The events of January 6 were such a jarring moment that we don’t even really know what to call them still. Riots? An attempted insurrection? A storming of the U.S. Capitol? Rarely has such an event so gripped — and divided — the body politic.
But there is a case to be made that the event really can’t be understood outside of a religious context. That’s the view of Samuel Perry. He’s an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Oklahoma, and co-author of Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States along with Andrew L. Whitehead. He argues that the events of January 6 re a sign of the future of Christian Nationalism in the U.S. — and it’s a sign the Church needs to pay attention to if it wants to be a part of healing some of America’s deepest and toughest wounds. He spoke with RELEVANT about what Christian Nationalism really is, the direction it’s going in the U.S. and why Christians can feel hope for the future.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
For the purposes of this conversation, it’d be good to define some terms because Christian Nationalism means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. How do you define it?
We must think of Christian Nationalism as an ideology that people can hold and believe, but it’s also a political strategy that you don’t necessarily have to hold to to be able to leverage and activate. Let’s distinguish between the two. Christian Nationalism is an ideology that idealizes and advocates for a fusion of American civic life and belonging with a very particular kind of Christianity. Now, whenever I say Christianity, I always want to put that in quotes. I don’t mean Christianity as in the Nicene Ceed or believing in Jesus as your Lord and Savior, wanting to be a disciple. In fact, those things often work at odds with the way Christian Nationalism works.
Christian Nationalism uses “Christian” as a shorthand for “White cultural conservatives like us.” Christian Nationalism, in that sense, is an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life and belonging with a kind of Christianity that serves as a code word for “traditionalist cultural conservatives like us” — people who belong here, people who are owed some kind of influence in the United States.
Christian Nationalism as a political strategy doesn’t necessarily have to believe any of that, but it can activate that kind of ideology toward political end.
So let’s talk about January 6. You have argued that what happened at the Capitol on January 6th can’t really be understood without understanding it as a religious story.
Yeah. I think actually January 6th is really a powerful picture of where I think Christian Nationalism in the United States is headed. I think you could call it a Europeanized version of Christian Nationalism.
What I mean by that is historically, white Christian nationalism in the United States was very evangelical. It used evangelical language and that’s because mostly it was Evangelical Christians like Pat Robertson or Tim LeHay or Jerry Falwell Sr. or James Dobson or whoever who could leverage that Christian Nationalist language with evangelical moral values, and in many ways, disguise the intent of what was going on. It was always about power. It was always about cultural influence and political leverage. But in many ways, it could be disguised because you had these candidates who were true believer like George W. Bush who I think is probably a pretty genuine person of faith.
You could point to Christian leaders like them and say, “Hey, what matters is character. What matters is true devotion to God.” That was really evangelical Christian nationalism.
But then Trump comes on the scene and you can no longer make that kind of argument. You had these efforts to whitewash Trump and make him sound like he’s a good Christian, but I think most people recognize that doesn’t pass the smell test. Most people recognize, “OK, this is about a cultural war.”
That kind of argument has been going on in Europe for a long time. You have what’s called an Identitarian Christian movement in European countries where people are also saying, “Hey, this is a Christian nation,” but those churches are empty. Nobody’s praying. These aren’t evangelical Christians. These are people who are identifying a national identity as Christian, it just means “not Muslim.” It means “nationalist.” It means “people like us.” Really that’s where American Christian Nationalism I think is headed. It means not Muslim. It means not liberal. Not socialist, globalist. It means Patriot. It means born in the United States. It oft means ethnically white, if not racially white. It means traditional.
But it doesn’t mean Jesus. It doesn’t mean knowledge of the Bible. It means broadly biblical in the traditionalist moral sense, but not in a you actually read your Bible or care any kind of way sense. It certain doesn’t mean turning the other cheek or loving your neighbor or loving your enemy, God forbid. It doesn’t mean any of that. It just means us versus them.
I think what you saw at the Capitol was I think a horrible and yet also very important indicator of where Christian Nationalism in the United States is really going. When push comes to shove and when these people get desperate and angry, they feel isolated and misunderstood. Because of misinformation, they feel wronged and threatened and persecuted, then they will react with what they consider to be righteous violence to take back what they feel like has been stolen from them.
That’s interesting, because something you see a lot in these conversations is people accusing Christian Nationalists of being hypocrites for not abiding by, say, the Sermon on the Mount. But you’re saying those people are wasting their breath, because that’s sort of a moot point in Christian Nationalism.
Right. I think this is partly due to this increased secularization of the United States. Even within this Christian Nationalist movement, you have Americans who are not evangelical Christians, who really don’t share that biblicist priority and language to at least say, “Hey, we’re biblical here, we’re following the Bible.” You have people who are saying, “That really doesn’t work. That’s for losers.”
This is I think just a political phenomenon, part of this is due to the increased political polarization that we’re seeing. When I say polarization, I don’t necessarily mean people going to extremes. I mean people sorting their identities and stacking those identities into very neat camps. On the Left, you have the Prius-driving, climate-concerned, Democrat-voting secular liberal. And on the right, you have the truck-driving, gun-toting, church-going, Fox News-watching, conservative Republican. Christian can become a signifier of just conservative now. It doesn’t necessarily mean what you believe anymore. It just means “I’m on the Right.” You can be secular and be a Christian Nationalist because all you mean is, “I’m on the Right, I’m conservative, I think the nation should be for people like us, run by people like us.”
Some Christians who will look at all this and say, “January 6th was bad but this Christian Nationalism thing is a boogeyman, so let’s not make it a bigger monster than it actually is.”
To some extent, I think that’s fair. It is not everybody sitting in the pew. I don’t mean to paint with that broad brush that everybody in the SBC is somehow embracing radical Christian Nationalism.
But unfortunately, after people traced back where these people who stormed the Capitol came from, they found that they did come from mainstream evangelical churches — many of them in North Texas where I live close. These were the people sitting next to you in the pews. I don’t think it’s the majority. I think that’s fair. But I don’t think it’s as fringe as some evangelical leaders would like to say.
Oftentimes when we’re talking about Christian Nationalism, it gets misrepresented as, “Oh, you just mean anytime any Christian wants to vote their faith and values.” Or “I can’t talk about why I think we ought to have character in elections or why I’m pro-life or why I don’t think certain family arrangements are ideal or that kind of thing, then I’m being a Christian nationalist.”
I think that is a dodge. I think that is a rhetorical move to misrepresent what we’re actually talking about. I think it’s inevitable that people will always vote their values, and I think people will vote their religious values. I just think it veers into Christian Nationalism when you say people like me should be institutionally privileged in law and policy, and you should be marginalized on the basis of you not conforming to my image of what the ideal American looks like.
One last question. A lot of people would probably agree with most of what you’re saying, and that scares them. They know they’re a Christian, but they don’t identify with this movement they’re seeing. How would you encourage someone feeling this way?
On the whole, among the general population, I think strong adherence to Christian Nationalist ideology by a lot of indicators is declining. I think as more Americans see what happened on January 6th, they start to recognize, “OK, this is something that I want to back away from. I want to integrate faith in politics in a way that is not just this mindless narrative that can be hijacked and leveraged towards populist and anti-democratic and unchristian ends.” I think more and more people are recognizing that. I think that’s good news.
I think we are going to see a fracturing and sorting of these churches where people self-select into very far right spaces where they are exclusively Christian Nationalists now. And other more mainstream spaces where they don’t take this kind of hard line will embrace a more authentic understanding of gospel witness in the country.
I think what to look out for ultimately is, do the people that you’re talking to think of Christians’ relationship to the world as an us versus them situation? I think that’s got to be the most unChristian perspective that a Christian can possibly have. As people who believe that Jesus died for his enemies, the idea that Christians would be somehow be at war with unbelievers to establish some kind of a national kingdom here is I think just the furthest thing from authentic Christian witness.
Christians who feel in that isolated space should take comfort that, I think, your numbers are growing. In fact, people who are disgusted with what they’re seeing and really uncomfortable with what’s going on, there are spaces for them.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.