White Christian Nationalism ‘Is a Fundamental Threat to Democracy’

New York Magazine - An ideology is on the march. Traces of it are detectable in a racist massacre in Buffalo; in Tucker Carlson’s monologues; in Marjorie Taylor Greene’s public comments. Find it again in the right’s anti-abortion rhetoric, which poorly disguises demographic anxiety, or in the right’s response to the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which shows it embracing God and guns with ever greater conviction. This ideology has a name, argue sociologists Samuel L. Perry of the University of Oklahoma and Philip S. Gorski of Yale University. Perry and Gorski call it white Christian nationalism, and in their view, it represents a pressing threat to democracy.

In The Flag and the Cross, their new book from Oxford University Press, white Christian nationalists undergo careful scrutiny. Combining research with data analysis, Gorski and Perry argue that white Christian nationalists share a set of common anti-democratic beliefs and principles. “These are beliefs that, we argue, reflect a desire to restore and privilege the myths, values, identity, and authority of a particular ethnocultural tribe,” they write. “These beliefs add up to a political vision that privileges the tribe. And they seek to put other tribes in their proper place.”

I recently spoke with Gorski and Perry about their findings and the threat white Christian nationalism poses to democracy.

Why do you think the term “white Christian nationalism” is so important to use?

Gorski: I think because it identifies one of the deepest and most powerful currents in American political culture, one that has been invisible to most folks outside of that culture and even, in a way, to a lot of people inside of that culture because it’s the water they swim in and the air they breathe. And of course it’s also important because it is right now evolving into a deeply anti-democratic ideology, one that really is driving some of the most radical fringe groups in the United States today, including many mainstream political candidates in the Republican Party.

Perry: I would say that one element we see, just from an empirical standpoint, is that quantitative indicators of Christian-nationalist ideology seem to operate differently for white Americans than for, say, African Americans. When white Americans take our surveys and answer questions about whether the United States is a Christian nation or we don’t need a separation of church and state or we should advocate Christian values in the government, for them, it is powerfully associated with things like nostalgia and authoritarianism and a certain vision of America’s history as this kind of mythic story: that we have a special relationship with God and that there is this kind of place that we are going — this deep story.

And the vision we talk about in the book for, say, African Americans who take the same survey and answer the same questions, those questions mean something different. Clearly, for African Americans to affirm those kinds of statements about Christian nation, Christian values, Christian heritage, they don’t think nostalgically for a better time. They think aspirationally. It seems, from the way they respond to other questions, that they respond to a lot of what Phil has talked about in a previous book on civil religion — that there is this aspirational component of American civil religion that holds to a creedal understanding of what America is supposed to be about, our constitutional principles. And so you can see what would seem like Christian nationalism in the mouth of Martin Luther King Jr. or Frederick Douglass properly understood as calls to live up to the values we claim to adhere to.

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