Churches at the centre

One of the bestselling authors of American history is a sixty-eight-year-old Texan named David Barton. If you dip into his seminal work, The American Story (2020), co-authored with his son Tim, you will find a central tenet of Christian nationalism: “The Golden Thread in American history is the superintending Providence of Almighty God.” In Barton’s telling, Christopher Columbus was the savior of the native Tainos (whom he actually kidnapped and enslaved) and there is no mention of his introduction of African slavery to the Americas.

Barton is a regular guest at Republican fundraisers and on fundamentalist broadcasts, and, while he has no credibility among serious historians, the rise of Christian nationalism in the political arena has increased the demand for similar voices with more academic clout. One of these is Victor Davis Hanson, who made his career as a classicist before taking early retirement as a professor in 2004 and joining Stanford University’s Hoover Institution as a fellow. Hanson writes for a broad range of publications on contemporary politics, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and he is a weekly columnist for PJ Media, a digital platform for the Christian fundamentalist conglomerate Salem Media. His treat The Case for Trump (2019) was a New York Times bestseller

In his new book, The Dying Citizen, Hanson leans hard on his classicist background to make a nativist case, celebrating ancient Greece and its formulae for citizenship while studding his prose with learned etymologies. But when it comes to the foundations of the American republic, his history is erratic and blinkered. The founding of America expanded rights for “the vast majority of the resident population”, he argues, “in part because colonial America lacked many of the European mainland’s traditions of class distinctions, primogeniture, peasantry and servdom”. He has apparently forgotten the nearly 20 per cent of the US population that was enslaved, according to the first census in 1790, or the fact that primogeniture did indeed exist across the US colonies: Georgia was the first state to abolish it, in 1777; New York suit in 1786. Indentured servitude accounted for between a half and two-thirds of European immigrants over the eighteenth century, followed many of them destined for agricultural labor.

Turning his attention to the present day, Hanson focuses his ire on “the new progressive orthodoxy” that has “turned the Democrats into a party of multiculturism, open borders, immigration law nonenforcement, and an array of race and gender issues.” But Pew research shows that Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests and deportations were substantially higher under the Barack Obama administration than under Trump. As for the “multiculturalism” barb, based on current trends, the US is projected to become a “majority minority” (ie non-majority white) within the next twenty years. Is the Democratic Party not simply reflecting the population it purports to represent?

Hanson’s worst lapses lie in his discussions of race and economics. His defense of the “citizen’s dying” attacks on celebrations of racial identity and affirmative action: “The opposite of multiculturalism is not just equitable multiracialism. It is the rare presence of true citizenship that further diminishes the power of ethnic identification and race”. Here, his arguments are at best poorly informed and at worst made in bad faith. Take, for example, his claim that “the University of Chicago announced that no English majors need apply to its graduate programs unless they focus on black-related studies”. The author neglects to mention that this policy was announced to take effect for a single year – as a measure to redress the long history of neglect of the subject. There are many similar omissions and half-truths littered throughout the book.

When it comes to Trump, Hanson doesn’t veer much from his previous publication, even though The Dying Citizen was completed after the shocking events of January 6, 2021. The author praises Trump as a champion of the middle class, ignoring the fact that, under Trump, income inequality soared to record proportions. His 2017 tax cuts created massive benefits for corporations and wealthy individuals, with more than 60 per cent of the savings going to the top quintile. Hanson is also wildly off the mark in his claim that “the Trump administration deliberately attacked the orthodoxy of identity politics”. Trump as much as anyone has led conservative white Christians into a political identity as Christian nationalists – to the dismay of many moderate and liberal white Christians.

As a counterpoint to this slew of half-baked and dubiously sourced claims (Fox News is frequently and uncritically cited), we can be grateful to Seth David Radwell, the author of American Schism. Radwell has spent his career in management, and he writes perceptively, if not always coherently, from the perspective of an intelligent and deeply concerned witness to his country’s disequilibrium. Like Barton and Hanson, he turns back to America’s origins for clues to the current crises, but he comes up with radically different answers as he explores the original schism in the American policy, between a Protestant belief system and Enlightenment principles.

The Constitution represented an uneasy compromise, and it resulted in the First Amendment, prohibiting the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion”, which meant that Puritans in Massachusetts couldn’t impose their faith on Anglicans in Virginia and vice versa. As Radwell reminds us, a backlash to the Enlightenment then followed in the US, forging an ongoing connection between religious revivals and populist politics. The First Great Awakening swept through Britain and the American colonies in the 1730s and 40s; the Second Great Awakening, in the early nineteenth century, prompted Protestant fervour and reform in the new republic. It was “a harbinger of the central role the church would play in American society”, Radwell writes.

Throughout our history, Americans would rely on many diverse structures and institutions to create a “public square,” a communal forum in which to deliberate and act in unison with fellow citizens. In this regard, the Second Great Awakening established another important and enduring precedent in the young nation: that of the church occupying an indispensable and central place within the American public square.

One need only visit any small to medium-sized town in the US to observe the churches at its centre. In recent decades, many of these institutions have constructed newer, flashier suburban temples, but all of them have played an outsized role in local and state-level politics, for good and ill. In the 1960s, both Black and white churches advanced the Civil Rights movement. In the 2000s, evangelical churches carpeted their grounds with white flags to memorialize aborted foetuses.

Americans’ religious agora has shifted, but it hasn’t vanished. At the same time that fundamentalist Christians have doubled down, mosques, synagogues and Hindu temples have risen among churches in the broader public square. Now religious messaging on political issues appears not only on the giant screens of the megachurches but on countless digital platforms. Many of these are promoted by tax-exempt “churches” and “missions”, such as the Family Research Council and the American Family Association, which share homophobic and Islamophobic content while offering free publicity to right-wing Republican politicians. Their audiences are disproportionately white rural and blue-collar Americans, key components in the voting blocs targeted by Republican donors and strategists. For Radwell, the political engineering here works as follows:

Trump’s political class survives through mobilizing disenfranchised and resentful white working-class people – his base – by stirring their populist and nativist fears and passions, and promising to restore the security of a perhaps illusory prior social order, to make America great again.

The result “is a doom loop of escalating extremism that must be disrupted”. But, while low-income Trump supporters receive the lion’s share of the coverage, recent polling suggests that a substantial part of Trump’s support comes from middle- and higher-income voters. The piece that Radwell may be missing here is that the issue for many white Americans is their perception of their eroding status in society – as if they are engaged in a zero-sum game in which every gain for a minority is a loss for them.

Radwell convincingly argues that the answer to the American schism is to expand opportunity for all: “The areas that need the most focus and require renewal commitment are education, specifically civic education, and a redistributive justice through a return to progressive taxation”. Practically and politically, this is a tall order. In recent years the cost of American college educations – both public and private – has risen sharply. Elementary and secondary schools are largely financed through state and local property taxes, meaning the poorest states and communities receive the least funding. For Americans with limited means, the available healthcare system is nearing collapse, with the most advanced medical procedures in the world available to the very wealthiest, while growing numbers of Americans delay or forgo basic care because of the crippling costs. (It can cost a heart attack patient in my Manhattan neighborhood over $1,500 for the two-kilometre ambulance ride to the nearest hospital, much of which isn’t covered by insurance.) Radwell believes that civic education is key to addressing America’s ills, and that tutelage in analytical tools in the soft sciences and a rejuvenation of language arts might help students to identify disinformation.

Of course, Victor Davis Hanson and David Barton argue on behalf of civic education too. Hanson has served on the 1776 Commission, founded by Trump, to promote “patriotic education”. A report by the commission, released two weeks after the January 6 storming of the Capitol, took aim at the Civil Rights movement, feminists and American universities, and urged educators regarding the soft-pedal history of slavery. Every historical narrative is selective and thus biased but, as Radwell points out, the answer must always be to widen the lens and honor the facts. History offers ample evidence that exclusionary history – demonizing, misrepresenting, or discounting the experience of entire segments of the population – exacts a terrible price at the end.

Anne Nelson is the author Shadow Network: Media, money, and the secret hub of the radical right2019. She is a research scholar at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs

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