The current presidential administration has linked federal violence against largely peaceful protests in the name of law, order, and defending God. E.g., deploying tear gas for a Bible-holding photo opp. Does the melding of Christianity with the Nation produce violence and war? What's the relation between Christian Nationalism and fascism? Miroslav Volf asks sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry.
- Click here to listen to the full episode on Christian Nationalism in the United States.
- Books mentioned in this interview: Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States; David Martin, Does Christianity Cause War?; Jason Stanley, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. For more information, visit faith.yale.edu.
This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity. I'm Evan Rosa with the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. In 1963, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom brought a quarter of a million people to the Lincoln Memorial. In 1969, the moratorium to end the war in Vietnam had about half a million. And each year since 1974, the March for Life is walked by hundreds of thousands, even up to around 650,000 in 2013. And in 2017, the day after Donald Trump's inauguration, the Women's March had at least 3.3 million, maybe up to 5.6 million. But since May 26th, 2020, somewhere between 15 and 26 million people have entered the public square to protest the murder of George Floyd.
And as these protests against police brutality and for racial justice have persisted, the political narrative is yet another symptom of US polarization. The conservative take is to emphasize the violence and damage that sometimes comes along with the protests. If police put on riot gear, then, it must be a riot. And you suppress riots with law and order. The progressive angle emphasizes the consistently peaceful demonstration against the use of violence. But when the Attorney General of the United States orders police to clear the streets for a Donald Trump Bible-holding photo op, and when unmarked vans with federal agents arrest peaceful protesters in Portland, detaining them without due process, the question of state violence against its own citizens definitely comes to mind.
If we need law and order, we need a law of love and an order of peace, as Miroslav recently told Lauren Green in an interview. And we need to consider the close linkage between the use of violent force against largely peaceful protests and demonstrations in a Christian nationalist narrative. It seems to be increasingly at play in the current administration—holding up Bibles, trying to defend a God who doesn't need defending. So in this episode, we're highlighting a 10-minutes segment that didn't air in Miroslav Volf's interview with sociologists, Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, authors of Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States.
Miroslav Volf: One of the areas of state moral intuitions and conviction is how one goes about deploying violence. And David Martin whom you will know—maybe our listeners might not—who is a famous and influential British sociologist of religion. He died just last year. He's written a smallish and somewhat disjointed book that is splendid notwithstanding that people don't know about it. And it's title is Does Christianity Cause War? And in it, he has an interesting account of dynamics of relation between societies and religions, which forms the basis of his claim that religion becomes violent in certain circumstances. And he writes this, "These special circumstances—under which religion becomes violent—these special circumstances occur when religion becomes virtually coextensive with society and thus with the dynamics of power, violence, control, cohesion, and marking of boundaries." It seems that Christian nationalism aspires just to that.
Andrew Whitehead: I think what we find over and over, too, in our work in different studies is that exact point that Christian nationalism wants to align what it sees as good for the country with positions of power to be able to enforce those things, and its exclusivist political vision on the United States. And so as it gained access to that, then it doesn't want to lose access to it. And so it will support authoritarian measures or will see police structures and those authority figures as instituted by God. And so who are we to question what they do or how they do it. And anything that might push back on those, they would see as fearful. And so, I think in this sense too, Christian nationalism is a quest for power in the political sphere, in the social sphere.
And at the beginning of our book, we kind of highlighted two quotes—one from Colossians and one from Niebuhr. But this idea from Colossians 2, where Paul's warning them, "don't let anybody take you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition, the basic principles of this world, rather than on Christ." And so when we think of power and the role that power has in this world and whether or not that aligns with the example of Christ as we see it, or is highlighted that, they will take the role of power to enforce rather than another Avenue that for some looking at Christianity or the aspect of how Christ lived and walked in this world was something completely different.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah, possibly the response might be in the church, in the family, maybe he's the meek "Christ the lamb," but in the sphere of politics, Christ is the lion, right? So that you have this sturdier Christ than what we see him actually having been. Now, connected with that, in your book, you refer to the work of Yale philosopher, Jason Stanley—How Fascism Works. And the book is about danger of rhetoric that encourages fear and anger as a means to form an ethnic and religious divisions. And these kind of claims that's essential to fascist politics is a particular kind of fear of losing the dominant culture to religious and ethnic minorities and so forth. Is that what you are seeing in Christian nationalism? Is it susceptible to the fascist temptation? Has it almost fallen in that temptation, succumb to it?
Samuel Perry: Yeah. Jason Stanley's work has influenced me, in particular in our book, tremendously because as we have been publishing these studies for the last five or six years now—and we worked on the book and I was thinking through the categories or the categories that he gives or the steps that he gives for what fascism does and how it behaves—I started to realize that just about every study that we've published checks all the boxes of the things that he indicates fascism is concerned with—say, appointing strong men, populist leaders. Fascism takes this distinction between the rural real countrymen and the urban parasites. It advocates this kind of hardworking narrative that only people who are contributing to society are worth receiving human rights. It becomes obsessed with kind of sexual deviance or deviation from traditional gender roles. All of the things that we have, I think, unpacked in these studies that Christian nationalism seems to be strongly associated with, Jason Stanley identifies.
And so I would not say that Christian nationalism, as we witness it, is part and parcel of some kind of a full-blown fascism that America is right on the cusp of becoming a fascist state. But I would argue, and I have argued, I think, in previous blog posts and conversations, that I think what we're seeing is Christian nationalism could be on the road in that direction. I think it's a quasi religious proto-fascism that eventually leads in that direction if it were not for certain institutions that we have in place in the United States and certain checks and balances that we can use to fight back this kind of narrative. I think one of them being free speech and freedom of the press and the freedom of professors like myself to be able to write against it. But to the extent that those rights and liberties get restricted, which I think certain parties would want to do that, I think that would provide the opportunity for Christian nationalism to really gain more influence and become what Jason Stanley envisions in his book, which is really unfortunate.
Circling back to this idea of Christian nationalism's relationship to violence because I think that the idea of fascism also correlates with that because I think fascists societies are certainly on board with the use of violence. I think something we've observed in our studies of Christian nationalism is christian nationalists, because they are, as Andrew was saying, so concerned with power, I think they assume that other people are also interested in their power. They take a very—what political scientists, Paul Djube calls—the inverted golden rule.
Andrew Whitehead: I was thinking the same thing.
Samuel Perry: Yeah. Expect from others what you would do to them if you were given the chance. So what Christian nationalists are very keen to do is to assume that there is going to be violent people in the world. There're going to be bad guys with evil intentions and the solution isn't to turn the other cheek. The solution is to counter that bad guy violence with what I call righteous violence, good-guy violence. And so that means Christian nationalists tend to be very much so pro guns, pro Second Amendment. They tend to be pro military, pro the use of police violence. And, Miroslav, you mentioned a second ago, maybe Christian nationalists are okay with being Christ-like in the family. Pro Christian nationalism is one of the strongest predictors that you're a fan of corporal punishment in the family. And so this use of what I call good-guy violence—what you might consider a broadly authoritarian approach to social control, whether it's in the family or in society, is completely aligned with Christian nationalist ideology.
Miroslav Volf: There is a strong and abiding Christian tradition of just war and what I'm hearing you saying is that it's not even a kind of deployment of violence that is carefully assessed against the criteria of what might be a just deployment of violence. I, myself, am more in the pacifist tradition. But I understand when people are concerned about the issues and they feel that violence sometimes needs to be deployed that they want to invoke certain criteria. But even those doesn't seem to be operative. Or am I mistaken?
Andrew Whitehead: Some people commentating on today talk about how the goalposts keep moving. And so I think those that strongly embrace Christian nationalism, they will default towards reinterpreting or re-identifying what should have happened or should not have happened in a situation to defend or benefit those that already have power or in power, and those authoritarian measures as long as it continues to benefit them.
And I think we see this in some sense in real time with Donald Trump. If we go back a couple of weeks when they cleared Lafayette Square of peaceful protesters with tear gas on US citizens so that he could walk across and stand in front of the church holding a Bible, you saw some conservative evangelicals or white evangelicals say, "you know, I just don't know about that." But a lot of them were perfectly fine with it. And so again, this kind of using violence to benefit those that have power, provide access to power, I think is right in line with that and we'll continue to see that.
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured theologian, Miroslav Volf, with sociologists, Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry. I'm Evan Rosa and I edited and produced the show. For more information, visit us online at faith.yale.edu. We produce a new episode every Saturday and you can subscribe through any podcast app. Thanks for listening to our podcast. I know for people who love listening to podcasts, it's precious time. And that you chose our show to listen to, it really is very meaningful to us. Since the launch of the show in April of this year, we've more than tripled our listenership each week. And we're really grateful that you are a part of that.
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