Thanks for joining us Bradley and congratulations on your book Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism and What Comes Next. I want to start with a question that ties together your personal history as a once devout Evangelical and what we might think of as the collective psyche of Christian nationalists today. That question is about meaning and belonging; you mention for instance that evangelicalism can be a “hidden world” and “a cocoon of belonging.” Can we think of White Christian nationalism’s rise as the result of a longing for meaning, as a reaction against traditional avenues of meaning being lost? You begin the book in the 1990s and I think that is an interesting decade to start in, with its supposedly post-ideological, post-political, and in some ways hedonistic character, phenomena whose flip sides contain a certain emptiness and vulnerability. Do you agree with that framing? And can you take us through some of the dynamics that animate the appeal of White Christian nationalism, with its certainty, world-building, etc.?
I do think that evangelicalism in particular is an invitation to a cocoon of belonging, as I write. One of the things that I’ve concluded after leaving evangelicalism 15 years ago, is that when I converted, the church offered me two things automatically. One was an answer to the most fundamental, existential, questions that I had. Even as a teenager, you wrestled with the meaning of life, the fleetingness of the human condition, the problem of death, what happens after death, and so on and so on and so on. So, it offered really easy answers to those questions, in addition to a community that welcomed me in and became my second home. And in the 90s that was really poignant. I was a teenager when Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came out, and the famous line from that song is, “Here we are now, entertain us, I feel stupid and contagious.”
It was a decade of many facets and many sides, but it included this sense that the Cold War was over, there was no great cause for us to fight for as a generation and there was a certain ennui and an emptiness after the 80s dominated by Reaganite capitalism. And so, to be invited into a community and to have all the questions to your most pressing questions answered was incredibly alluring. Now, I think that White Christian nationalism is more expansive than evangelicalism. It includes White Catholics, it includes Latter-day Saints, it includes many who don’t regularly attend church. And I agree with those who would frame White Christian nationalism as a cultural identity, as a story to live out. This involves belonging, and it involves becoming part of a hidden world or a world that was once here and is now gone.
White Christian nationalism is a cultural identity that gives people a story about the United States—that it was once a Christian nation, a city on a hill, but is no longer. And it gives them a role to play in that story. It says you can be a patriot, you can be a godly person, you can be somebody who knows the now hidden history of the country and so can help restore it. That identity is alluring to people for a number of reasons. One, it gives them a role to play, but two, it helps them face the uncertainty of the current age. It helps them face an era of pandemics, global change, climate crisis, and cultural change. And so, from the 90s until now, I think we can see throughlines, but I think we can also see an acceleration of the adoption of this White Christian Nationalist story over the last eight years.
White Christian nationalism is a cultural identity that gives people a story about the United States—that it was once a Christian nation, a city on a hill, but is no longer. And it gives them a role to play in that story. It says you can be a patriot, you can be a godly person, you can be somebody who knows the now hidden history of the country and so can help restore it.
Building on that, I wanted to ask you some material questions about the political economy of White Christian nationalism. This does not seem to figure explicitly in your book, but you do talk for instance about mid-century Southern California—with its basis in defense industries—as shaping the particular kind of Christian nationalism that emerged. Likewise, you note that the relative lack of civic and associational groups located there left it “unzoned” and therefore ripe for Christian nationalists to fill the void. Today this associational void exists in most of the country but, differently from the past, this is not because these areas are “unzoned” but rather that the civic institutions that once existed have been actively destroyed through processes growing out of what we might vaguely call the neoliberal logic. I raise this point because I think it suggests murkier nodes of responsibility than we might otherwise assume. In other words, can we blame the rise of White Christian nationalism solely on reactionary masses and conniving elites looking to exploit that reaction? Or should we also place blame on those generations of leaders who look and sound respectable, but who created material conditions that leave people wanting, and grasping for any kind of meaning that they can grab onto to make sense of the world, Christian nationalism included?
We can think of the rise of White Christian nationalism as a long story, one that goes back to the founding of the United States and even before. So, the rise of White Christian nationalism is a very long story. What I try to outline in my book is that from the 1960s forward, we do have a sense of cultural resentment and grievance on the part of White Christians that leads to a new iteration of White Christian nationalism, which itself is a centuries-old phenomenon. One of the things that I go into depth about is the ways that Southern California is a surprising locus for this movement. And I trace that to the Sunbelt Migration, the fact that millions of Southerners and Midwesterners, mainly White, but others, made their way to Southern California and to the Southwest in general in the mid-20th century.
They did that because the defense industries were centered there after World War II, and so there were great middle-class to upper-middle-class jobs on offer, there was affordable real estate, and there were incredibly favorable climates. Now, one of the things that strikes me about Southern California and Orange County in particular, where I grew up, is that there was a lack of civic organizations. There was a lack of groups and ways to participate in the public square that one might have found back in their hometown in the Midwest, in Cincinnati, or Pittsburgh, or the South somewhere. Whether that be Atlanta, or St. Louis, or somewhere else. So, the rise of White Christian nationalism is about reactionary masses; it is about many on-the-ground, run-of-the-mill, rank-and-file White Christians in places like Anaheim, California, who joined the John Birch Society. Who got involved in little coffee groups and stay-at-home-mom gatherings in addition to what were called “cells” of the John Birch Society, anti-Communist schools, things like that.
People were motivated to create a nation that they thought they deserved. And in many ways, Southern California was ripe for that. It was a clean slate, it was not a place where there were longstanding Black communities, Jewish communities, and so on. So, the White Christian kind of had an open horizon to create the country and the community that they wanted. Now, some elites were ready to take advantage of this situation. There were people with lots of money and influence who saw the potential for this and who linked up with megachurch pastors and influential religious leaders to really churn out the masses and their politics in a way that, as I discuss in my book, allows us to talk about elites who are running for elected office and wanting to gain the votes of a certain electorate.
I think of Barry Goldwater, who came to despise Robert Welch as the head of the John Birch Society, but who did everything he could when he ran for president to gain the support of the Birchers, and many historians would argue that the Birchers really did propel him across the finish line in California and the GOP nomination. When we talk about the national scene, we can also see elites who are doing everything they can to shape and contour certain populations, specifically White Christians, to vote in the ways that they would like. I’m thinking, of course, of the Council for National Policy and its co-founders Paul Weyrich, and Richard Viguerie, and Morton Blackwell—three men who came to play a decisive role in late-20th century American politics. Weyrich helped to found the Heritage Foundation, kick-starting what we now know as ALEC, and so forth. However, I think there’s an important point to make, which is to say that we don’t have to choose between reactionary masses and the elites who contoured them and those who helped to create the current neoliberal or post-neoliberal condition in which we live.
The argument I would make, and this is why I focus in part on Southern California, is that Southern California of the mid-20th century is a kind of foreshadowing of a neoliberal model of American society. You have people who live in suburban homes and are not part of longstanding civic organizations like the Rotary Club or the Lions Club or some kind of ethnic affiliation. Back in Pittsburgh, you might’ve found Polish neighborhoods, you might’ve found Italian neighborhoods. You might’ve found ways that people organize their lives in groups, that gave them a sense of civic identity and pride. Well, when you get to Southern California in 1955 or 1960, there’s none of that. So, the places where you can find community are in your little neighborhood, where there might be a small gathering of housewives talking about the latest news from the John Birch Society, or at the church that you attend. The place where you meet friends, where you have community, where you have a place to belong.
And so, other than that, Southern California really, and especially Orange County, had no “main streets.” It did not have places where people could automatically plug into an American public square, where they were part of a group, part of a story. What that means for me is that Southern California was kind of a foreshadowing of an America where fewer and fewer Americans feel connected to their neighbors, where we have fewer and fewer civic organizations, places where we are banded together in a civil society, places where we meet and negotiate and dialogue with those we live with. And so, in some ways I think it’s not a matter of one versus the other, but of a foreshadowing of what was to come in the form of Southern California, and the ways that the reactionary masses were contoured by power-hungry elites, in a societal setting that really was ripe for that kind of movement.
One last question in this vein. In the book, you tell a really interesting story about the structuring conditions of the Cold War and the logics it unleashed. You mention how the “Prosperity Gospel” allowed newly wealthy congregants a spiritual defense for their affluence, juxtaposed with the Godless, but also dogmatically egalitarian Communists. But there is not much in the book about the class positions of today’s White Christian nationalists who are, unlike their predecessors in mid-century Southern California, not affluent or even middle class in many cases. How can such a thing as the Prosperity Gospel be potent today? More generally, how do changes in America’s political economy, and changes in (geo)structural realities more generally, contribute to our understanding of the trajectory of White Christian nationalism as it developed over 75+ years?
The first thing I would say is that I think White Christian nationalists are an economically diverse group. We have folks who are college educated, who are middle class, who are affluent. We also have those who are less affluent, who are socioeconomically underprivileged, those whose household income does not equate to what we might consider a lot of money. White Christian nationalists encompass evangelicals, White Catholics, Latter-day Saints, folks who may not have attended church for a long time, and so I just want to make that point to start. When it comes to the Prosperity Gospel, the Prosperity Gospel has been potent in American society, I think, for several reasons. One, it gives those who are affluent and upper-middle-class license to not feel guilty about that. And that is a key part of American Christianity’s story in the 20th century.
The dominance of evangelical Protestantism, the dominance of what we would consider a more conservative Protestant Christianity, versus the Mainline social gospel that was predominant in the first part of the 20th century, is a story of individualism, it’s a story of Christian faith as a solo effort, a relationship that one person has with God. But what that individualism is also built for is a capitalist society that says that one must work in order to earn, whether that’s a myth or not, and that one only deserves as much as they are willing to work for. And therefore, if one works hard and trusts God, the Prosperity Gospel says God will bless that person. That gives the person with money license to have that money without feeling guilty about it. They don’t need to think that Jesus commands one to feed the poor, to leave all of his riches behind, to follow him. To take the example of the rich young ruler to heart.
The Prosperity Gospel is really important for building the kinds of networks that you need to fund candidates, to fund political movements…You need people who are Christian and yet also billionaires.
They don’t have to do that. They can say, yes, I’m a millionaire. Of course, I have four cars and three houses and I live a certain lifestyle, and that doesn’t make me any less of a Christian. That’s really important for building the kinds of networks that you need to fund candidates, to fund political movements, to make sure that there are billions on offer for the kinds of things you want to accomplish if you are those political and social elites who are trying to shape the United States in a certain way. You need people who are Christian and yet also billionaires and the Prosperity Gospel is a way to make sure that that is a reality.
However, it is also appealing to those without money, and that may surprise some people, but if you are someone who has tried their hardest and it has not worked for you in terms of becoming a rich person, an affluent person, a middle-class person, one of the places you might turn for help for inspiration is church. And when you go to that church and you hear, look, I’m a pastor, I trust God. Look at the nice things God gave me as a result of my faith. Look at this watch, look at this suit, look at the house I live in. You can have that too if you trust God, but there are probably some things in your life that need to change. There’s a reason God’s holding back the riches, all the things that you deserve.
So, friend, are you going to be faithful? Are you going to donate to this church? Are you going to give everything you have to God? And if you do, you can expect to get what I have. Which is riches on earth and riches in heaven. The Prosperity Gospel is I think, incredibly alluring for that reason, it provides justification to one group, it provides hope, endless hope to another group, and thus, it’s a key part of understanding American Christianity and American Christian nationalism.
To get into some of the meat of the book, can you talk about competing theories of what Christian nationalism is, and also is not, delving into the contours of its place as a cultural identity, an ideology, a theology, etc? Then, can you tell us the term’s utility in your view? Why this term and not another?
Christian nationalism in its very essence, if I want to explain it to someone who’s not a specialist in a 10-second elevator pitch, is the idea that in this nation, Christians should be privileged in some way. They should be privileged economically, politically, culturally, etc. Now, I think in more scholarly terms, I agree with those who would argue that Christian nationalism is a cultural identity. It is a way that people in the United States might adopt a cultural identity. As a cultural identity, it is a way that people tell a story about themselves and their nation. So, for the White Christian nationalist, Christian nationalism usually goes like this: the United States was founded as a Christian nation, it was a city on the hill, it was chosen by God to play a special role in human history.
White Christian nationalists—and White Christian nationalists are different than people of color and Black people who are Christian nationalists on this point—see a narrative of decline, and their goal is to restore a country that is in crisis. And that decline in the modern period starts in the 1960s…So, culturally, White Christian nationalism is a crisis narrative that wants to restore the country to a time when people of color and immigrants and women and queer folks did not have cultural representation or civil rights in the way that they do now.
However, since the 1960s, the country has devolved, it is no longer a Christian nation. It is a place—because of the Sexual Revolution, and the dissolution of the nuclear family, and progressive politics—that has departed from its godly foundations. So, the Christian nationalist adopts an identity that says, “in that story, I want to restore the United States to what it was. I want the future of the United States to look like this mythological past that I imagine.” Now, I think it’s important to notice what’s at play culturally here. When you look at the statistics, White Christian nationalists—and White Christian nationalists are different than people of color and Black people who are Christian nationalists on this point—see a narrative of decline, and their goal is to restore a country that is in crisis. And that decline in the modern period starts in the 1960s. So, the question I always ask folks when I encounter them is, okay, so you’re saying that the country was best in the 1950s, and a majority—according to the statistics—will say yes, that’s the time when America was flourishing. And I will say, okay, so that’s a time before the Civil Rights Movement, before immigration reform, before the Voting Rights Act, before Stonewall, before The Feminine Mystique was published, before the Loving case was decided, and I could go on and on and on.
So, culturally, White Christian nationalism is a crisis narrative that wants to restore the country to a time when people of color and immigrants and women and queer folks did not have cultural representation or civil rights in the way that they do now. Now, I think theologically Christian nationalism is quite diverse, and it’s very difficult to summarize all the various strands of Christian nationalism succinctly. There are Catholic versions, there are Reformed Protestant versions, there are Pentecostal versions, there are megachurch versions, and so those all have their various contours. But theologically, what they usually share is again, the idea that this is a Christian nation that has departed from God because of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Now, I think a more important question is, is this term useful? There are indeed other terms that have been used in the past.
We’ve had terms like the religious right, the Moral Majority, or the Christian right. Some would say we have the term civil religion, though I don’t think that actually maps onto Christian nationalism in the same ways. And so, now the term seems to be Christian nationalism. And I have heard scholars ask, is this useful? Or why this term and not another? And I guess my response is twofold. In a scholarly sense, I think it is useful because it ties together the two aspects of the movement and illuminates the heart of it. Christian nationalism is a desire to have a Christian nation. In very blunt terms, it’s a desire for the nation to be Christian. Now, to be Christian means a lot of things to a lot of people but that’s the desire. So, if I want the nation to be Christian, it seems that that’s a vision competing with another that says “I want the nation to be a democracy where all people have equal rights, inclusion, and representation.”
The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but most Christians I know who are not Christian nationalists would say they don’t want the nation to be Christian, they want the nation to be a free and fair democracy, where Christians like them can flourish alongside their Muslim neighbors, their Hindu neighbors, their non-religious neighbors, and everyone else. So, I do think it’s useful in that sense. I also think it’s useful because the religious right, if we go back to that term, was particularly Protestant in its formation. It was a matter of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Tim LaHaye, and others, who formed this organization along with Paul Weyrich, and it had a very Protestant flair. Now, there were Catholics and others involved in it, but it was really, in terms of leadership, exclusively Protestant or nearly exclusively Protestant. Christian nationalism is a much broader term than that.
It is a term that encompasses Christians who want a Christian nation, who are Catholic, who are Latter-day Saints, who are Orthodox, who are Protestant, who are Pentecostal. So, I think in that sense it is useful. I also think—and to me, this is perhaps the most important thing—we live in an age where as scholars there is a demand and a need for us to speak up in the public square and to provide answers to those who will listen to us, who look to us for insight. We can provide those individuals with tools, with categories that they can use to understand what’s going on around them. So, as scholars, we know we’re always going to be dissatisfied with those terms. We’re always going to be on a panel, or write a book review, or a journal article that discusses why a certain term or a certain category is insufficient. It doesn’t capture this or that, it prioritizes this data rather than this, and that makes complete sense to me. But I do think, and this is just a personal perspective, we live in an era where we are in the public square offering insight and wisdom to those who are worried that their country is sliding into fascism. So, to have a term like Christian nationalism I think is very useful. It means I can go and speak to the concerned parent at the PTA meeting, or my dentist, or the person who’s organizing a rally, and have a category and explain what it means.
Is it ever going to be sufficient? Probably not. Is it going to miss certain things? Yes. Are there going to be times for us as scholars to gather in work that is scholar-facing, not public-facing, and to flesh out new terms, different terms, expand or define those terms? Of course. But I think to wait until we have the perfect term to enter the conversation in the public square is to make ourselves obsolete in some sense, and more importantly, to miss the opportunity to contribute to discussions about the nature of what’s happening politically and culturally in the United States.
To ask a question of contemporary importance for our audience, early in the book you mention that Evangelicals “locate authority in the Bible and those who…teach it faithfully.” I have a question that may seem trite but given this quote, how can we explain evangelical Christian nationalists (setting aside for now other forms) who saw Trump—not a pious figure to be sure—as an authority, as a man to place their desires unto? Were Christian nationalists aware of his deficiencies but willing to instrumentalize his Presidency and his opposition to social justice (a tenet of Evangelicalism in your telling), or were they true believers? And how can we historicize the Trump phenomenon within a longer story about White Christian nationalism?
So, evangelicals locate authority in the Bible and those who teach it faithfully. I think the mistake for observers of American evangelicalism is to assume that the Bible is a static object, is a book or a set of texts that has a clear message. I’ve had hundreds of people over the last five years come to me and say, hey, I’m not a Christian, or I’m not an evangelical, but I just read the book of Matthew, or I just read the book of John, or I just read these parts of the New Testament, and it really seems that the emphasis on the part of Jesus as a teacher, or the Apostle Paul, or the community in the Book of Acts is to protect the vulnerable, to help the widow, to ensure that all people are taken care of, and have enough materially, in terms of food and shelter.
It seems that Jesus’ focus is on those who have been cast aside in society. So, if that’s what the Bible says, then how do these Christians do this, this, and this and this? And I guess what I want to remind us is that every religious community that is organized around a text projects their desires, their context, and their social and political aspirations into that text whether they want to or not. Whether they’re aware of it or not. Some communities are aware of it, and they try to bring that awareness into the reading of the text, so that the text can shape them rather than them shaping the text. My argument would be that there is, in American evangelicalism, a deep projection into the text that is part of the aspiration for a certain kind of United States, a certain kind of social and civil order, a certain political structuring.
In American evangelicalism, there is a deep projection into the text that is part of an aspiration for a certain kind of United States, a certain kind of social and civil order, a certain political structuring…so when we get to Donald Trump, we get to a man who promised to fulfill all of those desires and aspirations and ambitions.
So, when you bring that to the text, you are able to leave, after a reading of the text, with a Jesus who says that we should build a wall on the southern border. With a Jesus who says that if you are unhoused, you deserve it, and you should be considered a lost cause or someone worth giving up on. That owning an AR-15 is actually a God-given right and perhaps a God-given command, rather than an aberration from what God wants from you. You can leave the text with a confirmation of everything you brought to it. And so, when we get to Donald Trump, we get to a man who promised to fulfill all of those desires and aspirations and ambitions I just talked about.
White evangelicals had been promised this for a long time. And we could go back to Reagan, but I’d rather focus on George W. Bush. George W. Bush talked openly, expansively, and consistently about being an evangelical Christian. It was God and Jesus, he said, who changed his heart, and transformed him from somebody who abused alcohol into a God-fearing man. He was a plain talker, somebody who sounded like a man you’d meet at church. But eight years of George W. Bush did not seem to scratch the itch for White evangelicals. After 9/11, he might’ve invaded Iraq, but there seemed to be still Muslims who existed in the world, who existed in the United States.
And in addition, the United States kept getting more colorful. There were more people of color, more people who were non-White. In addition, more people were non-Christian. And then, all of a sudden, he left office. And yes, he might’ve been a Christian, and he might’ve done things like invade Iraq, and go after Saddam Hussein, but he never scratched the itch of putting in line the people who had seemingly threatened America. The people who had upended the social order, who were making the United States look like something that was out of whack. And then Barack Obama comes into the presidency. And Barack Obama is the White Christian nationalist’s worst nightmare. He’s mixed race, he has a father from a different country, his father is Black, his wife is Black, his children are Black. His middle name is Hussein, and he spent much of his childhood in Hawaii, that far-off state that might be technically part of the union but that many people consciously don’t consider real America.
During Barack Obama’s presidency, a lot of things happen, including gay people being allowed to get married. Then we get Donald Trump. Donald Trump may not be a man who talks about the Bible and Jesus all the time in the ways that George W. Bush did, but Donald Trump’s aspirations and desires seem to line up with the aspirations and desires that those evangelicals bring to the Bible when they read it. Donald Trump doesn’t just want to create a Christian nation, he wants to brutalize the people who are making it not a Christian nation. Donald Trump doesn’t just want to instill a godly vision for the country, he wants to make sure that those who don’t fit the godly vision of the country are punished. That they hurt. So, he may not be a man who is as deeply pious or Christian literate as George W. Bush, but he seems to be more Christian to White Christian nationalists than Bush or Reagan or any of those predecessors because of the ways that he wants to fulfill their desires and aspirations.
Donald Trump may not be a man who talks about the Bible and Jesus all the time in the ways that George W. Bush did, but Donald Trump’s aspirations and desires seem to line up with the aspirations and desires that evangelicals bring to the Bible when they read it. Donald Trump doesn’t just want to create a Christian nation, he wants to brutalize the people who are making it not a Christian nation. Donald Trump doesn’t just want to instill a godly vision for the country, he wants to make sure that those who don’t fit the godly vision of the country are punished. That they hurt.
Are they true believers in Donald Trump? I think the answer is yes in the sense that they believe he is doing what God wants in the country, whether or not he knows it, whether or not he’s doing it as a servant of God or as an instrument of God. Now, there is a way that Trump fits into a longer story about White Christian nationalism. If we go back to 1980, we of course have Jimmy Carter vs. Ronald Reagan. Jimmy Carter was somebody who checked all the boxes for the White Christian. Jimmy Carter was a Southern Baptist for his entire life, he married his high school sweetheart, became a military officer, and was from rural Georgia, a place with one stoplight. He went home after his dad died and took over the farm. What more would you want if you were a conservative White Christian in the United States?
And yet, in that election, the Moral Majority and the religious right, led by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and Tim LaHaye, in conjunction with Paul Weyrich, and Richard Viguerie, and Morton Blackwell, Francis Schaeffer did everything they could to get Ronald Reagan elected. Ronald Reagan was a divorced actor from Hollywood. A man who might have been a Christian, but certainly did not have the lifelong bona fides that Jimmy Carter had. Someone whose wife was pretty into astrology, which doesn’t fit the evangelical understanding of spirituality. When they voted for Reagan and not for Carter, they were voting for aspiration, they were voting for policy rather than for values, or for identity. So, there was precedent for voting for Trump. There was a way that this fits into a historical trajectory.
However, I think Trump is different from Reagan in the sense that there was an openness about their desire: for someone not only to build or rebuild or restore a Christian nation, but to brutalize the enemies of that Christian nation so they would never try it again. There was a desire not only to build, but also to punish, and I think that is what makes the Trump era something different from those previous iterations.
As a follow-up to that, can you talk to us about how Christianity functions in the White Christian nationalist imaginary? You talk about how, for instance, Goldwater’s politics prefigured his references to Christianity, with religion as the vehicle and politics as the engine. What in other words is the prime mover, and why does the White Christian nationalist project utilize this particular vehicle and not some other? This may be a good time to ask you about the religious elements of the January 6th insurrection as well, and how you see this question playing out in real time within Trumpist movements and their actions.
So, I think it’s worth beginning by talking about the prime mover. What is it that the White Christian nationalist wants? I always go back to Phil Gorski and Sam Perry in The Flag and the Cross, where they talk about this triumvirate of freedom, order, and violence. It’s the idea that one is promised freedom in the United States, and for the White person that means a certain lived experience. The way freedom comes about is not by every human being having the agency to choose and affect their life in a way where they are unhindered by prejudice, unfair laws, civil society, or a public square that is stacked against them. It’s not a matter of freedom as individuals who can choose what they want for their lives. For White Christian nationalists, freedom comes through the proper structuring of the United States.
For me to be free as a White Christian nationalist, I need things to be in their proper order. And if they’re not in their proper order, then I will not be able to experience freedom as it has been promised to me. Now, the proper order of the United States is one in which White folks are the majority and have a majority of the power when it comes to government, economics, entertainment, media, education, culture, etc.
In other words, for me to be free as a White Christian nationalist, I need things to be in their proper order. And if they’re not in their proper order, then I will not be able to experience freedom as it has been promised to me. Now, the proper order of the United States is one in which White folks are the majority and have a majority of the power when it comes to government, economics, entertainment, media, education, culture, etc. If the political and economic and cultural spectrums are ordered how they should be, then White Christian nationalists will experience freedom as it has been promised. But if they are out of order, then there is no way for them to experience freedom, even if the outside observer might say that it seems as if none of their personal freedoms have been infringed upon.
We can take gay marriage to be an example. You are a heterosexual person, you are married, the fact that gay marriage is legal now does not seem to change the fact that you’re allowed to get married, you remain married, you still get all the protections and privileges of a married person when it comes to taxes, or inheritance, or hospital visits, or anything else. But the White Christian nationalist would respond and say, “well, no, the very existence of gay married couples, the fact that the law allows this, makes me less free. It cheapens my marriage. It degrades the sacrality of what it means to tie the knot with another person. So, my freedom has been restricted even though I remain married and I have all the privileges of a married person.” Moreover, the White Christian nationalist claims that if the social order, the political order, the economic order are out of whack, then they have the exclusive right to use violence to put it back in order.
They can use force to make it right, because they have been promised freedom, and they cannot enjoy that freedom unless everything is in its proper order. Christianity is a vehicle—the chosen vehicle for this way of thinking—for a number of reasons. There are historical factors: Christianity and Protestant Christianity have been dominant forces in American society for four centuries. They have been part of this country’s landscape in a way because those in power, those who have been in the White House or in Congress, have overwhelmingly been Christian. It’s instantiated as a cultural factor. But if we think about it in terms of the story they’re telling and the authority they want to hold, religion provides a cosmic legitimation to an earthly desire. That if you can claim that this is not just how you want your community or city to look, but that it is mandated by God that it look this way, then you have a story that has transcendent legitimation, you also have a story that goes back further than you. It’s one that you are participating in, it’s centuries long. And it is worth fighting for your children.
There’s a past, there’s a present, and there’s a future. They all are bigger than you. And you are participating in that grand story to make the United States—which according to this story has been chosen by God—play a unique role in history, and make it into what God wants it to be. So, when we turn to January 6th, we see this story playing out. In real-time, religion scholars and others were gathering artifacts, images, and videos from January 6th under hashtags on Twitter and other places. We were noticing the signs, we were noticing the icons, the people carrying statues of Mary, the people who had the flags that said, “Trump is my president, Jesus is my savior,” those carrying the Appeal to Heaven flag, those who were carrying the Christian flag, those who stopped and sang worship songs in groups, those who prayed every time they entered a new section of the Capitol. They climbed a mezzanine and stopped to pray. And what did they say? They said, “We thank God for bringing us here as patriots to help restore the nation.”
For the Christian nationalist, there’s a past, there’s a present, and there’s a future. They all are bigger than you. And you are participating in that grand story to make the United States—which according to this story has been chosen by God—play a unique role in history, and make it into what God wants it to be. So, when we turn to January 6th, we see this story playing out.
That prayer is a recitation of the story that they think they’re participating in. It’s a reminder, hey, we’re not criminals, we’re not treasonous, we are patriotic. We are godly. We’re fighting for something that is divine, and something that is part of our national interest. They get to the Senate floor, they get to the dais and the QAnon Shaman thanks God for bringing them there. It’s a recitation of the story. So January 6th, to me, is an expression of everything that we see with the story of Christian nationalism, and the way that Christianity provides a transcendent cosmic legitimation to a nationalistic impulse.
I want to ask you about the spatiality of White Christian nationalism because it was one of my favorite currents in the book. From the mid-century migration of Southerners to southern California and now Californian emigration to places like the “American Redoubt”—located in the Mountain West of Idaho, Montana, eastern Washington, etc.—there is a spatial component to the narrative you’re laying out in the book. How do space and geography interact with White Christian nationalist theology and their ideological imaginary? And what do White Christian nationalists envision when they think of the American Redoubt, etc.?
I think space is a really important factor when we discuss the history of White Christian nationalism in the United States. One of the reasons that I focused on my home region of Southern California was I wanted to somehow communicate what I think many of the White Christian Southerners and Midwesterners found there when they migrated in the 1950s and 60s.
Orange County, California at that time was a bucolic rural region, it was a place where people grew oranges and other fruit and citrus and other things. And it quickly transformed into the kind of emblematic suburban space of the United States. But as I said before, Orange County was a place that was ripe for remaking. It was a place where nostalgia could be installed in the ways that people built cities and institutions. They didn’t have to deal with longstanding historic, and in some sense, unmovable factors. If you came from the South there were—for very obvious historical reasons—large Black populations that, despite White cultural hegemony, would always be present when one tried to implement a thoroughly White Christian nationalist vision for the community, for the state, for the nation. They would be thorns in the side, preventing that vision from ever being accomplished without opposition.
If, again, you were in Pittsburgh, if you were in another Midwestern city, you might have ethnic identities that frayed people’s devotion. You might have Italian and Polish neighborhoods. And there was probably some Jewish neighborhoods in addition to Black communities and others. When you get to Orange County, there are the presence of Latino communities, and there are very few, very, very few Asian communities. But for the most part, it’s this place where people think, we can remake this into what we want for the United States. We can implement our vision without any pesky resilience or resistance from racial minorities, from longstanding historical factors, from ethnic communities, and therefore, we can create a kind of libertarian megachurch oasis. And that’s what they did. It’s why Lisa McGirr, the Harvard historian, calls Orange County the epicenter of American conservatism in the mid-20th century. This is why Orange County raised Goldwater to the GOP nomination. It’s the birthplace of Richard Nixon. It’s the place that made Ronald Reagan into the politician he became. And the place that named its airport after John Wayne.
The reason I end the book with Idaho and the American Redoubt is that I see the migration to Idaho as a similar desire. There’s this sense that Idaho is a place where we can remake the country without the pesky resilience of all those people of color and immigrants and mixed families and queer folks who might get in our way. The people we think of as Woke are not in Idaho. So, if we go there, as a family from Orange County, or Sacramento, or Seattle, we can be in a context where our every desire is fulfilled in terms of the landscape we live in every day. It will look like America’s supposed to look without interference from all those others. And you can do that in Texas, but there will always be at the state legislature the representative from San Antonio, the protestors from Austin, who are representative of that pesky resilience.
There will always be the people in a state like Wisconsin, where Milwaukee and Madison prevent the rural White Christian voters from turning it into an overwhelmingly conservative or Christian Nationalist place without any resistance. We can go to Atlanta, once again, we’ve seen how Georgia politics has played out over the last couple of years. Idaho doesn’t have Chicago, or Atlanta, or New Orleans. It doesn’t even have Milwaukee, or the Twin Cities. It has Boise. Boise is overwhelmingly White and it’s purple in terms of its politics at best. So, Idaho is this place where people are thinking, “we can remake this place,” just like people thought about Orange County in the 1950s. I’ll give you an example from my youth that I hope will make this clear. I, as a kid from Orange County, who grew up in the suburbs, who grew up around buildings that were never older than from the 1970s, I went and did a master’s degree at Oxford University, and that was a big change.
The buildings were hundreds and hundreds of years old, the institution was 1,000 years old. I studied in the same rooms where John Locke used to be or drank a beer in the pub where J.R.R. Tolkien used to hang out. Everywhere I went in Oxford, there was this aura, this landscape, that spoke to a certain kind of way of life. The way of life of the medieval intellectual don, who walks around all day books in hand, who stops to eat and is served food without having to prepare it so they can go back as quickly as possible to thinking and writing and reading, and all of the intellectual traits of the singular genius. And when I went back to California, I longed so hard for Oxford, for that ancient medieval city with cobblestones and spires and old buildings and so on. And so, I remember trying to bring some of my life in Oxford to Orange County when I would visit home.
I would walk places, even though the sidewalks barely existed, and the coffee shop was three miles away, and people almost ran me over every time I did. I would try to live a life that somehow matched a landscape I no longer lived in. And I became frustrated. Like any young naive kid who studies abroad in Paris, or in Rome, you try to bring it home, with your baguette, and your scarf, and it just never seems to match up. The White Christian nationalist wants a landscape that matches up completely to their vision. And when it doesn’t, they don’t care what it takes, they will try to remake it. And so, the large scale migration to Idaho. And so, the remaking of Orange County 75 years ago. And so on and so forth.
To close, we always ask our guests about the term that graces the title of our program, namely illiberalism. Do you have an opinion on this concept, its utility, etc, and if so, how do you see it relating to the concept of White Christian nationalism? Do you see that movement as primarily illiberal or would it be somewhat off the mark to focus on its illiberal character instead of something else?
I’m probably not equipped to comment on illiberalism from a specialist perspective. However, I do find the term useful when I discuss White Christian nationalism in the United States, and here’s why. I do believe that White Christian nationalism is a movement that is willing to do whatever it takes to regain power—in their mind—of the United States, politically, and culturally, and economically. I, in my work, have often pointed to the ways that many White Christian nationalist elites are enamored with Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin. And the reason I think they are enamored with those two strongmen leaders is they see them as people who draw on the so-called “spiritual heritage of their nations,” the Christian values, they champion the nuclear family, they are openly and explicitly anti-LGBTQ and anti-immigrant, and they talk about a kind of nostalgia for a lost order. That fascination with these two men, to me, points to the willingness on the part of many White Christian nationalists to take back power via democracy or not. Democracy is not a sacred value to them.
The ability for a nation state to choose its leaders through elections where everyone gets a voice, that is not a sacred value for White Christian nationalists. The sacred value is power. The sacred value is having the social order in its “proper form,” as I talked about earlier. So, we’ve already seen many calls for a post-Constitutional America, or a Red Caesar, or a Christian Prince who would rule the United States. So, these are people on the American Right, but they’re also many Christian nationalists. They could be the political scientist Kevin Slack at Hillsdale College, they could be the philosopher at Notre Dame Patrick Deneen, they could be the Christian theologian Stephen Wolfe, who wrote a book called The Case for Christian Nationalism. But all of them openly imagine a United States that is post-Constitutional, and in some sense post-democratic. They long for a Red Caesar, or a monarch, or a Christian prince, who would basically save the country from itself in terms of it having lost its way due to the Woke global order, or however they put it.
The ability for a nation state to choose its leaders through elections where everyone gets a voice, that is not a sacred value for White Christian nationalists. The sacred value is power. The sacred value is having the social order in its “proper form”…They long for a Red Caesar, or a monarch, or a Christian prince, who would basically save the country from itself in terms of it having lost its way due to the Woke global order, or however they put it.
So, for me, illiberalism is very useful. And it’s useful, I’ll just say, for one more reason, and that is because of the ways that I think illiberalism is a term that points to the ways that democracy can suffer from its own autoimmunity. This is where I think the fascination with Orbán really comes into play. Orbán is somebody who claims that there are free and fair elections in Hungary, and if one criticizes him or his government, many White Christian nationalists will say, “What? You don’t like elections? You don’t like democracy? Well, you’re such a hypocrite.”
But when we dig deeper into Orbán’s Hungary, it really does seem that there’s been a use of democracy against itself, in a way that Orbán as leader has been able to rest control, de facto control, of the judicial and legislative forms of the government, as well as the media. And so, it points to how liberalism can succumb to illiberalism by its own means. And I think we see some of that in this country as well. We have situations where a former president is pointing to the Supreme Court justices that he appointed, and saying they will do the right thing. That’s just one example of how you can see illiberalism taking hold of institutions, democratic institutions, from within, and really changing the government to something that is perhaps at some point no longer a democracy.
Bradley Onishi received graduate degrees from UCSB, Oxford University, and L’institut catholique de Paris. As a scholar of religion, he teaches and researches Christian nationalism, the history of Evangelicalism, race and racism in American religion, gender, sex, masculinity, and secularism and secularity. He currently teaches at the University of San Francisco. His podcast Straight White American Jesus focuses on Christian nationalism in the United States.