“You gotta be ready for battle. So put on the full armor of God,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has been urging crowds of Republicans during speeches this summer. “Take a stand against the left’s schemes. Stand firm with the belt of truth buckled around your waist. You will face fire from flaming arrows, but the shield of faith will protect you.”
Is he stumping for GOP midterm votes, or raising an army for End Times?
DeSantis’s paraphrasing of a passage from Ephesians 6 in the New Testament that replaces “the devil” with the “the left” and readies the conservative faithful for spiritual warfare underscores the growing phenomenon of a party whose most devout members increasingly identify as white Christian nationalists engaged in a culture war, if not a literal one, to save the soul of America. And this is not some fringe view. DeSantis could very well be the GOP’s presidential candidate in 2024, while Doug Mastriano, one of the candidates he stumped for who shares similar, if not more robust views of Christian nationalism, is the GOP’s gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania.
In this alarming context, The Flag and The Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy by Philip S. Gorski and Samuel L. Perry is a timely and much needed examination of this movement’s origin story, its ideology, and the dangers it poses to U.S. multiracial democracy.
So what exactly is white Christian nationalism?
“White Christian nationalism is our term for the ethno-traditionalism among many white Americans that conflates racial, religious, and national identity (the deep story) and pines for cultural and political power that demographic and cultural shifts have increasingly threatened (the vision),” Gorski and Perry write.
The authors note, crucially, that within the context of white Christian nationalism, “Christian” isn’t actually used to identify someone’s personal religiosity and church attendance, but instead serves as a cultural and political identity marker. This separates the “worthy,” yet demographically shrinking “us” who in the eyes of these believers are solely the legitimate occupants and beneficiaries of American democracy, from “them,” which is the Left, and all the others it counts among its members – Blacks, immigrants, secular progressives, and really the entire Democratic Party which it conflates with (godless) socialists or communists.
The authors periodize American history to tell the “deep story” of the trajectory of white Christian nationalism through the last three centuries. They bring to light the stories behind the country’s “oft-forgotten little wars,” population shifts, and religious demographic changes that they believe brought the movement to this moment, earmarking the years 1689, 1763, 1889, and 1989. Their survey of history that takes the reader through King Philipp’s War, the French and Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, and the end of the Cold War helps explain how “understandings of whiteness, divine providence, and national identity” changed in the country during these periods. The authors also use survey data to measure white Christian Nationalism’s reach in contemporary America and to understand how whites who identify as Christian nationalists’ political attitudes, beliefs, and understanding of civics hold views in opposition to most contemporary Americans, even within the Christian community.
Freedom, patriarchy, whiteness, and “order” is the framework for the world they are trying to build, while violence, both historically from the frontier to the plantation to the lynching trees, and today with what we saw Jan. 6, 2021, is what’s needed to maintain this order. How do white Christian nationalists legitimize violence? First, you frame everything in the country in apocalyptic terms that mimics Biblical Rapture and Armageddon, good versus evil. Then if that’s indeed the case, well what choice is there?
“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,’” the authors note.
Another striking feature of this movement is its anti-democratic nature.
Paul Weyrich, cofounder of the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Moral Majority, said “the quiet part out loud” as the book notes.
“I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now,” he said. “As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
Our multiracial democracy is quite young – it actually only began in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. And the voter suppression Republicans have been championing of late is part of a decades-long backlash to this development. In fact, lawmakers in 39 states have considered almost 400 bills for the 2022 legislative session that would make it more difficult to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, and as of 2021, 18 states have passed 34 of these types of voting laws that disproportionately affect voters of color. This would usher in a “Jim Crow 2.0” which would herald a MAGA restoration.
In the eyes of today’s white Christian nationalists, the country is a Christian nation under attack by mongrel forces of evil, and multiracial inclusive democracy is the sickness, not the cure. Christians are both heroes and victims of this story – in their minds at least: the ones fighting on the side of God and righteousness and who at the same time are the people most discriminated against and persecuted precisely because of that. Their civilizing mission prioritizes seizing power, above all, in order to do God’s work. And their God isn’t too concerned with democracy, nor is He averse to violence.
The authors state that we need to “build a popular front in defense of American democracy, an alliance that extends from #NeverTrump Republicans to Democratic Socialists, an alliance that includes religious conservatives, as well as secular progressives.”
If we want multiracial democracy in the U.S. – as imperfect as it is – to survive, if not limp into its sixth decade, organizing against white Christian nationalism must be a daily priority. But first, we have to understand exactly what it is we’re up against, and this book is a good place to start.