Taking America Back for God, Christian Nationalism in the United States by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, Oxford University Press, 2020.

Here is my promised review of this important book…It is written by two professors of sociology and religion, so they are certainly well qualified to write this book. They state in the preface that “This book will provide the first empirical examination of contemporary Christian nationalism in the United States” and “As social scientists, our goal is to use high-quality and transparent methods to gather and analyze data, and then truthfully present what we find in the data.”

Therefore, don’t expect the book to be something it was not intended to be. It contains much data and careful analysis of it, so in one sense don’t expect it to be an easy read – it is thoughtful and a bit of an information overload. However, that said, the authors write clearly, reiterate important points, and I found myself able to read the book rather quickly. It flowed. There are graphs and charts that helps certain data be clearer to grasp.

We live in a polarizing time in our nation, and this is an important book particularly for those who like to understand underlying causes (and social consequences) of what they are observing and experiencing in society. That’s me! I like to understand.

One more point to bring clarity, the book’s focus is NOT to answer the question of whether the United States was ever or still is a “Christian nation” because, in one sense, that does not even matter! What matters is that a significant number of Americans believe that the U.S. was or is a Christian nation, and when a significant number of people believe something it has implications for all of us.

[To summarize my personal views…Skip this part if you want! Certainly the U.S. has been very influenced by Christianity. To deny or ignore this fact, I find to be dishonest and troubling. Our nation has distinct Christian roots, and you can’t properly understand the formation of our nation without considering Christianity. Yet, were we ever a “Christian nation”? I’d say no. This implies a theocracy of sorts, or a state church, and the original colonists were devout Christians who came here to escape a state church! Religious freedom was an important aspect of the founding of our nation, and imposing Christianity, particularly a certain type of it on others, would be in conflict with the very idea of religious freedom. Our nation has been influenced by Christianity because there were many Christians here, not because we were ever a Christian nation.]

But back to the book. The authors based their analysis on both quantitative and qualitative data. Quantitative data was primarily the Baylor Religion Survey, and qualitative data was drawn from in-depth interviews with 50 Americans that reflected varying viewpoints along the Christian nationalism spectrum, and by attending or watching events focused on Christian nationalism. (There are multiple appendixes and notes in the back of the book in regards to data and methods.)

The book has an important introduction, and then 4 chapters entitled: Four Americans, Power, Boundaries, and Order.

So, what is Christian nationalism? Some quotes from the book:

“Christian nationalism is a cultural framework – a collection of myths, symbols, narratives, and value systems – that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life.” (page 10)

“Christian nationalists have historically built their ideological foundation on a narrow, literalist interpretation of God’s commands to Old Testament Israel, applying them to their contemporary national situation.” (page 13)

“Christian nationalism…blurs the distinctions between Christian identity and American identity.” (page 15)

The book emphasizes important nuances. Christian nationalism should NOT be thought of as synonymous with evangelicalism. The categories often overlap, and about half of evangelicals embrace Christian nationalism to some degree. But note only half do. The question is what is really influencing Americans’ behavior? It is Christian nationalism, not evangelicalism. There is another, related, nuance related to this:

“Christian nationalism is not ‘Christianity’ or even ‘religion’ properly speaking…a commitment to Christian nationalism is not in any way similar to ‘religious commitment’ as sociologists often conceptualize it. This is not merely semantics. In fact, we will show that Christian nationalism often influences Americans’ opinions and behaviors in the exact opposite direction than traditional religious commitment does.” (page 20, italics in the original.)

You will note that these quotes are all from the introduction, and the rest of the book will flush out and further explain and defend these conclusions. Read the book! A book review is not meant to tell you so much that you don’t have to read the book yourself. Ahem.

I will “close” this review by mentioning two things:

ONE. Like many things in life, there is often a spectrum of views. It is not quite so simple as being a Christian nationalist or not, and the authors divide people into 4 categories: Americans who are Ambassadors (19.8%), Accommodators (32.1%), Resisters (26.6%), or Rejecters (21.5%) of Christian nationalism. As you might guess, Rejecters are on one far side and disagree with each statement on the Christian nationalism scale, while Ambassadors are the opposite far side and are essentially those we think of as Christian nationalists. Accommodators and Resisters, lean one way or the other, respectively. I definitely fall into the category of Resister.

TWO. In the chapter entitled “Power” the authors described a “Freedom Sunday” service they attended at a large evangelical church that reflects Christian nationalism, particularly in this special service. I share this partly because it highlights the same concerns I’ve shared in blog posts. Part of the service was a 45 minute sermon, if it should really be called a sermon. The authors note that the sermon “included no key biblical text, rare for a conservative Protestant expositor” and noted that there were:

“No pleas for personal piety. No calls to be ‘good Samaritans’ to our neighbors. Rather, faithful Christians must stand up and confront the ‘secularists,’ ‘humanists,’ ‘atheists,’ and ‘infidels,’ who are taking control of our ‘Christian country.'” (page 57)

In other words, Christian nationalism is focused on politics and power, and that is NOT what Christianity is suppose to be about! It ends up with a “us” versus “them” mentality, perceives others as threats, and sadly leads to attitudes and behaviors that are in conflict with the essence of Christianity. We serve the God who humbled himself by becoming human, and went up on a mountain and startled and stunned the large group who had gathered to hear Him by teaching the beatitudes.

This book is filled with insights and valuable analysis that we need to consider and contemplate, because, as said, when a significant number of people believe something it has implications for all of us. I recommend this book.

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