How pervasive is Christian nationalism in the United States? Before answering, a more pressing question is: What is it? Here the people paid to define our terms are all over the place. Christian nationalism can involve a national church like the Church of Scotland. It can be a form of civil religion, as in “one nation under God.” It can also dissolve into American exceptionalism: “a city set on a hill.” Whatever the definition, attaching national or civic meaning to divine purpose is as old as recorded history.
It is also everywhere in America. When Franklin D. Roosevelt explained his administration’s reasons for entering World War II, the president did not hesitate to invoke God or quote the Bible. “The world is too small to provide adequate ‘living room’ for both Hitler and God,” he told Americans. “We are inspired by a faith that goes back through all the years to the first chapter of the Book of Genesis: ‘God created man in His own image.’ ”
Seventy years later when filmmaker Aaron Sorkin wrote the lines delivered by a news anchor in the first episode of HBO’s The Newsroom, the religious component of Christian nationalism may have been invisible but the appeal to moral purpose was pronounced. After lamenting America’s decline, the news anchor explained what made America great: “We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons. We passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed. We cared about our neighbors.” He might well have asked: What did Jesus do?
The larger resonance of Christian nationalism, however, counts for little in contemporary assessments of the subject. What stands out now, as we learn from Philip S. Gorski and Samuel L. Perry’s The Flag and the Cross, is the Capitol Hill riot of Jan. 6, 2021. That event—in which supporters of former president Donald Trump tried to stop the certification of the presidential election—drives the book’s argument. The authors purport to offer a “primer on white Christian nationalism”: when it emerged, how it works, what its future may be. The final chapter offers advice on how to avoid another Jan. 6. For Messrs. Gorski and Perry, the battle lines are clear: Donald Trump and his “most zealous followers” have “rejected America’s experiment in multiracial democracy in favor of white Christian nationalism.” The lesson for readers is to determine whether white Christian nationalists will be “successful.”
It hardly takes a degree in social science to detect the authors’ motives in explaining recent American examples of attributing divine purpose to national affairs. This is not to say the book lacks evidence. The authors are sociologists who depend on polls and statistical analysis. They also cite an array of studies from fellow social scientists, though how deep their samples are is another question. ...
[A]s alarming as Jan. 6 was, the authors do not seem to notice how widespread Christian nationalism is. ... For those who want to know how social scientists can massage data, The Flag and the Cross will prove instructive. But for understanding the sort of Christian nationalism and American exceptionalism that have inspired writers from the White House to Hollywood studios, inquirers must go elsewhere.