By January 2021, we had already witnessed the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville and starkly lopsided responses from law enforcement to #BlackLivesMatter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s 2020 murder. We were already dealing with loved ones drawn into the QAnon whirlpool, urging us to wake up and #savethechildren. Nevertheless, for many of us glued to our screens on January 6, mouths agape at the scenes unfolding before our eyes, the events of that day crystalized the sense that in the fever pitch of American social discourse, with all the vitriol and conspiracy and alternate truths of recent years, we stand as vulnerable as ever to domestic terrorism, authoritarian coercion, and political violence. “Throughout the Capitol that day,” Pamela Cooper-White writes in her new book The Psychology of Christian Nationalism: Why People Are Drawn In and How to Talk Across the Divide, “the most deeply irrational and violent impulses of Christian nationalism were on full display, with ample amounts of paranoia, rage, and apocalyptic fervor” (11).
For Christians who find these developments troubling—not least given the involvement of so many who nominally profess the same religion—numerous questions too often press into even intimate spaces, like dinner tables and Sunday school classrooms: What is the source of these emotions, ideas, and actions? Why are people drawn into this mess? And how can we even begin to talk across this divide? This book presents Cooper-White’s response to these questions against the widely discussed backdrop of “Christian nationalism.”
Chapter 1 establishes the whos and whats of this movement in ways consistent with the growing body of literature by sociologists like Philip Gorski, Samuel Perry, and Andrew Whitehead. This book and much of the broader discourse focus primarily on tribulations manifested in and by active white-nationalist and patriarchal movements in the US that present themselves as retrieving an imagined Christian golden age in America. Such attention is due, and the dangers of these movements are real. I remain concerned, however, that the term “Christian nationalism” as used here and in popular discourse is a bit fuzzy, defined as “a cultural framework . . . that idealizes and advocated a fusion of Christianity with American civil life” (13, quoting Whitehead and Perry). Such a framework, including most of its general principles cited in this section, can manifest in forms that are ostensibly moderate—especially when compared with insurrectionists—and even vocally resist the worst of Trumpian rhetoric. Using a capacious term to deal mostly with its most extreme examples may prove counterproductive by providing rhetorical, or even moral, cover for those whose impulses toward the essentialism and authoritarianism of American Christianity exhibit more refined forms. Some readers hoping for fruitful conversations across the many fault lines in this landscape may want a more detailed map.
Next, Cooper-White explores many conscious and unconscious factors in folks’ alignment with extremist beliefs and communities. Her accounts highlight the complexity of humans’ moral and theological formation. She reveals some ways the people we love get sucked into broken worldviews and why the reader’s personal connection with even beloved individuals becomes relativized in the mix of their other human networks.
The titular “psychology” is mostly of the group variety—from evangelicals’ allergy to structural analyses of sin and many white Americans’ slow, steadily burning anxiety about replacement, groupthink, leader worship, and psychological “splitting.” Cooper-White’s commentary on the right wing’s doubling down on gun rights as part of a reaction to their broader experience of American society’s “dissolution”—framed as the true root of mass gun violence incidents—is especially fitting. Furthermore, she confesses that her research ended up illustrating the “two Americas” notion that she set out to resist: “After attending a political biker rally, visiting a gun shop, and viewing televangelists on YouTube and television, I have had the disorienting experience of finding myself in a completely different world, surrounded by people living in an alternate reality” (77).
In the closing chapter, if not sooner, Cooper-White makes clear that her hoped-for goal is not an abstract notion of civility or depolarization, but concrete progress toward the gospels’ inclusive vision of justice and compassion. She addresses progressives with a working moral compass and the desire to communicate skillfully across the ideological divide with grace and integrity. Cooper-White borrows the concept of “triage” to urge her readers to make conscious choices within their challenging conversations, starting with assessing “how hardened the potential dialogue partner is in their beliefs,” “who is the right messenger,” and also “the context—is this the right time, the right place, the right social context in which to have such a discussion” (104).
The analogy of a traffic light is also immediately helpful in reading the potential of specific conversations: red (stop when risking harm or violating our sense of personal integrity), yellow (tread lightly where we sense some openness), and green (move forward with practical guidance for navigating such conversations). The green section and Cooper-White’s more general recommendations communicate numerous practices and pragmatic principles that she has masterfully distilled from her career as a teacher-practitioner in pastoral care and counseling.
Amidst a host of helpful ideas, two gems emerge toward the end. First, Cooper-White identifies some ways in which social activism contributes to self-care—for example, as a constructive outlet for energy that is not bearing fruit with those nearest to us and as a matter of self-actualization. Second, she highlights how, when her audience successfully contributes to changing someone’s mind, that person will undoubtedly need ongoing care and community to fill the resulting void.
Even before penning this review’s final words, I have recommended this book to others, especially for the final chapter. The triage metaphor does a lot of good work quickly, as does the traffic light analogy—both of which helpfully underline the reader’s agency in their conversations. Cooper-White’s practical wisdom extends that sensibility through practices that can be immediately exercised, reflected upon, and experimented with.
This counsel will prove immediately valuable for those wrestling with how and whether to talk with loved ones caught up in a strand of Christian nationalism, and the book’s usefulness extends well beyond this particular set of troubles. It would profit anyone hoping to share in more fruitful conversations across many divides—and to acknowledge when such fruit is unlikely to emerge. Laypersons in reading groups would benefit from this short and highly accessible book, but it could also helpfully supplement the learning of students wrestling with the substance of Christian ethics and returning to family dinner tables.
Jacob Alan Cook is an academic program director and visiting assistant professor at Eastern Mennonite Seminary of Eastern Mennonite University.
Date Of Review:
February 17, 2023
Pamela Cooper-White is the Christiane Brooks Johnson Professor of Psychology and Religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York. She holds PhDs from Harvard University and the Institute for Clinical Social Work, Chicago, and is the author or coauthor of five books and over seventy scholarly and professional articles. An Episcopal priest and pastoral psychotherapist, Dr. Cooper-White is a certified clinical Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, a National Board-Certified Counselor, and a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in the state of Illinois.
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