Philip S. Gorski is Professor and Chair of Sociology at Yale University. His latest book, co-authored with Samuel L. Perry, is The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to Democracy. It defines and diagnoses the ideological movement that helped inspire the January 6 insurrection, and that continues to inspire anti-democratic action in the United States.
ECM: What is white Christian nationalism?
PSG: White Christian nationalism can be understood in two ways—as a deep story about the past and as a political vision for the future. As a deep story, it claims that America was founded as a Christian nation, that its founding documents are based on Protestant Christianity, that its power and wealth are reflective of divine favor. If the nation becomes less white, less Christian, less patriotic, it falls in danger of losing those blessings. As a vision for the future, it imagines that the country will continue to be led by native-born white Christians, with everyone else here basically on their sufferance. But it is also connected to views on a variety of other issues, including gun rights, voting rights, economic policy, and so on. These are linked together by what we call the “holy trinity” of white Christian nationalism: freedom, order, and violence. Freedom for us, order for everyone else, and violence for those who transgress.
ECM: Do white Christian nationalists self-identify as such?
PSG: There is a small but growing minority who openly speak about America as a Christian nation and might even accept the term for themselves. I think that has happened, in part, because of criticism voiced by scholars and journalists who work in this area. It’s not uncommon for people to embrace a stigmatized label as a marker of group identity, and I think that is beginning to happen here. But the vast majority of individuals that we would term white Christian nationalists would probably think of themselves, instead, as members of the religious right, conservative Christians, culture warriors, God-and-country patriots, or something like that.
ECM: You’ve borrowed the concept of a “deep story” from Arlie Hochschild and it is important to your analysis. Can you tell us a bit about that?
PSG: The term “deep story” is similar to what cultural linguists like George Lakoff refer to as a “frame” or a “metaphor.” It’s a kind of a script that explains how the world works and how one fits into the world. For some people there is a conscious sort of storytelling that plays out in their minds, but for most it works in the background. It’s like a set of glasses that you forget you’re wearing but that nonetheless color everything that you perceive. This particular deep story is transmitted in various ways. For one thing, there is a Christian nationalism culture industry comprised of books and seminars and YouTube videos. There is also an array of Christian homeschooling textbooks, for example. For many people within this conservative Christian subculture, it’s just the air that they breath or the water they swim in. They wouldn’t even think of it, consciously, as a story. But if you arrange these ideas into a story and tell it to these individuals, as Arlie Hochschild did, they would probably recognize it as something that they feel or that feels true to them.
Sam Perry and I think about the white Christian nationalist deep story as being woven together by way of three stories that appear in Christian scripture. The first is what we call the “promised land” story, drawing on the Israelites’ conquest of the promised land. This dates back to the Puritans, who once looked upon North America as their promised land, given to Christians by God, and who came to see the native peoples as the biblical Canaanites or Malakites—people who were unjustly occupying the land and needed to be driven out, exterminated, or, in some cases, assimilated. The second thread is what we call the “end times” story, comprised of beliefs about the second coming of Christ and the end of the world, a cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil, natural and supernatural, that provides a means of understanding contemporary events. As a character in this story, you are not simply engaged in political conflict, you are engaged in spiritual conflict. Your partisan identity is tied up in a great final struggle between God and Satan. Those two stories account for the Christian and the nationalist part of the equation. The white part is visible in the third thread, which once identified enslaved Africans with the biblical Ham, on whom God had placed a curse and destined for eternal servitude. I don’t think many people embrace that idea explicitly today, but it is echoed in subtle and persistent forms of anti-Black bias and racism, as well as subtle and not-so-subtle ideas about the cultural and moral superiority of whites in modern America. So those are the three threads of white Christian nationalism, and they are woven together into a single deep story.
Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.