Of all the songs I loved singing as a child at my church’s Vacation Bible School every summer, my favorite was one called, “I’m in the Lord’s Army.”
We sang the lyrics—“I may never march in the infantry, ride in the cavalry, shoot the artillery. I may never fly o’er the enemy, but I’m in the Lord’s army, yes, sir!”—to what sounded like a rousing military parade song. But the real fun came from the hand and body motions we got to perform as we belted the tune out in our pews, movements where we pretended to be valiantly marching, riding, shooting, soaring, and, finally, saluting when we yelled out the “yes, sir” line at the top of our lungs.
What had been an almost forgotten song—and an equally distant memory—came unexpectedly rushing back to me as I was reading Bradley Onishi’s new book, Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism—and What Comes Next. Onishi, a religious studies scholar and co-host of the popular podcast, “Straight White American Jesus,” is a former evangelical minister who no longer identifies as a Christian. Watching the horrific events of the January 6 Capitol insurrection on his television in 2021, however, Onishi found himself confronted by an unrelenting thought: “I could have been there.”
Onishi grew up in what was the conservative hotbed of Orange County, California, and became an evangelical Christian as a teenager in the 1990s, a conversion that, he writes, was “extreme” and that ushered him into a zealous life of religious revivals, purity pledges, anti-abortion pamphleteering, and earnest, if frantic, efforts to convert others. Reflecting back on his past and mindful that some of those he once worshipped alongside were among the violent January 6 rioters who breached the U.S. Capitol—and that far many more of his former fellow churchgoers supported the events of January 6—Onishi is haunted by the idea that, had he not left the faith while in graduate school, he could have been one of them, another righteous crusader who believed he was saving the nation by any means necessary.
In Preparing for War, Onishi situates memories of his own religious fervor within the “extremist history,” as the book’s subtitle states, of white Christian nationalism from the 1950s to today. Yet what comes alive in Onishi’s absorbing and often disturbing work is the simple ordinariness and ubiquity of a lot of what he explores. How so much of what often passes as regular—and unremarkable—features of American life and culture have also helped cultivate the context in which a radical white Christian nationalism could take hold.
Onishi is right to trace the history of religio-political extremism from the John Birch Society’s rabid anti-communism in the 1950s through the Moral Majority’s anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ backlash in the 1980s to the recent sight of MAGA vigilantes attacking the Capitol while holding “Jesus Is My Savior—Trump Is My President” flags. Onishi’s most significant and startling contribution, though, to the growing body of works on Christian nationalism is in how he portrays an American past where the seemingly anodyne—from bland, soulless suburbs to “See You at the Pole” school prayer events to the persistence of nostalgia—has facilitated a rising acceptance of and even longing for political authoritarianism in the United States in the guise of restoring the nation to its “proper” heritage where white Christian men sit in authority. It’s this understated revelation of Preparing for War that had me suddenly recalling the drumbeats of “I’m in the Lord’s Army” and pondering how a bunch of white suburban kids singing a militaristic hymn almost 40 years ago in a different Orange County—in my case, Florida—may have foreshadowed the army of January 6 insurgents, complete with crosses and “Jesus Saves” banners.
Onishi rightly distinguishes white Christian nationalism from white evangelicalism, noting that many Catholics and Mormons subscribe to white Christian nationalist ideas. Onishi also points out that a significant number of Christian nationalists do not attend church, have meager religious literacy, and often live lives not in keeping with conservative evangelical theology. Some evangelical thought leaders have especially glommed onto this fact, eager to show white Christian nationalism as a fringe and areligious peculiarity, thus rescuing “pure” evangelicalism from the mess. (Such insistence feels similar to those who fixated on some of the data that showed evangelicals with lower church attendance rates were stronger Trump supporters, despite the more important statistic that, overall, self-identified white evangelicals, whatever their churchgoing habits, gave the thrice-married casino magnate more than 80 percent of their vote in two different elections.) Onishi contends, however, that it is evangelicalism’s “apocalyptic cosmology” that has shaped the notions of those, religious and secular alike, who believe the United States is on the “precipice of catastrophic decline” and has provided them with a righteous justification to “save the nation” from the ravages of demographic change and progressive transformation, especially in regard to issues of sexuality and gender.
Onishi’s nod to the non-churchgoing minority within the white Christian nationalist camp provides a potentially rich subject matter for future scholars to investigate more deeply. Especially in a time of declining church attendance rates and as Christian-affiliated Americans approach a minority status over the coming decades, understanding non-religious Americans’ use of white Christian nationalism as a form of political expression may help us rethink the secularization thesis for the United States and shift our ideas about religious affiliation in a period of institutional freefall.
At the same time, Onishi loses some of the subtle complicatedness of his own narrative when he contends, several times, that January 6 was the next “logical step” of white Christian nationalism. It’s an argument that threatens to reduce the big and sprawling history he has compellingly laid out into a sort of secularized form of the deterministic theology many Christians hold of how history unfurls. It also fails to account for the many other factors that played into that violent day.
This quibble with Onishi’s argument doesn’t discount the important case he makes in Preparing for War, nor does it detract from his urgent contention that we must understand what led to the January 6 attack to better prepare for what is coming. January 6, Onishi writes, “was the first battle in MAGA Nation’s war on American democracy.” Anyone watching the headlines of the last two years, not least the ongoing collapse of the GOP into full-scale extremism, should recognize this.
Yet, one might easily grow hopeless wondering what sort of counterforce can possibly stand up to the powerful movement Onishi is spotlighting. At the conclusion of his book, Onishi writes about the emergence of the “American Redoubt,” the name given to the region of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and the eastern parts of Oregon and Washington, where thousands of white Christian conservatives have begun moving at an accelerating rate. (Many of those who are relocating are Californians, including from Orange County where demographic shifts have made white Christian conservatives there a minority.) Journalists have reported on this development in recent years, but their often-quizzical coverage has tended to treat this phenomenon, even in our age of fracture and violence, as an outlier: a place of COVID-denying wackos and survivalist separatists who are building their alternative theocratic society in the middle of nowhere.
Onishi sees something different in the American Redoubt: not the early signs of a breakaway republic but instead the continuation of a history seven decades in the making. Smartly, Onishi connects this current “geographical consolidation” to the earlier mass migration of white Southerners into Southern California in the mid-twentieth century, a resettling that turned Orange County into the conservative stronghold from which a powerful religious right emerged to take over the Republican Party and transform the nation.
“Only this time,” Onishi writes, “the goal is not to take control of a political party. The goal is to prepare for the collapse of the United States and the chance to rebuild a theocratic state.”
“Why didn’t we see this coming?” Onishi asks. It’s a good question, especially considering how much of the history he sketches has been thoroughly documented by a score of scholars of white evangelicalism and of the Christian right for more than two decades now. Yet these scholars, myself included, may have been too generous in our treatment of the politics of conservative Christianity, too eager to find a place for culture war extremists calling for the nation’s destruction within the mainstream of American politics, and too willing to interpret all their talk of warfare, righteous soldiers, and “good and evil” as spiritual metaphors rather than literal statements of reality and messianic calls to action. As political violence escalates and as a Christo-fascist worldview increasingly dominates the American right, we might heed Onishi’s admonition to revisit this history with an eye attuned to its violent and extremist impulses.
Neil J. Young is the author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics and co-host of the history podcast, “Past Present.”