Scholars critical of Donald Trump target the ‘Christian Nationalist’ movement supporting him
By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine
The reason many historians, sociologists and now Christian ethicist Dr. David Gushee are weighing in with dire warnings about the 2024 presidential campaign is that their research shows the re-election of Donald Trump would dramatically alter the course of American democracy. The urgency shared by these scholars who are critical of Trump is palpable and is poised to timely effect.
Gushee’s new book Defending Democracy from its Christian Enemies launches this week, just three months before the January 15, 2024, Iowa caucuses.
“I don’t think that—in the United States today—there is any other single figure who poses as big a threat to democracy and who has anything like the hold on people’s loyalty that we see in Donald Trump,” said Gushee in an interview this week about his new book. “Donald Trump will be a threat to American democracy for as long as he is alive. I think at this point he could be sent to prison and, even in his jail cell, millions of his followers would continue to support him.”
Historians fired a collective shot in 2021 with an open letter describing Trump as “a clear and present danger to democracy.” The 1,432 historians signing the letter include Pulitzer Prize winners Ron Chernow, Garry Wills, Stacy Schiff and Taylor Branch, plus American Book Award winner Michael Eric Dyson and even Teddy Roosevelt’s great-great grandson Kermit Roosevelt, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.
Still, Trump ranks as the leading Republican candidate and that’s why the stack of new books warning Americans about threats posed by Trump and his followers is growing—and it’s why scholars from other disciplines are joining historians in raising the alarm.
Some of the most compelling new books with such warnings are coming from sociologists who specialize in the interplay between religion and American life. Like Gushee, they are zeroing in on Trump’s millions of self-identified Christian followers, especially those like the January 6 rioters in Washington D.C. who wove prayer and other Christian invocations into their attack on the U.S. Capitol. These scholars are targeting this major backbone of Trump’s campaign and are labeling it “Christian Nationalism” or as Gushee prefers to describe it: “Authoritarian Reactionary Christianity.”
That fine-tuning of the terminology used to describe this danger is one of the major points in Gushee’s new book that is intended to further develop warnings found in books by sociologists of religion that include:
- Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States by sociologists Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry
- American Idolatry: How Christian Nationalism Betrays the Gospel and Threatens the Church by Whitehead
- The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy by sociologist Philip S. Gorski with Perry as co-author.
“What they are describing in these books is the dangerous idea, which we see among some of the groups out there today, that this is a Christian nation that should be under the leadership of white, straight, native-born, heterosexual, Christian men,” Gushee said in our interview. “You have to keep in mind that this area of research is developing right now. In our work, we are trying to answer questions like: Who are these people who want to build exclusively white Christian nations? Does the term Christian Nationalism clearly describe these individuals and groups that are surfacing here and in other countries? One book suggests we use the term Christian Nation-ism to describe this.”
Gushee proposes new terms to describe these movements.
“The category I pioneer in my new book is ‘Authoritarian Reactionary Christianity,’” Gushee said. “I realize that this term may not be as useful in newspaper or magazine headlines as the simpler Christian Nationalism. And I do respect the usefulness of this term Christian Nationalism to get a national conversation going that is much needed right now. But, I think there is more we need to think about, to study and to discuss, if we hope to understand these movements that are raising really ugly forms of hatred and are threatening violence.
“Adding the word ‘reactionary’ to our description is a very important way to name what is often articulated on the Right: These people are reacting to changes in culture that they believe are wrong—which makes them reactionary. And the word ‘authoritarian’ names this desire we are now seeing for the election of a Christian-leaning strongman who will demand or decree the recovery of a world that has been lost. There’s a really troubling loss of confidence in this movement in the democratic process itself to solve the problems they think that only a strongman could address. So, we get this desire to elect someone who will act as a defender of what some people think of as Christian civilization through traditional values—and through opposing modern liberalizing and pluralizing trends. That’s why we we often hear people sum up this appeal as: ‘Taking back our country back.’
“It’s a fierce negative reaction that goes all the way back at least to the Supreme Court’s prayer in schools decision in 1962, to the Civil Rights movement, to the feminist movement, to the sexual revolution, to Roe vs. Wade, to immigration liberalization in the mid 1960s, to the protests against the Vietnam War, to the gay rights movement, to the trans movement—and even that list leaves out a half dozen other movements that have fueled this fierce reaction.
“The reactionary part of this movement isn’t new. We saw it way back with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, but they tried their best to cozy up to the Republican Party in a more traditional strategy of getting people elected. They supported and were working through the democratic process. What we’re seeing in the last few years is a radicalizing that has moved beyond a democratic process. We’re now seeing some of these groups supporting political violence, militia violence—and even trying to set aside an entire national election because you don’t like the results. That’s a dangerous new development and that really is what has motivated me to write my book.
“So those are some reasons I prefer this new phrase I’m using in this book. The other usefulness of this term of ‘Authoritarian Reactionary Christianity’ is that this category applies to what is happening in a number of other countries around the world.”
What’s actually in this new book?
The first thing that may surprise readers is that there’s relatively little analysis of Trump’s staunchest Christian allies. Gushee does quote, at length, an astonishingly violent prayer from one of the pastors supporting the January 6 attack on the Capitol. It’s a vivid example of the passionate and almost apocalyptic appeal for a Christian strongman to take over America. While Gushee identifies that pastor as an example, he does not address most of Trump’s Christian stalwarts by name—nor does he offer a detailed description of what they have done and said in recent years.
That’s because Gushee has a different purpose in this book. It’s intended to find a home in small-group discussions in thousands of congregations nationwide, which is why Gushee includes a detailed discussion guide in the final pages.
Half of the book—about 100 pages—is valuable background about the meaning of “democracy” and its complicated relationship with religious movements down through the centuries. For readers eager for a writer to rip into specific political enemies—this is not the book you want to buy.
In fact, Gushee explains that on the first page. He promises to:
“Offer descriptive accounts of relevant Christian political movements and historical movements in different countries, mainly involving examples of Christians drifting into authoritarianism and reactionary politics that undercut democracy.” And, he writes, he will “offer a diagnosis of why many Christians are tempted toward or explicitly prefer authoritarian reactionary politics to democracy as part of their negative reaction to modern cultural developments.”
Finally, he will “offer an argument for today’s Christians to support a particular vision of democratic politics, and traditional Christian resources to undergird that vision.”
Significant sections of this book look at the dangers of these authoritarian reactionary Christian movements in Germany that helped fuel the Third Reich, as well as in France before and during World War II, Poland in recent years, Orbán’s Hungary, Bolsonaro’s Brazil and Putin’s Russia.
What about those “traditional Christian resources” that he promises to provide?
Two of the best chapters in this book are titled, “The Baptist Democratic Tadition” and “The Black Christian Democratic Tradition in the United States.” Those will be truly eye-opening chapters for contemporary readers who aren’t aware of the long history of Baptist and Black Christian relationships with democracy in the U.S.
We are highly recommending this new book, because we know that many of our ReadTheSpirit readers are progressive supporters of religious diversity and are worried by the rise of Christian exclusivist movements.
What Gushee—who is one of the most respected scholars at Mercer University—has given us is a book that’s perfectly pitched for small group discussion in congregations. This is an “educational” book in the best sense of that term. What is “democracy”? You’ll know a lot more after reading this book. Why have many religious groups been justified in raising skeptical questions about democracies down through the centuries? What grievances are real and morally justified? And what political grievances amount to a malignant yearning to wield exclusive power over others?
By the end of this book, you’ll see how this problem is not only a crisis in the U.S. today—especially at a time when hate crimes against non-Christians are rising to record rates nationwide. These faith-based movements now circle the globe. One example ripped from daily headlines: Authoritarian reactionary Christianity has become a major pillar in Vladimir Putin’s attempt to convince Russians of the righteousness of his attacks on Ukraine. The Russian Orthodox Church is providing a nostalgic Christian tap root as Putin tries to sell his campaign to his people.
A savvy strategy to persuade Christians who may be ‘flirting with’ extremism
Gushee’s strategy in organizing and writing this book is savvy. What we need right now are books like this that small groups in congregations might choose to discuss. Gushee’s expectation is not that he will suddenly win a war of words with extremist leaders—but that he might convince Christians who he describes as “flirting with” extremism to turn away.
“We really need to talk about this, as a people,” Gushee said at the end of our interview. “There is definitely a shift in the furthest right precincts of American Christianity today. We’re hearing more ethno-nationalist and make-America-white-again voices. There’s a more open and unabashed racism, plus really ugly forms of patriarchy and misogyny, and resurgent forms of contempt for LGBTQ people—even open articulation of abandoning the American tradition of separation of church and state.
“Right now there are Christians who are flirting with setting aside their support for democracy because of their despair. In doing so, they are abandoning the lessons learned by Christians over hundreds of years: the warnings about authoritarian power, the demands for human rights, the demands for the rule of law, and the protection of individual and religious liberties that go back centuries.
“We need to retrieve aspects of our own best history as Christians. We need to remind Americans of these centuries-old lessons. We need to remind people of the idea of a community founded around a covenant of shared commitment to the common good. And we must not forget the magnificent witness of the Black Christian democratic tradition in the United States.”
As we drew to a close, I said to Gushee: “You’re saying that this danger is far larger than the danger posed right now by Donald Trump, specifically.”
“That’s right,” he said. “We are seeing today—especially among some of the really, really conservative Christian groups and some ultra-traditional forms of Catholic groups—that it’s time for radical challenges to the American way of separating church and state. Some of these groups are wide open to reversing the First Amendment and establishing something like an officially Christian nation. Those dangers are real and will outlast Donald Trump. And that’s why I wrote this book—to help readers understand these movements and the Christian alternatives that for centuries have supported democracies.”
Care to learn more?
LEARN FROM DR. DAVID GUSHEE—David Gushee is the best-selling author of many books about Christian ethics, including Changing Our Mind and Introducing Christian Ethics. His book on ethics is his magnum opus on the entire field of ethics, including those issues explored in this new book about democracy—plus, Introducing Christian Ethics includes free links to videos and audio of Dr. Gushee delivering these thought-provoking talks that are printed in the book.
Want to connect with Dr. Gushee? He is sought after as a speaker by groups, universities and seminaries around the world. You can learn more about connecting with Gushee via his website.
LEARN FROM GEORGE A. MASON—Dr. Gushee is not alone in raising this kind of alarm as the 2024 elections loom. The famous Baptist preacher, writer and theologian George A. Mason recently weighed in with a national newsletter on the same theme. You can learn more about George’s work by visiting his Faith Commons website—and by ordering a copy of his new book, The Word Made Fresh.