‘The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy’ by Philip Gorski and Samuel Perry – A Brief Review

I once knew someone who said that the scariest movie they’d ever seen wasn’t a horror movie at all. It was the 2001 drama A Beautiful Mind. When I asked why such a movie was so terrifying to them, this person replied, “To not know what’s real and what isn’t, to lose control of your own mind despite being so brilliant – that is true terror.” The film stars Russell Crowe as real-life mathematician John Nash and it tells the story of his struggles with mental illness. In the movie, Nash would hallucinate and think he saw people who were not there. It jeopardized not only his own well-being but that of those closest to him. Nash, who died in 2015, had a long and productive career despite his struggles. His work still influences the fields of mathematics and economics today. Nevertheless, considering its subject matter, it’s hard to argue against my acquaintance’s reckoning that A Beautiful Mind is a horror film.

In a similar vein, were you to ask me what the most frightening read of the past twelve months has been for me, I wouldn’t answer with Colson Whitehead’s Zone One or S.H. Cooper’s Inheriting Her Ghosts or even Nick Cutter’s The Troop. All three fall somewhere in the genre of horror fiction and were excellent reads. (Cutter’s in particular was hard to put down.) Instead, I would respond with a work of non-fiction written by sociologists Philip Gorski and Samuel Perry entitled The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2022). Though it is but a brief work at 176 pages, it has managed to haunt me well after I finished reading it. Specifically, the authors set out to answer “four fundamental questions: (1) What is white Christian nationalism? (2) When did it emerge? (3) How does it work politically? And finally (4) Where might it be headed tomorrow?” (p. 3) 

To answer the first, Gorski and Perry point to “a constellation of beliefs” (p. 14). For example, believing that the United States was in some sense founded upon Christianity is part of that constellation, as is the notion that the US should adopt Christian values. Additionally, there has been a historic merging of so-called Christian values with the Republican party which is itself predominantly white. This conflation means that in the eyes of many white evangelicals, to be a Christian is to be a Republican. Added to this mixture is a “deep story,” a narrative that informs white Christian nationalism explaining America’s greatness. It typically involves elevating white characters and either ignoring or denigrating minority ones. 

An example of this can be seen in the textbook I used during my two semesters of American History at Pensacola Christian College. Entitled United States History in Christian Perspective: Heritage of Freedom,[1] the volume presents a particular understanding of the nation’s history that is decidedly conservative (i.e., Republican) and Christian (i.e., Baptist fundamentalism). In ch. 1 in a section on the religion of Native Americans in North America prior to the arrival of colonial powers, the authors write this: 

The native Americans, like most early people, forsook the things they once knew about God. Rather than worshipping the Creator, they worshiped creation, particularly things they could not understand such as thunder, wind, fire, and the sun. They also believed that spirits lived in the mountains, water, trees, plants, and animals around them. Because superstition kept the Indians from working together to develop the land in which they lived, America would remain an untamed wilderness until the Europeans arrived.[2]

By casting Native Americans as ignorant and superstitious, unable to tame the wilderness because of their religious beliefs, the authors not only set up white settlers as saviors, but they also suggest that Native Americans today are backward and foolish if they continue believing in their non-Christian religion, thus perpetuating Christian (and white) supremacy. Most telling is a question that appears in the chapter review at the end: “Describe native American religion. How do you think native American religion hindered their advancement?”[3] Note that the question isn’t “Did native American religion hinder their advancement?” Rather, underlying the question is the assumption that Christianity is superior because it brought “civilization.” In fact, later in the textbook the authors make it clear that American democracy was only successful because of “the influence of Biblical Christianity” and that it only works “in a nation where a majority of citizens are steeped in the virtues of Biblical Christianity.”[4]

In ch. 2 of The Flag and the Cross, the authors look at the history of white Christian nationalism, offering readers a crash course in the racism that has held sway over this nation since before the Revolutionary era. Referring to “the spirit of 1690,” the authors trace the history of white Christian nationalism through a series of years: 1689, 1763, 1889, and 1989. In the early days before the dawn of the republic, theologians supplied an eager audience a “racist theology” that had two tracks. The first was “pre-Adamism” which claimed that prior to Adam there had been a degenerate race of humans who lacked souls. The second was the curse on Canaan that “condemned his offspring to perpetual servitude” (p. 55). These bigoted ideologies served as justification for a host of evils that came to a head in the American Civil War. Yet even then it was not done away with, especially with the “Lost Cause” myth promoted by former Confederates and their descendants. In the twentieth century, the Christian Right came into its own. Gorski and Perry note that despite the claims of many conservatives, it wasn’t Roe v. Wade that created the Christian Right. Rather, it was “[o]pposition to racial integration [that] was the real catalyst” (p. 69). Though not mentioned by the authors, one indication of this was the creation of private schools in the wake of the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, a subject discussed at length in J. Russell Hawkins’s fascinating volume The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Preserve White Supremacy (Oxford University Press, 2021).[5]

Chapters 3-4 look at recent developments in white Christian nationalism, including the insurrection that took place on January 6th of 2021, as well as what the future might hold if these beliefs go on undeterred. They open ch. 4 by writing, “It is tempting to dismiss the insurrection as an isolated incident by a few bad actors” (p. 103). They warn that we should not sleep on this because a “second eruption would likely be larger and more violent than the first. Large enough to bury American democracy for at least a generation.” And this is what makes The Flag and the Cross such a terrifying book. If conservative white evangelicals continue to align themselves with populists like Trump and continue to hold views contrary to reality (e.g., that whites are more likely to experience racism than blacks; cf. pp. 20-22), then an insurrection of a much larger scale is seemingly inevitable. Trumpist America would not be Hitler’s Germany,” they write. 

But it would be not so far removed from Putin’s Russia either. And like this and other populist and kleptocratic regimes, it would be characterized by governmental incompetence accompanied by gradual economic decline. Ironically, a serious attempt to ‘make America great again’ would probably ending up making it chaotic and poor” (p. 127).

How do we prevent this? By building “a popular front stretching from democratic socialists” all the way to “cosmopolitan #NeverTrump evangelicals” (p. 128). To do so, we must be open and honest about our nation’s history, and we must learn to focus on our most essential rights, especially the right to vote. 

The horror genre is a broad tent. It can include zombies and werewolves and poltergeists and serial killers and alien viruses. But for the most part, these are pure fiction. No rational person fears werewolves or zombies or even aliens. A large-scale insurrection, however, is a real possibility and it is up to us to do all that we can to make sure it never happens. Gorski and Perry have written a horror novel of sorts by showing the monstrosity that is white Christian nationalism and what it can do should we fail to act. And if we fail, we will be living in a horror novel of our own making. 

[1] Michael R. Lowman, George Thompson, and Kurt Grussendorf, United States History in Christian Perspective: Heritage of Freedom, second edition (Pensacola, FL: Pensacola Christian College, 1996).

[2] Lowman et. al., United States History in Christian Perspective, 7.

[3] Lowman et. al., United States History in Christian Perspective, 21.

[4] Lowman et. al., United States History in Christian Perspective, 132, 133.

[5] Hawkins considers the specific case of South Carolina and the efforts to circumvent integration by creating private schools that could be practically (though not legally) segregated. You can read my brief review of Hawkins book as well.

The Roundup – 5.7.22

The Roundup – 5.7.22

Bible Study for Amateurs #24 – Hey Jude 8-10!

What a dispute over Moses’s body tells Jude’s audience. 

Amateur Hour #8 – Leaving Christian Science w/Rev N Fidel

In this episode of Amateur Hour, I talk with Rev N Fidel about his experience as a Christian Scientist (and what that means) as well as his work in Christian publishing at the dawn of the digital age.

‘Raised on the Third Day: Defending the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus,’ edited by W. David Beck and Michael R. Licona – A Brief Review

If it happened, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth would have been one of the most important (if not the most important) event in human history. It is little wonder that apologists spend so much time and treasure defending it. One of the premier defenders of Jesus’s resurrection in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has been Gary Habermas, professor of philosophy and apologetics at Liberty University, and a recent volume edited by W. David Beck and Michael Licona entitled Raised on the Third Day: Defending the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus (Lexham Press, 2020) aims to honor Habermas who has not only influenced Beck and Licona but countless other apologists. In the course of roughly 392 pages and a dozen and a half chapters, various authors offer their thoughts on subjects which Habermas has engaged in his nearly half-century career. Contributors include J.P. Moreland on substance-dualism (ch. 2), William Lane Craig on the connection between Jesus’s “atoning death” and the resurrection (ch. 6), Dale Allison on near death experiences and their relationship to Christian theology (ch. 10), and more. In some ways, Raised on the Third Day is a Who’s Who? of Christian apologists and thinkers.[1]

Though subtitled “Defending the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus,” some of the essays in the volume seemed irrelevant to this lofty goal. For example, in ch. 5 we read Francis Beckwith’s engagement with political philosopher John Rawls. Specifically, Beckwith attempts to take Rawls’s “neutralist liberalism” on subjects like abortion and see how it could be applied to issues like whether Christian bakers should be required to make cakes for same-sex weddings. It’s a piece better suited for a volume on contemporary issues in Christian political philosophy than one on the resurrection of Jesus. The same could be said of David Baggett’s piece on a “minimal facts” moral argument (ch. 7) as well as W. David Beck’s on the underlying structure of moral arguments (ch. 8). These too would be more appropriate for a work on philosophy of religion rather than one on the historicity of the resurrection of God’s son.

In addition to these seemingly misplaced essays, Raised on the Third Day features not one but two separate chapters on the Shroud of Turin. Whatever the value of the shroud and no matter its authenticity, it generally plays a very minor role in evangelical apologetics and, to my knowledge, has no direct bearing on the resurrection of Jesus. In fact, Mark Foreman offers a variety of “naturalistic” hypotheses to explain the image on the shroud, including the idea that the shroud was at some point irradiated. This, he writes, “is currently the best explanation for how the image was formed on the Shroud” (p. 55). But while some might think that it was the resurrection itself that was the radiating event, Foreman cautions against such a conclusion writing, “The fact is, we simply do not know what a resurrection event would look like, nor what residual effects it might leave behind. To make any such claims is to go beyond the evidence, even if the Shroud is the authentic burial cloth of Jesus. I am open to the radiation hypothesis as being in line with the resurrection, but I would not claim it is evidence of it” (p. 58). In which case, what good is the shroud? To prove Jesus died? We already knew that. 

Two essays do stand out. The first is Beth Sheppard’s contribution entitled “Racing Toward the Tomb: Purity and Sacrifice in the Fourth Gospel” (pp. 225-255). Sheppard is a professor at Ingram Library at the University of West Georgia and has a variety of works including one on how biblical scholars and historians make use of the New Testament documents to reconstruct the past entitled The Craft of History and the Study of the New Testament (SBL, 2013).[2] Prior to reading her contribution to Raised on the Third Day, I was unaware of Sheppard’s work. Now that I’ve been introduced to it, I can say that her writing is as delightful as it is informative. Whether it’s disputing Habermas’s claim that the scene in John 19:34-35 is “evidence that the type of wound Jesus received was lethal” (see pp. 226-230), or alerting readers to the Fourth Evangelist’s desire to “portray Jesus as possessing a constant state of purity” (p. 248), Sheppard writes methodically and thoroughly. If there is any essay worth rereading in Raised on the Third Day, it is Sheppard’s. 

The second essay that stands out does so for reasons opposite of Sheppard’s. It is Frank Turek’s closing chapter entitled “What Everyone Should Learn from Gary Habermas” (pp. 325-338). The only redeeming quality of the piece is its brevity; it is one of the shortest in the volume. Turek, taking his cues from Habermas and Michael Licona, trots out many of the same, tired arguments for the reliability of the Gospels that when looked at closely simply do not hold water. For example, he spends considerable space on the criterion of embarrassment, making such asinine claims as Jesus’s genealogy is unlikely to be an invention because it includes “two prostitutes… (Tamar and Rahab), an adulterer (Bathsheba), and a king (David) who lies, cheats, and murders to cover up his sins. That’s certainly not an invented royal bloodline!” (p. 329). Setting aside the fleeting utility of the criterion of embarrassment, Turek’s lack of imagination and general unacquaintance with any scholarship that doesn’t have the word “apologetics” in the description makes Raised on the Third Day seem amateurish. (And I should know – I am an amateur.) 

Raised on the Third Day is not the best book on the resurrection of Jesus I’ve ever read, nor is it the worst. But apart from Sheppard’s contribution and perhaps that of Dale Allison on NDEs, it is not a very useful volume. Readers would do better to pick up Allison’s recent work on the resurrection or even Michael Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP Academic, 2010). Or save your money and perhaps one day Habermas himself will publish that “magnum opus” everyone keeps talking about.[3] 

[1] Sometimes these categories overlap!

[2] See http://bethmsheppard.com/biography/.

[3] Sometimes I make myself laugh.

Bible Study for Amateurs #22 – Hey Jude 3-4!

Intruder alert! Intruder alert!

Bible Study for Amateurs #21 – Hey Jude 1-2!

The first of ten episodes looking at the NT epistle of Jude utilizing some of the tools from my amateur toolbox mentioned in episodes 11-20.