I held off on buying and reading Preparing for War until I met Bradley Onishi at my organization’s conference, the Summit for Religious Freedom, in April, because I couldn’t imagine that there could be more to say about Christian Nationalism that hadn’t already been said. Fortunately—or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it—he proved me wrong.
Would he have been there?
Onishi’s book, Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism—and What Comes Next uses the January 6th, 2021 insurrection as a focal point to investigate the history of White Christian Nationalism that got what Onishi calls “MAGA Nation” to that point. Poignantly, he reflects on his teen years in a White Christian Nationalist church and contemplates whether, if he hadn’t left the church back in 2005, he (like others from his former congregation) would have been rioting as well.
I’m always skeptical of books which purport to answer a simple question, especially a yes or no question. Would Onishi have been there? His short answer is yes, he likely would have. But the rest of the 220 pages more than justify this crucial read.
The other question Onishi tackles takes much more explanation: How did we get here? The front flap asks it this way: “How did the rise of what Onishi calls the new Religious Right, between 1960 and 2015, give birth to violent White Christian nationalism during the Trump presidency and beyond? What propelled some of the most conservative religious communities in the country—communities of which Onishi was once a part—to ignite a cold civil war?”
Jesus and John Wayne
If I’m totally honest, the information in Preparing for War overlapped greatly with the story told in Kristin Kobes du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne. Namely, both books explain how in the world Donald Trump, the “thrice-married television star accused of sexual assault, corruption, fraud, and money laundering,” was the first choice for a majority of evangelical voters in 2016 and 2020. While Jesus and John Wayne shows the similarities between evangelicals’ love of Trump with their love of, not surprisingly, John Wayne, Onishi connects Trump to Ronald Reagan, who in turn he likens to Barry Goldwater.
In my review of Jesus and John Wayne, I shared the following quote that exemplified their uncanny traits:
To many conservatives, including evangelicals, Wayne personified “a tone of life” that needed to be recovered if the country was to reverse course “from the masochistic tailspin of this prideless age.” He modeled a heroic American manhood that rallied the good against evil; took pride in the red, white, and blue; and wasn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty. That Wayne never fought for his country, that he left behind a string of broken marriages and allegations of abuse—none of this seemed to matter. Wayne might come up short in terms of traditional virtue, but he excelled at embodying a different set of virtues. At a time of social upheaval, Wayne modeled masculine strength, aggression, and redemptive violence.KRISTIN KOBES DU MEZ, JESUS AND JOHN WAYNE, PP. 58-59
And Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater
Compare that to Onishi’s description of why certain Christians were so eager to replace Jimmy Carter with Ronald Reagan.
In many ways, the shift from the Southern Baptist to the Hollywood actor was unsurprising. Evangelicals and Catholics were unhappy with Carter’s approaches to abortion, the ERA, gay rights, and the Cold War. They wanted a nationalist more than a Baptist, and political power more than religious solidarity. Despite the fact that Reagan was a divorced man who made his living in Hollywood—a den of sin, according to many conservative Christians—and despite the fact that he had supported abortion as governor of California and had tense relationships with his older children, the New Religious Right viewed him as more “Christian” than the evangelical sitting in the Oval Office.Bradley Onishi, Preparing for War, p. 92
Upon reading this, I was immediately struck by the similarities between these two and evangelicals’ preference in 2020 of Trump over Biden specifically. Biden is a Catholic who had an obnoxiously Christian inauguration, who speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast every year, and is politically moderate and thoroughly capitalist—about as right-wing as a Democrat can be. And yet, because he supports milquetoast rights such as abortion and gay marriage, evangelicals reject him and even call him a godless communist.
It’s even more telling that when reading Onishi’s following introduction to a major player in normalizing “cowboy conservatism,” it took me four guesses before I even knew who he was describing.
While pastors and political operatives are the central players in this tale, one of the founding figures of the modern movement was a cowboy from the American West—a man full of animal magnetism and a brusque mentality, a person born into privilege who somehow made himself out to be an everyman by eschewing book-learning and East Coast elitism, and one who led a successful political career with no major setbacks, only to become the biggest loser in American presidential history.Bradley Onishi, Preparing for War, p. 25
I thought it was John Wayne, then Trump, then Reagan, and only after reading a good portion of the following chapter did I realize Onishi was describing Barry Goldwater, who took the rugged John Wayne masculinity that conservative America had fallen in love with in the 1920s and 30s to run for president in 1964. While Goldwater himself lost, evangelicals’ desire for someone like him is what got us Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Donald Trump in 2016.
Trump the barbarian-king
Onishi puts this, too, into perspective:
This leads to one final lesson to be learned from the Carter-Reagan election. When it came to voting for Donald Trump, Christian nationalists had a precedent for prioritizing politics over morals and policies over identity. In the wake of Trump’s 2016 election, in which he gained the support of 81 percent of White evangelicals and 60 percent of White Catholics, many claimed that conservative Christians must have had to hold their noses in order to vote for a thrice-divorced television star who talked about God at opportune moments but seemed, by all accounts, to have no relationship with God. Yet viewed through the lens of the Goldwater-Reagan heritage, as it was cultivated by the likes of Weyrich, Falwell, and others, voting for Trump was likely a gratifying, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many Christian nationalists. If Reagan’s two-term presidency was the culmination of Goldwater’s extremism, then the election of Trump was an unforeseen triumph. A man who mixed the unhinged rhetoric of Goldwater with the civil war mentality of Weyrich and Falwell and the camera-ready persona of Reagan, Trump was not an imperfect candidate who somehow managed to garner the votes of White Christians. He was the prototype of the candidate White Christians had been searching for since the early 1960s.Bradley Onishi, Preparing for War, pp. 94-95
As for Trump’s exhibition of the total opposite of the purity culture that Onishi was taught to value, Onishi, citing Leslie Durrough Smith, Kristin Kobes du Mez, and Miranda Devine, exposes the reverse psychology of why purity culture apologists love Trump so much: “aggressive sexual behavior is actually seen as a virtue for the leader tasked with protecting the nation from invaders and extending the American empire. […] This transgression is viewed not as an unforgivable sin but as a sign of virility and power.” In a deranged way, “Trump has been viewed as the barbarian-king who is willing to fight this war without concern for civility or etiquette.” He “oversteps the bounds of purity in order to make it possible for pure nations to exist.” Like their God who could follow few to none of his own rules, Trump was above the law if it meant that he could keep undesirables in their place.
Turning Orange County red
To be clear, Preparing for War is much more than an elaboration on the points in Jesus and John Wayne. An Orange County native, Onishi puts great emphasis on the effects of the Sunbelt Migration of the 50s and 60s on Orange County, and subsequently on how Orange County’s new largely White evangelical and ultra-conservative population became fertile soil for the conspiracy theory-peddling John Birch Society and the epicenter of the Goldwater campaign.
If Paul Weyrich had not witnessed Barry Goldwater’s defeat in 1964, he might not have gone on to launch the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and the Council for National Policy, which are Christian Nationalist scourges on our nation to this day. Maybe you’ve heard of something Weyrich also started with his friend named Jerry Falwell in the 1970s: the Moral Majority. If poor, patriotic farmers hadn’t migrated to Orange County decades earlier and painted the county red, none of us might have heard of it.
But this great American migration is not over. A proud Pittsburgher, I’ve been largely unaware of the “American Redoubt,” a terrifying “right flight” of MAGA supporters leaving places like California to settle in White Christian Nationalist “refuges.”
Yet there’s another trend to consider beyond the localized conflicts popping up from Virginia to California to Michigan: The movement for geographical consolidation and de facto secession—what one might call the Make America Great Again Migration. I’m not talking about states officially leaving the Union but of members of MAGA Nation banding together in semiautonomous regions where they take over local government, cultivate Christian nationalist churches, and do everything possible to create a theocratic society where White Christians have all the power. Such a migration is already happening from places like California, coastal Washington, and parts of the East Coast to what is now known as the “American Redoubt”—the region comprising Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, eastern Washington, and eastern Oregon. Redoubt means stronghold or fortification. Etymologically, it is similar to refuge. The American Redoubt is, in essence, a safe space to which some White Christians are fleeing in order to take refuge from the rest of the country.Bradley Onishi, Preparing for War, p. 200
A promise of war
Wanting to escape from a world that they are forced to share with queer people and people of color, these fleeing Christian Nationalists from California are actually turning places like Idaho more red. They’ve felt at home under elected officials like Matt Shea, who was a state representative for a district in eastern Washington until 2020.
This ideal came into clearer focus when Shea’s manifesto on biblical warfare was leaked in 2018. In the four-page document, Shea outlines his theory of just war. First, he lays out his vision for government: “Tyranny is never a divinely appointed means of government. A tyrant is someone who rules without God. Tyranny is not a lawful form of government. Godless civil rulers are no more than bands of robbers. When the rule of law dies as sin prevails throughout the land, tyranny is not far behind.” The manifesto reads like a theocratic manual for the American Redoubt.
After casting his vision for theocracy, Shea sets the terms for negotiating with anyone who resists: “Make an offer of Peace before declaring war. Not a negotiation or compromise of righteousness. Must surrender on terms of justice and righteousness: 1. Stop all abortions; 2. No same-sex marriage; 3. No idolatry or occultism; 4. No communism; and 5. Must obey Biblical law. If they yield—must pay share of work or taxes. If they do not yield—kill all males.”Bradley Onishi, Preparing for War, p. 208
(Even though Shea was removed from the State House when these documents came to light, now, of course, he’s a pastor.)
This language from Shea shows that when people like Brad Onishi use language like “Preparing for war,” it is not to be hyperbolic. It would be easy for the uninitiated to think it’s alarmist to use this language and that it is a bold claim to make without evidence. However, not only is there ample evidence (just look at the photos and videos of January 6th), but books like Preparing for War and others like it demonstrate in logical and meticulous detail how religious extremists and power-hungry authoritarians have for 70 years convinced populations terrified of losing their privilege to tear down the wall between church and state brick by brick.
Scholars are not telling us this so that we can sit back in numb terror and wait for democracy to fall, for the United States to become like China or Russia. They tell us this because if we know the signs, we can fight the tide of Christian Nationalism. No matter how many lies fascists tell and how many tools they have in their belts, there simply are not as many of them as there are of us who believe in religious pluralism and in things like abortion rights and trans liberation. When we show up en masse like we did in 2020, and make it known that the United States is a nation of all beliefs, we are heard. We can take the country back—not, as the Christian Nationalists say, “for God,” but for all of us.