Our imagination for engagement with the world stems directly and without exception from our cultural framework. Our actions, furthermore, necessarily emerge from how we imagine the world. This imagination is molded and shaped by the stories that captivate our hearts. “Our hearts traffic in stories,” theologian James K. A. Smith teaches (Imagining the Kingdom, 32 and 108). Decisions, then, aren’t something to be ordered à la carte, but are in sync and grouped in an overarching grand story – a worldview.
Sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry extend this storied truth to the political sphere in their recent work, Taking America Back for God. Motivated by curiosity, these political theorists sought clarity and a fuller picture of the simple statistic that 80% of white Evangelicals voted for Trump in the 2016 election. What they discovered through one of the most quantitative and qualitative studies to date (one third of the printed book’s pages are devoted to their methodology and research), was that no single issue serves as a reliable predictor for voting. However, they unearthed an unparalleled predictive measure they call “Christian nationalism.”
Christian nationalism, as defined by Whitehead and Perry, 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” (10). They spend the rest of the book investigating power, boundaries, and order, heralding their arranged graphs through the lens of this framework. Whitehead and Perry are honest to admit their description is a particular type of Christianity, that holds America as sacred, supports conquests, encourages boundaries, approves of hierarchies, baptizes authoritarian rule, justifies righteous violence, and glorifies the patriarchal, heterosexual family as the cornerstone of thriving civilizations (152). What they describe is probably best defined as an ideology than a religious understanding.
While there is much to grieve from the results of their findings, Whitehead and Perry provide great hope for those Christians holding a conflicted allegiance in and to the United States. Multiple times, these authors describe the “great paradox [where by] Christian nationalism and religiosity often influence Americans political views in the exact opposite direction” (84). As the rituals and rhythms of the faith increase – church attendance, prayer, and Scripture reading – views move away from exclusion and toward embrace of the other (for example). The authors will go on to distinguish between Christian nationalism and religiosity in relation to racial and religious boundaries (114). Surprisingly, their solution lies inherent in their findings.
While Taking America Back for God does a convincing job of piecing together a narrative, there are a couple of points still lacking. Fundamentally, the interview questions they use to distinguish the index for Christian nationalism leave too much room for interpretation and variety. In particular, the question, “The federal government should advocate Christian values,” assumes agreement on the definition of “Christian values.” Is gun control a Christian value? What about the openness to foreigners and immigrants? Too much interpretation provides skewed results, especially in ethnic minority demographics. In addition, Whitehead and Perry need to dive further into their original premise and curiosity as they admit many of the Christian nationalists “happen to be white.” If narratives and ideologies drive action then there is no “happens to be.”
A Imaginative Response
The way in is the way on. Martin Luther King Jr. did not ask his white antagonists to be less Christian, but more. Whitehead and Perry ultimately give the needed prescription: increased participation in those rituals that form the people of God. We need to re-narrate the Christian experience. Political theologians have suggested swapping narratives. America is not so much the promised land as it is a time in exile. “Conquer the nations” is replaced with “Seek the shalom and prosperity of the city.” Thriving in the exile includes living in a community of committed relationships, providing a level of comfortability with doubt, living counter-culturally, possessing a compelling vision for home, and providing consistent reminders of the Story.
The given reality begs the question, who benefits from a change in the status quo? Adversely, who stands to lose or is threatened by a change in the status quo? Whitehead and Perry warn, “those who have historically benefited from the status quo not only marshal justifications for the old order, but rally a coordinated response among those who stand to lose the most if that old order topples.” They crescendo by adding, “Christian nationalism has provided the unifying myths, traditions, narratives, and value systems that have historically been deployed to preserve the interests of those who wish to halt or turn back changes occurring within American society” (151). That status quo is vulnerable.
As we move beyond the here and now, new imaginations, and particularly redemptive political imaginations, are sorely needed. There is no preserving or returning to a mythic society (105), but only forward – further up and further in. In a COVID-19 era, many long-held patterns find their end. Might innovations in political discourse, social concern, and re-narrating practices burst forth. Whitehead and Perry astutely conclude that the election, and politics in general by extension, are an arena of competing stories (56). Might not just any story, but the Story captivate a people who have the courage to imagine something fresh, something life-giving. And might sociologists in years to come scratch their head with the same curiosity Whitehead and Perry possessed trying to make sense of this generative movement.
Andrew L Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God (New York: Oxford Press, 2020).
James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013).