White Christian Nationalism isn’t Christian at all.
As we remember the events of January 6, 2021, I want to reflect on the deep story that informs white Christian nationalism and how this narrative goes directly against the Christian Bible. -Meghan Farnsworth
In the 2016 and 2020 U.S. Presidential Elections, 8 out of 10 white Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. They claimed he was the most Christian choice despite his racist declarations (most notably against our Hispanic communities), sexist “Grab them by the pussy” display, and associations with people like sex offender and trafficker, Jeffrey Epstein. Yet the Christian Bible speaks of love for our neighbors and caring for the least of these. Why is hatred toward “the other” ingrained in the fabric of Trump’s following and messaging? I’ll call it a tale as old as the Puritans, where American and Christian identities have fused to push out diversity and equality.
Quote: “At issue is not just religious nostalgia or even religious conservatism, as if such things transcended ethnic and racial identities. Rather, [white Christian nationalism] is an acute strain of ethno-traditionalism in which “white” and “Christian” are conflated into a single identity — “white-Christian”…Its components are, among other things, scapegoating of minorities; distrust in science, the media, and “establishment” politicians; corresponding trust in strongman leaders; and conspiratorial thinking…As a result, it is one of the strongest currents within American right-wing populism and one of the main drivers of political polarization.” -Philip S. Gorski and Samuel L. Perry from their book, The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy
How have we managed to get to this point?
Many of us witnessed white Christian nationalism during the January 6 Insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Fissures of fury had been swelling since the win of Democratic candidate Joe Biden, and all the cracks needed to burst was a moment for Donald Trump to bless it.
On January 6, 2021, the moment arrived. According to sources present at Trump’s Stop the Steal rally that day, the scene overall went something like this: The crowds were ready for a fight — a fight to protect their divine freedom at any cost, including death. “A makeshift wooden gallows, with stairs and a rope, had been constructed near a statue of Ulysses S. Grant,” recalled journalist Luke Mogelson for The New Yorker. Some protestors felt confident enough to carry Confederate flags next to “Jesus saves” banners to commend their success; stun grenades christened the violent acts about to take place.
These protesters hadn’t intended to peacefully leave the Mall on January 6, 2021. They brought gas masks, flak jackets, helmets, tactical apparel, baseball bats, tasers, and truncheons with them. According to journalist Luke Mogelson who attended the rally, he even noticed one man holding a coiled noose and another shielding a revolver under his jacket. (The rally didn’t permit firearms.)
Many at the rally believed that Jesus Christ himself had sanctioned such chaos.
Most of us know what happened next: protestors successfully pushed through police barricades, even climbing stone walls, to infiltrate the U.S. Capitol, the center of our legislative process and the place that would secure the election of President Joe Biden. Like Brutus’ goons on the Ides of March, they sought to stop our democratic process at any cost in favor of an outcome that benefited them only: their divine providence as white Americans. To certify Joe Biden as our next president would mean “the other” — seemingly socialists and communists, immigrants, our BIPOC friends (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), and those who identify as LGBTQIA — would be a threat to all they have.
Simply put, America as a multicultural, diverse nation with increasing laws and protections for the most vulnerable, or “the other,” is an affront to their “American way,” where freedom requires sacrifice, self-preservation and economic libertarianism are king, and Christianity is the only religion of the land. Allowing non-white, non-Christian people to thrive in America is a threat to the white Christian nationalist.
Why does white Christian nationalism exist, and what does it have to do with Christianity?
Imagine John Wayne on a horse, ripping through an open field. His character, Ethan Edwards, is coming home to West Texas after serving as a Confederate soldier in the American Civil War. (Ethan was also a soldier in the Mexican-American War before this.)
Ethan has been busy fighting the forces that be with his Winchester repeater and Colt revolver (weapons that postdate both the Civil War and Mexican-American War, by the way).
The movie I’m describing is none other than John Ford’s 1956 film, The Searchers, “the biggest, roughest, toughest, most beautiful movie ever made,” according to theater posters at the time.
Here you have John Wayne, the actor who defined masculinity for post-World War II audiences, playing a character in a story set against sparse “Indian Territory,” a place with supposedly no history or civilization, says the white Christian nationalist. John Wayne’s character Ethan must save a white girl from “the other” — the Indigenous people who have lived there for centuries — to restore order through fatal means.
In history class, you may have learned about the early frontiersmen who trapped and traded furs, an industry that led to the French and Indian War (1754-1763). These men began to shape our earliest understanding of American masculinity and rough-and-ready individualism — the kind like Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), who fought “the other” to bring civilization and order.
Think of Davy Crockett, “King of the Wild Frontier.” American frontiersmen had a tinge of “red” and a bit of “savage” in them. They, according to the book The Flag and the Cross, “ventured into the wild, learned the ways of the ‘Indian,’ and absorbed a bit of ‘savagery’ in the process…The figure…was the first heroic embodiment of the individualistic ethos that is at the heart of white Christian nationalism and its holy trinity of freedom, order, and violence.”
That’s right, this theme of freedom, order, and violence. Take it further into the throes of the French and Indian War. The English won the conflict, claiming France’s colonies and lands in Canada and throughout Louisiana up to the Great Lakes region.
This was a huge win for the English colonists because “freedom” for them meant being both Protestant and British. The French only accepted Catholicism as an approved religion, and they persecuted Protestants. The Catholic minority in England was considered treacherous, untrustworthy, and against “freedom.”
At all costs, these British Protestants had to maintain this freedom by preserving racial order, too: to control the indigenous people who oversaw lands and resources (like furs) and enslaved black people, who were a source of wealth for their white owners in the South.
Then came the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) and the War of 1812 (1812-1815). Both of these wars codified the racial hierarchy colonists were already protecting — white people at the top, black people at the bottom, and indigenous people somewhere in between. This is when being “British and Protestant” transformed into “American and Protestant,” and the trope of the American frontiersman described earlier in this article started to differentiate these new Americans from their British adversaries.
Now remove the fur cap and leather suit and take this image down to the Southern states, where the connection between white freedom and rugged violence was even more present. Indigenous people weren’t so much a threat; it was the fear of insurrection from black slaves on plantations.
Underneath the soft frills and charm, wealthy Southern plantation owners sought to protect and promote their personal liberty by depriving “others” — enslaved black people — of theirs through violence.
Like any piece of real estate, the laws at the time viewed black slaves as physical property.
How terrifying is that — the same God created you, but you have no agency or ability to live your life as the universal source intended you to? (More on the divine white providence that has shaped white Christian nationalism later in this article. See the section, The Rise of Cotton Mather, Puritan justice, and slavery)
During the American Revolution, the fact that enslaved black people fled these plantations to join the British to secure their personal liberty might give you an idea of how terrible life was for these individuals.
All of this to say, “freedom” was never in the cards for the black people of early America, and it’s why their descendants continue to fight hard for equality in all spaces, personal, professional, and political. In other words, one could claim this historical precedence of exclusion has dictated a black person’s place in America.
This exclusion is a contradiction to the Christian Bible. After the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Bible states, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28, New International Version)
Based on this divine statement, “neither slave nor free…for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” how could these supposedly Christian plantation owners continue to do what they were doing? How might they justify enslaving other Christians and still call themselves Christians?
Let’s go back in time to the colonies of 1690.
Tune in tomorrow for Part II of this blog post.