Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Drew J. Strait

Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary

In a recent viral Tweet, Rainn Wilson (best known as Dwight Schrute from The Office) wrote, “The metamorphosis of Jesus Christ from a humble servant of the abject poor to a symbol that stands for gun rights, prosperity theology, anti-science, limited government (that neglects the destitute) and fierce nationalism is truly the strangest transformation in human history.”

Wilson’s Tweet struck a nerve. How’d we get here? What is Christian nationalism? Is America, in fact, a “Christian nation”? For over two centuries, this last question has rippled through the heartland of America from sea to shining sea as Americans grapple with their origins, identities, and relationships with God, one another and the world. For some, “Christian nation” is an oxymoron—an exclusive notion in a land where many faith traditions reside. For others, “Christian nation” is a form of political idolatry, a weaponization of the church’s mission and suppression of our history of building a nation with free labor on the backs of enslaved Africans and indigenous peoples. Still, for others, “Christian nation” is a controlling narrative and vital part of their theological identities. Historians, theologians and political scientists have offered their perspectives through book-length treatments. But never has someone offered an empirical, large scale, data-driven sociological analysis of Christian nationalism in the USA.

In comes Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel Perry’s new book (henceforth, TABG). Whitehead (Associate Professor of Sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, previously at Clemson University) and Perry (Assistant Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at University of Oklahoma) frame the question around new methods, metrics, and data to animate the inner-workings and values of Christian nationalism. To be clear, Whitehead and Perry do not put forth a new historical analysis of whether America is a Christian nation (for that, one needs to read Mark Noll, John Fea, et al.). Rather, their focus is on putting flesh on the mechanics of Christian nationalism through the interpretation of data. In other words, this book does not contain the latest musings on what a scholar thinks is happening; rather, it comprises a scientific, real-time analysis of what Americans believe in this moment based on data from the Baylor Religion Survey. In addition to large-scale data, the authors draw on fifty in-depth interviews and engage in participant observation at large (mostly mega-church) events in Texas, Oklahoma, and South Carolina, including the Freedom Sunday Celebration led by the controversial Robert Jeffress. For the authors, it does not matter “whether the United States is or ever was a Christian nation. What matters is that a significant number of Americans believe that it is” (p. 4, emphasis original).

In this review I will summarize portions from each chapter and then offer some suggestions for why this book is important for pastor theologians. For purposes of full disclosure, I am not a social scientist, nor am I unbiased on this topic. Moreover, I do not pretend to have the computational skills to double-check data analysis (for the data nerds, there are three appendices on data/methods). I review this book from the perspective of a New Testament theologian who is deeply concerned that state power has coopted our theological imaginations.

The introduction of TABG profiles Christian nationalism. In contrast to civil religion, which the authors see rooted in the traditions of justice, mercy, and humility in the prophetic Old Testament, Whitehead and Perry define Christian nationalism as:

a cultural framework—a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems—that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life … the ‘Christianity’ of Christian nationalism represents something more than religion. As we will show, it includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism. It is as ethnic and political as it is religious. (p. 10)

Image: Cover Photo

With data to address six questions about the role of God in the USA (pp. 7-8), the authors identify four postures toward Christian nationalism: Rejecters, Resisters, Accommodators, or Ambassadors. Key predictors of Ambassadors of Christian nationalism include identification with political conservatism, belief in the Bible—including belief in the Bible as the literal word of God and as perfectly true—religious practice, belief that America is on the brink of moral decay, belief that God requires the faithful to wage war for good, and belief in the rapture (p. 12).

A major thesis of the book—and a surprising one for me—is that religious commitment is not always a vector for Christian nationalism. In fact, Christian nationalism “often influences Americans’ opinions and behaviors in the exact opposite direction than traditional religious commitment does” (p. 20). This dichotomy—between Christian nationalism and religious commitment—is animated by survey questions that clarify the moral priorities of each group. Statistically significant predictors for religious practice include caring for the sick and needy, economic justice and consuming fewer goods. For Christian nationalists, on the other hand, these moral priorities are either statistically insignificant or negatively associated. Of equal interest, Christian nationalists see military service as a vital component of “being a good person.” Religious practice, on the other hand, tends to cultivate a negative association with military service (14).

With this peek under the hood, Whitehead and Perry problematize our working assumptions about the purported marriage between white evangelicalism and Christian nationalism (a classification reinforced by pollsters [p. 20]). A much stronger predictor for the rise of Trumpism, anti-black sentiments, xenophobia, resistance to racial justice and the repudiation of women in politics is Christian nationalism. Religious commitment can, in fact, have the obverse effect of driving one to condemn these aspects of Christian nationalism. Of course, there are exceptions—a point on which I wish to press the authors for more clarity.

Chapter 1 further fleshes out the four orientations to Christian nationalism. Rejecters make up 21.5 percent of Americans and comprise those individuals who are most educated and resistant to implementing Christian values in American public life. One-third of Rejecters associate with a Christian religious tradition and tend to be wealthier and to populate urban centers, the Northeast, or West regions of the country. Resisters make up 26.6 percent of Americans and share key demographics with Rejecters, with the exception of being slightly less educated. Resisters are more religious than Rejecters (80 percent believe in a higher power, compared to only 40 percent of Rejecters). While Resisters are suspicious of the declaration that America is a Christian nation, they might be comfortable with the presence of religious symbols in public places. It is notable that Resisters and Rejecters make up almost half of the U.S. population as a whole.

Accommodators make up 32.1 percent of America and lean toward Christian nationalism while holding some ambivalence toward it. Accommodators are older, include more women than Rejecters/Resisters, are more religious (a third are evangelical Protestant and a third identify as Catholic), and, like Resisters, tend to be political moderates (47 percent identify as such). Ambassadors make up 19.8 percent of America and are the least educated and oldest of the four groups (average age is 54, whereas the average age of Rejecters is 43). For Ambassadors, the founding fathers were Christians and America’s prosperity hinges on obedience to God’s law in the Bible (but with strong preference for Old Testament texts). Notably, only 16 percent of Ambassadors reside in cities.

The chapter includes several tables that further profile each orientation, including racial and geographical data, concluding with a simple point: Christianity is in slow decline in the U.S.; therefore, so too is Christian nationalism—hence, the nostalgia Christian nationalists feel for the past. This trend, however, is malleable and can change alongside sociopolitical unrest. For example, Christian nationalism intensified after 9/11 but slowly waned by 2014. The election of Donald Trump may stimulate a similar resurgence, especially as he appeals to nativist and fascist rhetoric.

Chapter 2 addresses the relationship between Christian nationalism and political power. Whitehead and Perry argue that Christian nationalism has little to do with personal religiosity and everything to do with acquiring and leveraging political power around key issues like Islam, immigration, abortion/patriarchy, militarism, gun control and sacrificial allegiance to the flag (including blood sacrifice; see pp. 77-80). Obsession with power explains why Ambassadors and Accommodators overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election while overlooking the many ways that Trump’s personal life is at odds with Christian ethics. Again, Trump’s personal religious piety is of little significance—what matters is that he pulls the right ideological levers to shape America into the image of Christian nationalism, to reclaim a mythical past. Herein lies the most provocative idea in the book: one does not have to go to church or hold to orthodox Christian beliefs to be a Christian nationalist.

Chapter 3 explores how Christian nationalism embraces and constructs boundaries to exclude the ethno-religious other. The chapter opens with jarring quotes from interviews with Ambassadors, who appeal to Jerusalem’s walls, the Pope’s walls and the New Jerusalem’s wall in the Book of Revelation to divinely legitimate fortified borders. Christian nationalists, then, appeal to biblical justification to construct an “us” (i.e., “white” Christians) versus “them” (heathen) caste system, wherein immigrants, BIPOC, LGBTQ persons and women are subordinate. This segregated worldview attempts to monopolize power among white, native-born Protestants to control social and political institutions. Notably, when this hegemonic cultural power is questioned, the use of force is a viable option to curtail opposition (cue the recent Lafayette Square conflict).

In my mind, the most interesting data in this chapter deal with Christian nationalists’ attitudes toward racial justice, police brutality and interracial marriage. Accommodators and Ambassadors have a much higher likelihood of not being comfortable with their white daughter marrying a black man, believing that police treat blacks the same as whites, and believing that police shoot black people more often because black people are inherently more violent (Fig. 3.4). The chapter concludes by showing again that religiosity behaves differently than Christian nationalism, drawing auditors in opposite directions on issues of immigration and racial justice (pp. 114-18). The data on immigration and police brutality in this chapter poke gaping holes in the vacuous claim among Christian nationalists that “all lives matter.” Indeed, as J. Kameron Carter recently wrote on social media, in this camp of white America, not only do black and brown lives not matter—they are “non-matter.”

Chapter 4 explores the relationship between Christian nationalism and order. By “order,” Whitehead and Perry focus on cultural threats against the traditional family that is the bedrock of Christian nationalism’s social hierarchy (patriarchal, heterosexual, nuclear). Several quotations from court evangelicals make an appearance in this chapter to illustrate how integral male headship is for the Christian nationalist worldview. The point is reaffirmed with data: Accommodators and Ambassadors are far more likely to believe that men are better suited emotionally for politics, a preschool child will suffer if its mom works, it is God’s will that women care for their children and that a husband should have a higher salary than his wife (Fig. 4.1). When this patriarchal worldview is challenged, there is widespread fear that America will experience not only moral decline but wholesale judgment by God.

Three points stand out from this chapter. First, drawing on the Yale philosopher Jason Stanley’s book How Fascism Works, there is a history of fascist regimes drawing on traditional gender roles to rouse populist support—to reclaim an ordered, patriarchal past (123). Christian nationalism can operate within and even appeal to this populist, patriarchal framework as a strategy to control society. (In the U.S. context, Whitehead and Perry call this “proto-fascism” in their interview with Miroslov Volf.) Second, and most provocatively, while Accommodators and Ambassadors are far more likely to condemn divorce, they are also more likely to participate in it: their marital status shows the highest rate of divorce when compared to Rejecters, Resisters and Accommodators (Fig. 4.1). This point again highlights how Christian nationalists’ ethics are about political power and a particular social hierarchy—not religious piety. Third, unlike the other social issues discussed in TABG (immigration, anti-black sentiments, etc.), Christian nationalism and religious piety behave similarly in the area of gender, sexuality and divorce (see esp. Fig. 4.5). “Thus, to be more committed to religion personally is to be more committed to a certain ‘traditional’ model of family life, sexual behavior, or gender, regardless of one’s views on Christian nationalism” (p. 145). There is one key nuance here: whereas Christian nationalists hold to traditional roles to preserve societal order, religiously active Americans tend to hold to traditional roles in order to convert people from their idea of sin.

The conclusion of TABG reinforces three of the book’s major theses. First, “when Christian nationalism zigs, religious practice zags” (p. 155). Second, Christian nationalism matters, and we can expect to see its manifestations at different levels of government even though it is declining in size. Third, Christian nationalism is not about religious revival but power and privilege over society. The conclusion also offers a few provocative ideas. For example, according to Whitehead and Perry, calling out Trump’s immorality and corruption is not an effective strategy for resisting Christian nationalism because for Christian nationalists Trump is “fully orthodox” and delivers on what is most wanted—namely, power (p. 158). This intoxication with power endangers democracy because Ambassadors “believe that the country would be better off if the ‘other side’ ceased to exist” (p. 162).

Whitehead and Perry do not offer concrete suggestions for how the church can confront Christian nationalism with new Christopolitical imaginaries. But here, I think, is one of the major contributions of TABG: it’s hard to resist something if you can’t name your object of resistance with precision. For too long, progressive voices have sloppily parodied evangelicalism with broad brush strokes, painting it into a corner while some of its constituents are doggedly against Christian nationalism. It’s a messy world we live in. TABG invites us to be more careful with our words—to name Christian nationalism as the primary predictor and conduit for nativist ideologies that are at odds with the gospel of Christ. This observation, however, hardly vindicates evangelicalism from the ways it has incubated theologies of oppression. Indeed, TABG illustrates just how infected evangelicalism has become with Christian nationalist ideology. Leaders in these circles need to publicly lament and own the ways their tradition has proliferated white supremacy and patriarchy. Until that day, not much will change in these spaces of worship. (See Robert P. Jones’s White Too Long for a sobering account.)

What, then, does all this mean for pastor theologians who find themselves in the Rejecter and Resister camps for theological reasons—myself included?

First off, this is our moment to show up. If the data in TABG is any indication, now is not a time to sit silent or embrace moderate deference toward state power out of fear of being labeled “too political.” Yes, this is about democracy—but for those of us who still do theology out of and for the church, this is also about idolatry and about seeing God and neighbor rightly. That matters—a lot.

More so, TABG animates a surprising reality, one I knew by observation but not by scientific data: Christian nationalists, it turns out, are often religiously disconnected, lean toward heterodoxy, and are often at odds with biblical ethical values like hospitality, peace/justice, and neighborly love. As I’ve said elsewhere, one of the strangest realities of calling oneself a Christian in the age of Trumpism is that if you affirm the social teachings of Jesus (love of neighbors/enemies, inclusive table-fellowship, divestment of money, care for poor), you are called a “libtard” or a “snowflake.” But if you affirm the values of Christian nationalism (militarism, xenophobia, meritocracy), you are considered a good, Bible-believing Christian.

How do pastor theologians flip this script? How do we reorient Christian nationalists’ lives around the life and teachings of Jesus in a church body? Put another way, how do we call Christian nationalists to repentance—to change their minds (metanoia) about God, power, and human difference?

TABG does not give me hope that this task will be easy, nor does it energize me toward making this our primary goal. Instead, our work is one of taking responsibility for this moment and repairing the damage by offering the world a Christianity rooted in the life and teachings of Jesus (rather than a Christianity rooted in racialized and militarized state power). This work will not happen through Tweet storms and late night parodies, nor will it happen through political paralysis. Rather, it will happen through the alter-cultural habits of incarnation: table fellowship, listening, prophetic critique, repentance, organizing, and showing up in the midst of human difference with a message of good news.

The good news is not that Jesus is taking America back for God. Rather, the good news is that Jesus, the Lord of Peace, is at work to create a global “fellowship of difference” (to borrow a phrase from Scot). Indeed, there is only one Christian nation in the world, and that nation is called the ekklesia (church)—it is multi-cultural, borderless, weaponless, and the primary context in which God is at work to pacify enmity between humans and God and humans and one another.

I want to congratulate and thank Drs. Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry for writing this important book for the moment in which we are living and leading.