Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

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

by andrew l. whitehead and samuel l. perry
oxford, 288 pages, $29.95

From G. K. Chesterton to Sidney Mead to Robert ­Bellah and beyond, observers have noted that America is a “nation with the soul of a church.” No one, however, has yet attempted to assess the latest manifestation of this fusion of Christianity and nationalism. Taking America Back for God is, the authors claim, the first empirical study of Christian nationalism in today’s United States.

According to Andrew Whitehead, a Clemson sociologist, and Samuel Perry, a professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Oklahoma, a Christian nationalist believes that America is or once was a Christian nation and that the legal and cultural preference for Chris­tianity should be retained, restored, and institutionalized. Among other things, Christian nationalism translates into support for Christian symbols in public venues and prayer in public schools, as well as laws conformed to Christian morals (or, at least, to the Christian nationalist conception of Christian morals).

The authors formulate a Christian nationalism index, based largely on a survey in which respondents were asked to agree or disagree, strongly or weakly, with six statements, such as “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation,” “The federal government should enforce strict separation of church and state,” “The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces,” and “The success of the United States is part of God’s plan.” The ­Platonically ideal Christian nationalist would score a twenty-four, strongly agreeing with all six statements. The authors then divide the people surveyed into groups, depending on the strength of their opposition to or support of Christian nationalism: Rejecters are self-consciously opposed; Resisters and Accommodators are less firm, but lean “con” and “pro,” respectively; Ambassadors are evangelists for Christian nationalism.

Whitehead and Perry identify something real, and disturbing: churches that substitute the American nation and American history for the Church and her history, the Founding Fathers for the prophets and apostles, the Fourth of July for Ascension Day and Pentecost. The authors attended a celebration of America at First Baptist, Dallas, where Robert Jeffress read excerpts from America’s Founders instead of from the Bible. This nationalist-­tinged Christianity is a predictable result of the attenuated ecclesiology of American Protestantism. America and its national symbols easily occupy the space left empty by the evacuation of the Church, often twisting liturgy, piety, and Christian identity in a nationalist direction. In its most overt forms, Christian nationalism is a heresy.

Unfortunately, Whitehead and ­Perry have failed to distinguish this heretical form of Christian nationalism from more orthodox forms of Chris­tianity. After recording quotations from David Barton, Franklin ­Graham, and Wayne Grudem in defense of national borders, they conclude, “To all these men, walls are good and godly because they keep the good people (Americans) safe. They keep undesirables (everyone else) out.” None of the quotations says anything remotely like that. All of them are defending the right of every nation to maintain and defend its borders, and none of them claims that everyone who wants to enter the U.S. is “undesirable.” Christian nationalists, the authors claim, are “quite suspicious of Jewish people.” Evidence? Robert Jeffress says Jews are going to hell because they don’t trust the Messiah, and Michele ­Bachmann has called for Jews to convert to hasten the Second Coming. Debatable theological opinions, but how is a desire for Jews to convert and be saved a sign of “suspicion”?

As the authors note, only half of Christian nationalists are evangelical Protestants, and 6 percent have no religious affiliation at all. One in five Ambassadors are Democrats, and 65 percent of African Americans are Accommodators, “the largest proportion of any racial group.” Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, was a Christian nationalist. He linked American identity to a Christian vision of interracial solidarity. The authors devote an entire chapter to the racial (that is, racist) bias of Christian nationalists but unfortunately ignore the racial diversity of Christian nationalism. Are alliances forming between black and white Christian nationalists? How are the racial outlines of Christian nationalism affected if we factor in black Accommodators and Ambassadors? We never learn, though the authors note in an appendix that Christian nationalism among African Americans deserves more study.

Perhaps the authors are unable to describe Christian nationalism in its own terms because they are unable to set aside their own convictions, which are made plain at several points. Christian nationalism’s opposition to abortion is linked to a “commitment to male authority over women’s bodies,” a formulation that makes sense only in a pro-choice frame. Christian nationalists oppose the Obama administration’s “protections” of transgendered people’s right to use the bathroom of their choice. This formulation is obviously reversible: What about “protections” of girls’ right not to have male students in their bathrooms? Whitehead and Perry are entitled to their opinions, but they shouldn’t slip them in under the cover of social science.

More fundamentally, the Christian nationalism index is flawed because the statements used in the survey aren’t discriminating enough. Take, for example, statement no. 5: “The success of the United States is part of God’s plan.” Responses to that statement tell us nothing. What Christian of any sort would disagree? Everything is a part of God’s plan. The question is what part.

The authors focus their attention entirely on right-wing Christian nationalism. Being a “political conservative” is one of the strongest predictors of affinity with Christian nationalism, in their scheme. But if Chesterton, Mead, and Bellah are right, we’d expect America’s churchy soul to manifest itself across the political spectrum. The American left has by and large abandoned anything resembling orthodox Christianity, but it has fused the crusading moralism of the New England Puritans and pioneer Methodists with a nationalist narrative that links St. Lincoln with the sacred sites of Selma, Seneca Falls, and Stonewall. Polarized politics isn’t merely the result of right-wing Christian nationalism. We’re witnessing an intensifying clash of competing Christian and post-Christian nationalisms.

The most subtle, and insidious, flaw of the book is the authors’ use of the category of “religion.” Christian nationalism, they claim, isn’t a “religious” but a “political” movement. They justify their distinction by pointing to the fact that many non-nationalists score more highly on measures of “religiosity.” But the authors, apparently ­unwittingly, adopt a highly questionable assumption that “religion” refers to private, individual acts of devotion: to church attendance, prayer, Scripture reading.

This privatized understanding of “religion” is constitutive of secular social theory. As John Milbank points out, it is often buttressed by adherence to a secular version of the “liberal Protestant metanarrative,” according to which Christianity gradually matured out of its archaic mixture of politics and religion toward a “purely religious” form of privatized religiosity. For the authors of this study, “religion” is what’s left when politics is stripped away.

Because the authors operate with this narrow, culturally conditioned conception of religion, they miss what appears to be the most interesting possibility raised by their study. Christian nationalism may be no more than a resurgence of the civil-religious passions of earlier American history. It may, however, indicate something more significant. Perhaps Christian nationalism is rejecting the secular reduction of religion and returning to an older, more public and political faith. No doubt, Christian nationalists do this clumsily, without much attention to the Christian tradition. But their thoroughly orthodox instinct is to resist the social scientists and politicians who want to confine their religion to “religiosity.” If that is what’s happening, it may be more than a mere trend. It could be an epochal realignment that links American Christians with the “next Christendom” aspirations of Catholic integralists in Europe, nationalist Pentecostals in sub-Saharan Africa, and the Evangelical Parliamentary Front in Brazil.

The theologically sound response to Christian nationalism must be both “Yes” and “No.” On the “Yes” side: The call for nations and rulers to submit to Jesus the Christ is inherent in the gospel message. Few Scriptures are cited more often in the New Testament than Psalms 2 and 110, both of which are interpreted as prophecies of Jesus’s enthronement as King of kings and Lord of nations. We hope and pray that Christ’s commandments are reflected in the institutions, laws, policies, customs, symbols, and character of our people.

On the “No” side: American Christians often displace the Church from the center of faith, which results in a religious individualism that makes them easy prey to the lure of a nationalism that finds solidarity primarily in common citizenship. But the Church, not America, is God’s people at the heart of God’s plan, and the Church is an international body composed of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. Membership in this ­communion necessarily limits, qualifies, and loosens our loyalty to our homeland. A Christian immigrant from Zambia or Guatemala is my brother in a far deeper way than an atheist American; we are members of one another because we are members of Christ. Any substitute is a false church, politically dangerous and theologically damnable. Unchecked by the Church, nationalism can only deform the soul. 

Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.