Andrew Whitehead called Taking America Back for God, and then I became aware of some earlier work by Gorski, especially his two books American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present, and American Babylon: Christianity and Democracy Before and After Trump.
Yes, these books are political. Yes, they forge the power of Christian thinking for analyzing the trends of the American populist support of Christian nationalism.
Christian nationalism is a threat, they contend, to American democracy. That’s accurate. What is even more accurate is that it is a threat to the American church. For this reason this book will be featured as our next book club selection. Click through the link above to The Flag and the Cross and purchase this short, very very readable book. Pastors and professors need to get a solid grip on Christian nationalism and then discern how best to preach and teach in a way that turns it on its head.
The subtitle to Gorski & Perry is White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy. This is an introductory newsletter about the book with four more (at least) to come. I will make use of their introduction for what follows.
Their point of entry, which in my view is both undeniable and shocking, is what happened at the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
The symbols – their terms here – involved were things like a wooden cross with a wooden gallows, Christian flags along with Confederate flags, as well as “Jesus Saves” and “Don’t Tread on Me.” Christian nationalism is an old American platform, mostly invisible however to most conservative Christians. But no longer. Progressives were in their “bubble” and the bubble has popped with the insurrection. The news stories are constant: Trump fanned the flames and incited his followers.
America is changing and this form of nationalism wants to reverse the trends. There is however an unstoppable “slow-moving demographic and cultural” movement and the nation is becoming less white and more diverse and more secular and less Christian, and the nation itself is “less powerful and more unequal.”
Stories rule the news and the people. What is white Christian nationalism’s deep story (they borrow here from Arlie Russell Hochschild):
Their “deep story” goes something like this: people like them have been standing in line, waiting patiently for their chance at the American dream. But up ahead, they see people cutting in line-immigrants and minorities and other people who haven’t paid their dues. What’s worse, they see politicians helping the line-cutters, liberal politicians like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. So, they vote for conservative politicians who (they believe) will send those people to the back of the line where they belong. The unstated (and incorrect) assumption is that “white people were here first.” The deep story sounds a lot like “Make American Great Again.” It helps explain why so many rural whites voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and again in 2020.
The deep story is more myth than history. It is in fact a “mythological version of history.”
White Christian nationalism’s “deep story” 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.
The story has heroes and villains, especially the “outsiders.” The plot is defend the purity of the nation’s history and story, and defending can mean violence. It is only Christian because most of its proponents claim to be Christians. Yet, not all are Christians. There are secular versions of nationalism and white nationalism.
These folks have “strong views” on a variety of not-always-coherent issues, like “racial discrimination, religious freedom, government regulation, socialism, the welfare state, COVID lockdowns, voting, and the Capitol insurrection.”
What connects their stances on these issues is “freedom [in a libertarian sense], order, and violence.
We can now start to see how the various pieces of the political vision fit together. Government regulation infringes on the freedoms of white Christians. So do mask mandates and COVID lockdowns. “Urban crime” and “racial riots” threaten the social order. They must be met with force by the police or, barring that, by good Christian men. Thus, the need for access to firearms. The general principle is this: white men must sometimes exercise righteous violence to defend (their) freedom and maintain social (and racial) order. It is freedom for “us” and authoritarian social order for “them.”
Yes, if you wonder about this as I do, “end times theology” is connected to some of these stances. Violence may be needed if turns into a “bloody battle.” Noticeably, some now are against the American instinct for majority rule, and this shift correlates to the weakening of their majority. While they are doing this, progressives now more and more want a strict majority rule.
White Christian nationalism is NOT:
· Christian patriotism, which is about loyalty to constitution and nation, not to one’s tribe at the expense of expelling others.
· White evangelicalism, which is larger with clear voices opposed to white Christian nationalism. A good example now is Al Mohler who was a never Trumper until the day he wasn’t, which correlated with his constituency. Lots of non evangelicals are into white Christian nationalism.
· White Christians. There are secular versions of this form of nationalism.
The fight is at the heart. Nice line: “Pence had the faith, but Trump had the fight.” Their “goal is power, not piety…. They wanted a fighter for Christians (read: people like us), not someone who fights like a Christian.”