Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry are both professors of sociology at respected American universities. This co-authored volume reflects their scholarship and painstaking research on the subject of Christian nationalism, which they claim is “the first empirical examination in the United States” (p. xi). The goal is to “thoroughly explore one factor that, as we will show, plays a large, unique, but often unrecognized (and at times, misrecognized) role in our nations’ current cultural and political conflicts. That factor is Christian nationalism” (p. ix). While I take exception to some of the views espoused in Taking America Back, as will be mentioned below, I do believe the authors essentially accomplished their goals.
A definition of Christian nationalism is imperative and despite all the authors write on the subject, clarity is still hard to come by. Below are a few of the definitions scattered throughout.
- “An ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture” (pp. ix-x).
- “A commitment to a vision of American civic life and polity as closely intertwined with an indentitarian, politically conservative strain of Christianity” (p. xi).
- “A collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems—that idealizes and advocates a Christianity with American civic life” (p. 10).
- “Christian nationalists view God’s expectations of America as akin to His commands to Old Testament Israel” (p. 11).
- “Idealizes a mythic society in which real Americans—white, native-born, mostly Protestants—maintain control over access to society’s social, cultural, and political institutions, and ‘others’ remain in their proper place. It therefore seeks strong boundaries to separate ‘us’ from ‘them,’ preserving privilege for its rightful recipients while equating racial and religious outsiders with criminality, violence and inferiority” (pp. 118-119).
Even with these definitions, determining the meaning of Christian nationalism remains, in my view, elusive. One important distinction the authors repeatedly make is that Christian nationalism is not equivalent to evangelicalism, or white evangelicalism for that matter (p. 20). They write, “Christian nationalism is not ‘Christianity’ or even ‘religion’ properly speaking” (p. 20). In fact, it often influences opinion and behaviors in the exact opposite direction from ways traditional religious commitment does (p. 20). This distinction is deeply appreciated, but by the continual use of “Christian” with nationalism the authors are guilty of muddying the waters considerably. Obviously, a new term is needed to avoid confusion, but no such term is offered in Taking America Back for God.
The authors’ research serves to identify four main orientations toward Christian nationalism in the United States (p. 10):
- Rejecters, who comprise 21.5% of Americans, believe there should be no connection between Christianity or Christian values and politics (pp. 26-29).
- Resisters are more likely to be religious but want to keep a separation between politics and Christian views. Twenty-seven percent of Americans are in this category.
- Accommodators is the largest group at 32.1% and believe in traditional Christian values as foundational to America but do not fully favor Christianity alone.
- Ambassadors (19.8%) wholly support Christian nationalism (pp. 10-38). Surprisingly African Americans are the most supportive ethnic group of Christian nationalism—with 65% in favor (p. 41). Actually, Christian nationalism is found across all socio-demographics, religious and political make-ups (p. 44). And yet, in contradiction to the very premise the authors have documented, they state that there is “no better encapsulation of Christian nationalism than, ‘you stand at the flag and kneel at the cross’” (p. 80). Just a few pages later they write, “The great paradox is that Christian nationalism and religiosity often influence Americans political views in the exact opposite direction” (p. 84). This is because the authors believe the Christianity of Christian nationalists is less drawn from the Bible and more drawn from culture—it is a secularized form of Christianity (p. 87).
According to these scholars, what separates Christian nationalists from opposing positions are views concerning wedge issues such as abortion (p. 73), gun laws (p. 83), the traditional family (p. 121), gender roles, morals, and homosexuality (pp. 123-136), respect for authority (p. 103), immigration, and privilege that should be afforded those born in America (pp. 118-119, 153).
Whitehead’s and Perry’s research is massive and helpful, but even in a book supposedly presenting empirical data there are serious concerns. I will mention two: The authors’ biases, and truncated evaluations. First, bias: The authors ultimately determine that Christian nationalism is primarily about power (p. 161). Nationalists view America for Americans who were born in this country, have traditional values, conservative politics, and are at least nominal Christians (p. 63). If by power the authors mean that Christian nationalists want to so influence, and even control, society in such a way that their ideological agenda is dominate in America, I would have to agree. On the other hand, the book does not address that progressives, the ideological opposite of nationalists, seek the same power. They too want to determine life in America, including politics, education and institutions at every level. Although Take Back America was published in 2020, the authors had not witnessed the popularity of Critical Race Theory, the death of George Floyd and the social unrest that followed, or the cancel culture trend. What has become obvious is that progressives seek power every bit as much as nationalists and both groups energize the other. To totally ignore the cultural Marxist agenda of American progressives as the authors do leaves the reader with a lopsided understanding of why nationalists are so determined.
The authors’ bias is also evident in their response to those who see much of the difficulties in the Black community being trackable to the breakdown of the family and the absence of fathers. These researches make no effort to empirically examine these claims, but rather consider them reactionary and fascist (pp. 122-123). Christian nationalism values “connect America’s very survival as a civilization with its adherence to traditional definitions of family, traditional gender roles, and heterosexuality” (p. 124). Such values are at odds with progressives but deserve respect and evaluation, not dismissal.
My evaluational accusation stems from Whitehead’s or Perry’s either intentional blindness or at least their inabilities to distinguish two very different prongs found in Christian nationalism—the political and the spiritual/moral. The authors lump together social/political views concerning immigration, Islamic influences, racism, management of poverty, gun control and the military with moral issues such as gender, sexual behavior, abortion, divorce, homosexuality, transgenderism, and family values. The authors rightly document that the more religious Americans actually are the less likely they are to ostracize immigrants, espouse anti-black prejudice or fear Muslims, and the more likely they are to desire traditional gender roles in the home, oppose same-sex marriage and transgender rights, and have negative views of divorce (p. 143). Nevertheless, the authors attribute the moral views of religious individuals to their “orientation toward societal ‘order’ and threats to the ‘proper’ arrangements” (p. 145). In other words, power and control are at the heart of conservative/traditional positions on moral issues every bit as much as political ones. It does not seem to dawn on Whitehead and Perry that such moral convictions are drawn from Scripture and, in the convictions of true Christians, ultimately from God Himself. Such Christians are identified by the authors as Christian nationalists when in reality they are attempting to live according to the moral standards established by the Lord. The authors may agree with this assessment to a point, but then rebut that such people belong in the Christian nationalist camp because they want to impose their standards on society. We are back to power, but again the authors choose to ignore that rejecters and resisters are just as zealous to impose their standards on Americans as nationalists.
The research found in this volume related to Christian nationalism is valuable and helps unravel a complicated and multilayered ideology that is prevalent in America. I appreciate Whitehead’s and Perry’s clarification that evangelicalism, white or otherwise, is not synonymous with Christian nationalism. It would have been best if the authors had dropped “Christian” altogether and spoke purely of nationalism. Some of the strongest representatives of nationalism, have nothing to do with Christianity, and most Christians are not nationalists by the definitions found in this book. Nevertheless, nationalistic ideology certainly exists and is a powerful influence in America, but so does progressive ideology that opposes nationalism. The bias of the authors is evident in their depreciation of nationalism, their dismissal of accusations that do not fit their agenda, and their refusal to recognize that progressives are grasping for power as much as nationalists. Still, the research documents well a great divide in America.
Taking America Back for God by Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 268 pp. + xviii, Hard $29.95
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher at Southern View Chapel