Dr. Brad Onishi is the host of the Straight White American Jesus podcast, the most popular religion and politics podcast on Apple Podcasts. His latest book, Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism and What Comes Next, hit the shelves in January and uses vignettes from his past life as an Evangelical Christian leader to unpack the religious history that led to the January 6th insurrection. A scholar of religion, Brad teaches about and researches Christian nationalism, the history of evangelicalism, race and racism in American religion, and more.
Hear the full May 13, 2023 State of Belief Radio program here.
Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, Host:
Brad Onishi is the host of the Straight White American Jesus podcast, the most popular religion and politics podcast on Apple Podcasts. His new book is titled, Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism and What Comes Next. And I am glad he is with us today.
Brad, welcome to State of Belief Radio.
Dr. Bradley Onishi, Guest:
Thanks so much for having me, Paul. It’s an honor to be here and alway always happy to chat with you. Thank you.
Oh, me too. Now, first of all, I just want to say, you landed on perhaps the best podcast name ever. How did that happen? It is so funny. And my guess is there’s people out there who are like, oh, great, that’s the podcast for me. And then they listen to it and they’re like, wait a second. But how did you come up with that? What’s the genesis of that name?
You know, it was deep in the Trump years, 2018. And I took a two-hour drive to see my friend Dan Miller who’s my co-host, and I said, Dan, you know, we’re academics, but I think as former evangelicals we have something to say. And I think a lot of people in this country, their problem comes down to the fact that they think Jesus was a straight white American guy driving a big truck and holding an automatic rifle and voting Republican; and so, let’s try to figure that out through a podcast.
And you’re exactly right, Paul. So, I just the other day, had the Daily Wire reach out to see if they could advertise on the show – because I think they just thought, finally! Somebody who worships this great white American Jesus.
Someone’s speaking the truth. Right? I mean someone is brave enough to speak the truth – and that’s Brad Onishi, everyone! No, it’s so genius. And that is actually a great story. I love that. I mean, it’s almost like you pranked them. I mean, it’s really, really good.
But it also leads us into your own background. I mean, this is not something that you’ve observed from afar. You come out of this very particular experience in American religion. I wonder if you could just take us there as a way of getting into your new book – where you come from, how you came to be a part of this culture, and how you view it now. But let’s start with where you come from.
Yeah, so I grew up in Orange County, California, made famous by various TV shows and all that stuff. Pretty middle-class family: dad drove a Corolla, going to a state park for vacation kind of stuff. He is Japanese American. My mom’s white. And a pretty non-religious household; but when I was 14 my 14-year-old girlfriend, my eighth-grade girlfriend, invited me to a Wednesday night Bible study. By that time, I was a kind of punk who was getting in trouble, and It was a megachurch. And I think a lot of people out there don’t imagine Southern California as this kind of religious landscape that it is, but where I grew up was really the Bible Belt of Southern California. And this was just one of many megachurches in the area.
And I got hooked. I got hooked on the guitars and the young leaders with tattoos and the fun youth group games. And fast forward, by the time I was 20, I was a full-time minister. I got married to my high school sweetheart, and I started seminary pretty soon thereafter. So my conversion was really extreme. I can tell you stories about me being just a really weird little guy who was a very zealous convert; but I stayed in the religion game after leaving evangelicalism and am now a religion professor and have been studying these things philosophically and historically for 20 years now – but yeah, it all goes back to just getting invited to a Wednesday night Bible study and my mom saying, sure.
You write… One of your chapters is just so provocative. It says, “Would I have been there?” I might be getting it a little bit wrong, but it’s essentially asking the question or posing this idea, “I was close to being in the crowd on January 6th. That would not have been a stretch for me had I continued on the trajectory I was at.”
So, in some ways, you’re being really honest, like this is not foreign, this is not totally other to you. Talk about that a little bit.
Yeah, you know, I think these days, there’s a lot of space to talk about being an ex-evangelical or ex-LDS. There’s communities, there’s support groups, there’s books. It’s a lot harder to come out and say, hey, I used to be a Christian nationalist. And yeah, I think maybe a white Christian nationalist.
But when I watched January 6th, that really clicked for me that, yes, I’ve identified as an ex-evangelical for a long time. But my church was one that had Christian nationalist elements such that there were people who were from my hometown, from the church, who were at January 6th. And what I realized is, all right, if this happens right around my conversion, if January 6th and the Trump years are right around my conversion, those are the years where I am zealous. I mean, where I am willing to go all out. I am preparing for the rapture. I am proselytizing every chance I get.
I write in the book that I would go to the flagpole outside of my high school every Friday, and I would pray for the nation; and people would be walking by me like, who is this weird kid, like praying to the flagpole. So in those years, I was ready to go. And if there had been a man in my church who was like, hey, Brad, we need to go to DC and fight for the country. I’ll pay for your plane ticket. Let’s go. I think I would have said yes. And it really scared me.
And I think part of the part of the confluence there is the invitation: we need to bring Jesus – because people brought Jesus to January 6th. That was their understanding of Jesus, the white Christian, the white American straight Jesus to January 6th – so if they had framed this as part of the religious fervor, I think that’s the nut of it. It’s like, this is what it means to be a good Christian today. And I think that’s the trap, frankly, of Christian nationalism, where someone goes from a conservative Christian – which is, by the way, anybody’s right to be. And if that gives you hope and if that gives you life, great, do it. But it’s where the way you act this out is you go to January 6th and you subvert the will of the people…
And I’m sure you would have gone. If somebody had framed it as part of your faith commitment by an authority, you would have gone.
Oh, totally. People ask me, well, what’s Christian about Christian nationalism? And I say, look, if you approach me in that church and you’re like, hey, we’ve got to go defend white people. I would have looked at you like, no, I’m not into that. But if you said, look, we’ve got to go pray for the country; we’ve got to go act and show up for God’s will – then you’ve got my interest as that 19-year-old who’s really committed to ministry; or that 21-year-old. If you just show up and talk to me about white nationalism, I’m not going to do it. But if you show up and say, God wants this man to be president and we have to be on the ground, then I’m like, OK, you know what? I think I’m on board. I’ll go and pray. I’ll go and support. And then maybe I get caught up in the crowd and here we go – we are off and running, which happened to so many people, including people from my hometown.
Yeah, right. I think that’s, you know, how much are you willing to give for God? That’s presented, I think, in some faith communities; and then it’s like, oh, you give your life because Jesus gave his life. It’s just very disturbing because it’s mind control and political power wrapped up in faith. And this is what brings us to Christian nationalism.
And it’s like you can never give enough. There’s always more to sacrifice.
Right, and by the way, this is ongoing. This didn’t stop, as you know. So, talk to us a little bit about how you understand the history of Christian nationalism as part of the America that we know. How far back do you go? The history – we’re kind of writing this, because we’re identifying things and giving it a name now that might be a little new; but there’s been strands of it all the way through. So, talk to me about how you understand the history.
You said, “the America we know.” So I start my book and I really focus on the 1960’s. You know, when I was an evangelical, when I was part of the church I mentioned, we were always taught that the 1960’s is when the country lost its way. The 1960’s is when the sexual revolution and nuclear families all dissolved America into this chaotic, corrupt, godless place that it is today. And we weren’t the only ones. If you look at recent comments by leaders of Focus on the Family and prominent megachurch pastors, they will tell you the 60’s are when it all went wrong.
Well, let’s think about that. The 1960’s are a time – and I don’t probably have to remind most people listening, but real quick – Civil Rights Movement; Civil Rights Act; Voting Rights Act; Immigration Reform; the Loving Case, 1967, protects interracial marriage; 1963, Feminine Mystique; mid to late 60’s, there’s a movement of mainline pastors and queer communities working together in New York City and other places, and then Stonewall happens.
All that to say, a time for, I think, many Americans of great progress – if unfinished progress. And yet this is when the white Christian nationalist says, look, it all went wrong then. And I ask myself, all right, so how did they manifest that? And one of the places is in a far-right extremist move in the Republican Party that eventually links up with what we know is the religious right. So in the 1960’s, for example: Barry Goldwater is the GOP candidate in 1964. And he says when he accepts the nomination: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Extremism is what you need. We don’t need dialogue, we don’t need respect, we don’t need a middle path. We need extremism to take our country back.
And throughout the book, I kind of follow that thread and say, this is how political operatives plus the religious right really affected a Christian nationalist takeover of the GOP and led to what we are seeing today.
Yeah, oh my God. That is such an important inflection point. You could start the story further back, there’s other times when it manifested; but I think that’s really helpful, because for some of us that may not be in memory, but it’s basically recent history. And if you look at what’s happening right now: women’s rights rolled back, queer rights rolled back; and the attempt to erase history with banning books; rolling back race; voting restrictions; all of these things. This is the battle, and it is the 60’s battle continuing. And it’s absolutely shocking. And I think that’s a helpful beginning.
So, I want to just talk about one chapter that really made me sit up, and that was your chapter on purity. And it was called Pure American Body. And honestly, I just think this is so interesting and it’s a connection that – until you wrote it – I had not made. But talk about this idea that you have that rings totally true to me.
Yeah, so I, like many children of the 90’s, I’m a veteran of purity culture. And, you know, I know many people out there will know purity culture is that kind of movement that taught young conservative Christian kids in the 80’s and 90’s and early 2000’s that you needed to remain pure for God – which means sexual purity. Okay, so don’t have sex before marriage. All right, well that’s easy enough.
But if you think about sex at all, that’s adultery so don’t do that. And along with this we’re going to have all of these gender roles. We’re going to give you the idea that boys and men are naturally leaders, but they’re aggressive and they’re filled with raging sexual desire and they really have a hard time controlling it. And nonetheless, they should be in charge at home and in society and of course at church.
Girls and women are naturally submissive. They’re naturally the kind of supportive partner. They, in terms of sex, want sex for intimacy, not for pleasure. So they need to be the gatekeepers of this sexual purity and not let their boyfriends or fiancés sort of cross the line before marriage.
There’s this whole culture, and if you’re part of this culture, you know all of the devices and the techniques and the teachings that scare you into trying to remain pure before you get married. And one thing that really dawned on me as I was writing this book is that Christian nationalism is the original purity culture. And if you hang with me here, one thing that my co-host Dan Miller says all the time, and he writes about this in his book, is that there’s this metaphor that’s been used for millennia of the nation or the country or the state as a body, you know, the national body.
If we said, hey, what does the Canadian body look like? What is the Swedish? What is the Chinese? What does the American body look like? And what we talk about all the time is that for the white Christian nationalists, the American body is a straight body. It’s a white body. It’s a body that is native born. It’s a body that is able-bodied, probably. It speaks English as a first language. And it is patriarchal and Christian, right? I mean, you can imagine the kind of national body that the Christian nationalist imagines; and it kind of looks like, I don’t know, a straight white American Jesus, or a Donald Trump, or any other sort of patriarchal conservative leader you might think of.
Unfortunately, a lot of Christian nationalists… Vladimir Putin, okay? And what I realized is that purity culture in the 90’s was an attempt to regulate teenage bodies in order to create a national body that looks like the ones Christian nationalists want. The idea here is if you regulate young teenage flesh and make it quote-unquote “pure” of anything that involves a queer relationship, a non-heteronormative relationship, a mixed family, a complex family, marrying those outside from immigrants or those from outside of the country from another place…
Or another religion. Interfaith marriage. It’s all defilement.
It’s impure, right? Even interracial marriage, for a lot of people. Even interracial marriage – impure. So there’s all these impurities that we want to keep out of our families. And if we can keep them out of our families, we can keep them out of our churches. If we can keep it out of our churches, we can keep it out of our nation. So, purify the teenage flesh, get a pure American body. That’s the wager. And so that’s what dawned on me in that chapter, and that’s why I think Christian nationalism is the original purity culture.
Right. I mean, and the idea that there is, one, there is purity; and that, and then also that purity must be protected at all costs. It’s a highest virtue. And then anything foreign or is a threat to purity and must be eliminated. And anybody who’s been in that culture… I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to look at John Ward’s new book, Testimony, but he talks about how terrible that was for him. And how all of it was so terrible, and it just diminished him in a terrible way. And he was wracked with guilt.
I just think this is a really interesting analogy, and it’s another way to begin to understand, in some ways, what we’re up against – which is a very kind of do or die mentality among Christian nationalists about what they’re fighting to preserve, this mythic thing they’re trying to preserve. And I think Jeff Sharlet gets at it with his great book The Undertow; your book…
What I like about your book is that, among many things, is that it’s a national story told through a personal lens. So, it has the benefit of not talking about “them,” but talking about something that you feel very akin to.
Talk to me a little bit about how you see Christian nationalism factoring right into our politics right now.
Yeah, I think one thing that is really important for me to emphasize is that Christian nationalism is, more than anything, it’s a cultural identity. And the way I explain that to folks is, it’s a story that you tell about yourself. Oh, I’m a Christian man. I’m a Christian husband and a Christian dad and I’m a Christian American. So, for me, it’s about family, country, God. All right. That’s who I am. That’s the story I’m telling about how I conduct myself and how I’m raising my kids and how I spend my free time, who I support politically, whatever it may be.
OK, so, I’m telling a story about me, and I’m telling a story about my country. And that’s Christian nationalism. And I can tell that story even if I’m not somebody who goes to church twice a week or reads the Bible every morning. So Christian nationalism is really quite nimble and quite agile because if you tell the story, you don’t have to be somebody who’s tithing 10% to a megachurch on Sundays or volunteering to teach Sunday school. You can take on that cultural identity. And when you do that, you can start to see your identity as part of a movement that says, yeah, I’m scared my kids are learning woke stuff at school, so yeah, I’m going to show up at the school board meeting, and I’m going to yell about all these woke books by Toni Morrison and talking about Japanese incarceration, and I want those out of here! And I’ll support this movement and yeah, I’m going to go and protest drag queen story hour because, kids – and I’m worried about that.
So we see the ways that Christian nationalism as a narrative can fuel political support of movements even if you don’t have people who are fully committed about getting to church every Sunday or reading the Bible every day. Now in terms of actual just on-the-ground policies, I think there are so many ways that we are seeing this.
So, let’s start in Texas. In Texas there were numerous tragedies this past weekend, here in the middle of May, and yet no calls for sweeping gun reform or legislation. And yet there is a bill that is being put through, and it may be put through already, which would list the Ten Commandments on every public school classroom in Texas. And there’s been some coverage of this, but not enough. So let’s post the Ten Commandments in every classroom. If you’re a Hindu kid, if you’re a secular kid, if you’re a Muslim kid, tough luck, does not matter.
Just yesterday, Ron DeSantis in Florida signed a bill that says if you’re a Chinese person, you cannot buy property – and especially, you cannot buy property in Florida near military bases or government buildings.
Now, there’s a lot to debate there, don’t get me wrong. I think there’s a lot to talk about in terms of real estate in this country and income inequality, but here’s the thing. That is on the backs of policies in Florida where he is flying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard; where he is gutting tenure; where he is banning books. When I think of those things, I come back to what we just talked about, Paul. I want a pure America. I want to purify this nation from all the invaders and the infections and the diseases. And that’s how I think of immigrants. That’s how I think of ideas I don’t like. That’s how I think of people from China or from Mexico. That’s how I think of gay people, because I’m going to pass a law: Don’t say gay. This is on the ground.
And just to do with DeSantis: he, with this anti-DEI thing that he’s put across for all higher education, we had on Matt Hartley, who’s in northeast Florida at a university there. Interfaith work is all under DEI. And so, he has actually seen his work being attacked. So, you’re not supposed to actually have conversations between evangelical kids and Muslim kids and Hindu kids and secular kids because that’s DEI. And so it’s just a frontal attack on religious diversity, religious freedom. In the name, again, of “We’ve got to protect the kids.” I mean, protect which kids? From what?
One of the things that I feel we, as those of us who are trying to mobilize against Christian nationalism, need to be really clear to that guy who you described, and say, you should be a Christian if you want to be a Christian; and be a man and protect your family. Patriotism is not synonymous with nationalism. Christianity is not synonymous with Christian nationalism. We have to allow people another avenue, and say you can be all of these things and love your family and love your faith and love your country; and actually, that should turn you away from Christian nationalism. I think the invitation has to be stronger.
So, I’m just wondering, if you could wave a magic wand for all of us to do exactly what Bradley Onishi says – which I know you pine for this – what would we all be doing in order to offset what feels like a very existential moment for the country. And so, what should we do? What should we focus on?
What I always tell folks is, look, if you’re like me, it’s easy to consume a lot of news, a lot of tweets, a lot of scrolling – especially late at night. And you can get overwhelmed. You can think about everything from what’s happening at the border, what’s happening with DEI, what’s happening with Trans kids and gender-affirming care, what’s happening with reproductive rights, what’s happening with voting rights. I mean, we can go down the list.
I wish that everyone listening would sit down for a minute, take some notes and say, what is the one thing that I think that I care about, that I’m impassioned about, and I can get involved in? What is the thing that I can give time and effort and energy to starting now? And that could be any number of things.
That could be supporting somebody who’s going to run for a school board seat because your school board is under threat of being taken over by Moms for Liberty and the anti-CRT MAGA crowd. That could be supporting a county supervisor candidate. Okay, great. That could be getting involved in the fight for reproductive rights in your community. That could be running yourself for mayor. That could be figuring out how to protect trans kids in your community. Are there networks? Are there pipelines of safety? Are there people helping others make sure that kids are not in danger in various ways? Are there queer family networks that you might plug into and support and be part of? I could go on and on and on. I think what’s easy though, especially after COVID, is to scroll, is to feel despair, but to not jump in somewhere.
And Paul, I saw you recently at a conference and a summit, and one of the things that is so clear to me – and there’s nothing profound about this, there’s nothing genius – but when we actually do things together, it feels really good and it feels hope. It feels like, you know what, I’m here with other people, my body’s in motion, and I feel like we can do something, rather than being at home just feeling like the world is ending.
So, here’s my question for you. What worries you the most right now?
Well, yeah. Sorry, there’s a lot. So I think what worries me the most right now is that we think – what I get asked all the time, I speak all over the country and people say, are we gonna have another civil war?
And I think that my answer is always, we have small fires everywhere right now. And you know what we mean by that is, look: this past week you had a mass shooting in Texas. And one you know prominent right-wing figure, Megyn Kelly, said, look: stop with the debates. You’re not going to win, liberals. There’s not going to be gun reform because we have the Second Amendment. So, let’s just look for other options. And in my mind that was such a nihilistic take.
And it was such a take of defeatism that says, look, you’re not going to win. You’re not going to win. That call, to me, was one that says, it’s over. Kids will continue to die. If you go to a mall, if you go to a parade, if you go to Walmart, if you go to church, you might be in gun danger, so what? We’re not going to do anything, so let’s figure something else out. My worry is that we think this is the future, that it’s coming in a year or two or three or five.
There was another incident in Texas where migrants outside of a migrant center were intentionally run over. I believe it was half a dozen or seven people who died. That is somebody who is intentionally ending the lives of people from other countries who are here in this country for various reasons.
Outside of a church, outside of a Catholic church that has them. It was really an attack on religion, a real one.
Right, and it’s never framed that way. It’s never framed as, you attacked a Catholic church that has the values of welcoming others, welcoming your neighbor, welcoming the stranger, welcoming whoever, but that is an attack on religion, 100%.
And so we have a country where – I talked to somebody at a conference recently who said, I live in South Carolina, I have a Trans kid, and we have a backpack, because we know that we may need to leave in the middle of the night, any night. That’s the world we live in now.
We live in a world where you might get sued if you text with your friend about ending an unwanted pregnancy by way of abortion, and so on. We live in a world where you have anti-trafficking laws in certain states related to reproductive rights. I mean I could go on and on and on. Our public square at the moment is one where there are battles everywhere – and because it’s not North versus South, it’s easy to be like, no, no civil war. We had January 6th and that happened; we haven’t seen anything like that yet, so I don’t know, let’s just see what happens. I’m tired, it’s been a long couple years, that’s all in the future…
And that that worries me a lot, because I think that we’re not ready to confront… It’s not a one battle line, North versus south; it is hundreds of small fires everywhere, raging. From Georgia to California to Idaho to… I just got emails from a friend in Amherst, Mass. who’s like, here is an attack on Trans kids, and people getting deadnamed. And if anybody knows Amherst, Mass., it’s one of the most liberal, lefty parts of the country. And I’m getting those emails from there. So.
Yeah, I live in Chelsea, New York, and we have protests against drag queens – in Chelsea! OK, so this is the nadir. We’re going to go to the zenith. What gives you hope? What are you hopeful for? What’s the source of that hope? And how can we fuel that hope?
What gives me hope is that if you if you visit places that seem like they are the places that are most in dire need of some kind of glimmer of light, that is where people are organizing; that is where people are working together.
You talked about Fresno and these coalitions of interfaith leaders. I talked to one student leader who’s of Indian descent, and yet is working with Black clergy in Nashville to form coalitions around gun violence, all stemming from the expulsion of the Tennessee too. And so, when you go across the country, there are people who realize that this is an existential fight for what we call American democracy. And that gives me hope.
And I think that, once again, if you’re sitting home at Twitter and just scrolling, you’re probably very unlikely to see that. But if you actually get involved anywhere, whether it’s Chelsea, New York, Washington, DC, whether it’s Baton Rouge or Albuquerque or Fresno or Portland, you’re going to see that there are people who care so much about a world that is inclusive, that is full of equality and liberty for everyone, and who want to create a future that’s based on this American experiment.
So that is happening. And if you’re not seeing it, I would say get out to a place where you can and where you can be involved – because it will give you hope too, even as we face a future that is uncertain.
Dr. Bradley Onishi teaches and researches Christian nationalism, the history of Evangelicalism, race and racism in American religion, gender, sex, masculinity, and secularism and secularity.
He’s the host of the very popular Straight White American Jesus Podcast, now in its fifth year. His books include The Sacrality of the Secular: Postmodern Philosophy of Religion and, most recently, Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism – And What Comes Next.
Bradley, thank you so much for joining me on State of Belief Radio. I really like talking to you, and I’m looking forward to all the work we can do together.
I’m so thankful to be here, Paul. Thanks for having me and I really appreciate you.