Taking America Back for God

Christian Nationalism in the United States

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Andrew L. Whitehead, Samuel L. Perry
  • Oxford, UK: 
    Oxford University Press
    , March
     2020.
     288 pages.
     $29.95.
     E-Book.
    ISBN
    9780190057886.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

A major restructuring of American religion is taking place right now. So say sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry in Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. While we are accustomed to hearing generalizations about issues of religion in modernity (what percentage of evangelicals voted for a candidate, where the religious right stands on particular social issues, how many people identify as spiritual but do not affiliate with a religious institution, and the like), Whitehead and Perry set out to expound upon a common yet misrecognized and misunderstood factor of today’s world—Christian nationalism.

The authors distinguish Christian nationalism from Christianity, religion, or even civil religion. They explain it as a quest for power, the privileging of an antimodern worldview and a white ethnic identity. It is closely correlated to racism, sexism, xenophobia, and nativism, but it is not reducible to these or a product of these. Rather, Christian nationalism is a framework, a worldview, a lens that shapes the way people come to understand what it means to be an American and a Christian. Using this lens, Christian nationalists believe that to be American is to be Christian and to be Christian is to be American. Whitehead and Perry explain that both physical and symbolic boundaries are drawn by adherents to protect and defend the American Christian identity—an “us versus them” ideology that doesn’t recognize non-American Christians or non-Christian Americans as part of its in-group. As such, the authors say that Christian nationalism is a threat to pluralistic democracy.

Whitehead and Perry are careful to explain that not all Christians are Christian nationalists, nor are all Christian nationalists even necessarily Christian. Their intent is to add nuance to the way that pollsters, pundits, and the public view data. For example, it tells us little to say that 81 percent of evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016 unless we understand the role of Christian nationalism, which cuts across denominational lines. When examining social issues like the border wall, school prayer, gun control, LGBTQIA+ rights, etc., we can understand more about how someone will vote by their level of embrace of Christian nationalist ideology than by their denominational affiliation or identification as Christian. Thus, Christians who do not identify with Christian nationalism are likely to have more progressive views than those who do. Whitehead and Perry see this as a major restructuring of American religion.

The framework of Christian nationalism is one that permeates American society. It sets the tone as to which questions must be confronted by civil society. Identities are created based on the embrace or rejection of Christian nationalist ideas. In spite of this political polarization, however, Whitehead and Perry take us beyond the binary categories of embrace or rejection of the Christian nationalist framework. Using six key questions and a five-point Likert scale, they show that individuals can be more or less receptive to the framework of Christian nationalism. They then group participants into four categories depending on their degree of acceptance or rejection of Christian nationalist ideas. Most Americans, it turns out, fall between the extremes—believing there is a role for religion in civil society and/or that it’s okay for people to vote based on their religious values, but that religion and politics should not be synonymous terms.

Based upon their findings, the authors see a path for those who believe that politics and religion should have little or nothing to do with one another. Since Christian nationalism has brought together people across denominational divides, so could the resistance to it, they say. They believe that American Christians who are not Christian nationalists could find common cause with Americans of other religions and religious “nones” (many of whom are still spiritual but have felt driven away from institutional religion, in part by Christian nationalist ideology) to work together towards a more pluralistic and democratic America.

Sociologists Whitehead and Perry draw upon mixed methods of research: large-scale survey data, interviews, and participant observation. Some survey data also allowed for historical comparisons, showing us that the “ambassadors” of Christian nationalism (that is, those who most strongly embrace this ideology) are decreasing in number but this also motivates them to be more extreme to “take America back for God.” The book includes multiple appendices which detail their data and collection methods.

Taking America Back for God has been well received within the field of sociology of religion. It adds complexity and nuance to previous ways of discussing the relationship between religion and politics, and should be of interest to pollsters, pundits, and anyone interested in that intersection.

About the Reviewer(s): 

V. Jacquette Rhoades, Ashland University

Date of Review: 
February 10, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew Whitehead is an associate professor of sociology at Clemson University and assistant director of the Association of Religion Data Archives. He is the author of numerous articles on Christian nationalism and religion in the modern world.

Samuel L. Perry is an assistant professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of more than seventy peer-reviewed journal articles and two books, Addicted to Lust and Growing God's Family.

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