The relationship between Christian nationalism and class in the United States is less obvious than the racist dimensions of this extremist ideology. Christian nationalism upholds the “natural” order including white supremacy and the “traditional” family with age-old gender roles. But its view of existing hierarchies as “natural” also applies to economic structures. This diminishes opportunities for working-class people to challenge class inequality, distortions in wealth distribution, and unfair working conditions. At the same time, many assume, incorrectly, that Christian nationalism is a primarily working-class movement.
Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry’s recent book Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (2020) provides useful historical context. They dismiss any easy identification of Christian nationalism with evangelicalism or conservative Protestantism. Instead, they view Christian nationalism as a dynamic ideology and a cultural framework that blurs Christian and American identity. It is part of a “complex web of ideologies” that work alongside and prop up other ideologies. It also accommodates a host of conservative political viewpoints, sees the world as undergoing moral decay, and believes that God commands believers to be agents of divine retribution to combat that decline. Further, if the problem is moral decay, then Christian nationalists can “effectively ignore discussions of economic, gender, sexual, or racial inequality.” “Ignoring” economic inequality implies acceptance of capitalistic structures, valuing hierarchy that enables corporations to control workers, and insisting on autonomy from government regulation and scrutiny.
Christian nationalism is deeply embedded in a narrative that America was established as a nation of native born white Christians and should remain so. It transcends the boundaries of evangelicalism, Whitehead and Perry argue, and motivates Americans, not just evangelicals, to support Trump as the “defender of the power and values they perceive are being threatened.” Christian nationalism has broad appeal, far beyond white supremacist groups, such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, widely discussed as responsible for the insurrection. It may explain how Trump managed to gain over 74 million votes in the 2020 election (topping his 2016 vote total by nearly 12 million). In the forthcoming The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy, Philip S. Gorksi and Samuel L. Perry explain that secular versions of white Christian nationalism also exist with its emphasis on defending “Western Culture” or “Judeo-Christian civilization.” Whitehead estimates that about half of all Americans are “relatively favorable toward” Christian nationalism, which make it possible for some “to take that view even further.” Those extremists who are motivated by anger, fear, and determination to defend the existing order are, Gorski and Perry warn, very dangerous indeed.
We could see the presence of Christian nationalists in the crosses and Christian flags visible around Washington, D.C. in the days leading up to January 6, 2021. Paula White, Trump’s spiritual adviser and proponent of the prosperity gospel, offered a nearly five minute prayer of invocation at the Save America March that day. Firing up the white Christian nationalists who went on to vandalize the Capitol, she called upon God to give the assembled a “holy boldness in this hour” such that “every adversary against democracy… be overturned right now in the name of Jesus.”
It’s tempting to assume that the crowd inspired by White’s call to “holy boldness” came mostly from the working class, but their demographic profile reflects national patterns almost exactly. The Chicago Project on Security & Threats (CPOST) analyzed the participants according to a number of factors, including economic roles: business owner, white collar, blue collar, unemployed, retired. Their analysis found a few notable patterns: 93% of the insurrectionists were white, 85% were male, and many came from counties that lost to Biden and experienced demographic shifts toward non-white populations. However, their report, “American Face of Insurrection,” concludes that the insurrectionists “closely reflect the US electorate on most socio-economic variables and, hence, come from the mainstream, not just the fringe of society.”
CPOST’s designations of “white collar” and “blue collar” (using Bureau of Labor Statistics terminology) offer some insight, however limited, into the class positions of the participants. 43% of the insurrectionists were white-collar and 33% were blue-collar. Comparing this with data on the 2020 electorate, they were more likely to be white-collar than the electorate as a whole (37% of voters are white-collar) but also more likely to be blue-collar workers (like 26% of voters). About the same percentage – 7% — were unemployed as in the electorate as a whole – 6%. Based on this analysis, CPOST argues that the insurrection represents “a new kind of a right-wing movement” that reflects American demographics. Their conclusion is sobering: “far right support for political violence is moving into the mainstream.”
The insurrectionists might be moving into the mainstream, but the working class overall is far more diverse than the blue-collar workers who participated in the events of January 6. That reminds us that the working class has far more to lose with an embrace of Christian nationalism than it has to gain. The mythical and idolatrous character of a “natural order” built on divinely purposed hierarchies to rule our workplaces and our families is a false God. Such structures are not only a dead end but death dealing.
Instead, now is the time for the working class to embrace its intersectional character, build its organizational strength through unions and worker centers, cultivate community partners, foster resilience in the face of climate catastrophe, and renew relationships with its international partners. We can do this but only on the basis of mutuality, accountability, and trust But unfortunately, Christian nationalism has an entirely different vision, a nightmare really, and it is a potent force right now and into the foreseeable future. This makes the vital tasks facing working-class people much more difficult, challenging, and frightening. The unholy trinity of God, country, and capital must be dissolved if working people are not only to survive but to thrive under the banner of solidarity. Our actions will embolden us.
Ken Estey, Brooklyn College
The white/blue collar formulation used in the CPOST study is based on job type, rather than income level–which is one problematic of the study. As an academic whose annual income is firmly below the average annual income of some traditionally ‘blue-collar’ job-types (such as electrician or plumber), I can certainly attest to the problems associated with “class = job-type” equations. But I’m not the only one–as is outlined in many recent working-class studies books.
We need to drop that formulation, so we can better understand class make-up–particularly in discrete events such as the insurrection, and also in wider cultural trends, such as Christian Nationalism. This way, we can help Christian leaders dismantle the ‘Nationalist’ rhetoric from their communities that unwittingly speak to issues of class, while also allowing non-Christian cultures to better understand and sympathize with their religious neighbors.
An interesting thing about the “class breakdown” in that report — the blue-collar group includes both workers and business owners. 22% blue-collar workers + 11% blue-collar business owners = 33% “blue-collar,” Same for the 43% “white-collar,” which is 28% workers and 15% business owners. Overall, 26% of insurrectionists were business owners, compared to just 12% of the electorate. It stands to reason that self-employed workers and small owners are more drawn to the siren song of capitalism and rugged individualism as the American Way. Blue-collar small businesspeople are usually pretty conservative, even the ones who make less money than skilled workers. They may also be more vulnerable to economic shocks which would give them a shorter fuse, you might say. Some did real well in the pandemic, but others were totally ruined.
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Ken, you are correct that “Christian Nationalism” is not as it appears to be. In actuality, it is a form of cultural fascism that uses faux populism to grow. Follow the money and you will find billionaires and power brokers behind this anti-democratic movement. And with those resources these fascists have created a mass delusion: one that preaches “freedom and liberty” while oppressing the working class.
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I’ll have to read the report and so I’ve downloaded it, but I can see one thing that I disagree with from your review of it. I think violence has always been accepted, to one degree or another, in mainstream American politics. Possibly they mean that the Christian Nationalist right has been gaining influence in determining the agenda for violence and that seems plausible to me. In any case, thanks for the heads-up.
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