Yale sociologist Phil Gorski on the threat of white Christian nationalism

Yale - The January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was a hodgepodge of conflicting symbols.

The protestors erected a large wooden cross and gallows. Some waved Rebel battle flags; others the Stars and Stripes. Some carried signs declaring that “Jesus Saves” while others wore sweatshirts bearing white supremacist slogans. The men who invaded the Senate chamber — some clad in body armor, one wearing a horned headdress — invoked Christ’s name as they bowed heads and prayed.

To many, the clashing imagery was one of many bewildering and unsettling aspects of that chaotic day. To Yale sociologist Philip Gorski, the scene was instantly recognizable as an extreme form of white Christian nationalism.

The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy (Oxford University Press),” a new book Gorski coauthored with sociologist Samuel L. Perry of the University of Oklahoma, is a primer that relies on historical sources and survey data to explain the ideology, trace its origins and history, and describe the threat it poses to the United States.

Gorski, professor of sociology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, recently spoke with Yale News about the roots of today’s white Christian nationalism and the threat it poses to democracy. The interview has been edited and condensed.

What is white Christian nationalism?

Philip Gorski: First, it is an ideology based on a story about America that’s developed over three centuries. It reveres the myth that the country was founded as a Christian nation by white Christians and that its laws and institutions are based on Protestant Christianity. White Christian nationalists believe that the country is divinely favored and has been given the mission to spread religion, freedom, and civilization. They see this mission and the values they cherish as under threat from the growing presence of non-whites, non-Christians, and immigrants in the United States. This is one point at which white Christian nationalism overlaps with the Make America Great American narrative. It’s the view that somebody has corrupted the country or is trying to take it away. White Christian nationalists want to take it back.

 Where are the roots of today’s white Christian nationalism?

Gorski: By digging into the historical source materials, you can see this perspective taking shape in the 1690s, which is the title of one of the book’s chapters. In a way, you can trace it back even further, because this idea of a white Christian nation does have roots in a certain understanding of the Bible that weaves three old stories into a new story.

One is this idea of a Promised Land. God bestows a Promised Land on the Israelites. They go to that land and find the Amalekites inhabiting it. They conquered the land. This is how a lot of the early settlers of New England, many of them Puritan, understood their situation. Quite literally, they saw themselves, like the Israelites, as a chosen people. North America was the new Promised Land. The Native Americans were the new Amalekites and the Puritans felt entitled to take their land.

Another strand is the End Times story, which today is viewed as the Second Coming of Jesus in the most literal sense. It’s a belief that Jesus is going to come down to Earth for a final showdown between good and evil. And the Christians in America will be on the side of good.

These two stories describe the “Christian nationalism” in white Christian nationalism. Whiteness came into play when some white Americans tried to develop a justification for slavery. The traditional justification for slavery, theologically speaking, had been that heathens and captives of war could be enslaved. Initially, this is how slavery in America was justified, but a couple of generations later, the justification didn’t really work. You can’t argue that a young boy of African descent born in the Virginia Colony in 1690 was a captive of war. His mother might have converted to Christianity, in which case he’s not a “heathen.” A new justification had to be embedded in the culture, which gave rise to the notorious idea of the curse of Ham. Because Ham had seen his father Noah drunk and naked, God placed a mark on Ham’s son Canaan and condemned his offspring to slavery. Christians used this to justify enslaving people of African descent.

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