The Flag And The Cross: White Christian Nationalism And The Threat To American Democracy by Philip S. Gorski and Samuel L. Perry, Oxford University Press, 176 pp.
By Katherine Stewart
We know that something dangerous has been happening on the right wing of American politics. We know that it involves a certain kind of populism, authoritarian tendencies, widespread disinformation and elements of racism and bigotry. We also know that it calls itself “Christian.” The first question we face in trying to understand this phenomenon is: What do we call it?
Philip S. Gorski, co-director of Yale’s Center for Comparative Research, and Samuel L. Perry, associate professor of Sociology at the University of Oklahoma, have an answer. In their slim but compelling volume, The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy, they propose to call it “white Christian nationalism.”
This seemingly simple label, as the authors show, rests on a complex reality. As the historian and author Jemar Tisby explains in his introduction to the work, “Do racism and white supremacy form the subtext of all of their beliefs? The answers to these questions are historical, contextual, and complex. But The Flag and The Cross offers a glimpse into a system that has an internal, if frustrating, logic of its own.” Gorski and Perry, he explains, “give clear and deeply researched examinations of critical ideas,” and “show how white Christian nationalism is not simply a set of beliefs but a narrative, a deep story.”
As Gorski and Perry show, this narrative is also a tissue of bigotry and racism, piled on a systematic falsification of history and distortions about who we are as a country. “The deep story sounds a lot like ‘Make American Great Again,’” they write. “It is one of those stories that sorts out good from evil in the world and gives its adherents a simple plan in life and politics.”
The narrative encourages its adherents to deify the movement’s chosen political leaders and demonize political opponents, often by appealing, implicitly or explicitly, to racial bigotry. Labels like “communist” and “socialist,” as Gorski and Perry point out, which are frequently deployed against those who oppose a right-wing agenda, have long been racially coded, from the “red scares” of the 1920s to the civil rights movements of the 1960s. Today’s bogus narrative that public schools are promoting “Critical Race Theory” is a similar means of invoking race panic.
Through a combination of sociological and political analysis, the authors draw connections between white Christian nationalism, violence and militarism, patriarchy and social order, “or to put it more bluntly, the link between white Christian nationalism and authoritarian control over outsiders,” they write. “Freedom for ‘us’; violence and order for ‘them.’” The election of former president Donald Trump was a consequence of this malignant narrative, and Gorski and Perry argue that it remains the greatest threat to democracy today.
Gorski and Perry make deft use of data regarding a range of religious orientations along with a range of attitudes from support for voting rights to endorsement of political violence to stances on vaccination. But this book is far more than just a sociological analysis. It is also an elegant summary of the consequences of this ideology’s spread: disinformation, division, political polarization and the undermining of democratic institutions. It is also a book of warning: The insurrection and attempted coup of Jan. 6, 2021, as the authors write, may have been merely a warm-up to a potentially larger, more violent and more successful event in the future.
A parallel concern, both in America and abroad, is the growth of illiberalism and the entrenchment of minority rule. Authoritarian populist leaders, Gorski and Perry write, rarely eliminate elections entirely; instead, they game the system to their advantage. In doing so, they capture power for themselves and their political allies, then set their sight on courts and legislatures and build patronage networks. Whether bit by bit or all at once, this is how democracies give way to authoritarian rule.
Not content merely to analyze the threat, the authors go on to outline a solution – and it is surely the correct one. We must aim to create the broadest possible alliance among those who wish to continue the American democratic project, a coalition extending from Never Trumpers to classic liberals to Democratic Socialists, from secular progressives to those religious conservatives who, as Tisby reminds us, take the view that “white Christian nationalism is the greatest threat to the witness of the church in the United States today.”
Gorski, whose previous books include American Babylon: Christianity Before and After Trump, and Perry, who coauthored Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States with Andrew Whitehead, are seasoned guides through this arduous terrain. The Flag and the Cross is a useful reminder that the separation of church and state has never been more important – or more in peril.
Katherine Stewart’s latest book, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, won first place for Excellence in Nonfiction Books from the Religion News Association.