On Thursday, students at Oklahoma State University filed into Murray 035 out of a desire for knowledge, extra credit, or both.
They listened to a speech from Sam Perry, a sociologist from the University of Oklahoma, that managed to be thought-provoking and potentially important to how those at Oklahoma State engage in discourse about people in society and on campus.
The event was sponsored by the Religious Studies program, along with the Philosophy and Sociology departments.
Perry’s record is astonishing: over 70 peer-reviewed articles, three books and multiple awards from revered sociological institutions set high expectations for the presentation.
His speech, titled One Nation Under Fear: How White Christian Nationalism Helps Us Understand Donald Trump, His Policies, and His Supporters, discussed findings from his upcoming book, “Taking America Back for God.”
Perry said he began his direction toward this research topic the morning he awoke to find that Donald Trump had beaten Hillary Clinton to become the President of the United States.
“Like many Americans that morning, I asked the question: how?” Perry said.
Many framed Trump’s victory as being due to white evangelical Christians, and as a man from a white evangelical background himself, Perry set out to discover if this was true.
Perry’s main argument was that Trump articulates and cultivates the values of White Christian Nationalism, a term that Perry defined as “an ideology that identifies and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life.” “Christian” in this context, Perry said, was a dog-whistle term meaning “people like us – white, a citizen, and culturally Christian.”
This ideology, Perry later argued, is primarily motivated by fear – fear of powerlessness, cultural degradation and social chaos.
First, he argued, white Christian nationalism elected Trump, not white evangelicalism. While white evangelicals are more likely to be white Christian nationalists than other groups, the terms are not interchangeable.
Second, Perry continued, the link between Christian nationalism and Trump runs through what Perry calls the “holy trinity” of power, boundaries and order: how people answered questions of race, nationality and patriotism were strongly related to whether Perry’s metric considered them an ambassador of White Christian Nationalism.
Third, Perry argued that being a white Christian nationalist does not equal being a committed Christian. Perry presented data pointing to an inverse relationship between being a more committed Christian and white Christian nationalism.
Many students and faculty seemed impressed or intrigued by the presentation. Citing comparisons Perry had made of white Christian nationalism to fascist ideology as the most interesting moment of the presentation, microbiology junior Sierra Posey said she “had never thought of it that way before.” Another student said that they were most impressed by the data showcasing the inverse relationship between white Christian nationalism and committed Christian practice.
The implications of Perry’s talk are potentially crucial for students and faculty alike at Oklahoma State University.
It was not a discussion devoid of controversy, nor immune to debate. Our language matters, and Perry’s attempt to begin a conversation on campus about the ways we talk about our society and our fellow students and teachers deserves a response.