‘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.

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