From the Pilgrims to QAnon: Christian nationalism is the "asteroid coming for democracy"

Scholar Samuel Perry says the myth of a "Christian nation" has distorted American history from 1690 to Trump

By Kathryn Joyce

Investigative Reporter

Published April 29, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

John Eliot, (1604-1690), American Puritan minister and missionary, preaching to the Algonquian Indians. (Bettmann/Getty Images)
John Eliot, (1604-1690), American Puritan minister and missionary, preaching to the Algonquian Indians. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

If the New York Times' "1619 Project" and Donald Trump's 1776 Commission mark two defining moments in American history, as well as opposite sides of an ideological chasm, a new book by sociologists Philip Gorski and Samuel Perry identifies a third defining moment. It's not a new proposed founding, but rather an "inflection point," the moment when the nation's history could have gone in another direction. 

In "The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy," Gorski and Perry argue that in the years around 1690 — when Puritan colonists began envisioning their battles against Native Americans as an apocalyptic holy war to secure a new Promised Land, when Southern Christians began to formulate a theological justification for chattel slavery — a new national mythology was born. That mythology is the "deep story" of white Christian nationalism: the notion that America was founded as a Christian nation, blessed by God and imbued with divine purpose, but also under continual threat from un-American and ungodly forces, often in the form of immigrants or racial minorities. 

The result was an ethnic nationalism sanctified by religion as it established a new "holy trinity" of "freedom, order and violence," meted out variously to in-groups and out. 

RELATED: How this tiny Christian college is driving the right's nationwide war against public schools

When rioters driven by that vision broke into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, they were just reenacting a story that has been told in this country for centuries. But it's a story that again threatens to "topple American democracy" unless, Gorski and Perry write, a new "united front" is formed to defend it.

Perry spoke with Salon this April.  

You describe white Christian nationalism as the "San Andreas Fault" of American politics.

We see America torn apart by an authoritarian populism that was characteristic of Trump's movement, which distrusts any opinion not tied to the nationalist leader. There's a lot of distrust for experts, even medical experts when it came to COVID, in favor of somebody like Trump or organizations that put a conservative slant on all news related to politics, COVID, immigration, Muslims, all those things. So when we say white Christian nationalism is the San Andreas Fault, we mean it is a thread running through all of our current conflicts. 

And the implication that we're waiting for the big one. 

Rather than seeing Jan. 6 as a fringe event and the religious symbols seen there as puzzling, we see it as an eruption of forces that have been building for a long time.

Exactly. We all observed the events that took place on Jan. 6 with horror and shock, but there's this puzzling juxtaposition of images from that day: violent chaos, suffused with Christian symbolism. There are "Jesus Saves" signs and Christian flags and a prayer in Jesus' name in the Senate chamber. Rather than see that event as fringe and those religious symbols as puzzling, we believe Jan. 6 should be thought of as an eruption of forces that have been building for a long, long time.  

I appreciated the book's long historical view: You weren't just focusing on Jan. 6, but looking to the past to understand this idea of the "deep story" behind contemporary Christian nationalism. 

From our perspective today, the white Christian nationalist deep story is that we as a country have our roots in white Anglo-Protestant culture, and that's what made us prosperous and successful. In the colonial era, we wouldn't have called it white Christian nationalism, but it would have tied together all the same elements: race, religion and nation. In the time of the Puritans, it could be called white Protestant Britishism: that the people to whom the land rightly belongs are white as opposed to Native American, Protestant as opposed to Catholic or any indigenous religious group, British as opposed to French or certainly the nations of Native Americans. White Christian nationalism in that form was just as exclusive, just as brutal, even apocalyptic in its thrust. 

Manifestations of white Christian nationalism have ebbed and flowed throughout America's history, and usually they ebb and flow in response to threats against the ethno-cultural majority. Sometimes the enemies change. Early on it was Native Americans; later it was the French and Roman Catholics. At different times it was Asians and certainly Black Americans who were the out-group. Starting in the mid-20th century, it was socialists and all things associated with communism — which is racialized but also religious, because communists and socialists are thought to be godless. So all throughout American history, you see this tying together of race, religion and nation in the boundaries of who is and is not truly American. Who is not changes in response to the enemies. But the in-group is almost always the same. It's white, Christian and those who are either born in the U.S. or at least "belong" here as part of the dominant ethnic group. 

The book includes a lot of original data research that's often absent from these conversations. What were some of your most surprising or compelling findings?

One thing we really wanted to contribute is to operationalize this thing called Christian nationalism and see how it plays in response to various issues. We collected all this national data over the last two years that allowed us to track national events — the election, COVID, George Floyd's and Ahmaud Arbery's murders, all these different factors. One of the most surprising findings is how differently Christian nationalism works for white and Black Americans, how stark the contrast is to the same questions. When African Americans hear the language of "Christian values" or "Christian nation," either it doesn't change their attitudes at all or they seem to think aspirationally about the country America should have been, but never was. When white Americans hear that language, they seem to think nostalgically about a time when the right people ruled and the right culture dominated. 

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I was also not only shocked but discouraged at how Christian nationalist ideology shaped responses when we asked who Americans went to for information about COVID. White Christian nationalism was powerfully associated with rejecting everybody's opinion about COVID-19 except for Donald Trump's. 

I was also taken aback by how powerfully Christian nationalist ideology was associated with responses to the Capitol insurrection. White Christian nationalism powerfully predicted people blaming the violence on antifa or Black Lives Matter and placing none of the blame on Trump. We saw even a correlation between Christian nationalist ideology and supporting the rioters or being reluctant to say they should be prosecuted. 

Christian nationalist ideology strongly predicted people blaming the violence of Jan. 6 on antifa or Black Lives Matter, and placing none of the blame on Donald Trump.

The association between Christian nationalist ideology and violence used for political purposes is one of the more sobering findings. We've collected more recent data since we finished the book, and there is a quite linear association between affirming Christian nationalist ideology and believing that things have gotten so far off track that true patriots may have to resort to physical violence. This is an ideology that doesn't just acknowledge violence as a possibility but in some ways actually affirms it as the way to get things done in our society. 

White Christian nationalism supports the idea that the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun; it affirms the use of torture if it means national security; it affirms that police should be able to use any means necessary to maintain law and order. There seems to be this powerful connection between Christian nationalist ideology and support for violence to accomplish political goals, and often that means to control "problem populations." 

You describe a "holy trinity" within white Christian nationalism of freedom, order and violence.

White Christian nationalism seems to be characterized by a libertarian mindset that's only applied to the inside group. The ideology powerfully predicted a belief that we need to protect the economy rather than the vulnerable during COVID and that socialism is anathema — actually, that socialists are the worst. White Christian nationalism predicts antipathy towards atheists and Muslims, but socialists are the real demonized group, because socialism represents everything that is leftist or "anti-American." It is not only an economic threat, but a cultural, ethnic and religious threat.

White Christian nationalism advocates for maximum freedom for our group. But there is also this connection between authoritarian violence and social order. Christian nationalism wants order in the form of hierarchies. Men on top. Whites on top. Christians on top. Heterosexuals on top. And any threats to that order are met with justified, righteous, good-guy violence. That is what we saw on Jan. 6: the justification of righteous violence in taking back our country from, in the words of the QAnon Shaman, "the tyrants, the communists and the globalists," and showing them "this is our nation, not theirs." So there is this kind of holy trinity: Freedom for us, order for everybody else. And when that order is violated, they get the violence. 

You include a number of historical examples of how this played out, long before Jan. 6, at various times in American history, including in the post-Reconstruction era and through lynchings, which you describe as the "high mass" of white Christian nationalism. Why is violence such an important element? 

A thread through our narrative is this metaphor of blood. White Christian Americans' place in the cosmos and in our country has always been interpreted through the idea of blood purity — that we are distinct and superior people. There is also the idea of bloody conquest: that America is out there and the land is ours and we are justified in using violence to take what God has given us. Then there is this idea of bloody apocalypse — that violence is an inevitable part of the story, that there is a cosmic struggle going on that will involve us going to war against evil forces who try to take away what God has given us. 

One thing we try to underscore is that Americans gripped by the white Christian nationalist deep story see violence as inevitable. Christian nationalism doesn't seem to be too strongly associated with violence for its own sake. But violence in the service of our group and of control is what white Christian nationalism is about — not a celebration of it, but an endorsement of violence as a tool to maintain order and maximize our freedom and power. 

Tell me about the idea behind "The Spirit of 1690" and where that fits into the narrative battle between "The 1619 Project" and Trump's 1776 Commission. 

The 1776 project is one narrative of America's past: this whitewashed story where Anglo-Protestant values are the secret to our national prosperity, and yes, slavery was real, but it was an aberration. Obviously, "The 1619 Project" has a completely different narrative that sees slavery and white supremacy as a constant thread throughout our history, and that we as a nation were set on the trajectory of white supremacy because our roots are founded in it. 

We take a slightly different approach from "The 1619 Project." We see contingency. We see opportunities throughout America's history where oppression could have been lifted. And yet we decided not to go in that direction but to continue to live according to this white Christian nationalist mythology. And of course, different from the 1776 project, we believe that white supremacy has been a constant thread throughout our nation's history, not one that had to be, but one we chose again and again and again. 

Much of this mythology involves white Christian nationalism framing itself in a position of victimhood. 

White evangelicals — the group most beholden to Christian nationalist ideology — have long been characterized by what sociologist Christian Smith called an idea of "embattlement." They constantly feel they are at war with a surrounding culture that aims to persecute or marginalize them. This is part of the Christian nationalist story, because when you believe your culture is inextricably linked to the state of the nation, and you believe it is not your story but America's story, when you start to see cultural change, you perceive that as an attack on your group. 

It used to be that people like Jerry Falwell could look at pornography and say, "That is immoral" and use the language of "filth" or "degradation." America has shifted so profoundly that what Christians on the right now do is to evoke the language of religious freedom — to claim the defensive posture and say, "We are under attack for claiming our moral views." What is happening now is that language of rights or religious freedom is no longer a shield but a sword and a battering ram to slash at your cultural enemies and justify discriminating against certain populations, even in agencies that take money from the government. 

It seems that language is also being used to cast voter suppression in defensive terms.

When we surveyed Americans in October 2020, we found that white Christian nationalism was the most powerful predictor that you already thought voter fraud was rampant, that we make it too easy to vote and that you would support hypothetical civics tests in order to vote or disenfranchising certain criminal offenders for life. This paints a picture of white Christian nationalism being fundamentally anti-democratic, that it supports limiting voting access to those who prove worthy — and the people who are worthy are the people like us. If there is a thread tying together today's white Christian nationalists with the founding fathers, it is that only white landowning Anglo-Protestants should be able to vote. 

In subsequent surveys, we asked, "Is voting a right or a privilege?" Thankfully, the majority believe that voting is a right, which it is. But we found that white Americans who affirm Christian nationalist ideology are more likely to think voting is not a right, but a privilege. In other words, something we can take away. 

The book discusses figures like Christian right revisionist historian David Barton. How has historical misinformation played a role in both getting us to this point as well as the conflicts we're seeing now around education

One of the things we document is that Christian nationalist theology is powerfully associated not just with believing misinformation about COVID, QAnon or the Capitol insurrection, but about religion in American history. That you believe the Constitution references our obligations to God, which it does not. Or that the First Amendment says Congress can privilege Christianity, which it does not. 

For years, we have known that evangelical Christians tend to do poorly on quizzes of scientific knowledge, not because they're ignorant per se, but because when they're asked questions about the Big Bang theory or evolution or even continental drift, they get those answers wrong because of ideology. Not because they don't know what the answer is, but because they intentionally say, "That isn't the way it went down." We find the same thing with Christian nationalism: It inclines Americans to affirm answers that paint Christianity as central to American history. Part of that is ideology, but another part is the misinformation put out by agencies like Barton's WallBuilders that contribute to the narrative that America has been evangelical throughout history. 

We see the effort to try to control American history in Trump's 1776 Commission, which was led by executives at Hillsdale College, none of whom are professional historians. They threw together this document that is supposed to be a counter to "The 1619 Project," talking about American exceptionalism and slavery as an aberration, but all in all, America is great and here are the reasons why. That is an effort to control the narrative about who we are as a people. 

We have always seen this and it's often tied to race. A great recent book, "The Bible Told Them So" by J. Russell Hawkins, argues that there was a segregation theology that motivated white evangelicals in the South. It wasn't just explicit racism, but this interpretation of the Bible that said segregation is good and God wants it that way. Over time, as it became clear they were losing, they developed separate institutions, and separate schools were among them. So in the late '70s, segregation theology started to morph into this "family values" conservatism that was ostensibly about protecting children. 

The Christian right has always wanted to control education. How do you scare enough parents? By saying that nefarious elements are infiltrating the schools, and they're going to infect your children.

So you have always seen this move on the Christian right to control education and raise fear about what children are being taught. How do you scare enough parents to be mobilized? By saying that nefarious elements are infiltrating the schools and they're going to infect your children. Within that, you have this push for homeschooling, for vouchers to defund public schools and support privatized education in which parents on the right can raise kids who are white, Christian conservatives, and you can maybe stave off the forces of secularization and diversity. 

Toward the end of the book, you write about how other camps on the right, like Catholic integrationists and post-liberals, are also advancing ideologies complementary to white Christian nationalism. Can you talk about that coming together? 

What we've seen in the political and religious realignment over the last few decades is the concern that the Christian right is no longer strong enough by themselves to win victories politically. That required them to relax the bounds of who is part of their team. So you see Christian conservatives on the right uniting groups that formerly did not like one another, like Catholics, evangelicals, Mormons and even "pro-Christian" secularists. Increasingly, we can't talk about a Christian right so much as a "pro-Christian right," because Christian identity isn't really necessary anymore. You can be a secular pro-Christian American and think "Christian" is an ethno-cultural category that supports traditional values. All of these identities are on the same team, since what you want is an institutionalization of white Christian ethno-culture and victories for the political right. 

Over on the Democratic side, they have nothing close to that. This is why Republicans are a lot stronger as a group than many realize, because they're united around ideology and ethno-religious belief in a way that Democrats are constantly fractured.

Even though we see demographic decline among white Christians, the unity on the right belies the demographic numbers. We also know that Christian nationalist ideology ebbs and flows in response to threats: When you tell white Christians about their imminent demographic decline, they respond with greater Christian nationalism. If you are a savvy politician, you can stoke a Christian nationalist response that mobilizes people in your target audience to collective action. 

You also talk about the need for a popular front that could counter white Christian nationalism. What would that look like and what would it require? 

I think it will take everybody from never-Trump evangelicals all the way to the secular left. It's going to take concentrated effort to not only name this, but to make sure it can't be institutionalized any further in the name of religious liberty, and that political candidates can't continue to deploy the language of Christian threat without it being called out as dog-whistle language that just means white Christian ethno-culture. It's going to take organizations like the Baptist Joint Committee and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who are already trying to do this, and coalitions of Americans from all kinds of backgrounds to say this is what we're against. 

That is difficult. Evangelical Christians, say, are understandably reticent to sign a document alongside people they fundamentally disagree with. Abortion is always going to be a sticking point. But we are confronted with a situation where the stakes may be high enough.

I'll say it this way: COVID should have been the asteroid that united us, but it just polarized us further. But if an asteroid was headed towards Earth, I wouldn't ask the neighbor next to me who they voted for in the last election. We would recognize that the threat is great enough to just focus on defeating this thing. For many Americans, it's going to take a recognition that the threat is that great. 

One of the reasons we wanted to write the book is to say: This is the asteroid. This is the thing that is coming for democracy. And we've got to unite to overcome that. 

Read more from Kathryn Joyce on religion and the far right:

By Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce was an investigative reporter at Salon, and the author of two books: "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption" and "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

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