Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism—and What Comes Next

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Release Date: 
January 3, 2023
Broadleaf Books
Reviewed by: 

“White evangelicalism is a movement thoroughly entrenched in American nationalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and xenophobia.”

If you were alarmed by the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol and the wave of racially motivated mass murders that have taken place over the last few years, you should read Bradly Onishi’s Preparing for War. 

This is a well written if scary book, a warning about the growing threat from what Onishi, a professor at the University of San Francisco, identifies as white Christian nationalism, aka the New Religious Right.

The author details how this movement developed over the last half century, first promoted as a counter-voice to the secular civil rights movement of the 1960s. It gained momentum during the 1970s and ’80s, and, since the ’90s, has been the defining feature of hardline conservatism. It’s a social movement uniquely combining traditionalist values, religious nationalism, white identity, rightwing Republican politics, and strong financial support from elements of the upper classes.

The Christian nationalist belief system is anchored in a traditionalist notion of the two-parent family where the mother and father fulfill gender-specific roles. For decades their primary focus was on banning abortion and prohibiting same-sex marriage. That focus recently expanded to target transgender youth, school curriculum, library books, and non-white immigrants. Still other divisive traditionalist beliefs like patriarchy, authoritarianism, racism, antisemitism, and anti-Muslim sentiments have been increasingly expressed.

“The birth of the Religious Right as part of the New Right in the 1970s was a result of a repackaging of racist ideologies in the form of family values and protests against taxation,” Onishi points out.

Most troubling, white Christian nationalists who participated in the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville (VA) shouted the slogans, “You Will Not Replace Us” and “Jews Will Not Replace Us.” As Onishi discusses, they are represented by Richard Spencer who, in The Charlottesville Statement, issued on August 11, 2017, that gave voice to the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally. 

Spencer and other race-nationalists champion “the ideal of a white ethno-state—and it is an ideal—is something that I think we should think about in the sense of what could come after America.” He declared, “We [white people] conquered this continent. . . . Whether it’s nice to say or not, we won and we got to define what America means and we got to define what this continent means.” He warned, “America, at the end of the day, belongs to white men.”

One of the most insightful analyses Onishi offers is his discussions of the rise of white Christian nationalism in Orange County, CA, and the more recent migration of many white Christians to Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming in what is known as the “American Redoubt.”

In his well-written study, Onishi weaves the story of his personal life with a hard-hitting critique of Christian nationalism. At one point, he tells the reader that he has “a white mom and a Japanese American dad”; unfortunately, he says little about how his interracial family fit into the very white, Orange County, CA, nor whether he faced any racial hostility growing up. He discusses his experiences as a youth group leader and in prayer meetings at an evangelical church. Most revealing, he reflects on how he matured from a Christian evangelist youth to a secular Christian and religious scholar.

One of the weaknesses of Onishi’s book is the lack of historical context. For example, he does acknowledge other periods in American history when rightwing, Christian conservatives sought to contain changes remaking the nation.

One example occurred during the era of the Know-Nothings of the 1850s that fought over what it meant to be “white.” Once Irish Catholics were “non-white” as were Italian Catholic “wops” (i.e., “without papers”) and Eastern European Jews; and, today, it’s Asians, Africans and (dark complexioned) Hispanics who are not “white.” It was a period in which Chinese immigrants were also targeted. 

A second example occurred during the post-World War II period that saw the Christian right work with Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s (R-WI) and others to investigate communists and “homosexuals and other sex perverts.” The federal government, with the support of the religious right, also investigated the role of obscene media in the reported growth of juvenile delinquency.

Onishi links the rise of white Christian nationalism of the 1970s to a racist, anti-civil-rights struggle. This undervalues the tumultuous social upheaval that marked the 1960s with widespread student demonstration, anti-Vietnam war marches, the women’s and gay rights movements and, perhaps most threatening, the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll of the youth-oriented counterculture. 

Nevertheless, these analytic weaknesses take nothing away from the important warning that Onishi’s Preparing for War represents. White Christian nationalism is growing. As the Public Religion Research Institute recently reported, more than half of Republicans believe the country should be a strictly Christian nation, either adhering to the ideals of Christian nationalism (21%) or sympathizing with those views (33%).

Many white Christian nationalists, especially men, fear that they are being “replaced” by women, African Americans, Jews and the growing number—and diversity—of immigrates who’ve settled in the U.S. over the last quarter century. America is changing; the demographic clock is ticking against them. As the 2020 Census documents, they are being superseded. 

The racial/ethnic composition of the country is changing and, by 2050, the U.S. is projected be a “majority-minority” country, with white non-Hispanics making up less than half of the total population. This sense of replacement infuses what is known as the “politics of resentment”—and it is the “war” that Onishi warns readers to prepare for. 

Can white Christian nationalists win this round of the political/culture wars? Can they return America to a mythic post-WW-II nation of good-old Ike, Ozzie & Harriet and white suburban prosperity?—or some postmodern version of it? Or has simply too much changed in terms of demographics, social values, and capitalist globalizations to make their attempt to turn back the historic clock unviable?

What if, somehow, they succeed? Will America end up living a 21st century nightmare? Will it become a postmodern, Christian Iran?