Here at A Public Witness we love books. So, we’re launching a new feature where each month we’ll tell you about a new book you should read — and give away an autographed copy to a paid subscriber. And we can’t think of a more timely way to start than with one about a threat to American democracy and Christian faithfulness.
The insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, revealed two alarming realities. First, the violent mob ransacking the U.S. Capitol and attempting to disrupt the peaceful transition of power put the fragility of American democracy on display. Second, the religious prayers, banners, and symbols demonstrated the potency of Christian Nationalism in our society.
In the new book The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy, sociologists Philip Gorski and Samuel Perry convincingly argue those two trends are intertwined. As Gorski told us last week about why they wrote the book, “Sam and I have both been writing about the dangers of Christian Nationalism for a decade. We wanted to share the results of that research — and our concerns about America — with the broader public.”
This book is so important that we’re not just highlighting it in this review, but we’re also giving away a copy autographed by Perry. We’ll explain how you might win in a moment.
As Gorski and Perry document in their “primer on White Christian Nationalism,” those holding to this ideology are motivated by myths about America’s origins based on inaccurate beliefs about history. But this vision motivates them to protect an “ethno-traditionalism” that mixes a particular understanding of American identity with a narrow version of conservative Christianity. This worldview justifies a privileged place for Christians in society but ends up threatening our democratic ideals.
This story is not new. Gorski and Perry note that while Christian Nationalism is among “the oldest and most powerful currents in American politics,” it remained largely “invisible to most Americans” until the insurrection. But the tale goes all the way back to Puritan ideas and antebellum justifications of slavery by White Christian clergy. From there, the mindset animated many episodes in U.S. history as this sense of divine blessing coupled with beliefs in racial superiority led to a plethora of social sins.
Still, our present moment is unique because White Christian Nationalistic ideas are being challenged as never before. Rising religious pluralism and efforts to bring about racial and gender equity stoke anxiety and create a fear of loss among those invested in the old order. Rather than democracy serving as a useful mechanism for preserving the power of a White Christian majority, it now promises to render them a permanent minority.
Fearing such loss of power, those holding to White Christian Nationalism embrace authoritarianism as the means of defending their conceptions of liberty and order. Even violence, when wielded righteously in defense of “Christian values,” can be justified with this perspective. And that puts our democracy in peril — a threat that didn’t end when the insurrection failed on Jan. 6.
“It is tempting to dismiss the insurrection as an isolated incident perpetuated by a few bad actors,” the authors warn. “The insurrection was an eruption of subterranean forces that had been building for some time. Those forces have not disappeared. On the contrary, they are building again. A second eruption would likely be larger and more violent than the first. Large enough to bury American democracy for at least a generation.”
Clocking in at 130 pages, this relatively thin book tries to accomplish a lot. It offers historical context, social scientific analysis, and the interrogation of cultural meaning. But the authors are not disinterested observers. They conclude with a call to people of all faiths and none to rally in democracy’s defense. They especially ask Christians to confront past transgressions in the hopes of redeeming the future. The authors end the book by bluntly stating that the future of America in the face of an energized White Christian Nationalism “is up to the rest of us.”
This timely volume is one more people need to read. After all, the democratic and theological threats from Christian Nationalism haven’t gone away. As Gorski told us, the dangers have continued to rise even since he and Perry wrote the book.
“Things have only gotten worse,” Gorski explained. “The Big Lie has taken root. The Trump Cult has grown stronger. The MAGA movement is slowly taking over state and local governments across the nation. What’s left of the Republican establishment has stood by and watched or climbed on the bandwagon. Meanwhile, most Democrats are just looking the other way, as if everything was back to normal. No one seems to see the Trump train speeding down the tracks towards us at full throttle. Unless we are able to put together a broad coalition of people, from NeverTrump ex-Republicans to Progressive Caucus Democrats, we are going to lose our democracy for at least a generation in 2024. And maybe forever.”
Thus, this book is a must-read for people wanting to better understand our contemporary political moment, its historic antecedents, and the sociological research that explains the implications of a powerful religious-political mindset.
But we’re going to do more than just encourage you to buy it; we’re also going to give away a copy autographed by Perry. Tomorrow morning, we’ll randomly select one paid subscriber to A Public Witness to receive the book (so, if you’re not a paid subscriber and want to be eligible for this drawing and those coming each month, upgrade today).
A Public Witness is a reader-supported publication of Word&Way. To receive new posts and support our journalism ministry, subscribe today.