The Psychology of Christian Nationalism: Why People Are Drawn In and How to Talk Across the Divide

"[This is] a book for people like me and hopefully people like you: who refuse to give up on hope, who believe we should regard others from more than a human point of view, who have faith that the gospel can still transform lives ...."

Pamela Cooper-White
Fortress Press, 190 pages | Published May 31, 2022

I was in the midst of reading The Psychology of Christian Nationalism when my community of Highland Park, Illinois, suffered a tragic mass shooting on July 4th, 2022, taking the lives of seven people. After that, I struggled to continue reading. It seemed like too much to digest in the midst of trauma and watching the vitriol of disparate narratives arguing how we needed more – or fewer – guns. On October 14, as I write, there have been 532 mass shootings in the U.S. this year — one in Raleigh, North Carolina, just occurred as I finish.

When I was finally able to approach this book, I read it twice. I knew it was important. I didn’t know how or why I felt it was until I took a trip to Northern Ireland and met John Kelly. John grew up in and remains in Derry/Londonderry, where he became deeply committed to Ireland’s civil rights movement.

John had two brothers and six sisters. They grew up in a tight and cramped house in Derry’s Bogside neighborhood. Close both in relation and proximity, the boys shared one bed and the girls the other. He joked he would always wake up warm because his brother Mike peed on him! Mike was a fun, free-spirited and kind teenager who had no political leanings, despite growing up Catholic in a very tense part of Northern Ireland. As the civil rights movement (inspired by the American effort) was kicking off in his hometown, marches protesting the internment of Irish Republicans were in full swing. An extremely large one was planned in Derry and while John was politically active, Mike just wanted to go because his friends were attending — it was a bit of excitement for the 17-year-old. John told us how he was in another part of the city when people ran up to him and told him he needed to go with them right away. He followed them as they sprinted down the streets until he stopped suddenly at the sight. His brother, Mike Kelly lay dying in the middle of the street after being gunned down by British paratroopers, making him the youngest victim of the Bloody Sunday Massacre.

The narrative was different depending on who you asked: If you were a British Unionist, Mike was an IRA terrorist. If you were an Irish Republican, he was an innocent kid who turned the wrong corner at the wrong time. In 2021, nearly 50 years after the massacre, the British Government finally conceded the mass shooting of Irish Catholics in Derry by British forces was unprovoked, unwarranted and completely unjustified. I asked John how he deals with the anger of that day. How does he find healing amidst such pain and loss? He said he keeps his heart focused on justice. I’ll be honest, I don’t know what justice looks like in that situation.

On the ride back to Corrymeela, where I was staying, I considered the similarities in rhetoric and social climate between the beginning of the “troubles” in Ireland and our current situation at home. I thought about the protests I found myself stumbling into while in Chicago after George Floyd’s murder and how quickly I could have ended up in a similar fate as Mike Kelly or the 12 others who lost their lives on the streets of Derry. I thought about how easy it would be to change the names of locations, organizations and political alignments from Ireland to the U.S. and believe the massacre happened here. And of course, I thought about the horrific Fourth of July in my recently adopted neighborhood, where a young man climbed to the roof of a local business and reigned terror down on our peaceful parade, taking the lives of seven people. I thought about how diverging narratives were constructed and co-opted for pushing agendas – the shooter was radicalized by Antifa or was a huge Trump supporter – depending on which side of “the gun issue” you’re on.

As we passed the “peace walls” in Derry and Belfast that are still in place with their barbed wire and iron gates that lock at night to keep Protestant and Catholic neighbors “safe” from each other, I thought about Charlottesville with its cries of “Jews will not replace us.” I thought about “Black lives matter” being shouted down by “all lives matter” and “blue lives matter,” as though to somehow recognize the preciousness of one overlooked life means denying the worth of another. I thought of the language of civil war that is increasingly invoked these days, and I thought about the attempted insurrection on January 6, 2021, in Washington D.C. How fragile we are as a nation right now! How careful we must be; “peace walls” separating neighbors divided by ideology could become our reality. Northern Ireland is a cautionary tale for what a civil war of ideology looks like.

As we pulled up to Corrymeela, a community just outside Ballycastle dedicated to the work of reconciliation, I collected my things and looked down at the book I was supposed to be writing a long-overdue review for. I wondered: is it even possible to talk across that divide or work for reconciliation in our context? Who is this book written for? It isn’t for people who didn’t see anything wrong with January 6 — the book opens with a comprehensive, factual review of the day’s events that will be disputed by those who supported the insurrectionists. It isn’t a book for people who need to be dissuaded of the damages so-called Christian nationalism inflicts on democracy. It isn’t a book for someone so deeply entrenched in their “side” they refuse to budge. It’s a book for people like me and hopefully people like you: who refuse to give up on hope, who believe we should regard others from more than a human point of view, who have faith that the gospel can still transform lives, that there must be a better way forward and that God’s kin-dom is drawing near.

For me, the litmus test of a good book isn’t whether or not I agree with everything the author says or how much it aligns with what I believe; I often tell my book study groups that understanding why we disagree with an author helps us to learn and grow more than merely reading things with which we agree. The true test for me is this: Do the ideas stay with me? Do I find myself thinking about and reflecting on the author’s insights? Do the ideas challenge me? Do I notice myself thinking about how the book relates to what I’m experiencing as I walk through my life? This book passes the test.

When I read this book in July, I could barely make it through the introduction and the first chapter; it seemed like just a divisive rehashing of January 6th. My town was just shot up. I wanted something to bring people together, not potentially tear them further apart. After time had passed, I read it again and found it more palatable. After all, I agreed the January 6th riot was atrocious, and the book offered valuable insight into how we got here, what a definition of Christian nationalism may look like and offered the clarity and language to express why it’s such a dangerous ideology.

And the final chapter offers hope. Cooper-White provides a possible road map for us to listen to, understand and speak in a way where we can be heard by those across the divide. Right now, I believe that’s where the hard work needs to happen — listening, understanding and speaking in a way where we can be heard. I don’t know if by reading this book I’ll be able to change anyone’s mind or convince someone to abandon so-called Christian nationalism. But I have hope that it’s possible. The book gives me hope I may be able to better hear those in my midst and understand, rather than alienate them. It gives me hope they may be able to hear where I’m coming from and why I feel Christian nationalism is an affront to the gospel and antithetical to a life in Christ. Most importantly, it gives me hope we can learn the lessons from places like Northern Ireland and avoid walking similar roads.

That hope is enough for today. Enough to keep me working to find paths of true reconciliation … to keep faith in our fragile democratic experiment … to help me remember we’re all precious children of God, no matter how misguided or wrong we may view others to be. Because of that hope, I’m grateful to Cooper-White for writing this book, I’m glad I took the time to read and re-read it, and I look forward to reading it again.

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