The Missing Element in the Conversation on Christian Nationalism and Freedom: Whiteness

Image: Evan Derkacz.

A new report released Wednesday by a trio of groups, both Christian and secular, on the role played by white Christian nationalists in the January 6 storming of the Capitol will open some eyes, and that’s all to the good. But as the report’s authors make clear, the Christian nationalist embrace of unhinged notions about threats to personal liberty, including alleged anti-Christian persecution, has been hiding in plain sight for a good long time. 

I want to bring another lens to the discussion by pointing out that the white Christian nationalism we spotlight now represents the militant organized expression of ideas about white freedom that have been thoroughly baked into the common culture for centuries—and that are much more widely distributed within the white population than may be evident from the numbers of currently identified white Christian nationalists, shocking as those numbers might be. 

Christian nationalism and settled ideas about white freedom have always danced together, of course. The formula “free, white, and 21” never needed the word “Christian”—it was implicit among those who used it.

And here’s the point: deeply rooted notions about white freedom harden the fist of Christian nationalism by adding an extra degree of impunity, suggesting that American Christians—white ones, that is—need never apologize for asserting power and using violence to do so. It works the other way, too: draping a Christian mantle over white power further legitimates it; it further nationalizes white impunity for millions who buy into Christian Nation ideology. Even proud insurrectionists might be reluctant to toss around phrases like “white is right” in these cautious times. But when they wrap the same sentiment in Christian Nation rhetoric, they get to feel righteous as hell. 

I’m very happy to see that we are just now getting renewed scholarly focus on the toxic dimensions of an always-problematic American freedom. For example, American Studies professor Elizabeth Anker does a good job on “ugly freedoms” in a recent opinion piece citing January 6 and the militant anti-maskers, in which she helpfully references Tyler Stovall’s important work on the historical link between freedom and whiteness. 

Unfortunately, Anker fails to take sufficient notice of Stovall’s primary thesis, which addresses what is often considered the “paradox” at the heart of the founding of this great republic. His thesis maintains that the subjugation of people of color from the Enlightenment forward is no anomaly or paradox within the overall march of freedom but is entirely congruent with the idea that freedom and whiteness belong together: that white people have a special claim, a special entitlement, to the enjoyment of individual freedom. 

Stovall meticulously lays out how the democratization project in the West simultaneously enshrined the idea that democracy is a whites-only proposition. He shows how Britain, France, and the US were all enforcing racial subjugation and top-down governance within their expanding colonial empires even as they were extending the franchise to more and more white men, and then white women, throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

It’s a shame that commentators like Anker slight the historical roots of the problem. In discussing today’s insurrectionists, Anker could usefully have mentioned Stovall’s crucial insight that it wasn’t the North but the South that viewed the Civil War as a war for liberty:

Southerners often portrayed themselves as the true heirs of 1776, like their forefathers fighting for freedom against tyranny. This freedom included the right to own property, notably slaves…as Jefferson Davis put it, ‘Will you be slaves or will you be independent? Will you consent to be robbed of your property [or] strike bravely for liberty, property, honor, and life?’ Even for the majority of whites who owned no slaves, secession was a war for freedom because it alone could preserve white supremacy and prevent Southerners from falling under the domination of ‘Black Republicans.’

The newer media conversation surrounding problematic American freedom also tends to gloss over the essential Christian connection, which only becomes fully visible with the benefit of historical depth. It’s here that we uncover the link between a weaponized Christianity and colonization itself. 

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz opens up the Christian connection in her prizewinning 2014 study, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. She traces white Christian freedom to Calvinist notions of divine election and a special covenant relationship between God and the elect. She pays particular attention to the Ulster Scots—or Scots-Irish, as they often call themselves—who were “already seasoned settler colonialists,” thanks to their role in colonizing Northern Ireland (Ulster), when they began emigrating in large numbers to British North America during the early 18th century. Mostly made up of militant Presbyterians, this land-hungry warrior cohort “added to and transformed the Calvinism of the earlier Puritan settlers into the unique ideology of the U.S. settler class,” forging an indissoluble link between white rights and gun rights on their way West.

Dunbar-Ortiz makes a convincing case that these Protestant settlers played a vastly outsized role in shaping a violence-laden American conception of what individual freedom means:

The majority of Ulster-Scot settlers were cash poor and had to indenture themselves in order to pay for their passage to North America. Once settled, they came to predominate as soldier-settlers…They were the largest ethnic group in the western migration, and they maintained many of their Scots-Irish ways. They tended to move three or four times, acquiring and losing land before settling at least somewhat permanently…They cleared forests, built log cabins, and killed Indians, forming a human wall of colonization for the new United States and, in wartime, employing their fighting skills effectively.

These armed white settlers were the selfsame “yeoman farmers” celebrated by Thomas Jefferson for helping to create his glorious “empire of liberty”; they formed the backbone of the anti-elitist hardscrabble forces mobilized by Andrew Jackson, himself a Scots-Irish Presbyterian and principal Indian killer. To this day their descendants occupy a disproportionate number of senior positions in the US military. 

What we now call counterinsurgency warfare is directly descended from their Indian-killing efficiency along the frontier. In our time, it’s white Christians belonging to this same “old settler” stock who remain especially prominent among the camo-clad ranks showing up at anti-mask rallies and at violent white power mobilizations like the ones in Charlottesville and DC. Roman Catholics with generations-long military backgrounds and/or law enforcement backgrounds often join ranks with them.

In the new January 6 report, religion scholar and RD contributor Anthea Butler quotes one of those martial Catholics, Gen. Michael Flynn, on how we can’t have “one nation under God” without also having “one religion under God.” Butler comments:

One nation under God and one religion under God is another example of how white Christian nationalism operates. The one religion is Christianity.

Which brings me, in a not-so-roundabout way, to the ongoing obtuseness of the New York Times’s primary explainer-in-chief regarding all things religious. Yes, friends, I’m speaking of the Rev. David Brooks

If Elizabeth Anker misses the white Christian character of “ugly freedoms,” Pastor Brooks utterly misses the centrality of race and racism in the formation of the evangelicals-gone-rogue he frets about in his recent bloated essay on the fissures among the faithful. 

It’s a source of some wonderment to watch Brooks skirt the rampaging elephant in the very room he sets out to explore. Yes, he does quote some white evangelicals to the effect that they have a lot to learn from Black Church practice. He observes how many millions who claim the evangelical label don’t actually go to church much but do log many hours under the spell of the Fox News trolls. He deplores the toll taken on well-intentioned evangelical pastors by the anti-wokeness brigades. But he never tells us outright that the entire white evangelical enterprise is racist to the core—and has been so for at least fifty years. 

He quotes a snippet of Robert Jones’s research but doesn’t acknowledge the devastating message of Jones’s important book, White Too LongBrooks either doesn’t know or won’t tell us how today’s Right Nation evangelicalism was birthed when Christian schools were stripped of their tax-exempt status on account of racist practices. He seems utterly oblivious to the link between washed-in-the-blood theology and the embrace of violence as redemptive among those who buy into that theology. Someone should send him a copy of Jesus and John Wayne by the estimable Kristin Kobes du Mez

But at this point when it comes to Brooks it seems that one’s low expectations will never be disappointed. 

We’ll need to turn elsewhere for depth. And in my judgment we’ll only get a firm handle on the increasingly dangerous expressions of freedom ideology by examining their roots in racism and racism-drenched religion. The new report’s clear focus on the central role of Christian nationalism in J6 brings some of the illumination we need. But there remains a great deal more to say on the racial nexus beyond the events of January 6, or any of the other more salient Christian nationalist efforts. 

Ours is not a hopeless case, but neither is a happy ending guaranteed. A healthier conception of personal freedom in relation to collective freedom, achieved via public justice and community thriving, may finally make a welcome appearance in this country. But for that to happen, the racialized and masculinized notions of what freedom means will need to recede—and the whole vile edifice of our herrenvolk democracy will need to be exposed for what it is.

Romantics are free to cling to Shelley’s belief that poets are our unacknowledged legislators. Realists these days will prefer to take their guidance from scrupulous historians, doing their job without fear or favor and holding up a mirror that, while it may not flatter, might yet help us improve our posture.