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A Careful Critique

Review of "Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States"

Flags at the front of churches and Bibles waving at political rallies are common place in the United States, and two thirds of Americans agree with the statement “America is a Christian nation” (according to a 2013 poll). That level of fusion between love of God and love of country, however, does not explain why many, in the name of Christ, reject non-white immigrants, refuse to recognize racial injustice in spite of overwhelming evidence, oppose equality for women, defend gun culture, and excuse killing civilians as collateral damage in militarized adventures to expand U.S. control in other lands. What connects the dots between “Christian” and these actions?   

That is the question two sociologists, Andrew Whitehead at Clemson University and Samuel Perry at the University of Oklahoma, set out to research. Using empirical evidence and interviews, they present a full-colour portrait of Christian nationalism that helps readers understand what lies behind the one-line references in news stories to evangelicals supporting Trump or the Christian Right. They take Christian nationalism seriously and research it as they would other factors that are shaping society. In doing so, they encourage readers to think more clearly and more critically about the assumed connection between the Bible and the U.S. flag.  Readers can check the data in three detailed appendices. 

Whitehead and Perry carefully map out the characteristics of Christian nationalism, its consequences, and its levels of public support. It is important, they write, to distinguish between Christian nationalism and evangelicalism, civil religion, and a simple belief that the U.S. is a Christian nation in some way. Their careful descriptions not only avoid over-generalization and false labelling of people, they put a spotlight on the impacts of this ideology and important issues for the future of society in the US, and by extension over the border into Canada. 

Christian nationalism is far more than pledging allegiance “under God” and moral living. It is a cultural framework, or worldview, that includes: preserving a certain kind of stratified social order where some are superior and others know their place; using militarized force and authoritarian rule to maintain control if necessary; setting physical and social boundaries to exclude “others” perceived as threats to continued dominance; and using the power of the state to force compliance with this one, particular understanding of a fused Christian/American identity.  Curiously missing are Christ-like ways of living or references to Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God. Love of neighbour, for example, is not a high priority; that is cited as one of the differences between Christian nationalism and other belief systems that also combine loyalty to Christ and loyalty to country. At the same time,  some non-Christians agree with and even strongly advocate for this ideology. Clearly understanding it and taking it seriously as a shaping force in society, rather than dismissing it as a variation of conservatism, is a first step, also for Christians who are often equated with it. 

Especially helpful is the authors’ description of the range of support for Christian nationalism, based on levels of agreement with a 24 point scale and divided into four categories. Ambassadors, defined as strong advocates, comprise about 20 percent of the population and share other social and demographic characteristics. Accommodators are the largest group, about 32 percent of the population. They support some of the values and often go along, but they are not enthusiasts. Resisters, about 26 percent, say no to the idea of a Christian nation, but hold diverse Christian beliefs that they consider important. Rejectors, about 21 percent of the population, disagree with all the core elements, with 7 percent actively opposing it. Much of the book describes how these groups approach current issues, using their own words as well as polls and surveys to accurately describe current reality. 

Whitehead and Perry move the discourse beyond easy clichés about conservatives, liberals, and evangelicals. I hope this book fosters deeper and more careful reflection among Christians about a deceptive world view that uses Christian rhetoric but has little to do with the heart of Jesus’ teaching.

  • Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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