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Sam Goldman interviews Bradley Onishi about his new book (available January 2023) Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism–and What Comes Next
Brad Onishi is a former insider in the Christian nationalist movement who spent seven years as a minister in Southern California. Listen to his podcast Straight White American Jesus, follow him on Twitter at @BradleyOnishi and sign up for updates at swaj.substack.com.
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Music for this episode: Penny the Snitch by Ikebe Shakedown
Refuse Fascism: Bradley Onishi: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism–and What Comes Next
Episode 134 Sun, Nov 13, 2022 3:32PM • 56:30
Bradley Onishi 00:00
There’s a long history of white supremacy and segregation in our schools, in our government institutions, in our public space. The religious right is an extension of that. Their number one goal is power, and they don’t care if that means exclusion. They don’t care if that means taking rights away from people. They don’t care if that means not extending rights to people. They don’t care if that means being anti-democratic. It’s a war because they’re willing to sacrifice democracy in order to win. Democracy is not a sacred value here, power is. I just think we’re already living through them winning some of the war, but there are even worse outcomes down the road if we’re not careful.
Sam Goldman 00:54
Welcome to Episode 134 of the Refuse Fascism podcast, a podcast brought to you by volunteers with Refuse Fascism. I’m Sam Goldman, one of those volunteers and host of the show. Refuse Fascism exposes, analyzes, and stands against the very real danger and threat of fascism coming to power in the United States.
In today’s episode, we’re sharing an interview with Bradley Onishi, discussing his forthcoming book, Preparing for War, The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism, and What Comes Next.
But first, thanks to everyone who goes the extra step and rates and reviews this show on Apple podcasts, shares and comments on social media or YouTube. It helps us reach more listeners and, of course, we read every one. Here are a couple from the last week on Twitter @mimmymum writes: “Excellent Refuse Fascism podcast with Sarah Posner talking about the rise of fascism in the US and how trans kids have been used by the Christian right to radicalize and indoctrinate voters.”
And over at the YouTube, we got a comment from Zeke on last week’s episode. He writes: “The war against trans people and now against trans kids is a fascist weapon of fear and terror, part of the long game. Its purpose is not just to motivate the fascists base, but to sow doubt and fear among the general public to widen the net of fascism. Its strategic, like the war on abortion rights, part of the long game like the Supreme Court, and meanwhile the establishment is “both siding it.” Thanks, Zeke. Thanks, Mimmymum. So after listening to today’s episode, go help us find more people who want to refuse fascism, by rating and reviewing on Apple podcasts, and encouraging your friends and family who listen to do the same. Subscribe/follow so you never miss an episode, and of course, continue all that sharing and commenting on social media.
Now, before we get to the interview, we gotta talk about midterms. I need to be honest and say: How the fuck are we going to do this in the future without Twitter? Dammit. Okay. It’s great that we didn’t see widespread fascist victories, that election denying candidates for Secretary of State didn’t win, and that the GOP is fighting amongst themselves. These are all good things. However, over the Twitter, Zach Bornstein made the point many will choose to miss. He tweeted: “Fascism is dead in America after a devastating loss 49.7 to 49.3. We rose our voices as one to say: ‘Fascism doesn’t belong here, but if there were like three less of us, it would.'”
To say that MAGA failed, or MAGA was defeated through the ballot box, is deeply misleading. American fascism isn’t fundamentally an electoral movement or phenomena. It is a crusade using every means at its disposal. Jeff Sharlet pointed out that it may not be as strong as feared in this particular moment, but it’s frighteningly strong. Both of these realities are true — and not only strong, but powerful. Abortion is still illegal in 13 states, meaning millions, tens of millions of women and other’s lives are at risk, and all women’s full humanity is debased.
A fascist-dominated Supreme Court is still in place, issuing rulings left and right that violate people’s basic rights, and a continuing stalemate of 50 or 51 Democratic senators against 49 or 50 Republi-fascist senators, is not a recipe for defeating the fascist mob that continues to screech that anyone other than them is illegitimate. Not to mention the fact that the House still could tip over into the hands of the fascists. A fascist majority in the House won’t just result in blocking any “progress” and ending the January 6th Commission, it will mean Benghazi on steroids; the power of the state to investigate anyone who dares to question the fascists alternative facts.
There is much to be done to restore people’s rights. The danger of smug satisfaction right now is not just that it’s mistaken and unwarranted, but that a movement against fascism is still needed, as the movement FOR fascism isn’t even hesitating. In fact, more than 210 election-denying candidates have won office across elections, including state races. As we mourn the likely loss of Twitter in the coming days or weeks, I wanted to spotlight a few excellent points made by people I respect and follow.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat tweeted: “Republican Trump-bashing is satisfying and Trump should be expelled from politics and put in jail. However, I hope it’s clear to all that Republicans are turning on Trump because he has become an obstacle to establishing autocratic rule. None disavow J6 or his other crimes.”
Thomas Zimmer tweeted: “This is the main reason why I’m so skeptical of the idea that the result of the midterms will lead to moderation. Every defeat, every crisis, only heightens the sense of being under siege, is answered by calls for more drastic measures, more radical steps.” In his Twitter thread he goes on to write: “There’s no appeasing or persuading these people. No bargain or truce to be had. Their entire worldview is built on the idea that they deserve to dominate in all spheres of public and private life, that they are entitled to constant affirmation and reverence.”
While we’re talking about fascists, Jeff Sharlet nailed it when he tweeted: “DeSantis doesn’t represent a break with fascism. He doesn’t even represent a break with Trumpism. Trump, the person perhaps, but Trumpism is what we’ve been calling this particular American version of fascism, which DeSantis embodies as much as anyone.” There’s a few fascist victories we need to note. Not to celebrate, obviously, but to caution that while they didn’t send a feared red wave through to Washington, they are not actually on the backfoot. DeSantis won, already talking about how to further restrict abortion in Florida. Abbott already sending busloads of migrants and refugees to Chicago. Marjorie Taylor Greene won, Matt Gaetz won. JD Vance won. Sarah Huckabee Sanders won, and Lauren Boebert may still win.
It is notably unprecedented in modern American politics for a party in the White House to retain the legislature, but what does that tell you? The American electoral system is not some sacred guardrail for democracy, but in fact is particularly susceptible to fascist takeover from within. Propping up these fascists as one of two legitimate options, favoring them as winners in advance merely because of the unspoken rules of the game. And somehow, each time, whether they win or lose the fascists find ways to advance their movement, their power, and their goals off of those results. There continues to be a fascist base of tens of millions and they aren’t going away, and neither is the situation that propels a significant section of those who rule to favor fascism. With that in mind, in this moment, the decent people must seize this opportunity to take this fight way beyond and far outside the ballot box to confront and defeat this American fascism. Now, here’s my interview with Bradley.
So, today, it is an anxiety filled day. It is midterm election day, and I’m feeling all the feels of anxiety. So, keep in mind as you’re listening today that this is being recorded while enduring crippling anxiety. I am so excited, it is an honor to welcome onto the show Bradley Onishi to discuss his forthcoming book: ‘Preparing for a War, the Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism and What Comes Next. You likely, hopefully, have heard him on the podcast he hosts: Straight White American Jesus. Bradley brings what I find to be a really unique perspective. He comes to us as a former insider within the Christian nationalist movement along with also having a scholarly vibe. He is a scholar of religion and he adds that to what I find to be a critical and delightful lens as a listener of his show.
So, Brad’s next book, that’s going to be the topic of today will appear on bookshelves or book websites in January of 2023 and Bradley uses vignettes from his own life as a Christian nationalist. He unpacks the religious history that led us to the January 6th insurrection and charts a map — a very scary map — of what will come next from the marriage of Christian nationalism and MAGA nation. Welcome Bradley. Thanks for coming on.
Bradley Onishi 10:14
Well, thanks for having me, and thanks for just that incredible introduction. I’m totally embarrassed. So I really appreciate it.
Sam Goldman 10:21
All true. I wanted to comment that I was so grateful to receive an advance reading copy of your book. All the personal stories were helpful in understanding how someone could believe these things. How a kid could wake up early and go and be part of prayer meetings with people that were much older. You know, that whole thing. It was a very helpful window.
I learned so much about Southern California. I’ve no doubt I learned a lot about Christian nationalism and the history of this country and lots of great insights, but I also learned a lot about Southern California. I knew about Reagan and that whole part of Southern California and the conservative movement, but there was so much more that I learned about the importance of it and role, because I remember it was a few years back, I was very surprised by Orange County being Orange County, and had I read your book sooner, I wouldn’t have been. [BO: Yeah] And the whole Quakerism combo with the evangelical, as a Philly person, that’s not the Quakerism that I’ve ever seen or heard about. It was just chock full of information.
Bradley Onishi 11:36
People generally are always surprised because it’s easy to picture Southern California as surfer dudes and people in bikinis playing beach volleyball and voting as long haired and free hippies. But it’s not. If you’re following the LA mayoral race right now, that’s kind of a good indication. But Orange County is really its own thing. In the 1950s and 60s, you get this mass migration from the south and the Midwest to California after the Second World War, because all the defense industry jobs went to Southern California. So you have these middle decades of the 20th century, you have like 6 million southerners leave the South. At one point there are more southerners in California than any other southern state.
What happens in Orange County is, it’s really this un-zoned place. It’s this place where, as you mentioned, it was very bucolic. It was rural. It was farmland. So all of these newcomers who are gathering around what becomes Disneyland territory in 1955 are mainly white people — the county is less than 10% non-white — and they have a vision of America that they want to recreate. The problem is that America never really existed, but there’s no one there to stop them or tell them that it never really existed.
So, what takes hold in Orange County in the 50s and 60s is this extremist libertarian, right-wing politics. And it becomes what historians of this era really think of as the epicenter of the new conservative movement that we see in the 60s and 70s. Candidates like Barry Goldwater. Some of y’all remember Barry Goldwater, the 1964 GOP candidate who was willing to use nuclear bombs in Vietnam and said he wouldn’t support the Civil Rights Act. He is totally 100% the candidate for president because Southern Californians went hard for him in the California election, and they swung the state in his direction.
I was born and raised in the town where Richard Nixon was born and raised, in the Quaker church you talked about. The Quakerism there slowly transformed with the population. It went from what you would imagine in Central PA, people who are for pacifism and egalitarianism and social justice and abolitionism, to your mega church, evangelical, Rick Warren type of stuff. Richard Nixon comes right from this soil. Then we get Ronald Reagan who has spent all his time in Orange County being formed politically. Our airport is John Wayne Airport. All of that to say this little Bible Belt of Southern California has this undue effect on American politics. And that’s the soil that shaped me when I converted to Christianity at age 14 in this big mega church.
Sam Goldman 14:03
Thanks for that. Bradley. I wanted to start off with, first, white Christian nationalism. It’s a buzzword, everybody’s saying Christian nationalism, Christian nationalism. You see the Pew poll talking about Christian nationalism, and frightening numbers of respondents responding in line with Christian nationalist ideas. In your book, one of the really helpful things that you do is walk us through all three words with equal weight, and in particular, whiteness. You wrote: it is “both the engine and track for the locomotive of Christian exceptionalism.” You talk about politics then being this engine for this movement; that the theology behind white Christian nationalism is this holy trinity of God, nation and freedom. So I was hoping you could talk to us how you view white Christian nationalism, and why is it so important that each word is there.
Bradley Onishi 15:01
I think you’re exactly right, and I really appreciate how you approached that. So let’s just start with nationalism. There’s political scientists out there and historians and social theorists that spend their lives arguing about this, but let’s just do a very basic thing and say that nationalism is the idea that you are part of a nation that has a certain set of values and interests. And you want to defend the identity and the interests and what you take to be the freedoms of that nation over and above others. It’s usually an outlook that says: We have a kind of limited set of resources in the world, and it’s kind of a situation where we have to pull and push, tug and tussle for what we want. So we are always going to be in negotiation when it comes to power against other nations. I’m a nationalist means I want to put my nation ahead, and I think that’s really important.
So if somebody says they’re an America First person, what I hear them saying is: My number one goal is to somehow defend whatever I take to be the identity and values of being American over other nations. And if that includes exclusion, if that includes conflict, if that includes power grabs or struggles, or what I might call defense strategies, then sure, let’s do it. So nationalism is this interest in the nation as your number one kind of entity that you protect and identify with. If we add Christian in there, we get this idea that the United States was built for and by Christians, and most Christian nationalists will tell you about the Puritans and the Massachusetts Bay Colony and this kind of thing, and they’ll say that this was built by Christian people, and it was built for Christian people. It doesn’t mean others can’t be here, doesn’t mean that Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and secular people aren’t allowed, it just means that’s the history, that should be the present, that should be the future. Our holidays, our money, our pledge, our national anthem, all should have a reference generally to this kind of Christian heritage.
Then you throw in the white, and the white is really determining factor because there are Black Christian nationalists. There are people who are Black Americans who are Christian, and they will say: Yeah, I think this should be a Christian nation. And you say: Well, tell me more about that. And they say: Well, I just think that if we were a Christian nation, we might actually live up to our principles, our creed of freedom, equality, liberty and justice. We might actually let people pursue happiness for the first time. So, if you’re listening to this, you might think: Well, I don’t really like this because I’m not a Christian, and I don’t think you should be a Christian nation, but I’m not scared, at least, I’m not totally just frightened right now because at least what you’re saying is for you, the goal is to be a Christian nation for the first time, and that includes freedom and equality and liberty for all people, including Black people who have been overwhelmingly oppressed in the country.
When you turn it to white, when we throw in the white Christian nationalism, everything changes. That forward looking anticipation to a country that could live up to its promise is replaced by a nostalgia for what was once a great nation. It’s a nostalgia for this time when things were supposedly good. It’s also the expectation that if we don’t change things, then things will be apocalyptically bad very, very, very soon. So in order to get back to our former greatness, we need to use any method possible to take back the nation, because — you know what? — the nation was built and for, by white Christians, who should have the privileged places in the social hierarchy, the political hierarchy, the cultural hierarchy.
So the whiteness and the Christianity there are intertwined and entangled. They’re in a relationship that pushes the folks who have that identity further and further to the right. They help each other because if you’re just a white nationalist, in a lot of places you’re not welcome in this country — not everywhere, unfortunately, but if I just walk in [and say] white nationalist? people are like, I don’t know, I don’t think we can take a picture together. If you’re just a Christian, all right, that’s fine, but if you throw the white in the Christian together, now your Christianity is a cover for all the things you want to do with your whiteness. That’s a lot harder to criticize you and confront you about, because you’re just doing that in the name of God and country and faith. Why would you be such a hater and persecutor of Christianity and old time religion? All of a sudden, you’ve got a much more robust cover for all the things that you want to maintain when it comes to white supremacy. So it’s a fantastic and very nimble and agile vehicle for what I would take to be white nationalism when you throw in the Christianity.
Sam Goldman 19:22
That was a super helpful walkthrough. I think that I wanted to add this caveat earlier on and I forgot it so I’m adding it now. There are plenty of people who are Christian whose faith moves them to be part of fighting for justice, of expanding who has rights and who has freedom, to feed the hungry, to do what they believe they are doing in their moved to do that good by their faith. What we’re talking about is something different. I agree very wholeheartedly with Brad and what he’s saying about the cover that it gives the white nationalist. I also think that the Christianity is not a joke, and that there are many people who have for some time been taking the Bible literally, and we should see that for all the horror that it is. It is a doctrine, if you take it literally, of pro-slavery, a doctrine of pro-right, just the most patriarchal doctrine you can find.
Bradley Onishi 20:22
No, I think you’re exactly right. I’ll give you one example of this. The night before the January 6th insurrection, there was a Jericho March, which was supposed to be this big prayer rally for supporters of President Trump. There had been many “Jericho marches” going on in the month before this. But what were they doing? Well, they were referencing the story of Jericho where the Israelites marched around Jericho and eventually the walls fall down, because God miraculously does that. Then, they’re able to take Jericho and part of the promised land that God had promised them. Now, there are many ways that Christians and Jews have read that text over the years to try to confront what seems to be attempted genocide and the violence there.
There are many communities that have said we need to confront this, we need to see the complexity involved. We can’t read this literally, because if we do, it’s going to lead us here. And yet, if you have a group of people who have a Jericho March and they read the Bible literally the day before J6, what happens in that story? Yeah, the walls fall down and then they go and annihilate every man, woman, child and animal they can find. And it starts to kick in: Oh, they’re not just praying for a miracle. They’re praying for a miracle that will allow them to do what happened in… and all of a sudden the wheels start turning and you’re like: Holy moly, the literal reading of the Bible you’re talking about leads to real world violence in ways that are horrifying!
Sam Goldman 21:38
Couldn’t ask for a better segue. [BO chuckles] The first part of the title of your book is Preparing for War, and I wanted to talk about: What is the war that they’re preparing for, and who or what is this a war against?
Bradley Onishi 21:55
Yeah. You know, the book starts in the 1960s for a strategic reason. It’s not that white Christian nationalism was invented then, but the 1960s, very generally, included a lot of forward-moving movements that led to people having more rights and more representation in the country. So, the civil rights movement is in 1960s, we all know. The Civil Rights Act, then we have the Voting Rights Act. And then we have sweeping immigration reform, such that immigration changes in ways that it had not since the mid 1920s. Civil Rights, immigration reform, changing. 1963, The Feminine Mystique is published, okay? That is part and parcel of a larger movement of women’s liberation. Women were entering the workforce en masse. No-fault divorce comes into play. The rights and representation of women is changing in the country.
1967, the Loving case. Guy like me, whose dad’s Japanese American and mom is a white woman from Tennessee…interracial marriage is federally protected, 1967, didn’t take that long America. Good job. 1969, we have Stonewall and of course, there was a lot of queer liberation happening before Stonewall, and Stonewall is just one moment, but still, it’s a way to point toward a larger movement of visibility and recognition of gay and bi and lesbian and LGBT Americans writ large.
What’s the point? White Christian nationalists took all of this, not as: Hey, wow, more of my neighbors have rights and representation. They took it as this is a war on our country. You’re destroying America. That’s what you’re doing. You’re going to let immigrants in. You’re going to destroy Jim Crow. You’re going to desegregate the schools. You’re going to allow women to just get divorced whenever they want. Are you serious? You’re going to recognize gay and lesbian folks as human beings? You are waging war on us.
My co-host, Dan Miller says this all the time: When more people have rights and representation, it’s easy to think everyone wins, but the people who have been enjoying overwhelming privilege because of folks not having those rights and representation feel like they’re losing. If you start in 1964 and you go all the way forward till now, what they’re doing is saying we need to create battle lines and fault lines of culture wars, of political wars, to take our country back from the people who don’t deserve it, from the people for whom it was not built, and from the people who think that they can just march in here and elect a Black man president who has a Black wife and Black children. They think they can make gay marriage legal. They think they can… fill in the blank. Guess what, we’re not going to let that happen.
My thesis is that it’s a war because they’re willing to sacrifice democracy in order to win. Democracy is not a sacred value here — power is. If you’re willing to go that far, you’re waging war. One of the final things I’ll say on this is that you’re in a really good position because most of the people you’re fighting the war against don’t realize you’re actually in a war. I think a lot more people have come to that realization during the Trump years and the last half decade or so, but for the most part, this war was advancing without a lot of people actually realizing they were in one, and that’s a pretty good strategic place to be if you’re fighting from that position.
Sam Goldman 24:56
If they win the war, what does them winning look like?
Bradley Onishi 24:59
I think we’re seeing some of those signs over the last couple of years here. Trump gets in office and he says Muslim ban, then he says, let’s build a wall, and then we’re going to stack the Supreme Court in such a way that something that a lot of folks said wouldn’t happen has happened: Roe v. Wade overturned, Dobbs decision. So we are seeing that. We’re also seeing a situation where there’s a building movement for an independent state legislature theory that says: In 2024 we need to get to a place in states across the country where laws have been passed that give the state legislature power to determine who gets the electoral votes from that state.
Let’s just take Arizona. If you take Arizona in this case — and let’s say just hypothetically here, I have no idea who’s running and who’s not, but just give me a break — Joe Biden runs against Donald Trump and Joe Biden wins Arizona, but the state legislature is Republican controlled, and they say: You know, we think that there were irregularities and voting and some problems with mail-in ballots and some problems with this and that, so, because of that, we think it’s in the best interest of our state to give the electoral votes to Donald Trump. So now you’re thinking: If you do that, in states across the country, the will of the people and democracy in general is out the window. It is now up to basically councils of white men in state legislatures who are deciding who will get the electoral votes, i.e. who will become the president.
If you want to not think into the dystopian future, if you want to just think of things we’re living in right now, every election being “shady” because the Republican doesn’t win. That’s all on the table — a national abortion ban totally on the table, 100%, thinking about trying to reverse Obergefell and the right for people to get married, totally on the table. Then there’s an even more extreme situation, where as I outlined in one chapter of the book, there has been a love affair with white Christian nationalists with authoritarian leaders for decades. I’m talking, not since 2016, I’m talking since 1990 something. The infatuation with Putin, the infatuation with leaders like Orban has been real and genuine and robust.
So then it is: Maybe we cut off funding to state universities when they don’t agree with Governor DeSantis. Maybe the University of Florida is basically a place where we’re going to check your syllabus and make sure that we know exactly what you’re teaching. So, University of Florida, University of Texas, University of Georgia, some of our best universities in the country, they become kind of state-run propaganda machines, like has happened to the European University that used to be in Hungary, in Budapest.
Then we can go even further and think about some of the visions that white Christian nationalists have put forth, who have said we actually want a theocracy. So, there’s a brand new book out by a man named Stephen Wolfe, who’s arguing that we should have a situation where we elect a hierarchy of Christian leaders who are able to enforce laws that means you have to go to church on Sunday, that women do not have the vote, and that if you are a practicing non-Christian, you might be punished with jail or deportation.
You might be thinking that sounds like a guy in an obscure church preaching to seven people and blogging on the internet. Well, his book broke the top 100 on Amazon this week when it came out. So it is extreme. It is basically a white ethno-nationalist treatise. And yet, it is so popular that if you click on Amazon right now, it will just scream at you best seller in multiple categories. Long answer here, I apologize. I just think we’re already living through them winning some of the war, but there are even worse outcomes down the road if we’re not careful.
Sam Goldman 24:59
We’ll definitely be looking for more of your analysis on Stephen Wolf’s “The Case for Christian Nationalism,” because I haven’t read it — I really don’t want to — I want to read your take, I don’t want to read that one. One of the things, I think, when people think of Christian fundamentalism coming onto the scene as a political factor, they usually think of the anti-abortion movement, they think of the Focus on the Family, all that kind of jazz.
One of the things that your book does, not your book alone, other scholars have done this as well, but one of the things that you do is you walk people through the reality of this movement coming to political life through the movement for segregation, for maintaining segregation, I should say. This is really important for the present, and I wanted your thoughts on how is understanding segregationist roots of white Christian nationalism helpful for us fighting against it today?
Bradley Onishi 29:40
I really appreciate your question. So let me just run through some timelines: 1954, Brown versus Board of Education, supposedly American schools are going to no longer be segregated. However, by 1969, 15 years later, many schools in the South still are, and there’s a kind of enforcement coming. The federal government and others are like: You’ve had time, we need to desegregate the schools. Well, in order to kind of get around this, you had just a fleet of Christian day schools pop up, such that white families started sending their kids to private schools.
So you have a situation where in districts in Mississippi, there’s like six kids in a district who are white, alongside thousands who are Black. You have school districts in Virginia that actually shut down because all the kids have been sent to private school. These are, in essence, Christian segregation academies. They are Christian segregation academies run by the people who will become the face of the Religious Right. The most famous is Jerry Falwell. Jerry Falwell runs a segregation Academy in Lynchburg, Virginia. There are others all over Texas, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, and we could go on and on and on and on.
The IRS gets kind of serious about this in the late 1960s and early 70s, and basically starts telling them, if you keep a policy of segregation, you’re no longer tax exempt. I’m sorry, you’re going to lose that status, and your status under the law is going to be dramatically different. So this doesn’t turn into: Well, you were right, it’s the 1970s, time to desegregate, that was a mistake. Jim Crow is over, let’s just kind of broaden our horizons here. It became: You are attacking our faith, you are attacking our families, and we cannot believe that you would persecute Christianity, the tradition on which this country was founded and upon which it has reached great success. So desegregation is the beginning of the religious right, not abortion.
When people want to think about this history, they need to realize that it’s built on protecting white supremacy, period. That extended all the way to the Southern California that I talked about earlier. To me, this is not an accident. There’s a direct lineage that goes back to the 1920s and 30s KKK — not that big of a jump from the 20s and 30s, to the 50s when we get Brown v. Board of Education. Also a direct lineage to the pro slavery theologies of the 1860s, right before the war and the Lost Cause movement right after the war.
Here’s my point: There’s a long history of white supremacy and segregation in our schools, in our government institutions in our public space. The religious right is an extension of that. It is not just about family values. It is not just about protecting little children. However — and this is the present moment that you asked about — protecting children and families is the code word. That’s the code word. It’s really hard to get around someone when they say I’m running for PTA because I want to protect my kids. Well, I’m just worried about women in bathrooms, I don’t want them getting attacked. What they’re doing there is calling dog whistles that have been used for centuries, saying: I don’t want white women to be attacked by, you know, newly freed Black men. I don’t want white women to be sexually assaulted by all of these foreigners — I don’t know what kind of morals they have. I don’t know, they’re not Christians, I don’t know what they’re doing. I don’t want my children being attacked by heathens and savages and others who you’re going to make them go to school with.
One of the cases I try to make in the book is that when you hear family values, when you see school board meetings being overrun by angry suburban white moms and dads, when you hear people talking about protecting the children, that’s not new. That is centuries old, and the family values and the the language of protection has been used forever as a way to maintain white supremacy.
Sam Goldman 33:13
It’s a really, really important part, in my opinion, of your book. People should read it. For more, I would also recommend ‘White Evangelical Racism[, The Politics of Morality in America’] by Anthea Butler [BO: 100%]. It gets really, really deep into this as well, I recommend it. You ask this question in your book, and I just want to ask it again today — maybe you have a different answer or different thoughts — why didn’t people see this coming? Like, why did people not see January 6th, including the religious event factor, why people didn’t see that coming? And why today do people still not see it coming?
Bradley Onishi 33:54
I think there’s a bunch of factors. Let me start with one, I think, that’s really glaring. Friend and colleague, Chrissy Stroop is always writing about this. Chrissy Stroop is amazing. Just an absolutely essential voice. Ghiat’s the idea of Christian privilege. I know that as soon as you say privilege and Christian privilege and white privilege, it sounds like a buzzword, but here’s what I mean by it: The country has been majority Christian for a long time.
Now we’re basically heading into a place where that’s changing, but the example I give — and I’m a 90s kid so if you’re young and The Simpsons aren’t part of your everyday or your your memory, I apologize, but you know, when I was growing up, we watched The Simpsons — there’s this character on The Simpsons, Ned Flanders, who’s the annoying neighbor up the street. Ned Flanders is the Christian who goes to church every week and goes to Bible study on Wednesday night. He’s always telling Homer Simpson not to drink as much beer and don’t use cuss words. He’s always kind of that irritating moralist, like the guy that you don’t really like but you’re not afraid of because he’s just that good old hokey sandal- wearing, cargo shorts-wearing neighbor up the street who wants you to come meet Jesus someday, and all right.
That is the common image of white Christians in the country. That is the benefit of the doubt they’ve been given. The benefit of the doubt they’ve been given is: You are the pesky moralists who are always trying to get us to come back to Jesus. We’re not scared. You’re not fascists. You’re not insurrectionist. I mean, you’re annoying, but you’re not the person who’s going to ruin the country. In fact, yeah, it would probably be good if I drink less beer, and it would probably be good if I didn’t use cuss words in front of my kids as much. That’s probably a good idea. Yeah, okay.
Now, there’s another character in the Simpsons, who’s Mr. Burns. Mr. Burns is this authoritarian owner of the nuclear power plant, and he’s always scheming to take more and more power. There’s nothing good about Mr. Burns, when you watch the show. He’s evil and he’s cunning and he’s really cruel. My argument is that we didn’t see this coming because we have treated white Christians in the country like Ned Flanders, when they have been giving us the cues all along that they’re more akin to Mr. Burns. Their number one goal is power and they don’t care if that means exclusion. They don’t care if that means taking rights away from people. They don’t care if that means not extending rights to people. They don’t care if that means being anti-democratic.
That kind of talk has been going on for decades if we just listened, but the lens is: No, you’re just a Christian. I mean, your church-going, Bible-holding, irritatingly moral kind of guy. You’re not the fascist up the street. You’re not the extremist up the street. Your church is not the place where people get radicalized; no, that’s not what happens there. You’re a small business owner. You own this the shop up the street. You’re the dad who coaches the baseball. You’re the mom who is on the PTA board. And all the fears and all the ludicrous kind of paranoia that was cast upon Muslims in this country in the aughts, the 2000-fives and sixes and eights. All of the ways that supposedly Sharia law and extremist forms of Islam were supposedly infecting the country and all this.
None of that kind of lens was ever conjured when Christian extremists actually acted in ways that were overwhelmingly deleterious to our democracy. The Tea Party, if you read Ruth Bronstein, the sociologist, was an overwhelmingly Christian fundamentalist movement, even though they said on the surface: We’re libertarians, we’re just against taxes. Dig into the data, dig into the respondents and what they said, going back to when we had a Black President in the Oval [Office], the Tea Party formed very quickly and very adamantly, very vehemently. This is the era of: The whole goal is just to shut down the country until we get our power back.
We didn’t see this coming because the lens that we use when somebody says I’m a Christian, especially when they are white Christian, is never one that says: Huh, are you anti-democratic? Are you sure that other people should have rights? Are you willing to uphold the sacred values of the country above all else? I’m not sure. Okay. Yep, that should be my first thought. But it’s rarely, rarely, rarely, if ever, the first time.
Sam Goldman 37:52
I really appreciate looking at it through that lens. I think there’s been so much laughing them off — them being who I call Christian fascists, but Christian nationalists — laughing them off as they’re terrorizing doctors, bombing clinics. By diminishing their impact: Oh, those are just whites. Constantly underestimating the organization, the loyalty, the money, the money, the organization, the whole network that they’ve got going on, it’s a well-heeled network.
I think that this Christian supremacy and thinking about it through that way, I think definitely is a thing where people are, in some ways, especially people who are Democrats, we don’t want to upset those who are Christian by calling it out when you peel back a little bit about, well, what are you calling out? You’re not calling out the fact that some people believe some things. You’re calling out that those people want to thrust their beliefs on others, and that’s different.
Bradley Onishi 38:58
Yeah, I feel like what you just said there is so important is that Christian nationalism is really agile and really genius, because it says: Hey, Democrat, hey, leftists, I dare you. I dare you to criticize my faith. And we’re gonna see how that plays, because on Fox News later, and on Newsmax later, and on all the right-wing media later, guess what the headline is? Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, or some of the squad or fill-in-the-blank has just criticized Christianity. They hate God. They’re daring you to do it. And so that’s the play.
Sam Goldman 39:31
What do you see now as the key ingredients that are propelling this white Christian nationalist movement forward, where they’re increasing in power or influence — however you see it — even as the majority of people in this country are for abortion rights, for gay rights. What’s propelling this forward still?
Bradley Onishi 39:54
I think there’s a great op-ed that came out from friends and colleagues Sam Perry and Andrew Whitehead in early November 2022, on how the numbers are shrinking but the influence is growing. I think that’s true. It’s true because this group of people is really great at playing two roles.
This comes from Lauren Kirby who has a book called Saving History. Lauren Kirby says in that book that this group plays two roles. They are the founders of the country. So they’re going to walk around and say: We founded the country. This country was built as a Christian nation by who? White Puritans. We’re the founders, and we have the right to continue to have control of the country even if we’re not the majority, even if most people, as you say, are for abortion, for gay marriage. We’re gonna have a minority majority country here in about 10 years. We’re gonna have folks who are Black and Brown and Asian and Asian-American, and so on, who are the majority of the country when you add all the groups together. Don’t care. We’re the founders, we get to be in control.
Oh, you say we’re not? Guess what? Well, now we’re the victims. We’re the er victim, and we’re the only ones who get to be the victims. Paul Pelosi gets attacked in his home, we’re gonna laugh it off, because you don’t get to be a victim. Monsters don’t attack you, they attack us. So we’re either the founder or we’re the victim, and there’s nothing in between. That is the psychology that propels this group. [I’ll] give you one more metaphor — metaphor is abounding at the moment — my co-host, Dan Miller, always talks about the American body.
The reason we call our podcast Straight White American Jesus is that the Christian nationalist imagines the American social body, the body of America… If they had to draw it as a body, it would be a white body. It’d be a straight body. It’d be a Christian body. It’d be a body that was born here, in United States, such that it speaks English without an accent or not as a second language or third language. It’d be a patriarchal body, one that either is a patriarchal man, or is one that is a woman who recognizes the benefits of patriarchy. It would certainly not be a gender non-conforming body. It would not be a trans body. It would not be an intersex body, and so on and so forth.
What propels this group is wanting the American body to get back to looking like that. They want to rid it of all its impurities. And those impurities happen to be queerness, happen to be those women who want autonomy over their bodies, happen to be those folks who are trans and want rights and representation and recognition in the country. They want to rid the country of all of those things that are staining or infecting or diseasing that body, and that’s why the metaphors they use so often are of hordes of contagions, of infections, of invasions, because they feel like their body is being taken over by foreign entities, and the goal is to make sure that that doesn’t happen anymore, as it has since the 1960s.
Sam Goldman 42:42
That was a frightening [laughs, BO joins].
Bradley Onishi 42:45
Sam Goldman 42:46
No, it’s helpful, but when you think about how they view it, it is frightening. Towards the end of your book, you get more into January 6th and what could have happened and what didn’t. One of the points that you make is that temporary defeats or setbacks, for instance, the fact that they didn’t succeed in their coup attempt, don’t stop them. This movement can actually strengthen and advance through them. I was hoping you could talk a little bit more about that.
Bradley Onishi 43:20
As a scholar of religion, I think this is one of religion’s great strengths. When you have a religious tradition or religious community, it’s often casting a story that is multigenerational; it’s a long story, it’s a long game. So, when you tell a story that is imbued with a Christian set of symbols and a Christian set of beginnings and endings, you’re never fully defeated when one decision, when one event doesn’t go your way because you just see it as part of a long narrative where you will ultimately win and triumph. I think January 6th is really that moment. January 6th is a moment where it does not succeed in terms of stopping the election.
Does that mean: Oh, well, white Christian nationalism is over, I better find a new hobby? I better find a new cause? No. What it means is that okay, we’re going to mythologize what happened there. We’re going to use it as a rallying cry. We’re going to invent relics to inspire us to keep going. One example I used in the book is that when Glen Youngkin was running for governor of Virginia, there was a rally and some of his supporters began the rally by having a pledge of allegiance said, but they did so with a flag that was there on January 6th. So all of a sudden they were pledging allegiance, not only to the American flag, but to the January 6th flag, and all of the martyrs and the people who fought and the ways that great valor was shown that day on the battlefield.
My point there is: Because January 6th has never been reckoned with in full in this country, because there has not been consequences for the instigators of January 6th, because the big lie persists, it’s a beginning and not an end. There was no reason for it not to happen again, because those in charge were never punished. They were never expelled from the public square. They were never shown to be outside the pale. The game has been going for a long time. If you’re a Christian nationalist, you think country is founded this way. God’s not gonna give up on this now.
As long as we continue to fight this battle, someday we’ll get our country back. It may not happen in my lifetime. And I’ll just be honest with you, there’s a lot of liberals out there that are like, you know, I’d really like for this thing to happen so that I can enjoy my life. Oh, it didn’t happen. Election didn’t go my way, or whatever. Yeah, Dobbs got overturned… well, we did our best. All right, well, we’ll try again in four years when there’s another election. Hopefully, things will get better, right? Look, I’m 35 or I’m 25, and I would just like to live a life that’s pleasurable, and in an America where I can have some fun and do the things that I want to do. That’s so different than fighting a holy war that’s been going on for 400 years and may go on for 400 more, and may not end in my lifetime, but so what? I’m a soldier in that story and I’m ready to go for the entirety of my lifetime. It’s a very different approach.
Sam Goldman 45:53
I think it points to the reality that what people of conscience are up against is a movement that can’t be reconciled with. It is immune to shame, is immune to reason, and there is no reconciliation except on the terms that they set. I think that example was really, really helpful. In that same section of your book, you talked about the religion that was on display on January 6th, and the role of martyrs like Ashli Babbitt, the roll of relics and the icons of the day that the items or pictures that people see and look at; the cross carried through the Capitol, the gallows, those type of items and symbols.
The stories that people carry forward and share and continue to share, whether it be untruth, social or Gab, or wherever it is that they’re doing this. You are someone who was a former insider. What is it about these martyrs relics and stories from January 6th that are powerful and dangerous still, that those of us who are not insiders may miss?
Bradley Onishi 47:15
I think this is such a good question because it really gets to the heart of that psychology of being the founder and the victim. When I was growing up in evangelical mega churches and going to youth groups and rallies and reading all the books and reading all the pamphlets, the story that I heard all the time was that we are outsiders. We are the ones on the outside looking in, that Christianity has been left behind, God has been left behind. This was kind of a joke if you ask me, because where I grew up was the Bible Belt of Southern California. One out of five, one out of ten kids at my high school were evangelicals. Many of us went to the same church or set of churches. The idea that we were outsiders didn’t match up the demographics, but nonetheless that was the story, okay.
When you take that idea to January 6th — the idea is we are the outsiders, we are the ones that have been left behind — so when we get to the Capitol, we need to do things that make sure that proclaim and recognize that this is properly ours. There are so many times when the rioters stopped to pray. There are so many times when they stopped to give thanks to God for bringing them into the place that he promised them. To me, what that is, is a way to say: We have been looked at as outsiders, but we are now in the place that is properly ours. We have gotten into where we belong.
So the flags, the symbols, the crosses, the slogans, the patches on people’s vests, all of the ways that people mark out their identity are really ways to say: You might think I’m the outsider, you might think I’m the nobody — as you said earlier, you might underestimate me — but I’m the real American. I’m the real Christian, and the House of the People, meaning Congress, meaning the Capitol, meaning any public space in this country, belongs to me, and I’m going to take it. Yeah, maybe January 6, 2021 didn’t go our way, but we’ve got the relics. We’ve got the symbols. We’ve got the martyrs and we remember, and we’re going to keep going. Because there’s no giving up now. We’re part of God’s story for God’s country. Why would I ever think that you could defeat that? No way. We’re more motivated than we’ve ever been before. [SG gives long sigh]. Look…
Sam Goldman 47:15
If we don’t confront what we’re up against, we actually are totally incapable of stopping it. If we prettify something and it’s about to demolish us all, then we don’t have any chance. If friends need an exhibit for that, look to how people looked at Dobbs, [BO: Yup] and refused to see what was going to happen, refused to look at the danger and then were hella hurt with, what is it, 22 million women, at least, not having access to abortion in the states. So, face reality. Look at it. It’s scary, but you can then affect it and impact it with your actions. I don’t know. That’s what I got.
Bradley Onishi 49:24
I think you’re absolutely right. Yeah.
Sam Goldman 49:32
I wanted to close out by giving you the opportunity, Brad, to say anything else about your forthcoming book, or anything else that you wanted to say, any myths that you think you need to bust before we close out?
Bradley Onishi 50:27
Well, in light of what we just talked about, what I don’t want to leave people with is the idea that this is an unassailable situation, and that those of us who do not see Christian supremacy as the the right way to go forward are just doomed to submit to it. It is a shrinking group. It is an aging group. It’s a group that is demographically smaller and smaller and smaller as we think about the country. But I think what history has shown us is that if we don’t do what you just said, if we’re not willing to look straight into the situation, into the abyss and confront it, then we will continue to underestimate, we will continue to push off and we will continue to think no, that can’t happen here.
I guess my outlook is always: I’m not into despair, just for despair’s sake. I’m just not. I’m not into nihilism, just for nihilism sake. What I’m into is really hard looks into the mirror that say: I think I need to admit that the time that I want to live in is not the time I’m living in. We’ve got a lot of hard stuff going on. There’s a lot of pain, there’s a lot of hurt, there’s a lot of anxiety, there’s a lot of exclusion, there’s a lot of separation. We need to mourn that, and we need to see it for what it is and see what’s happening. Then we need to say, what are we going to do? What’s the one thing you can do?
We can Doom scroll and think I can’t do everything, so I’m going to do nothing; so I might as well just get on here and doom scroll and be full of overwhelming grief and despair. Or, I can say: I can help one way and I’m going to do that. I’ve never done it before, I don’t know how to do it, I’m a little uncomfortable, I’m a little shy, I don’t want to step out of my comfort zone, but I need to face up to where we are and I need to go do that thing.
I think that’s always my encouragement to people. Don’t do everything. Don’t think you can fix the world. Don’t think that everything will be better once we just get Joe Biden into office or some b.s. like that. That was never going to be the case. The reality is, my book is supposed to say: You’re in a war, you’re actually in a war. You are, you really are. You can either say: Well, time to give up, just watch Netflix as the Titanic sinks, or I can actually pick a thing, go do it, contribute how I can, and then support others who are doing other things, and trying to help others in other ways.
Sam Goldman 52:29
I think that is a perfect place to end. I want to thank you, Brad, for helping us and helping me get through tonight. You didn’t know this was a therapy session, but it was. I just want to thank you for coming on the show, for sharing your time, your expertise, your perspective with us. Super helpful. Folks should go check out the show notes, where you can find a link to Bradley’s site, a link to his show, and a link to Twitter if Twitter is still a thing by the time we upload this; it’s so messed up. Anything else, Brad?
Bradley Onishi 53:16
Just gonna say thank you for all your work for keeping your flag up and doing this show refusing fascism, and just thankful for you building this space. It’s really sad that a book on white Christian nationalism was the thing that gets you through election night in the United States, but [SG: That’s where we’re at!] that’s a pretty good referendum on the status. So anyway, yeah. Thanks for having me.
Sam Goldman 53:37
Despite what the pundits said, people continue to be outraged over the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Now is not the time to relent on our demand for abortion rights, but to double down. Rise Up for Abortion Rights has called for nationwide protests at federal courthouses on December 1, the anniversary of oral arguments in the Dobbs case that resulted in the overturn of Roe and a loss of legal protection for abortion rights. Manifest in green and protests nationwide at courthouses around the country. Thursday, December 1, mark your calendars, invite folks. Together, we’re going to make clear that we cannot rely on the courts and have to rely on ourselves to rise up to win legal abortion on demand … everywhere.
Sam Goldman 54:28
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