(RNS) — Bradley Onishi became a Christian at age 14 when his eighth grade girlfriend invited him to a Bible study at her church in Yorba Linda, California, just south of Los Angeles. Ten years later, he would serve as its youth minister.
Over that decade, he writes in his new book, “Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism — And What Comes Next,” Onishi grew to see his faith as less about Jesus and more about perpetuating a certain myth of the United States, one that he says forms the bedrock of white Christian nationalism.
Part memoir, part history of Southern California’s formative role in the rise of the religious right, Onishi’s book traces his growing estrangement from the faith he once zealously championed.
It also examines the Christian nationalist beliefs that he first encountered in Southern California but are now thought to be fueling a movement in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and in the eastern parts of Washington and Oregon, sometimes called the American Redoubt, where white Christian supremacists are building a refuge.
Onishi, who teaches at the University of San Francisco, also co-hosts with Dan Miller a podcast called “Straight White American Jesus.” Religion News Service spoke to Onishi, who now calls himself a secularist. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
You describe growing up in Yorba Linda and joining Rose Drive Friends Church. [NOTE: More about Rose Drive’s history and evolution is here.] Tell me what led you to peel away from church?
There were several events that made me question the either/or logic of my community. We had an in or out, us vs. them approach to morality and politics. When it came to abortion, immigration or scientific research I began to see the world in more subtle ways and it eventually led me out.
In 2005, I left Southern California for the first time to go to Oxford to do a master’s in theology. Once I arrived I was free to explore every avenue I wanted intellectually and politically. Very quickly my life changed.
Which events in particular led you to rethink things?
I remember the 2004 election between George W. Bush and John Kerry. I was determined to vote for Kerry because I thought he was a better candidate. But the elders in my church said if you vote for him you’re voting for the murder of millions of babies. I remember getting into the voting booth and being haunted by that. In my gut, I knew Kerry was a better candidate, but I didn’t want to vote for the murder of children. And I thought, these issues that are so important to the public square, they can’t be reduced like this. There must be ways to discuss this with the subtlety it deserves. This is just too reductive. I’m going to look for other ways to figure this out.
Did you vote for Bush?
Yes. I voted for George W. Bush twice. That’s a very unpopular thing to tell academics at a cocktail party. But I have to be completely honest and tell my story.
Your father is Japanese American from Maui. Did you have a more difficult time as an Asian American?
I learned early on that it was OK to be a person of color at church, but that I should not bring in concerns and issues related to being a person of color. The best way to deal with being an Asian American was to make jokes about it. I realized it wasn’t something that wasn’t going to be a feature of my identity in the community. When I left I had to face up to internalized racism and self-hatred and guilt about how I viewed myself, my family, my history, my culture, my rituals.
Living in the South, I assumed Christian nationalism was birthed here. But I learned from your book that Southern California played a huge role.
There’s no doubt that Christian nationalism has been at home in the South for centuries. But in the middle of the 20th century, millions of white Southerners and Midwesterners left to places like Arizona and Southern California and reshaped the landscape according to their vision. What ended up happening in Orange County is this pure distillation of white Christianity, mixed with vehement American nationalism, a libertarian approach to economics and a strong anti-communism that veered into conspiracy. The Southland, as I call it, became the epicenter of the new right.
This is the land that made Barry Goldwater the GOP nominee for president in 1964. My church and hometown were those of Richard Nixon’s. This is the place where Ronald Reagan’s political career was cultivated. Our airport in Orange County is called John Wayne Airport. He was a deeply conservative figure who was invested in campaigns for Reagan and others.
And now Orange County has changed. It’s no longer a Republican stronghold.
It went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, the first time it voted for a Democrat since the Great Depression. There are many people of color, especially Asian Americans. And yet the white Christian nationalists have become even more extreme. It is now a battleground politically, in ways it hasn’t been for a long time.
You write about a connection between evangelical purity culture, which promoted an abstinence-until-marriage ethic, and white Christian nationalism. Explain the connection.
White Christian nationalism envisions the American body politic as straight, white, Christian, born in the U.S. and abiding by patriarchal norms. Purity culture, which manifested itself in the 1980s and 1990s, encouraged teenagers to be celibate before marriage. It also told teenagers that following God’s plan for sexuality and playing the role God has given you in terms of gender would renew the nation. It would save America from ruin and from sin. Creating the right kind of teenaged bodies would create the right kind of America. For me, the desire for white Christian nationalism was thrust upon the bodies of white teenagers.
You argue that the Jan. 6 insurrection is just a foretaste of what’s to come, and use some interesting comparisons to examine it. What are they?
It’s easy to conclude that, since we have not had a similar event in the two years, we’re in the clear. But events like Jan. 6 can turn into a battle cry for victory. The Confederate argument for the Lost Cause and Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch are both seeming defeats that only strengthened movements based on a conception of the nation being stabbed in the back by elites and invaders. To me, if we don’t adjudicate and hold responsible those who incited (the events of Jan. 6), we are in danger of allowing it to become something that encourages further violence. The Big Lie has not evaporated. It’s only gained traction. To me, that’s quite frightening.
You write that as many as 50 of your church friends have now left Southern California for what’s sometimes called the American Redoubt. Why?
As we speak today, I think I could find 100 church people or high school friends. Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, as well as parts of Washington and Oregon, are a refuge for Christians who hold traditional values on family, gender, guns, religious liberty. This part of the country is more than 90% white.
The goal of many people in the American Redoubt is to prepare for the next civil war and to rebuild this country in their own image, which is theocratic. There are counties in Idaho where far right extremists have made inroads. It’s not a matter of “Why do we have LGBTQ books in the library?” People are asking, “Why do we have a library?” That’s an indication of how far rightward some of the politics have crept.
I spent a year in southern California one week.
The occasion was the 1984 Triennial sessions of Friends United Meeting (a few years before Bradley Onishi was born).
It would take too long to detail all the incidents which made the week seem endless. But they can be summed up in the phrase, “Quaker culture shock.” It was my first and most intense immersion in the world of evangelical Quakerism, and there were moments when I wasn’t sure I’d live to tell the tale.
The climax of this culture shock came on the Sunday of that week (it was rarely referred to as First Day there, even nostalgically). That morning I visited what was then the planet’s largest known house of worship to which the name of Friends was attached, near the birthplace of our last Quaker president, Richard Nixon.
To a parochial Eastern liberal Quaker like this one, almost
everything about this experience was different, to the point of being disorienting.
It was not the sheer size of the church that was most daunting: we gathered with one of three Sunday services, the precisely- tabulated attendance at which normally topped a thousand. Nor was it that we were meeting in the church gymnasium (two basketball courts wide) because, we were told, the “sanctuary” was being remodeled and expanded, yet again.
It was not even the period of silent “open worship” which undid me, though it lasted only 58 seconds (I timed it).
Something like real vertigo set in, though, when the Christian Music sextet of an evangelical Quaker college was introduced, asked to sing a few numbers, and wheeled out a bank of amplifiers that were taller than they were. The three women singers wore bright purple shifts, with matching eye shadow, and all had cordless mikes.
After several thunderous numbers, the group closed the set with their own version of John Greenleaf Whittier’s familiar hymn, “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.” This is one of my favorites too, the politically incorrect title notwithstanding. I especially resonate to these classic lines:
Drop thy still dews of quietness,
Til all our strivings cease….
Breathe through the heats of our desire,
Thy coolness and thy balm . . .
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire…
O still, small voice of calm.
As Whittier’s quietist stanzas were belted out at a decibel level which nearly knocked me off the bleachers, I did feel for a moment as if they’d have to carry me out of the place.
But I managed. And once the reverberations died away, I berated myself for being such a cultural snob. Is it not our own liberal notion, I asked myself, that there are many ways to worship God? If this group’s way differed from mine, what of it? My taste in church music might run to Mozart and Handel; but were classical tunes any more pleasing to God’s ears than those of an electrified ensemble?
For that matter, was purple eye shadow any kitschier, really, than the powdered wigs and leggings of old Vienna where my idols plied their trade? And if the sextet seemed loud–well, the biblical God spoke through thunder, and had I not listened to at least my share of over-amplified rock and roll?
So get a grip, Dude, I sternly told myself.
Thus somewhat chastened, I made it through the rest of the
service and proceeded on to join one of numerous adult Sunday School classes.
But rather than relief, it was the class, in a supposedly smaller, quieter, more intimate setting, that produced the day’s most traumatic event.
The class subject was evangelism. (As far as I could tell, that was the subject of just about everything there). And we were invited to share any concerns or questions we had about the topic with the teacher and each other.
After a few desultory questions, a woman raised a diffident hand and, when recognized, spoke in a halting and quavering voice which soon riveted everyone’s attention.
It was about her father, she said. He was ill. Very ill. She stopped to take a deep breath. In fact, he wasn’t expected to live very long.
Murmurs of sympathy came from all corners of the room.
But that, she continued, that wasn’t the worst of it.
She paused again, and stifled a sob. The worst, she said, was
that her father had not accepted Christ, and was in peril of dying unsaved.
The murmurs deepened in tone, as the woman gave way to quiet, dignified tears.
She could hardly bear the thought, she went on, that this man she loved, who had cared for her and others and was a good man even if an unbeliever–that this man might die without meeting the Lord, and be lost forever.
Scarcely were the words spoken than the class rallied firmly around her.
It didn’t have to happen, she was told. Her father could be brought to the foot of the cross. She could do it; they would help.
Their fiercely practical spirit shouldn’t have surprised me. After all, the huge church complex we were sitting in was hardly twenty years old; it had been built from scratch almost overnight. And led by a relentlessly entrepreneurial pastor, these men and women had done it. They had not only raised this building, they had financed and sent out missionaries who even as we sat there were spreading their gospel to “the lost” in distant lands.
This frightened woman was among a company of doers, problem-solvers, and obstacle-overcomers. They would and could, they assured her, snatch her father from this fate that was indeed worse than death.
Almost feverishly they began tossing out evangelistic ideas and stratagems: Had she tried this approach on him? What about a little of that line of conversation? Or some of this other tactic? And was she, in this struggle, a constant prayer warrior?
The ideas poured out in a rush, almost one on top of another. And it was as I watched her responses that the full weight, indeed the horror of the moment sank in. Where my revulsion at the hoopla and noise of the worship may have been mere cultural prejudice, here, it was clear, I was facing something solid and solemnly alien.
When she spoke again, it turned out she had already tried just about everything they suggested; she was smart, resourceful, dedicated, and yes, a constant prayer warrior as well.
Nonetheless her father had thus far been unmoved. He was not, she reported in a perplexed tone, particularly bitter against Christ or religion. He apparently was facing the prospect of death without Jesus, not exactly serenely, but still with a settled and, to her, unsettling equanimity.
The suggestions began again, more insistently.
This time, as she listened, the woman’s tears dried, and her jaw seemed to set. Whatever it was she really needed there, amid these doers, solvers and overcomers, she was not getting it.
I sat there in silence, feeling growing distress, questions welling up in me which I was afraid to ask out loud. The questions were these:
“Can none of you give this Friend any hope? Can’t anyone here say to her that God’s love and mercy are wider and deeper than the words you insist her father has to say to be, as you call it, saved?”
I knew the answer, though.
The answer was no.
No one in the room even hinted that there might be any hope
for her father to avoid eternity burning in hell if he was not properly “saved” before he died.
I thought I could say it. But I wasn’t sure I had the words to make the statement intelligible. And besides, after spending the morning in this strange, unsettling place, I felt afraid of the reaction if I tried.
So I sat there, sunk in a deepening sense of cowardice, failure and resentment, keeping silent.
When the class broke up, the woman walked out of the room with no more hope than when she came in.
And as I left, I wondered again if this week would ever end.
The Liberal View of the Church
If I had been able to speak of hope to that woman in California, my message in essence would have been about the liberal Quaker idea of the church.
I would have tried to say that for us, the church and its salvation are not limited either to evangelical Christians or even to Christians. Its center is a transcendent reality, experienced rather than defined with precision, but most often described with metaphors of spirit and light, as well as God and Christ.
This transcendent reality can make itself known to any human, and the church’s membership is those persons, of whatever culture and tradition, who have experienced this transcendent power, turned to and been moved by it, and follow its guidance.
This turning and following lead to “salvation.”
I still wonder regretfully: could the bereaved woman have heard it?
This recollection is adapted from my 1996 book, Without Apology.