November 27, 2022
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Why Trump’s MAGA Resonates With White Christian Nationalism

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On January 6, 2021, when a mob of Donald Trump’s most fervent and militant supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol to prevent the certification of Joe Biden’s election, Christian symbolism was on prominent display. Video and photography shot on the Capitol steps captured a mix of Christian and American flags swaying in the wind, a man carrying a sign with the simple slogan “Jesus saves,” as well as dozens of posters, flags, and clothing articles featuring the cross in various forms. Later, on the Senate floor, a man now popularly dubbed the “Q-Anon Shaman” led the insurrectionists in a grandiloquent Christian prayer. At every turn, the most violent and destructive assault on American democracy in memory bore the markings of American patriotism and Christian faith. The event was laced with and driven by an ideologue that sociologists Philip S. Gorski and Samuel L. Perry term “white Christian nationalism.”

Gorski is Professor and Chair of Sociology at Yale University and the author, previously, of books including American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present and The Protestant Ethic Revisited. His latest book, co-authored with Perry, is The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to Democracy. In it, they define and examine one of the most powerful ideological forces in American politics today.

Eric C. Miller spoke with Gorski about the book over Zoom. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Religion & Politics: What is white Christian nationalism?

Philip S. Gorski: White Christian nationalism can be understood in two ways—as a deep story about the past and as a political vision for the future. As a deep story, it claims that America was founded as a Christian nation, that its founding documents are based on Protestant Christianity, that its power and wealth are reflective of divine favor, and that, if the nation becomes less white, less Christian, less patriotic, it falls in danger of losing those blessings. As an ideology, or a vision for the future, it imagines that the country will continue to be led by native-born white Christians, with everyone else here basically on their sufferance. But it is also connected to views on a variety of other issues, including gun rights, voting rights, economic policy, and so on. These are linked together by what we call the “holy trinity” of white Christian nationalism—freedom, order, and violence. Freedom for us, order for everyone else, and violence for those who transgress.

R&P: Do white Christian nationalists self-identify as such?

PSG: There is a small but growing minority who openly speak about America as a Christian nation and might even accept the term for themselves. I think that has happened, in part, because of criticism voiced by scholars and journalists who work in this area. It’s not uncommon for people to embrace a stigmatized label as a marker of group identity, and I think that is beginning to happen here. But the vast majority of individuals that we would term white Christian nationalists would probably think of themselves, instead, as members of the religious right, conservative Christians, culture warriors, God-and-country patriots, or something like that.

R&P: You’ve borrowed the concept of a “deep story” from Arlie Hochschild and it is important to your analysis. Can you tell us a bit about that?

PSG: The term “deep story” is similar to what cultural linguists like George Lakoff refer to as a “frame” or a “metaphor.” It’s a kind of a script that explains how the world works and how one fits into the world. For some people there is a conscious sort of storytelling that plays out in their minds, but for most it works in the background. It’s like a set of glasses that you forget you’re wearing but that nonetheless colors everything that you perceive. This particular deep story is transmitted in various ways. For one thing, there is a Christian nationalism culture industry comprised of books and seminars and YouTube videos. There is also an array of Christian homeschooling textbooks, for example. For many people within this conservative Christian subculture, it’s just the air that they breath or the water they swim in. They wouldn’t even think of it, consciously, as a story. But if you arrange these ideas into a story and tell it to these individuals, as Arlie Hochschild did, they would probably recognize it as something that they feel or that feels true to them.

Sam Perry and I think about the white Christian nationalist deep story as being woven together by way of three stories that appear in Christian scripture. The first is what we call the “promised land” story, drawing on the Israelites’ conquest of the promised land. This dates back to the Puritans, who once looked upon North America as their promised land, given to Christians by God, and who came to see the native peoples as the biblical Canaanites or Malakites—people who were unjustly occupying the land and needed to be driven out, exterminated, or, in some cases, assimilated. The second thread is what we call the “end times” story, comprised of beliefs about the second coming of Christ and the end of the world, a cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil, natural and supernatural, that provides a means of understanding contemporary events. As a character in this story, you are not simply engaged in political conflict, you are engaged in spiritual conflict. Your partisan identity is tied up in a great final struggle between God and Satan. Those two stories account for the Christian and the nationalist part of the equation. The white part is visible in the third thread, which once identified enslaved Africans with the biblical Ham, on whom God had placed a curse and destined for eternal servitude. I don’t think many people embrace that idea explicitly today, but it is echoed in subtle and persistent forms of anti-Black bias and racism, as well as subtle and not-so-subtle ideas about the cultural and moral superiority of whites in modern America. So those are the three threads of white Christian nationalism, and they are woven together into a single deep story.

R&P: Given that so much of this ethos is invested in free speech and straight talk, why are the key elements of the story so often expressed through veiled, “dog whistle” rhetoric?

PSG: Dog whistles are important because openly racist speech has become heavily stigmatized since the Civil Rights Era, and so has become a political liability. Even people who harbor conscious or unconscious anti-Black racial animus are going to be hesitant to express it publicly. Consequently, conservative partisan operatives have developed ways of signaling racial animus or asserting white superiority without explicitly invoking racist terminology. One of the most common ways of doing this is to ground every claim in an appeal to freedom. The libertarian turn in American conservatism, back in the 1950s and 60s, is now recognizable as a conscious strategic reaction to Brown v. Board of Education, the Voting Rights Act, and other Civil Rights Era successes. A lot of the anti-government or “big government” rhetoric that we’ve heard over the past few decades was initially inspired by federal action on behalf of Blacks and other minority groups. Once that action is recast as general government overreach or government imposition on the freedom of parents, business owners, and other private citizens, “freedom” becomes a catch-all for opposition to Civil Rights without saying so explicitly.

Because of the tri-cordal structure of white Christian nationalism, whiteness can be signaled simply by invoking religion or patriotism in a certain way. Those associations are strong, and able to contain a lot of subtext. Then, when these speakers are accused of endorsing racism or ethnocentrism, they simply respond that, no, they’re just defending liberty or native-born Americans, or they’re just patriotic citizens who care about border security. But all of that is very clearly bound up, for some people, consciously or unconsciously, with racial animus and feelings of cultural superiority.

R&P: How do these ideas circulate and spread? Do people encounter them primarily through Fox News, on social media, or at church, for example?

PSG: I don’t think these ideas circulate very broadly in churches, at least outside of certain far-Right churches that get more coverage than they really deserve. There is often a real difference between the people in the pulpits and many of the people in the pews. Those in the pulpits, even if they’re shouting about critical race theory or something else, are usually at least minimally in favor of racial equality or racial reconciliation. I think the real sources are more likely to be found in the broader conservative media ecosystem, and then to spread into social networks from there. They might make their way into small group discussions or in the lobby after a service, but generally it is not the clergy who are pushing these ideas.

One of the things that has happened, and this is a notable development, is that you do see white nationalist rhetoric increasingly pressing into traditionally mainstream conservative Christian spaces. Part of it is social media, which facilitates this kind of contact, but it’s also a conscious strategy on the part of some white nationalist activists to broaden their base of support. These days it’s much more acceptable to say that you are defending cultural traditions or the Judeo-Christian tradition or the American way of life or something along those lines, than to say outright that you are supporting white supremacy or opposing white genocide. But often the substance is the same. A lot of the more bizarre conspiracy theories have found traction in this way, with Q-Anon perhaps the clearest example. Also this so-called “Great Replacement Theory” that has been mainstreamed by Tucker Carlson and Steve Bannon and others.

R&P: How did Donald Trump and his “MAGA” movement come to embody and represent all of this?

PSG: That is one of the great puzzles—how it is that 81 percent of white evangelical voters could have gone for Trump in 2016, and then 83 percent in 2020. It seems so at odds with the image that they had long projected of themselves, as defenders of family values and virtue in politics. Part of the answer is simply that, rightly or wrongly, many white conservative Christians have come to think of themselves as one of the most persecuted groups in contemporary American society. I think this mostly expresses a sense of lost cultural influence or prestige, more than an actual loss of political power or any real persecution. But the fundamental point is that, because they feel persecuted, they feel they need a defender. They look at people like Mike Pence or Jeb Bush or others with legitimate Christian bona fides and, when forced to choose, they go instead with Trump because he seems tougher and more aggressive.

But there are also ways in which Trump’s MAGA narrative really resonates with the white Christian nationalist deep story. Trump does not seem to understand the world in terms of good and evil, but he clearly understands it in terms of friend and foe. He recognized the sense of victimization prevalent among white evangelicals and he spoke to it, he courted white evangelical leaders, he played up the “War on Christmas” stuff, and offered that demographic a return to prominence and power. He also has, if not an apocalyptic view of the world, a clear emphasis on disaster, catastrophe, fight, and embattlement. His stated intent to make America great again melds cleanly with the white evangelical desire to take America back for God, or at least to keep America as white and Christian as possible.

R&P: Though white Christian nationalists present their movement as the heir to venerable traditions—the Founding Fathers, the Tea Party, and of course Christianity—they also alter and innovate on those traditions in fundamental ways. In that sense, is it accurate to think of them as conservatives?

PSG: It’s a complicated question, because what counts as conservative is always relative to what counts as radical or progressive. I think you can really see the continuity in terms of the three threads that we identify; you can see how white cultural power and authority, orthodox Christianity, patriotism, and Americanism have been passed down through history. But these things change. Who counts as white, for example, has expanded over time. Or who counts as Christian, for that matter. When my mother was a child, she was raised Lutheran and as not allowed to play with Catholics. White evangelicals used to dismiss Mormons as heretics, but now they have found points of agreement and alliance. So white Christian nationalists have certainly adapted to circumstances, and that requires a bit of flexibility. At the level of the deep story, however, there is tremendous continuity.  

R&P: The book acquires an especially ominous tone near the end, when you take up the Capitol insurrection. White Christian nationalism was on prominent display at that event, and the images seemed to validate concerns that the movement is fascist in orientation. Having completed this work and considered those images, do you share that concern?

PSG: There are certainly people who see white Christian nationalism as a homegrown form of American fascism. There’s a line that has been misattributed to Sinclair Lewis stating that, if fascism ever comes to America, it will be carrying a cross and draped in a flag, which is one of the inspirations for our title. Certainly there are, at a minimum, sort of fascistic echoes or overtones concerning protecting American purity and the family, but those are also concerns for a more benign sort of conservatism. I’ve generally been somewhat skeptical of these arguments, but there was a moment after which I started to take them more seriously. Two things happened in particular. One was that, even here in Connecticut, I started to see these Trump shrine houses, covered in Trump swag, including this image of Trump’s head superimposed on Rambo’s body, suggesting a cult of personality and masculinity very evocative of European fascism. The other thing was the growing prevalence of this so-called “police flag,” these dark American flags with the thin blue line, suggesting this clear line between good and evil, order and disorder, good citizens and criminal rouges, that must be defended at whatever cost and with violence if necessary. These suggest a sort of revenge fantasy or fetishization of righteous violence. As they began to pop up everywhere, I started to think that there may be something to the concern.

I think we are now seeing the emergence or re-emergence of a religio-political current that is even further to the right than anything we’ve seen in America in some time, in that it doesn’t even pretend to favor democracy. Many white Christian nationalist or MAGA voters would still claim to support democracy, at least insofar as they consider themselves, narrowly, the People. But this is accompanied by this very extreme monarchist talk, where they’ll say that “Trump is my king,” and they’re not kidding about that. With all the chaos in Ukraine, I suppose, things have started to feel pretty normal here by comparison. But I think back to the interregnum between the 2020 election and January 6, to all that uncertainty, and I recognize that everything is in place for that to happen again on a larger scale. People need to understand that. They need to be prepared for what’s coming.



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