The authors of The Flag & the Cross don’t pull any punches with their main thesis: White Christian Nationalism (WCN) is the greatest threat to American democracy in the entire history of the nation. Wow.
A claim like that obviously will require some unpacking, which Phillip Gorski and Samuel Perry do in their fairly compact book, published earlier this year. They support their claims regarding this extensive social movement with numerous surveys, polls, and academic studies. For starters, to be “White” means far more and something other than skin color; “Christian” here has not so much to do with a set of beliefs associated with Jesus as it does with a religious/secular narrative; and “Nationalism” is by no means an equivalent term describing patriotism.
WCN is a theory of order and hierarchy, insiders and outsiders. There are “People like us”– White Christian citizens of the USA who are the “true Americans”; everyone else is only here because White people allow it..
WCN is a broad narrative rather than a set of beliefs, a deep story that is told and retold and embellished to suit the desires of those who buy into it. This narrative draws on, and in many ways completes, themes that harken back to the ancient Hebrews occupying a chosen land given to them exclusively by God. It encompasses the creation of a New Jerusalem, spreading the Christian gospel from East to West (in the Old World, from the Middle East to Europe, and in North America that meant Manifest Destiny), and a constant battle against heretics and heathens. It’s not coincidental that the “savage” native tribes often sided with the Catholic French against the white, Protestant British colonists in the northern part of the continent. In the Southwest, it meant invading Catholic, Spanish-speaking Mexico and incorporating a huge swath of territory from present-day Texas to California and much of the intermountain West. Ultimately, this narrative is headed toward an apocalyptic culmination that merges Evangelical End Times theology and QAnon conspiracies.
WCN is also a theory of freedom, with inalienable rights granted directly by Divinity not human government. Founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are all directly connected to a benevolent God active in the affairs of (White) men.
WCN includes deeply held grievance and resentment. White Christian Nationalists sincerely believe that White males are the most persecuted and greatest victims in America today. There is, apparently, a zero sum when it comes to rights, privileges, and opportunities; any so-called concession, reparation, or affirmative action directed to people of color means something must be (unfairly) taken away from White folks.
What connects all these theories is violence, which has taken different forms since the early settlements in the 1600s in New England and Virginia to lynchings of Blacks through the 19th and into the mid-20th centuries. Today that is often expressed as (implicitly White) police or “good guys with guns” wielded against (implicitly non-White) “bad guys.”
During the first few centuries of European colonization of North America, “White” simply meant English. Eventually it came to mean native-born Caucasians of British and northern European descent. Everybody else was an “other.” The whole concept of “White & Black” (or perhaps more appropriately, White vs. Black) is basically an American creation. Whiteness came to be defined mainly in opposition to Blackness. And so there were “free, white English” people and “enslaved, black Africans” who ended up on American shores because Europeans had arranged their kidnapping and transport to the New World. Some Christians in the South came to justify this as a way for these (non-Christisn, heathen, and possibly subhuman) Africans to be exposed to the Christian gospel.
Curiously, there were lighter-skinned people (the Irish, in particular) who were brought across the Atlantic. Although technically they were often called indentured servants, their true status was little different from their African counterparts, at least in the early years. The Irish, of course, were Roman Catholic, which in English eyes put them in the category of “other” rather than true Christians (i.e., Protestants). Already you can see the intermingling of race and religion. In time the Irish, along with other Europeans, Catholics, Mormons, and even some Jews would be included in that favored “White” status.
Adding to anti-Black hatred by Whites is, especially from the mid-18th Century on, anti-immigrant nativism. Most of these people were Catholics and Jews from eastern and southern Europe, to be joined on the Pacific side of America by Chinese and later Japanese immigrants. Still much later came immigrants from South and Southeast Asia, almost all of whom were not Christian as well as not White. Within WCN the so-called “Great Replacement Theory” found a welcome home. As long as the USA was overwhelmingly White and Protestant/Christian, this was a fringe idea. But as this country inevitably moves toward that group as an actual minority, the fear of all these “others” taking over has grown.
There’s nothing quite like fear to stoke the fires of nativism, isolationism, grievance, resentment, bigotry, and civil violence. All of that and more was mixed together with the January 6th insurrection. It continues to empower the MAGA crowd who long for the return of Donald Trump to power, to in essence bring an end to the American experiment of Democracy and replace it with a minority-controlled republic. More and more often Republicans are pointing out that the USA is not a democracy but a republic. They’re not presenting philosophical arguments so much as paving the way for a republic tightly controlled by a WCN minority.
This book makes for an excellent companion to another I reviewed here at W&T: Jesus and John Wayne. That book traced the evolution of conservative evangelicals into the WCN force that it’s become today. The Flag and the Cross, as I’ve tried to show here, covers a much broader topic, uniting secular, religious, political, and military aspects of WCN in American history. Together the two books present a frightening conspiratorial scenario.
- To what extent do you agree with the evidence presented in The Flag and the Cross?
- Many people believe this year’s midterm election in November will set the stage for something far worse than the January 6th insurrection or it may blunt the momentum of White Christian Nationalism. How do you view this moment in American history?
- How extensive is WCN thought and activity within the broad Latter-day Saint communities?