Philip Gorski is professor of sociology and religious studies at Yale University. He is co-director (with Julia Adams) of Yale’s Center for Comparative Research, and co-runs the Religion and Politics Colloquium at the Yale MacMillan Center. He is the author of American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present and The Disciplinary Revolution: Calvinism and the Growth of State Power in Early Modern Europe.
As one observer noted, the January 6 protesters seemed a motley crew: “country club Republicans, well-dressed social conservatives, and white Evangelicals in Jesus caps…shoulder to shoulder with QAnon cultists, Second Amendment cosplay commandos, and doughy, hardcore white nationalists.” One group erected a giant cross, another a wooden gallows. Someone waved a “Jesus Saves” banner, while another sported a “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie.
But the closer you look, the murkier things become. Christians waved Trump flags. The “Proud Boys” kneeled and prayed. One man, decked out as a cosplay crusader, clutched a large leather Bible to his chest with skeleton gloves. What looked like apples and oranges turned out to be a fruit cocktail: white Christian nationalism.
White Christian nationalism (WCN) is, first of all, a story about America. It says: America was founded as a Christian nation, by (white) Christians; and its laws and institutions are based on “Biblical” (that is, Protestant) Christianity. This much is certain, though: America is divinely favored. Whence its enormous wealth and power. In exchange for these blessings, America has been given a mission: to spread religion, freedom, and civilization—by force, if necessary. But that mission is endangered by the growing presence of non-whites, non-Christians, and non-Americans on American soil. White Christians must therefore “take back the country,” their country.
In exchange for these blessings, America has been given a mission: to spread religion, freedom, and civilization—by force, if necessary.
WCN is not just a story. It is also a political vision. Violence and racial purity are central to that vision. As Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead have shown, white Christian nationalists tend to favor a strong military and capital punishment and oppose gun control. WCN is thus strongly correlated with opposition to interracial marriage, non-white immigration, and affirmative action.
To understand how American Christianity became so entangled with racism and violence, we first have to trace it back to its scriptural roots. Those roots are dual. It turns out that WCN is not just one story, but two. The first is a promised land story. The New England Puritans saw themselves as the heirs of the biblical Israelites. They imagined themselves as a “chosen people,” and they came to see the “new world” as their “promised land.” And as their relationship with the natives shifted from curiosity to hostility, they began to see the Indians as “Canaanites,” who had to be conquered.
The second story is an end times story. Most Christian theologians read Revelation in allegorical terms, as a depiction of the moral struggles within the believer’s heart. But some interpreted the text more literally, as a description of bloody struggles to come. That is how many Puritan radicals read it, and they exported those ideas to New England.
The two stories gradually fused together during the Puritans’ wars with the Indians. Cotton Mather came to believe that the New World would be the central battlefield in the final struggle between good and evil. He placed himself and his brethren on the side of the good, and the Catholic French and their native allies on the side of evil. He likened the Indians to demons and viewed the killing of Indians as a blood sacrifice to an angry God. It was war that welded Protestantism and Englishness together in the New World.
It was war that welded Protestantism and Englishness together in the New World.
But how did Protestantism and Englishness get entangled with whiteness? To answer that question, we need to shift our focus to Virginia. There, and elsewhere, the most common justification for the enslavement of kidnapped Indians and Africans was that they were “heathens.” But this argument broke down in the late-seventeenth century as some enslaved persons converted to Christianity and some white Christians sought to evangelize them. The problem was initially resolved by shifting the legal basis of slavery from religion to color: “Blacks” could be slaves; “whites” could not. It was then more fully resolved by creating a new theological basis for slavery. Perhaps the most influential was the “Curse of Ham.” Blacks were the descendants of Noah’s son, Ham, the argument went, and their color and enslavement were a result of the curse that Noah had called down on head.
It would be another century before WCN became American. Until the American Revolution, most colonists still considered themselves English. It was only after the Revolution that they began to think of themselves as “American.” Until that time, the term “Americans” was more often used to refer to the native peoples. So, one way that (white) Americans set themselves apart from their British “cousins” was by claiming to resemble (native) Americans. The American (man) was a little more savage, a little more violent than his English forebears. He was, in a sense, the true heir of the Indian who was (supposedly) disappearing, and the true inhabitant of the “frontier.” The white American had a trace of the red American in him.
One way that (white) Americans set themselves apart from their British 'cousins' was by claiming to resemble (native) Americans.
WCN is what linguist George Lakoff calls a “frame.” A frame is like a bare-bones movie script. It “has roles (like a cast of characters), relations between the roles, and scenarios carried out by those playing the roles.” Like a movie, it can be made and remade, with new actors and modified scenarios. The “frontiersman” becomes an “Indian fighter” and then a “cowboy.” The scene shifts from Appalachia to Kentucky to Wyoming.
Trumpism is, among other things, the latest version of the WCN frame. Echoing the promised land story, Trump says he will “take back the country” from the outsiders and invaders who have taken control—immigrants and secularists, Muslims and Mexicans—and then restore it to its rightful owners: “real” (that is, white, Christian) Americans. Echoing the end times story, Trump paints the world in terms of us and them, good and evil, and hints at violent struggles to come. The first such struggle took place on January 6, 2021. It will not, I fear, be the last.
Editor’s Note: This piece is adapted from an essay originally published by ABC Religion & Ethics on January 13, 2021. It is republished here with permission.