The Deep Roots of Our Current Discontent
by John Fanestil (copyright 2021)
Standing out among the crowds ransacking the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 were white rioters carrying religious-themed banners, Bibles, and other totems of the Christian religion. “What were they thinking?” countless Americans asked themselves, the question uttered with varying combinations of rhetorical exasperation, astonishment, anger, and a genuine desire to comprehend.
Just one week later, Philip Gorski neatly summarized what has now become a consensus view. “White Christian Nationalism” provides a “frame,” Gorski argued, within which the events of January 6 can best be understood. This frame is at root “a story,” he explained, one asserting that America was founded as “a Christian nation,” which is to say a nation based on Protestant Christian principles that are “divinely favored.”
But ethnonationalist extremism is not the only movement, nor the only worldview, to emerge from the mix of race and religion in American history. Only by examining this deep history more closely, beginning with the Protestant origins of the English colonial experiment in North America, can we place White Christian Nationalism in larger and proper context. And only then can we fully appreciate the true nature and scope of the threat it actually represents.
Forged in the crucible of generations of Civil War, English Protestants conceived of human history as a perpetual battle, or “protest,” against the despised Catholic Church and its prelate, the Pope. English Protestants despised the “Romish” church, and considered the Popes as nothing less than agents of Satan, determined to extinguish individual liberty through the instruments of government, both civil and ecclesiastic. In their perpetual conflict with the Catholic Church and its allies and sympathizers in the Church of England, Protestants clung to the Bible, which they printed in English and distributed with an array of collateral material, as the sole source of true religious authority.
As they bickered amongst themselves over right interpretation of the Scriptures, English Protestants spread themselves across a spectrum of dissent from the twin authorities of the Crown and Church of England, which they considered always susceptible to the manipulations of Rome. The most radical of English Protestants determined to “separate” altogether from the Anglican Church, and to seek instead to establish their own churches as “pure” expressions of the Christian faith. They also came to consider human freedom a zero-sum game -- the more power exercised by civil and ecclesial authorities, the lesser the spiritual “liberty” enjoyed by individuals -- and a slippery slope: even small encroachments on individual liberty represented a potential threat of “tyranny.”
English Protestants were raised to weather the inevitable ups and downs in this perpetual struggle for individual liberty by embracing a worldview proffering the comforting belief that human history is directed absolutely by God’s all-encompassing will. “Providentialist” ways of thinking offer a kind of all-purpose escape hatch in interpreting historical events. When events conform nicely to expectations, the faithful can embrace them as clear signs of divine intervention. But when they don’t, the faithful can fall back on the belief that nothing comes to pass that is not part of God’s design for humankind. Whatever happens is “meant to happen,” and any disappointment or confusion reflects the meager understanding of mere mortals, not the limitations of divine agency. In the Providentialist worldview, everything will someday be seen to have worked together in a divinely orchestrated plan.
English colonists and their descendants in North America were deeply rooted in these distinctly Protestant ways of making sense of the world. Overwhelmed by the radical diversity and complexity of what was for everyone a “new world,” the English in North America came to consider that in their divine mission they were embattled on every front – by Native Americans, whom many came to consider “savages;” by their colonial competitors, the French, whom many routinely portrayed as agents of “demonic” Popes; by their own African slaves, whose essential nature, many concluded, was “bestial”; and by the royally-appointed magistrates whom many increasingly saw as exercising unaccountable authority over colonial governments and institutions.
Continuing to work within the inherited framework of Protestant Providentialism, English colonists in the middle decades of the eighteenth century warred almost perpetually with their colonial competitors, the Catholic French and Spanish, and their respective Indian allies. In doing so they developed what some historians call a “pan-Protestant vernacular,” enabling them to overcome sectarian differences and discover “common cause” with one another. In time, they came to understand themselves as sharing a “continental” destiny. As had been true of earlier variations, in this emerging and distinctly North American brand of English Protestant Providentialism, the defense of individual liberty was seen as part of a larger, cosmic fight.
Over time, more and more who embraced this fight in British North America felt called to take radical action in support of it. Eventually, many concluded that King George III had become “a tyrant,”and that resistance to his rule warranted martyrdom in the War of Independence. Believing themselves to be aligned culturally and spiritually with their English Protestant forebears, with the early Christian martyrs, and with Jesus Christ himself, they embraced their cause as nothing short of a holy war. In prosecuting this war, and in the ensuing drama of establishing a new nation, the revolutionaries fashioned for themselves a new republican form of government, a principal aim of which was protecting the liberty of individuals. They also fashioned for themselves a new identity, as “Americans.”
Across the decades of the Revolution’s unfolding, Americans from all walks of life embraced the new nation as a chosen vehicle in God’s design for human history. Adherents of this worldview came to expect that agents of Satan would continue to oppose the American cause – which was, it hardly needed to be said, the cause of Protestant America. Enemies of America were easy to identify at the ever-expanding perimeter of the westward-moving nation, but they were also perceived to show up routinely and ongoingly within the institutions of government at every level.
This framing of American religious history can help us draw direct lines between American origins and the oppositional, conspiratorial and ethnonationalist expressions of self-declared patriotism that have been so much on parade in our public life, most dramatically on January 6, 2021.
Just as many English colonists found themselves overwhelmed by the complexities and diversity of 17th- and 18th-century North America, so today many white Protestant Americans experience the radical diversity of the 21st century bewildering, or even threatening to their way of life.
Just as many English colonists believed the satanic Catholic Pope to be orchestrating the threat of enemies “foreign and domestic” from his seat in Rome, so today many white Protestant Americans fear the United Nations is propagating the spread of a New World Order and suspect that major institutions in American society are conspiring with demonic enterprises of diverse and bewildering kinds.
Just as many American revolutionaries saw the ecclesial authorities, civil magistrates and military troops sent across the Atlantic by the English Crown as representing an existential threat to individual liberty, so many white Protestant Americans -- especially those who live far removed from the metropolitan centers of power -- perceive the agents of impersonal federal bureaucracies, directed and managed by distant imperious liberal elites, to threaten the same.
And just as did so many of their forebears, many white Protestant Americans today still see the United States as standing as the vanguard of individual liberty in a cosmic struggle against larger forces of evil in the world. In this version of the “American Protestant Providentialist” worldview, true “patriots” are following in the footsteps of their Protestant forebears when they fight to prevent a further slide down a slippery slope that will, if unchecked, lead eventually to “tyranny.”
Given the deep roots of this spiritual inheritance, it should come as no surprise that many white Protestant Americans chafe at the power exercised by forces they perceive, often rightly, to be beyond their personal control. Nor should it surprise that some will express their resentment in conspiratorial thinking, nor that some will take recourse to oppositional, sometimes violent, behavior. An honest reckoning of our history teaches us that all these are very “American” ways of being in the world.
And yet not all who embrace notions of American exceptionalism are white racists.
At its most elemental level, this is simply a matter of fact. Consider Herman Cain or Ben Carson, recent black conservative candidates for President whose views conform closely to this framework. Or consider the millions of Latino and Asian-American voters who backed Donald Trump in surprising proportion in the 2020 presidential elections -- and who disproportionately identify as Protestant. It makes no sense to try to understand these and millions of other Americans from within the frame of “white Christian nationalism.”
It turns out American exceptionalism -- a vision of America as uniquely favored by God, rooted in a distinctly Protestant rendering of American history -- offers a compelling vision that continues to win the admiration of people from across the globe. It is a persuasive ideology that can be embraced by people of any race.
It is also important to recognize that American exceptionalism has taken on varied expression across the expanse of American history.
American exceptionalism has taken on varied expression across the expanse of American history.
The views of many white slaveholders in early America were shaped by a powerful sense of providential destiny, but so too were Angelina Grimke’s radical abolitionism and Abraham Lincoln’s belief that America represented “the last best hope of earth.” Visions of America as an instrument of the divine fueled the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy and the virulent white racism of the Ku Klux Klan, but they also helped to shape the Progressive movement of the late nineteenth century and the Social Gospel movement of the early twentieth. A gut-level conviction that America was favored by God sustained the zeal of generations of American soldiers through two World Wars and the Cold War that came after.
The broad political coalitions of the 20th-century were forged on the anvil of American exceptionalism - from Theodore Roosevelt’s “Big Stick Diplomacy” to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal” and “Four Freedoms,” to Ronald Reagan’s “a shining City on a Hill”. This spiritual inheritance also echoed powerfully in Martin Luther King Jr.’s mid-century belief that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, and in his dream that his children would one day live in a nation where they would “ not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Of course these examples do not make for an exhaustive list. But they do make an important point. White racism is not the only legacy of American exceptionalism, not by any means.
Today fewer and fewer Americans identify expressly with the Protestant tradition, but this spiritual inheritance lives on as vital trans-denominational networks provide powerful sources of identity for many. Facebook is as happy sifting American Protestants into “fundamentalist” (or “Bible-believing”), “evangelical,” “pentecostal,” “libertarian,” “mainline,” “progressive” and “spiritual-but-not-religious” silos, as it would have been sifting them into Lutheran and Presbyterian silos had it been around three generations ago.
But wherever they hang on these branches of the family tree, most Americans descended from Protestant traditions are unfamiliar with these deep spiritual roots. They are very familiar with slogans like “America First” or “Make America Great Again,” with counter-protestations that this is “not who we are,” and with ritualistic incantations from politicians of both left and right that ours is “the greatest nation on earth.” But they do not recognize that these secular phrasings resonate powerfully in American culture because they are born from America’s Protestant spiritual inheritance.
Finally, this frame can help us to place those who took extreme action on January 6, 2021, and the much larger cohort of Americans who share their core commitments, in a wider context.
White Christian Nationalism is not the only stream of thought and practice shaped by America’s Protestant spiritual inheritance, and to conflate white racism and Protestant faith is to flatten history and caricature the role of religion in American public life. Still, we cannot ignore the ongoing threat posed by this toxic mix of religion, racism, patriotism and political extremism.
It is wishful thinking to conclude that those who assaulted the U.S. Capitol represent extreme outliers in the broader fold of American Protestantism. While they may have been outliers in their willingness to take violent action, this does not mean their core commitments and values were wildly outside the mainstream.
Millions of Americans consider the United States a bastion of liberty, born from a mix of religious (that is, Protestant) inspiration and divine (which is to say, providential) direction. In their view, the United States was founded not just as any old Christian nation, but as an expression of Protestant truths that are contained in the Old and New Testaments. And it was founded not as an end in and of itself, but as an instrument toward a larger purpose, which is God’s unfolding plan for human history.
These millions consider our recent history to have confirmed what they have long believed to be true – powerful elites with tyrannical aspirations are forever seeking to seize control of the instruments of government. The presidential election of 2020 and the events of January 6 did not undermine their deeply held conviction that the American experiment is central to God’s working in human history. Rather, these events merely mean that God has not finished with America yet.
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