Understanding White Christian Nationalism

October 4, 2022

Conference panelists, with video link

When people hear the phrase “white Christian nationalism” in the news, they do not always get the correct meaning.

“A common misunderstanding would be that it is the same thing as being a patriotic Christian,” said Philip Gorski, chair of the Department of Sociology at Yale. “Patriotism is an adherence to the ideals of the United States, and nationalism is loyalty to your tribe and not the country.”

In a recent book with sociologist Samuel L. Perry of the University of Oklahoma, Gorski traces white Christian nationalism in the United States to the late 1600s. Adherents believe in the idea that America was founded by Christians who modeled its laws and institutions after Protestant ideals with a mission to spread the religion and those ideals in the face of threats from non-whites, non-Christians, and immigrants.

And while white Christian nationalism in the country finds its roots hundreds of years ago, the phenomenon bubbles up during periods when white Christians feel threatened by outside forces — amplified by war, heightened immigration, or periods of economic instability.

“If you think about it that way, the period we’re in now is a perfect storm,” Gorski said. “All three of those catalysts are present.”

Gorski assembled scholars and journalists for a two-day conference last week to define how white Christian nationalism relates to other ideologies in the United States and abroad, describe how it is organized, and explore lingering questions about what role it may play in the November midterm elections and how much of a threat it represents to American democracy.

“We want there to be a deeper and clearer understanding of what white Christian nationalism is,” Gorski said. “It’s a term that even five years ago you wouldn’t hear outside of a seminar room, but since the January 6th attack on the Capitol, it’s started to circulate in national newscasts, sometimes applying to any set of ideas people don’t like. We want to be clear that it’s not all Christians, not all white people.”

Sponsored by the Institution for Social and Policy Studies and the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, the event drew a large gathering on campus and online. Click here to view videos from the conference.

Panelist Bart Bonikowski, associate professor of sociology and politics at New York University, spoke of how Christian nationalism in the United States is exclusionary and nostalgic, seeing the nation as going downhill and needing to be recaptured by people who see themselves at its rightful owners — possibly through authoritarian means. And while the phenomenon can take different forms in other countries, Bonikowski said the mechanism behind the movements can be quite similar. He said white Christian nationalists take advantage of preexisting societal cleavages to mobilize supporters, channeling their fears into resentments.

Opportunistic politicians come along and consolidate inchoate fears into an overall crisis, Bonikowski said. They argue that everything people see as going wrong with the country is part of the same problem, which can be blamed on non-Christians.

In addition to Bonikowski, panelists included Jerome Copulsky, a scholar in residence at American University; Samuel Goldman, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University; Anne Nelson, a research scholar at Columbia University’s School for International and Public Affairs; Bradley Onishi, a podcast host and adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco; author and investigative journalist Katherine Stewart; Ruth Braunstein, associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut; author, journalist, and historian Annika Brockschmidt; Anthea Butler, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor in American Social Thought and chair of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania; Jeff Sharlet, investigative journalist and professor of English at Dartmouth College; Eric McDaniel, associate professor in the Department of Government and the co-director of the Politics of Race and Ethnicity Lab at the University of Texas at Austin; Sarah McCammon, national correspondent for National Public Radio; Samuel Perry, associate professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma; Cynthia Miller-Idriss, professor in the School of Public Affairs and the School of Education at American University; Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, assistant professor of religion and anthropology at Northeastern University; and Jason Stanley, the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale.

Katherine Stewart discussed the dynamics of political actors who cultivate grievances to improve their grip on their target population, even if elected officials often take their lead from religious and extremist organizations.

“This is not a culture war,” Stewart said. “It’s a political war over the future of democracy.”

Anthea Butler said the Christian nationalist movement contradicts the principles and norms of democracy. She spoke of attending meetings in which church leaders have been directed to get their congregations to vote a certain way.

“The church is not a cruise ship,” Butler said of the stated rationale behind these efforts. “The church is a battleship. And that’s how they see it.”

Butler also spoke of racial dynamics, the appeal of authoritarianism to groups who feel they have been anointed by God to take political power, and how the internet allows people to adopt and share false beliefs.

“Feelings aren’t facts,” she said. “But feelings drive a lot of what is going on.”

Attendees seated at the conference

Area of study 
Political Behavior