The point of departure for the following exchange is the puzzle of the 81 percent—the percentage of white evangelicals in the United States who voted for Donald Trump in 2016. And, even more, the puzzle of the 40 percent—the plurality of white evangelicals who chose Trump over card-carrying evangelicals such as Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz during the Republican presidential primaries that year. Working from different perspectives and with different methods—one of us is a historical sociologist (Gorski), the other a survey analyst (Perry)—we independently converged on the same solution: White Christian Nationalism (WCN’m). In other words, white evangelicals supported—and support—Trump if and insofar as they are white Christian nationalists (WCN’ts).
In the exchange below, we reflect on the past, present, and future of WCN’m. In what sense is it “white” or “Christian” and how does it differ from other political worldviews, both secular and religious? How many WCN’ts are there today? What has driven them toward Trump, and vice versa? And what will be the long-term consequences of this alliance between right-wing populism and religious nationalism—for American democracy and race relations and also for American Christianity?
Philip Gorski: Sam, here’s my opening question for you: Who are the WCN’ts? And how many of them are there today?
Samuel Perry: One of the reasons Andrew Whitehead and I were so motivated to write a book on Christian nationalism was to address this question exactly. Some scholars and journalists have been writing about the concept for the past few decades. (Though often under different names like “religious nationalism,” “dominionism,” “ethno-traditional nationalism,” or “Christian heroism.”) But not a lot of work had been done to operationalize the core ideology and enumerate its adherents. We began with some measures that asked Americans to indicate their level of agreement with statements like: “The success of the US is part of God’s plan,” “The federal government should advocate Christian values,” and “The federal government should declare the US a Christian nation.” There were six statements total, and we added up responses to create an index, with higher scores indicating greater adherence to “Christian nationalism.”
As a helpful heuristic, in Taking America Back for God, we divided Americans into four orientations to Christian nationalism (from least supportive to most supportive): “Rejecters,” “Resisters,” “Accommodators,” and “Ambassadors.” Overall, over half of white Americans are Accommodators or Ambassadors, meaning a slight majority of whites generally affirm Christian nationalism. But that last group, Ambassadors, are the true believers. These make up about 21 percent of white Americans.
In trying to operationalize white Christian nationalism as a concept, however, one of the issues we came up against was distinguishing it from other ways Americans have historically linked religion, race, and politics. Your work was invaluable to us here.
So, here’s my first question to you: How do you distinguish between the white Christian nationalism we see today and other popular conceptions of religion and national identity, such as “civil religion”? And if I may add another, how do you distinguish white Christian nationalism from just white nationalism?
PG: In my last book, American Covenant, I drew a distinction between religious nationalism and civil religion in terms of how their proponents appropriated and interpreted the Christian scriptures. Christian nationalists use a language of blood and apocalypse. They talk about blood conquest, blood sacrifice, and blood belonging, and also about cosmic battles between good and evil. The blood talk comes from the Old Testament; the apocalyptic talk from the Book of Revelation. Both texts are read literally, as records of past and future events, respectively.
The American version of civil religion combines biblical sources with political philosophy. Specifically, it draws on the social justice tradition of the Hebrew prophets, on the one hand, and, on the other, the civic republican tradition that runs from Aristotle through Machiavelli to the American Founders. One of the distinctive things about this tradition in America is that it sees Christianity and democracy as potentially complementary, rather than inherently opposed. In this, it follows Tocqueville rather than Rousseau.
In my forthcoming book, American Babylon, I have added two further elements to my definition of Christian nationalism: victimization and messianism. You see both in Trumpism, of course. As you and others have shown, WCN’ts have a puzzling persecution complex. They often tell pollsters that they are the most persecuted group in America, more even than American Muslims! Many also see Trump as a savior of sorts. This is evident in the bizarre theory—quite popular amongst white evangelicals—that Trump is a modern-day King Cyrus whom God has sent to liberate them from their “Babylonian captivity” (whence the title of the book). Like the Ancient Israelites, they imagine that they have been exiled from “their” country and “their” capital, which had been taken over by a “foreign” power (e.g., a black president who is a “secret Muslim”). What I’ve realized in writing this book is that victimization and messianism were also part of WCN’m from the start. Consider the “captivity” novels of the colonial era in which white women and children are captured by “red,” “Indian,” “savages.” Or the hero worship of military commanders, such as George Washington, Andrew Jackson, or Robert E. Lee, all of whom first won fame as “Indian killers.”
As to how one can distinguish white nationalism from white Christian nationalism . . . I think this is very, very difficult. One of the things I learned from reading your work was just how entangled whiteness and Christianity are in the United States. This will actually be the focus of my next book, White Christian Nation, which will be a history of white Christian nationalism organized around America’s color lines: red and black first of all, but also brown and yellow.The central questions there will be how American Christianity shaped white supremacism and vice versa.
I guess one question I would have for you is: How does contemporary WCN’m interact with the contemporary racial order in the United States? A lot of your work has focused on the white/black color line. But what about the others? What do WCN’ts think about immigration, for example? Do their attitudes differ by race? And what impact, if any, do you think this will have on the racial order of the future?
SP: Early on in our WCN’m research, we found that WCN’ts seem to be particularly averse to racial boundary crossing of any kind. For example, white Americans who more strongly affirm Christian nationalist claims are less comfortable with the idea of their child marrying someone who is Black, Asian, or Latino. They were also uncomfortable with the idea of transracial adoption, even with no race specified. This was particularly surprising because most transracial adoptions involve the adoption of children of color by white parents. So apparently they resist the idea of a mixed-race family of any sort. Another reason this was surprising is because white evangelicals―the majority of whom are Accommodators or Ambassadors of Christian nationalism―seem so supportive of transracial adoption (the subject of my first book, in fact).
This racial paradox played itself out statistically in a rather surprising way: WCN’m is almost always associated with more prejudicial racial attitudes, but once we account for WCN’m, being more religiously devout is associated with lower levels of prejudice. In other words, once we account for WCN’m in our models, white Americans who, say, attend church more or pray more, tend to be more supportive of racial boundary crossing in families; they’re also less fearful of Mexican immigrants or Muslims.
This feeds into our argument about WCN’m being distinct from religious commitment. For those committed to Christian orthodoxy, WCN’m could be understood as sort of an imposter Christianity that uses evangelical language to cloak ethnocentric and nationalist loyalties.
I argue that WCN’m reveres what I call the “holy trinity” of power, boundaries, and order. The aversion that WCN’ts have with racial boundary crossing seems connected to the value they place on clear boundaries of “us” and “them,” as well as a society ordered by traditional categories and hierarchies. Everyone in their “proper” place. It’s also one of the reasons scholars are correct to wonder about the overlaps between WCN’m and things like “right-wing authoritarianism” (RWA) or other similar concepts. Though we’ve sought to account for common indicators of RWA in our analyses, and the strong effects of WCN’m still hold strong, there’s obviously a lot of dispositional overlap here. This also corresponds to research on the “moral foundations of politics” theories advanced by psychologists like Jonathan Haidt and others who show that “conservatives” (of whom WCN’ts are the epitome) think in terms of loyalty, authority, and contamination.
But something else we’ve learned in the process of writing Taking America Back for God is that just as “white” and “Christian” are so tightly enmeshed for WCN’ts, there is a third identity element, and that’s nativity. And not so much citizenship so much as where you were born. For example, we show in the book that among Americans who more tightly connect being Christian with American civic belonging, roughly two-thirds believe it’s very important for someone to have been born here and lived here for life in order to be “truly American.” This link between WCN’m and anti-immigrant sentiment (including Mexican immigrants, refugees from the Middle East, and Muslims, in particular) turns out to be one of the strongest we’ve found. I think this illustrates the boundary-protecting aspect of WCN’m.
In terms of implications for the future racial order, it’ll be interesting to see whether demographics overcomes ideology. Specifically, due to a combination of age and immigration, WCN’ts are declining in terms of their numerical dominance. However, because they recognize this threat, I think that results in an even tighter connection between race, religion, and nativity for them. It also makes them more desperate. And because their sustained influence requires that they maintain electoral majorities, I would expect that political appeals will become less about explicitly religious values and more about portraying traditional white middleclass Americans as victims of a leftist, globalist plot. Just as we’ve seen recently. So, to the extent that this strategy allows them to hold onto power with Trump and others like him, we’ll continue to see very racialized policies directed against “them” in protection of “us.”
That sets up my next question for you. I’m fascinated by your concept of “messianism” and I’d love for you to expound more. Especially with regard to Trump and the whole WCN’t agenda. Especially considering the eschatological bent of many of these folks. What is the “good” they feel they are accomplishing? For themselves? For America? For God or his people?
PG: This is a very hard question to which I can only give a speculative answer, since my knowledge here is primarily secondhand (e.g., the religious press) and/or second-order (e.g., opinion surveys). There are plenty of evangelicals in my family and my social networks, but the subject of Trump is something we’ve all learned to avoid. And I haven’t done any interviewing or ethnography. With that caveat in mind, here’s a thought . . .
As you know, many Christian nationalists are also Christian Zionists who profess to “love Israel.” Now, one source of Christian Zionism among Christian nationalists is the form of apocalypticism known as “dispensationalism.” Dispensationalists believe that the return of Jews to Palestine and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem are “signs of the times,” indeed, signs of the very, very end of time: on this reckoning, there are only a few seconds left on the eschatological clock.
But I strongly suspect that another source of this fascination is an idealized image of contemporary Israel, itself. In this image, Israel is a militarily strong state with strongly defended boundaries. As a society, it is religiously devout and racially homogeneous. It deals forcefully with its enemies, both internal (the Palestinians) and external (the Arabs). And it has a ruthless and uncompromising leader willing to defend this order (Netanyahu). Now, the reality of contemporary Israel is a lot messier than this. But we’re dealing with a fantasy image, as I said, nurtured in part by leading Christian Zionists such as John Hagee and also carefully curated pilgrimages of American church groups in “the Holy Land.” This fantasy image—strong boundaries, strong military, strong religion, homogeneous population, and strong leader—corresponds to the WCN’m vision of America—what it supposedly was, and what it will hopefully become again, with a strong leader like Trump.
This also sheds light on another puzzling phenomenon: the fascination with Russia and with Russian Orthodoxy, not only on the alt-right, but also, it appears, among white evangelicals and Christian conservatives more generally. To someone like me, who came of age in the thick of the Cold War and experienced the Iron Curtain firsthand, in the form of the Berlin Wall, this is a bit jarring. Secular observers in the national media tend to attribute this to Trump’s creepy man-crush on Vladimir Putin and his bromance with brutal dictators, more generally. But I think that’s only part of the story and maybe not the most significant one. As with Christian Zionism, I suspect that evangelical Russophilia is also based on a certain fantasy image of a racially pure, morally traditional, and militarily strong nation that knows how to “defend itself” against “radical Islam,” “big gay,” and racial outsiders of all kinds. Plus, there is the appeal of orthodoxy for evangelicals who yearn for an authentic form of Christianity—more incense and fewer praise songs, if you know what I mean. Again, this is a fantasy image of Russia.
I don’t mean to suggest that this is the only reason why so many white evangelicals back Trump. But I do think the fascination with Israel—and Russia—tells us a lot about what kind of America WCN’ts dream of, and why they think Trump really is “making America great again.”
What many of them seem not to see is all of the collateral damage that is being done, not only to American democracy, but also to American Christianity. The ever-tightening embrace between white evangelicals and the Republican Party is having at least two important effects right now. One is to widen already existing rifts along lines of race, gender, and generation within the evangelical community. The other is to permanently alienate political progressives from organized religion.
So, let me invite you to speculate a little bit: What do you think the long-term impact of the Trump presidency will be on the religious landscape of the United States?
SP: You certainly hit on two major trends that I see continuing on into the future. Theologically conservative Protestants are fracturing around issues of race and gender in particular. They are still holding fairly strong on their moral opposition to homosexuality and abortion, but the issues of racial justice and gender egalitarianism are areas of heated debate among prominent evangelical thought-leaders. And the link between white evangelicals and the Republican Party platform (if not the party itself) is now so functionally coterminous that the former most often sees no other viable option but the latter.
While I think Trump only exacerbates these two trends, I think one long-term consequence of his presidency will be the “Europeanization” of WCN’m and possibly white evangelicalism itself. Your work and that of Rogers Brubaker on global religious nationalism have helped clarify this trend for me. Historically, American-style WCN’m has been expressed in evangelical “values” and “character” language. It was likely always after basically the same thing as it is today (the protection of conservative, white, patriarchal neoliberal supremacy), but it could also be presented in terms of protecting family values, decency, the moral order, et cetera. And with this language came at least the pretense that white evangelicals qua WCN’ts wanted a virtuous society, for the good of everyone. One thinks of George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” here.
But Trump’s brand of WCN’m, as you’ve pointed out before, is so wholly denuded of any moral content. Nothing of beneficence or virtue. It’s all about menacing outsiders (brown-skinned gang members and rapists; Muslim terrorists; atheistic socialists) who have taken away “our” safety, jobs, freedoms, and way of life. The pathway to getting it back, Trump has shown, isn’t by means of sacrificial service, honesty, taking the high road, or anything thought to be “Christ-like.” Rather, “Christianity” in this equation has virtually nothing to do with orthodoxy or character, but is merely an ethnic identity—a reverse dog whistle every bit as racialized as “super predators,” “illegals,” “welfare queens,” or “terrorists.” It’s what Rogers Brubaker, talking about the European context, has called an “identitarian Christianism” that marks and unifies “us” (white, native-born, cultural Christians) against the “them” (nonwhite, foreign, infidels).
This is where the future gets a little scary for me. Once “Christian” increasingly takes on this sort of connotation in a country where the rapidly-diminishing majority of white Americans still identify as Christian, the religion potentially becomes the handmaiden of fascist politics. (I highly recommend Jason Stanley’s book How Fascism Works on this topic.) The alternatives to this are that progressive Christianity and religion in general become empowered to take back the narrative from the WCN’ts. For this to happen, though, I think the Left has got to make more room for the growing number of “politically homeless” devout Americans whose consciences have led them to abandon the Republican Party. Hard-line secular humanists on the left who are uncomfortable with the idea of making room for the devout could roll the dice, wait a few decades, and hope demography works its magic. But I think history has shown that unified political movements don’t have to constitute a demographic majority to maintain control.
Your work has been such a tremendous help as my coauthors and I have tried to formulate thoughts on this. I remember reading a 2016 essay for The Immanent Frame you wrote on the topics we’ve been discussing here and it seems you saw much of our current cultural-political situation before Trump was ever elected. You were paying attention to some things no one else saw. So here’s another question: What are we sociologists, in particular, and perhaps scholars of American religion and politics in general, missing today? What are the indicators and trends we need to pay more attention to?
PG: Well, I’ve found the work that you and your collaborators have done to be immensely helpful, not only because it complements my own findings in many ways, but also because it addresses questions that the qualitative work I do simply cannot, such as: how big is the WCN’t constituency?
Here are some other questions that I wish I had a solid empirical answer to: Has support for democracy declined amongst white evangelicals, in general, and white Christian nationalists, in particular? I remember reading some rather alarming results from a big cross-national survey that found growing support for “military rule” and declining support for “liberal democracy,” especially among younger age cohorts. The focus was on the “alt-right” but I naturally wondered about the Christian right, as well.
Another thing I wish we knew more about was the internal governance of American churches, especially the so-called nondenominational megachurches. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville argues that American churches help to instill habits of democratic association. In American Babylon, I suggest that American churches have evolved from “little republics” in his time to “big firms” in ours, i.e., that they are increasingly run like, and modeled after, business firms. There’s quite a bit of circumstantial evidence to support this claim, but very little direct evidence, be it ethnographic or quantitative.
The third and final question I wish I knew the answer to is one that you raise in your remarks: Has “evangelical” become as much an ethnic or racial identity as a religious or theological one? Something like this has certainly happened with “Christianity” in Europe. So, as you say, the question is whether evangelicalism is being “Europeanized.”
SP: I also think the changing organization of American religion around new realities of low fertility, high technology, and a generalized secular worldview will be fascinating to watch develop over the next few decades. Lots of promising research opportunities worth pursuing. But of all the issues we’ve discussed so far, I think the increasingly politicized and ethnicized character of conservative Christianity (not just white evangelicals, but white Catholics, mainliners, and even Latter Day Saints) will be the most consequential for shaping the American religious landscape.
Our analysis in Taking America Back for God would support Noah Yuval Harari’s contention that “God Now Serves the Nation” (see his 21 Lessons for the 21st Century). Harari points out that religion’s social function as explainer of the inexplicable and moral tutor has changed. Enchanted worldviews have irrevocably ceded ground to scientific methods. Even those who pray for protection against Covid-19 wash their hands and turn to modern medicine when symptoms develop. So, too, religion’s contemporary moral function has far less to do with development of civic virtues as it did at America’s founding. Despite the stated moral differences we might observe on surveys (which are far more tied to political identity than anything that shapes day-to-day life), devout believers generally live by the same practical ethic as most other Americans. Norms trump ideology for 99 percent of our day, for the religious and secular alike.
Religion’s primary function, in Harari’s estimation, now seems to be supporting a unifying traditionalism centering on a distinct national identity. It still unites and mobilizes, but like a flag, not a cross. It still demands faithfulness, but the formal standards include nativity, ethnicity, and tribal loyalty. It still rallies toward cooperation and sacrifice, but only to obtain victory over other tribes, not over hunger or poverty, and certainly not over our own collective sins, since even to acknowledge them is sacrilege. This is spot on with what we describe in Taking America Back for God. Time will tell whether it becomes a more pervasive phenomenon as white Christians become an ever-shrinking minority.
One last question for you, Phil. I found your tone in American Covenant (written before Trump’s election) to be rather optimistic and hopeful, particularly regarding our national potential to unify around a common core set of ideals and identities, like what was historically offered by our civil religious tradition. Has your outlook on America’s cultural-political future changed since Trump? If so, how is that reflected in American Babylon?
PG: Let me try to answer that question with a story. In the fall of 2008, a couple of months before Obama was first elected president, I was having dinner with a couple of colleagues. I was sitting next to Eli Anderson, an urban ethnographer who has spent his entire life studying race in America. Like many African Americans, he was absolutely convinced that Americans would never elect a black president. There was just too much racism out there, he told me. Like a lot of white liberals, I was just as convinced that Obama would win. Look at the polls, I said. Eight years later, in the fall of 2016, I was part of a roundtable discussion at one of the “residential colleges” (a.k.a., dorms) at Yale. I was sitting next to another colleague, Julia Adams, who has spent much of her career thinking about gender and politics. She was absolutely terrified that Trump was going to win. Like most coastal meritocrats, I was completely convinced that he would lose. Look at the polls, I said. The fact that Julia was right about American misogyny made me realize that Eli had also been right about American racism. Because the Trump presidency is, in many ways, a backlash against a black man in the White House.
So, like many white liberals, I’ve come to realize just how widespread and deeply rooted white supremacism is in the United States. And also just how entangled it is with white Christianity. Let me give you one example: the ethic of “personal accountability” that is common amongst conservative evangelicals. It’s a peculiar synthesis of neoliberal economics and Arminian soteriology, in which our fates in this world and the next are completely up to us, the product of our own personal decisions. The implication is that we cannot be held accountable for what earlier generations have done, and that we are not responsible for other people’s situations. Now, I think it would be pretty easy to show how this ethic took shape as part of the right-wing backlash against the New Deal and the Great Society, insofar as they benefitted African Americans. But while it originated out of racial animus, it now poses as “colorblind.” And this is really just the tip of the iceberg that is WCN’m. If you want to understand why so many conservative evangelicals are “pro-military” and “pro-gun,” for example, you have to look below the surface of the present, at the history of American slavery and imperialism, too. This is why I speak of “white Christian nationalism” in American Babylon, rather than just “Christian nationalism,” as in American Covenant.
Still, we have to remember that Obama did win—twice. We have to remember that the United States has become a more egalitarian and inclusive place, however slowly and incompletely. That, too, is part of our history. So, while I am not particularly optimistic about the future, I still remain hopeful.