Review: The Psychology of Christian Nationalism

The Psychology of Christian Nationalism, Pamela Cooper-White. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2022.

Summary: A discussion of the rise of Christian nationalism in the United States, why people are drawn to it, and how to talk across the divide when one differs from those who embrace some form of Christian nationalism.

Beginning with the election of 2016, there has been a rise in what is termed “Christian nationalism,” fusing Christian hopes for national renewal with a movement setting out to restore “American greatness.” What is seen from within as a type of revival movement or a return to what is believed to have been lost to progressivism is perceived as a disturbing authoritarian and idolatrous movement with connections to white supremacism. What is more painful is that this movement divides families, friends, and churches, as well as the broader fabric of the nation. Deep differences with those close to us may lead to harsh words and estranged relationships.

What is this movement and why are people drawn to it? And how ought we (if we are able) to have conversations across these divides? These are the questions Pamela Cooper-White sets out to discuss in this book. She begins by discussing what Christian nationalism is, an overview of the history of its rise, and how this differs from patriotism. Cooper-White cites this definition: “Simply put, Christian nationalism is a cultural framework–a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems–that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life” (p. 13). She traces the rise of these ideas within white evangelicalism and the growing focus on “redeeming God’s chosen nation.” While patriotism is simply love for one’s country, “nationalism is the identification of that country with a historically dominant ethic, cultural, and/or religious group and a fierce loyalty to protecting that national identity” (p. 25).

Chapter two, the longest part of this work, focuses on why people are drawn in to Christian nationalist groups. Cooper-White traces this to our conscious desire to belong combined with a shared sense of purpose and values. She draws concerning parallels between Christian nationalist groups and tactics used by cults. She also delineates those shared values: sin as personal and not corporate, protecting white status and power, defending patriarchy, and gun rights. She also discusses unconscious motivations including groupthink, the power of leaders, especially narcissistic leaders, and trauma that leads to a “doer and done-to” polarity.

How then do we engage? Cooper-White suggests a triage:

  • Red light: STOP (at least here, at least for now)–talking with true believers. There are times when people are not open to conversation, or this is not a conversation that is good for us.
  • Yellow light: Tread lightly where we sense some openness. Often, the first step is to listen and show respect and curiosity.
  • Green light: Go deeper, gently, and wisely. Cooper-White goes deeper here, beginning with building and maintaining relationships, awareness of how new conflicts arouse old family dynamics, breathing, noticing our feelings, listening to understand more than speak, avoiding assumptions, making I statements, avoiding argumentation and debate, and admitting our own failings.

She also offers guidance where conversations threaten to become tense including awareness of power and social contexts, conducive and unconducive settings, and choosing our battles. Self-care, including channeling our energies into social activism may be helpful. We need to be aware that this is hard work.

The third chapter is one I found especially helpful, including the idea of triaging our conversations. Likewise, the definitional discussion of chapter one helps with understanding what it is we are talking about, and how we can love country without becoming nationalists, Christian or otherwise.

Chapter two on why people are drawn in was the one about which I felt conflicted. What I most agree with is the idea of group identity–how our affiliations do shape us. The description of values that draw people feels very much like an “outsider” perspective. I do not think this sufficiently reckons with the deep sense of offense many who would identify with these groups feel at being condescended to, marginalized, and treated as unenlightened yokels. Nor does it reckon with the genuine concerns about moral decline perceived by these groups. Even though outsiders perceive them as both enjoying a certain amount of white privilege and political influence, their felt and lived experience is very different. While some identify with Christ in these experiences and trust God to exalt when they are humbled and marginalized, others are drawn by strong figures who suggest they may take these matters into their own hands and take the country back. While there is much I would agree with in the author’s analysis, this felt a bit too much like the progressive version of the parallel echo chambers that divide us.

None of this should detract from the reality that Christian nationalism is a toxic movement. First of all, it idolizes both strong leaders and American greatness when God is greater. To the degree that it is allied with white supremacism, patriarchy and the abuse of women which is a scandal in evangelicalism, and the use of authoritarian means to accomplish its political ends, it is dangerous to the flourishing of a diverse, democratic society. The value of this work is both that it makes this clear while recognizing that people we care for have been drawn to this, people with whom we hope for continued relationships that change us all for good.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.