For the Life of the World / Yale Center for Faith & Culture

Taking America Back for God / Miroslav Volf w/ Andrew Whitehead & Samuel Perry

Episode Summary

For our Fourth of July episode, Miroslav Volf interviews Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, sociologists and authors of Taking America Back For God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. What is Christian Nationalism? Why does it matter? How powerful is it in American life? Who counts as a Christian Nationalist? They discuss the tendency of Christian Nationalism to use Christianity as a tribal identity marker or tool for power, rather than an authentic sign of faith or commitment to a the way of Jesus or the practice of his teaching. They discuss Christian Nationalism in racial perspective, comparing African-American and white conservative approaches to Christianity and the Nation. And the conversation draws out important implications for the meaning of the separation of church and state, and the viability of a robust public faith in American life.

Episode Notes

For our Fourth of July episode, Miroslav Volf interviews Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, sociologists and authors of Taking America Back For God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. What is Christian Nationalism? Why does it matter? How powerful is it in American life? Who counts as a Christian Nationalist? They discuss the tendency of Christian Nationalism to use Christianity as a tribal identity marker or tool for power, rather than an authentic sign of faith or commitment to a the way of Jesus or the practice of his teaching. They discuss Christian Nationalism in racial perspective, comparing African-American and white conservative approaches to Christianity and the Nation. And the conversation draws out important implications for the meaning of the separation of church and state, and the viability of a robust public faith in American life.


Episode Transcription

Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. For more information, visit

Samuel Perry: One of the narratives that we're trying to overturn is that the story of religion and, say, Trump and his brand of politics since 2016 is about white evangelicals. What we find is that once we account for this ideology, this Christian nationalism measure in our studies, being a white evangelical really doesn't matter a whole lot. It is more of the fact that so many white evangelicals happen to be Christian nationalists.

Evan Rosa: 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.

No one really knows just how to celebrate America's Independence Day of this year. And according to a recent Gallup poll, American national pride is down 30% since 2003. Without fireworks or parties or parades, Frederick Douglas' 1852 speech, "What to the slave is the 4th of July?" is trending. NPR produced a video of his descendants reading passages of it. And it's amazing the new life 168-year-old words can gain given the right context. 10 years before the emancipation proclamation, Frederick Douglas wrote: 

"To the slave, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour."

There's so much to say about the speech, but Douglas' rhetoric of calling out a national religious hypocrisy raises the question of Christian nationalism. So today, whether America is a Christian nation and how much the American public wants it to be, in an effort to understand the meaning and impact of Christian nationalism in our political and cultural life, today for this 4th of July episode of For the Life of the World, Miroslav Volf interviews Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, sociologists and authors of Taking America Back For God: Christian Nationalism in the United States.They discuss what this phenomenon is, why it matters, who it applies to, the tendency to use Christianity as a tribal identity marker or tool for power rather than an authentic sign of faith, or commitment to the way of Jesus, or the practice of his teaching.

They also discuss Christian nationalism in racial perspective. There are black Christian nationalists whose approach is significantly different than their white counterparts, often seeking to hold America to the Christian moral standards of love and justice in that same spirit of Frederick Douglas, rather than more extreme white Christian nationalists seeking to tear down one wall of separation between church and state, building another wall along the US-Mexico border. 

This conversation is about Christianity in the nation. So it's about what it means to live a public faith, whatever country you live in. And as Miroslav and I thought about how to frame the issue, he pointed me to a segment of his book, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World. In it, he argues for robust and whole presence of a plurality of religious voices in the public square without religious rule or religious preference. He points out that we're constantly tempted toward either excluding religion from the public on one hand or saturating the public with a single religious ideology on the other. And neither is acceptable. He says: 

"When world religions are publicly engaged, they threaten to exclude all competitors; when they are pushed into privacy, they themselves are objects of exclusion. We need an alternative that fits both the character of world religions and avoids the exclusion and marginalization either of some or of all adherents of world religions.”

Of course, that is a challenging prospect. That's what we'll continue to struggle with as a country of religious and non-religious people. And it will most definitely be of utmost importance over the remainder of this election cycle, and that's why we're discussing this today. Thanks for listening. Happy Fourth. 

Miroslav Volf: Andrew and Samuel, welcome to the podcast! 

Andrew Whitehead: Thanks for having us. 

Samuel Perry: Thank you so much for having us. Yes. 

Miroslav Volf: Now, this weekend is the 4th of July weekend, and for many celebrations will be muted and it's not just because COVID-19 is making the celebrations as we usually engaging them—parades and fireworks—a dangerous proposition. I think it's also that over the recent years, but especially in recent months, many have come to be uncertain about the history of our nation and about its current state. As you can imagine, I have in mind police killings of Brianna Taylor and George Floyd, anti-racist protest that ensued across the country and even ignited global fire. I have in mind, also serious economic downturn. I have in mind, high degree of cultural and political polarizations. I have in mind a glimpse also of a kind of international reputation of the country being eroded. Some of my friends tell me, being pitied, "It's no longer thought of as the great nation. And they're observing its fall." 

You have recently published this book with a very intriguing title, Taking America Back For God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. And that book is not likely to give us a reason to celebrate 4th of July with more excitement either.  It brings us to four recent Supreme court decisions that divide even within many party lines. Interpretation of the wall of separation between church and state is one of such issues. 

Conservatives may find that confirmation that America is far from God that it needs to be taken back for God. Or some may worry that their own tribe has engaged in idolatry of America national identity and placing American national identity above God. Progressives will insist that the problem is precisely that there are even these religious and political voices who want America back for God. So let's take first the subtitle: Christian Nationalism in the United States. In many books published over the past 50 years or so, the heart of the project seems to be named in the subtitle.

So nationalism. Nationalisms are surging around the globe. In America, you've identified something like Christianly inflected nationalism. What is Christian nationalism? 

Andrew Whitehead: We really come to see Christian nationalism as a cultural framework. And by this, we mean it's a collection of traditions, symbols, narratives, value systems, and myths that idealize and then advocate for a fusion of Christianity with American civic life. And when we talk about Christian nationalism, we want to highlight too that "the Christianity part" is of a particular sort, that it's not necessarily a Christianity of Orthodox origins throughout history, but it's more synonymous with more Americanized versions, but it isn't yet synonymous with those like evangelicalism or white conservative Protestantism. As we talk about it again, a cultural framework where Christian nationalists want to see an America that is distinctively "Christian" in how it understands itself. So its sacred symbols, its cherished values, its public policies—they want to see it in that sense and continue in that sense. 

Miroslav Volf: Culturally Christian, like you could be a culturally Jewish but you are not religiously Jewish? So culturally Christian? 

Samuel Perry: Yeah, I think absolutely. So it's far less concerned with one's affirmation of Orthodox creeds or one's love for Jesus or modeling one's life after Christ or anything like that. It's far more concerned with the identity. You use in your book, Exclusion and Embrace, this idea of an identitarian ideology. And I think that is moving towards what we're getting to in American Christian nationalism. 

I think one of the distinctions between Christian nationalism American-style and what we see on a more global scale, especially in the UK right now, is America has this rich evangelical language that I think identitarian Christian nationalists can use to really disguise the intentions in more evangelistic-sounding language. It doesn't sound as overtly ethnic and cultural. It can sound more spiritual. This kind of cultural, almost ethnic, Christianity is being institutionalized in American civic life, symbols, laws, if possible—that kind of thing.

Miroslav Volf: Christian nationalism maybe then comprised of folks who have very sturdy Christian convictions, but maybe also those who have none as well. Is that correct? 

Samuel Perry: Exactly. Yes.    

Miroslav Volf: Why does Christian nationalism matter? Why do you think it's such an important phenomenon? 

Samuel Perry: Hopefully, throughout the book and through our peer reviewed papers—what we've been publishing in the last five years on the topic—we've demonstrated that Christian nationalist ideology is, on its own, a powerful predictor of Americans voting behavior, their views on a variety of controversial topics—everything from gun control, to gender roles, to racial inclusion and exclusion, to Muslims' place in our society, to American's views on atheists, to their views on immigration—all of these different factors. 

Recently we published a paper showing Christian nationalism turns out to be a powerful predictor of one's attitudes towards science and scientists and one's embrace of those kinds of things. And we think Christian nationalist ideology is a powerful influence on Americans attitudes, but not only their attitudes, their behavior as well.

One of the other things that I think Christian nationalism makes it so important to consider today is because Christian nationalist ideology seems to rear its head during times of intense cultural and political conflict. When America is searching for its own identity, when there is instability economically, or in times of war in culture, Christian nationalism re-emerges as this kind of dominant narrative that has the power to mobilize certain groups of people. And so we think that's what we saw in 2016 and what we feel like politicians are now trying to tap into to try to mobilize Americans to certain ends. 

Andrew Whitehead: I think too when we look historically in times of upheaval throughout US history, we see that as they're searching for what it means to be an American—who are we—Americans continually turn to religion, and Christianity especially, in how that identifies them as a people with a special relationship with God. And so that narrative of being a Christian nation isn't Christian nationalism itself, but it's an important part of it. And so as we look at the Civil War or the Cold War or the New Deal, we see in those times people moving towards and those in power really highlighting this idea of who we are as a Christian nation and what would the Christian God want for us?

Miroslav Volf: So if somebody asked themselves, "Let's see, am I Christian nationalist?" What would be your test? Or you can put it differently: what tools did you use to identify folks as Christian nationalists? 

Andrew Whitehead: In all of our research, we use six different questions and people can either strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree, or be undecided, things like: the federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation; or the federal government should advocate Christian values; the federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces; or the success of the United States is part of God's plan. And so if somebody strongly agrees with that, we assign them a number, or if they strongly disagree, we assign them a zero, let's say. And then we add those questions together and the numerical values we assigned, and we're able to construct what we call a Christian nationalism scale.

And so the beauty of this is that if we ask somebody, "Are you a Christian nationalist?" There might be some people that would identify that way, but we can see much more broadly when we ask these different questions, getting at this concept, we see a lot of variation across Americans. And so there are people that score at the very highest end of the scale or the very lowest end. But most Americans are spread out evenly across the middle. And so this is telling us that, this idea or this concept, this cultural framework of Christian nationalism, isn't just a binary either-or thing, but that people are strongly embracing it, some see some use for it but maybe are a little bit hesitant, or others just reject it.

And so as we create this scale, we're then able to see, and in the book to make it a little more accessible, we create these four groups, which we call "rejectors," and those are Americans who completely reject any former idea of Christian nationalism. The next group is "resistors" and these are a little bit hesitant about it. They might be undecided but they lean towards being really uneasy with a close relationship between Christianity and American civic culture. And then we have the largest group, "accommodators," and these are Americans who generally see a positive Christianity and its interaction with American civic life in a positive light, but they won't necessarily support it at the exclusion of maybe other faiths, but they would want to see Christianity having influence in American life. And then the final group we highlight are "ambassadors" and these are the people that strongly embraced Christian nationalism and strongly agree or agree with these questions that we asked.

And as we look at these four groups, we see significant differences between them. And so this is how we operationalize this cultural framework idea of Christian nationalism. 

Miroslav Volf: And how powerful is the Christian nationalist movement? Presumably it matters because it's not just cultural but also political force.

Samuel Perry: I think you can see the power of Christian nationalism as a movement. I wouldn't say necessarily something that is self-reflexively coherent. There's not like a group of people who call themselves Christian nationalists. But what we've saw even this past weekend at Robert Jefferson's First Baptist Church, Dallas, where he had Mike Pence speaking at the church and he had also had Ben Carson and several other folks, who are going to be stumping for the Trump administration in the next few months, really speaking in very Christian nationalist terms.

If you paid attention to that service, it was live- streamed and I've watched it several times now. Filled with, I think, Christian nationalist language about the heritage of the country, about the importance of people of faith influencing the country towards a certain conservative ins. A lot of tropes that didn't necessarily have anything to do with say Christianity per se, like a strong military or supporting police officers or the second amendment. Things that scream more cultural conservatism than the meek and lowly Jesus.  So it had much more to do with, I think, cultural conservatism there. 

Now what happens is I think Christian nationalism becomes synonymous in many people's minds with white evangelicalism. And so one of the narratives that we're trying to overturn in our book and to try to push back on is that the story of religion and, say, trump and his brand of politics since 2016 is about white evangelicals.

What we find is that once we account for this ideology, this Christian nationalism measure in our studies, being a white evangelical really doesn't matter a whole lot. It is more of the fact that so many white evangelicals happen to be Christian nationalists. And so to the extent that Christian nationalist ideology is influencing a large swath of conservative Catholics, Mainline Protestants, and white evangelicals, yes, it's an absolutely powerful influence on how they are framing debates about immigration, gun control, religious freedom, and Trump himself. 

Miroslav Volf: Why are evangelicals particularly susceptible to being white nationalists? Why predominantly is Christian nationalism an evangelical phenomenon?

Samuel Perry: I think it has more to do with back 40 years ago in around the time of Reagan, white evangelicals get roped into a culture war that is partly about sexuality, that is partly about race, that is partly about conservative values. And over time as studies have shown and we would confirm that, political conservative and religious conservative—and especially conservative Protestant—have become synonymous to where white evangelicals in their own minds.

I think unfortunately they too often conflate those two things that if I'm going to be theologically conservative and believe certain things about the importance of one's conversion experience with Christ or the authority of the Bible, then I must necessarily hold these politically conservative views and values, and conservative politicians are my only choice because any other alternative would be unthinkable. It'd be essentially a denial of my own faith convictions. And so I think white evangelicals especially have become ensnared in that deal with the devil, so to speak, that they have given over their political allegiance as they think it's synonymous with their religious allegiance. 

Andrew Whitehead: What we're studying with data and these last decade or more really is a function of what happened in the seventies as a result of what was going on in the sixties. But then too, as we look back, even at the history of the United States, we look—or read Fitzgerald's The Evangelicals book, this historical survey of evangelicalism in the United States, and you can just see over and over where the seeds of what we see today. Trump is this endpoint of historical movements and people that were moving them in a particular direction politically that culminated with what we have today or even in the seventies with the religious right and moral majority. And so here again, I think there's such a historical precedent to what we're seeing and race is intimately bound up with this. And I think a lot of that we can see over the years. 

Miroslav Volf: But some of it presumably has to do with a deep and historically abiding moral convictions that they have. That's what they share with conservative. Some evangelicals share with Catholics and with Orthodox. And these have come to have a particular saliency in some ways, so that they latch on something. Is that what you find that they're latching onto something that's abiding and not just a kind of a marker of identity?

Andrew Whitehead: I think in some sense. But I think too as we look at the history of the religious right, Randall Balmer in his work has shown that when we look at conservative political operatives in the seventies that were getting together and trying to figure out, "how can we get this large voting block of essentially white evangelicals motivated, and to the polls and in our camp," they're trying to come up with what could get them there.

And today we know abortion for a lot of white evangelicals is a single-issue deal. So if a candidate is not as they say "pro-life," they will not vote for that person no matter what. So no matter what Trump does, the fact that they believe that he'll put the right Supreme Court Justice in place, they will continue to vote for him. And so this wasn't just something that, for many evangelicals, was even a part of how they saw their faith or anything back in the seventies, because—we can even look at the Southern Baptist Convention and when Roe V Wade was passed, they sent out memos where they agreed with it. But that changed because political operatives were able to create that narrative and signal to this group that this should be a part of their moral narrative. And then it became part of that moral narrative and that benefited them politically. And so these things are always working together. It wasn't just happening in a vacuum.  

Miroslav Volf: So there is a Hobbesian tradition where religion is a tool in the hands of those who are in power. And there's a kind of Kantian tradition where religion ends up looking more like an identity marker. And here almost you see the two merging. A tool is being used as a tool because a moral conviction has been translated into a kind of a marker of a n identity. Am I understanding correctly that it's really this function as a marker of identity that does most of the work in the public sphere? 

And if that's the case, it wouldn't be so different than what one sees in some of the European countries. I come from Croatia. A majority of folks are Christians, but they're very much a kind of a marker of identity. You have a situation in some countries where you have 80% of the population might considered themselves Christians and 60% describe themselves as atheist. And so those are 40% atheist Christian, right? 

And this reminded me of a joke that I've heard from José Casanova or it was Peter Berger. I'm not so sure. Both of them are quite great conversationists, right? And during the troubles in Ireland, when tensions between Catholics and Protestants were high, a man was walking through a checkpoint and the person manning asks the man, "Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?" And the man answers, "I'm an atheist." And the man on the checkpoint says, "But are you a Protestant atheist or are you a Catholic atheist?" So that's a bit like American nationalism.       

Samuel Perry: I believe it is moving in that direction, and not quite to the extent that we see it in Europe. And one of the reasons why is I think in Europe, religious populism and ethno-traditional authoritarian movements, you see this kind of identitarian Christianism among people who are really irreligious. Large swath of people who don't go to church and they don't even believe in orthodox things. We don't necessarily find that in our data. In the United States, Christian nationalists do tend to be pretty religious by traditional metrics. They go to church rather frequently. Large percentage of them also identify as evangelical Protestants. If you ask them what they think about the Bible, they're more likely to be biblical literalists. And on paper, this is not a very secular group.

What we would argue though is that Christian nationalism in the United States is becoming devoid of any kind of moral content. If that makes sense. It is certainly associated with heightened traditional markers of religiosity, and yet it is not necessarily associated with indicators of what you would consider a Christ-like morality: nothing of self-sacrifice, nothing of tolerance, certainly, nothing of loving one's neighbor unless that neighbor is exactly like you. And so it is not necessarily devoid of any kind of traditional religiosity, but it is devoid of I would say Christian morality, if that makes sense.  

Miroslav Volf: That's interesting because this relationship between the content of traditionally understood faith and its political function—I hear you're saying it's different in United States because of the more robust character of Christian religiosity, but then that moral convictions ends up vacuated of moral conviction. That seems on the face of it strange. Or, I'm trying to see from internally from their perspective, could you discern? Because I can see that some of them at least outwardly express strong moral conviction. 

Samuel Perry: I think that's a good point. So if we were to have a conversation with, say, Tony Perkins or Robert Jefferson, Mike Huckabee, they would certainly say that the kind of Christianity that they're advocating for in terms of having influence in American society, they would say that they are the arch defenders of morality for sure. And the morality that they're describing has more to do with, say, sexual purity to the extent that they would argue that abortion would be the greatest immorality, right? Like it's on par with slavery or worse! So they would say that they are trying to defend the country's morality or moral compass from veering towards transgender rights, from homosexuality, from abortion. To the extent that they think feminism would be an assault on the family, they would say that they're trying to defend the family.

Yes, I agree. I think they would certainly see themselves as a morally robust group. And what I mean in terms of devoid of moral content is that they don't have much of a problem with excluding outsiders or don't have much of a problem with authoritarian means of social control. They're the least likely to have a problem with cops going in and enforcing justice with physical violence. From that perspective, I think I would argue that their kind of grasp on morality is skewed in one direction and away from another.  

Andrew Whitehead: I would like to add to that. I think some things that we put in the book or some examples of this were—let's take the building the wall as an example. And some of the people that we'd talked to, they would say that there's nothing more moral than really guarding your borders, building the wall. That is what God would want. I think it was Jefferson saying, correct me if I'm wrong—who even said that heaven or the new Jerusalem is going to have a wall around it. So if building a wall is not Christian, then God is wrong or something like that. And so again, I think the moral content that they have maybe different than others, but they would see it as they're staunchly defending morality. And I think that's what's been interpreted in some ways as you should vote this way or support these things because that's what "Christianity is." But what we're finding is, it's a particular type. 

Miroslav Volf: Many people have written about Christian nationalism and especially it's always associated with white Christian nationalism. But if I'm not mistaken, you have identified a relatively strong presence of Christian nationalism among African Americans. And that was a surprising thing, to me. But if I'm not mistaken you also speak how different that nationalism of African-Americans is. Can you say a little bit more about the different social vision that it entails? 

Samuel Perry: We have found that African-Americans tend to score high on our Christian nationalism scale. There's a large percentage of them that are accommodators or ambassadors. But we would argue on the basis of how we see Christian nationalism behave for African-Americans that there is a completely different religious traditional way, a political theology among African-Americans, that they are interpreting those questions differently. And so they mean different things than they do for a white American. 

So I think for white Americans when they score higher on our Christian nationalism scale, when they are accommodators or ambassadors of Christian nationalism, for them, Christianity is almost a dog whistle, meaning people like us that the nation belongs to that deserve to have political and cultural influence—white, native-born, conservative Christians. For African-Americans when they are affirming that the United States should advocate Christian values, or that they believe that God has a special relationship with the United States, or that they disagree that there should be a separation of church and state based on their historical structural location within America's racial stratification system, based on their own black church tradition—a large percentage of them— the best we can surmise from how the data are behaving is that African-Americans are interpreting this Christian nation narrative in light of what America could have been in, should be. They were affirming a social justice tradition, a tradition of inclusion and tolerance rather than the denial of power or the denial of privilege to certain groups, or that kind of thing.

When Christian nationalism seems to make white Americans more intolerant, more prone to justify authoritarian means of violence, more supportive or more willing to deny inequality in policing in all kinds of measures, for African-Americans we see Christian nationalism doing basically the exact opposite. They seem to be more in favor of framing racial inequality in terms of structural inequality and less in favor of authoritarian police tactics, those kinds of things. So there is a completely different Christian nationalist tradition among African-Americans compared to white Americans.

Andrew Whitehead: Yeah. And if I could add to that as we break the book out where we have a chapter on boundaries, which is a lot of what Sam was talking about, or power when we talk about gun control, or how we view religious others or immigrants or refugees, as Sam said, we see it operate differently for black Americans who embrace Christian nationalism. But when we look inside the family and we think about whether it's gay marriage, or transgender rights, or divorce, those types of things, there we see that there's less of a difference between white and black Americans who embrace Christian nationalism. So even there, the racial differences for some things, but not everything. And so I think that's a really interesting nuance too that we're beginning to discover and we'll continue to take a look at for how Christian nationalism operates differently, within different racial groups as Sam pointed out that have different structural locations. But when we look maybe within the family or in certain topics like sexuality, it then will operate the same way.

Miroslav Volf: But is that then a problem for your methodology because you have to then named this nationalism as problematic when it has values that don't quite fit with what progressive views in privatized form of religion? Somehow, if Martin Luther King is a Christian nationalist, I might want to say what's the problem? Or put differently, implicit in the methodology, is there a kind of push toward privatized religion, a certain kind of self-secularization that is implied so that Christian convictions cannot be brought to bear to the public domain?

Samuel Perry: I would say it's the opposite. So I think what we're seeing at least among African-Americans who subscribe to more Christian nationalist views is we see what you would see in the Martin Luther King. I think a great example of that would be Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I think Martin Luther King Jr. actually does reference America holding up to its own Christian standard. So they're more likely to read Amos and Isaiah 58 that charges that true followers of God should release the captives and free the oppressed. And I think with African-Americans, you're getting more towards what we would consider a civil religion tradition, something that says the United States has an obligation to live justly, love mercy and walk humbly, and to defend the innocent. I think with white Americans, the parts of the Bible that those kinds of white Christian nationalists would appeal to would be the parts that, say, Israel is supposed to be God's chosen nation and is completely okay with dominating by conquest and blood purity.

And I disagree that that kind of religious tradition should be holding sway in the public square, but I think America's civil religious tradition, as it seemed advocated by Martin Luther King Jr or Frederick Douglas or other commentators throughout history, would be onboard with—Barack Obama would be a great example. I think he would be an example of somebody who has advocated for America's civil religious tradition through inaugural addresses in various speeches in a way that I would be on board with.  

Miroslav Volf: But then, the difference fundamentally becomes that of a moral content of the moral vision rather than a kind of cultural approach, formal features of one's approach, to political domain. You have one of your central features of folks who are Christian nationalists is that they push against the separation of church and state. Strict separation of church and state is an indicator that you aren't a Christian nationalist. As philosopher, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Charles Taylor, they're not in favor of a strict separation of church and state. To the contrary, they think—Nick Wolterstorff has made an argument that it's really about impartiality of state toward all overarching interpretations of life, including religious.  And that seems to me is not really strict separation. It's actually imitation of precisely what Martin Luther King was doing. And I would think that this idea will become even more important as we have more folks from different religious traditions who are present in the public space, for instance, Muslims. If they can't express our common vision in their own terms, it's going to be oppression for them. And so it is for everyone else. And that means then that we need to live with competing moral visions. Would that be right?  

Andrew Whitehead: As we do interviews with Americans, that comes up, where they would say the separation of church and state question is difficult because I don't want just one religion too have all the say, but yet it should have some say or how this works out. And so you'll have people that, strongly disagree with that separation of church and state, who are both rejectors and some that are ambassadors. And so this is one of the things with survey research and when we ask questions, is that people will come at that with different interpretations in mind. And so we get some variation. 

But for the most part, we do see that it works in particular direction. But I think as we talk with different Americans and as people interact with our work, and as they see it, you'll have people that are atheist, are staunch defenders of separation of church and state, but yet, like you said, they want to see pluralism and a pluralistic society that is vibrant where no minority group, religious group, will suffer unnecessarily, but then too, not one group has all the say of how things will work. And so as they work this out, that's the interesting part of digging in not only the survey research but then the interviews, to see what sense people are making of these questions and how they play out in how they see the world and then want to make sense of it. 

Miroslav Volf: Yeah, I think that's going to be one of the big issues. And I think it's going to be sources of future conflict because people will want to have their own moral vision brought to bear. And if we have profoundly different moral visions, that's going to cause a certain stridency. And I want to pick up on this strident and polarized groups, and they have hard time talking to one another. They have hard time not just talking to one another, understanding one another. They—or maybe I should say we—see cartoon images of each other, we know in advance who the other is, what they think, what they're going to say, what they don't think, what they're not going to say. Every encounter just confirms the negative view of the other and the gulf keeps growing. Is there a common ground? Can you identify the common ground between various groups between    ambassadors and rejectors? Is it possible for ambassadors and rejectors to talk to one another?  How do we forge a common vision of social life in such situation? Where are the signs of hope that you've seen?

Andrew Whitehead: I have moments where I go back and forth where I feel hopeful and then others where I don't at all. I think there's a good number of ambassadors, those that strongly embraced Christian nationalism, that really don't want to give up any ground. And so I don't have a lot of hope for common ground between them and others. And rejectors as well. It's a fundamental disagreement with the common vision of the United States. 

Moments where I am hopeful is that most Americans are resistors or accommodators. And so these are the people in the middle, groups. And so that's over 50% of the population. And so for these individuals, I think there could be a lot more opportunity for trying to talk about and communicate a common vision for all groups, where everybody can flourish, where we can actually compromise, because I think fundamentally politics is about compromise. So we have to give up some things to gain other things. And so it might be that the resistors and accommodators are those Americans that if they're engaged more and see the need for that engagement and we're able to engage with a common explanation and vision for the United States, that I think could be helpful. But as we know politics too, usually the loudest voices are those at the farthest polls. 

Samuel Perry: Two points of argument that I would make if I was in a room with people of our four orientations of Christian nationalism: rejectors, resistors, accommodators and ambassadors. I probably wouldn't spend a whole lot of time working with the ambassadors, frankly, just because I feel like what our research suggests is that they're sold on that team as anybody could be. But what I would like to see—I don't think the solution is to veer hard—and this maybe, Miroslav, I think this goes back to your other question about completely privatizing religion in a way that I think is constraining to people's individual liberty and contrary to the way Christians are called to live and want to live. So I don't think the answer is just a complete secular humanist approach that privatizes every expression of religion, nor do I think it's Christian nationalism. 

I think Phil Gorski, in his book, American Covenant, advocates this middle path in the form of America's civil religious tradition. And I don't think rejectors and resistors, those of them that are secular Americans, don't necessarily need to buy into this idea of a divine relationship that we have that America has with this divine creator or even a deist creator. But what I mean by that is our sacred traditions of values that we as Americans hold dear, something to unite us as a people, right? What are going to be those values that we can all get behind around? Hopefully justice, and liberty, and equality of opportunity, and removing barriers to people in the form of unjust laws, and institutions that are reliable. All of these things that we would hold as hopefully sacred values that we can all rally behind and unite behind. 

And to those accommodators, to those who are friendly towards Christian nationalism, many of them happen to be very religious, what I would want to do is I would want to appeal to what I would consider authentic Christianity, not one that substitutes Christian language for kind of this authoritarian, ethno-traditionalism of Christian nationalism that buys into this idolatry of nation worship and ethnic or ethnic national power, but one that I think sees how would a Christ-like way of embracing and approaching politics be. It doesn't mean check your values about sexuality or the family, or your priorities for liberty—I don't mean check those at the door. But I do mean do it in a Christ-like way where you value the other that you are willing to sacrifice and compromise in order to make this kind of living together work.

And so I would think those would be my two answers is appeal to the American civil religious tradition and appeal to authentic Christianity to those who may be inclined to be tempted towards this Christian nationalist bargain. 

Miroslav Volf: Yeah, it's very interesting. If I heard you rightly, it's the way we go about doing politics. It's not just the goals that we'd want to achieve in politics. For Christians, it needs to be suffused by Christian values. And once that happens, the space opens a little bit wider where we can actually have the kinds of conversations that may point us in common direction that may discover something common that we have friends.

Thank you so much. You've written a very important book that deserves to be discussed. It's a very important thing for us to keep in mind: how one lives our faith in public. And you've triggered a lot of thoughts and hopefully sown a very good seed. 

Samuel Perry: Thanks for having us. 

Andrew Whitehead: Yeah. Thank you so much for the kind words and for having us on.  

Miroslav Volf: Pleasure.

Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the 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

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