When does critiquing become platforming?
Discerning how to respond to controversial works
Over the past few weeks, I’ve watched with interest as two new books on Christian nationalism have entered the fray. The books mark a noticeable change in the conversation, from a stage in which most of those sympathetic to Christian nationalism denied its existence or denounced any use of the term as a smear tactic, to a new trend of openly embracing the term and advancing its aims. In the political realm, we’ve seen this shift most prominently with figures like Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene. On the publishing side of things, we’re seeing it with Andrew Torba and Andrew Isker, and Stephen Wolfe.
In early September, Torba and Isker released Christian Nationalism: A Biblical Guide for Taking Dominion and Discipline Nations. As the founder and CEO of the “free speech” social media platform Gab, Torba is well-known in right-wing circles. The platform hosts extremists and conspiracy theorists and grabbed the national spotlight after Robert Bowers posted his antisemitic and anti-immigrant views before killing 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018. Torba has himself expressed antisemitic views and advanced white supremacist tropes such as The Great Replacement Theory, and has affiliated with the likes of Nick Fuentes, Alex Jones, and Steve Bannon. He’s also been openly touting Christian nationalism and supporting candidates like PA gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano.
He has been open about his goals:
Torba has acknowledged that these connections are part of a concerted effort to shift the “Overton Window” – or what is considered “acceptable” in politics and society – towards a broad embrace of Christian nationalism.
Below are recent comments Torba has made on Gab about his belief that the Christian nationalist movement will soon take over the U.S political system.
July 28, 2022: “8 of out 10 Republican voters are Christians. This is our party and we’re reclaiming it in the name of Jesus Christ. There is absolutely nothing the GOP Establishment can do to stop us.”
June 3, 2022: “To all the journos who stalk my profile: Yes, we are Christian nationalists. Yes, we are taking over the Republican party—and the country. Yes, we are indoctrinating the next generation to follow in our footsteps. All for the glory of God. We can’t be stopped. Enjoy the show.”
June 3, 2022: “Only took about a year for us to mainstream Christian Nationalism and make it a central talking point by the mass media and elected members of Congress. We are only just getting started too, all the glory goes to Christ the King!”
Torba and Isker’s book became a topic of national conversation for a week or two last month for at least three reasons. First, because it appeared just as the media was covering this shift in the discourse, from denying to openly championing Christian nationalism. Second, because it illuminated a potential shift of the Overton window—which views are considered extremist, and which are (increasingly) considered acceptable and mainstream. And finally, because it shot up the Amazon charts, into the top twenty books of any category. This is no small feat, and so the book announced itself as a force to be reckoned with. Or so it seemed.
To reach that ranking on Amazon suggests sales averaging in the thousands per week, an impressive number for any book and certainly for one independently published. Of course, it helps when the author runs his own platform. The precise numbers are hard to track, but of Gab’s four million registered users, it’s estimated that around 100,000 are active users. Torba himself has more than three million followers on Gab, as following him is the default setting.
Given those numbers, high initial sales should be expected. It’s worth noting, however, that Amazon rankings are fleeting. Updated nearly every hour, Amazon rankings track current sales. They are thus extremely sensitive to orchestrated publicity efforts and say little about a book’s likehood of long-term impact or sales. A quick check of Torba’s current Amazon ranking reveals the much more modest ranking in the 7000s, which means the book is selling in the low hundreds per week. Its popularity may have been fleeting, but questions of whether or not it represents a shift in the discourse remain salient.
We are now in the midst of the launch of another book on the topic, Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism. Wolfe recently completed his PhD in political philosophy at LSU, served for a year as a postdoctoral fellow in the James Madison Program at Princeton University, and is a member of the PCA. He’s written a number of pieces for Mere Orthodoxy (on topics such as “Why Christians Can Support Tighter Immigration Restrictions” and “In Praise of Cultural Christianity,” and he’s also written several essays of the pro-Christian nationalist/anti-Russell Moore/anti-David French genre for Michael O’Fallon’s Sovereign Nations.
The book releases November 1, but ARCs are already circulating and screenshots are starting to appear on social media. Its publisher, Doug Wilson’s Canon Press, is leveraging social media to help launch the book. Whether inspired directly by Torba or not, their deliberate strategy is to channel sales through Amazon in order to drive up Amazon rankings.
Their tactics appear to involve provoking outrage to drive visibility. (Full disclosure: I was offered and received an ARC and invited to review the book. Although this is not a review of the book, I imagine they will be not be ungrateful for the attention I am giving it here.) Their strategy appears to be succeeding. Wolfe’s touting the “collective duty” of groups “to be separate and marry among themselves” and labeling outgroup marriage as “relatively sinful” understandably drew the attention of critics, including Bradly Mason, Scott Coley, and Samuel Perry:
All of this attention elicited the gentle rebuke of others on Twitter, who (accurately) pointed out that such critiques served to amplify the work in question:
Who is right here?
What is the best tactic when engaging a book one deems potentially harmful?
Should would-be critics stay quiet?
As an author who has benefitted from precisely this sort of outrage amplification, I have a few thoughts on this.
Truth be told, when Jesus and John Wayne first released, I was hoping for a little pushback, especially from people with platforms. I was relatively unknown outside of academic history circles and I had a very small platform of my own. I knew that I’d benefit from outrage reviews as much as from positive ones, if not more. And so I waited. Whether by instinct or agreed upon strategy, the “theobros” said almost nothing for the first several months. With the exception of an odd and not exactly glowing review published at Christianity Today, which provided an undeniable sales boost, there was relatively little negative chatter about the book. A few months after publication, things changed. The negative reviews started coming fast and furious, sometimes several a day, most on blogs and Twitter threads and very, very few of them containing any sort of substantive critique. This was what I’d been waiting for. And it worked. It kept my book in the spotlight, outrage sparked backlash outrage, and all of this led to more sales and several additional printings.
Which isn’t to say this would be my preferred path. I honestly would have preferred a more serious engagement at Christianity Today. I don’t love that there are several malicious and dishonest reviews circulating about the book, available to anyone looking for an excuse to dismiss it. I also don’t love the multiple and creative attempts of character assassination that will endure in some form or another for decades. Fortunately I happen to have a very thick skin and a very clear understanding of what I’m up against. In the end, there is little about the release of a book that one can control, and so it made sense to approach it as a lemons-to-lemonade opportunity. I can attest that, in many if not most circumstances, attacks do amplify sales.
Does that mean those of us who may oppose the substance of a book ought to ignore it entirely? In some cases, this may be a wise strategy. Certainly mere outrage posts tend to play into the hands of one’s opponent. On the other hand, as an academic, I’m torn. My ultimate goal isn’t to drive sales up or down. It’s to research, evaluate, and share findings with fellow academics and with a broader public. Sometimes that ends up amplifying things that I don’t like, but in the end, affecting the sales of someone else’s book isn’t my primary concern. Besides, this sort of amplification is often fleeting.
There are times when critical engagement is warranted, even when it does amplify something that may be deemed harmful. The kind of clarity that scholars like Perry, Coley, and Mason can bring to the conversation is illuminating and often necessary. Careful critical reviews can serve as resources to individuals (and pastors) struggling to discern what is true.
Harmful ideas flourish in sympathetic spaces whether or not critics take them on. Indeed, a lack of critical engagement in early stages allows extremist ideas to gain traction. It is especially important for those with some sympathies (conservative white Christians, in this case) to help others discern what may be harmful. Too often, the instinct is to stay quiet to avoid damaging relationships or appearing disloyal. When controversial books or topics surface in the national debate, I watch carefully to see who is speaking out, who is staying silent, and who is quietly giving tacit support.
Moreover, surfacing ideas in public can help flush out the consequences of those ideas. One example of this can be seen in the questions a trans woman, Natalie, posed to Wolfe, on what his plans would entail for people like her were his plans for a Christian nation to be implemented:
Although Wolfe blocked Natalie, Twitter user @JosiahHawthorne shared previous tweets on the topic that suggested imprisonment, at the very least. This sort of pushback can help shift conversations from abstract concepts to practical implications, helping others assess the merit of the ideas under discussion. Engagement that clarifies, in one direction or another, is often a net gain.
As a scholar tracking the shifting Overton window, I find that having some of these conversations in the open can bring accountability and clarity. Similarly, an author’s response to criticism and pushback can reveal further context for their thinking. In the case of Wolfe, his Twitter feed reveals a number of examples of thinly-veiled misogyny, some of which was directed at me, as another Twitter user reminded me:
Surfacing issues on social media also helps to reveal alliances. Seeing SBC-connected figures like William Wolfe (no relation) champion the work of the other Wolfe makes visible affinities and points to the importance of tracking networks. The current Christian nationalist discourse reveals a web of connections and potential connections between people like the Wolfes (plural), Al Mohler, Doug Wilson, Michael O’Fallon, outlets like the Daily Wire, World, and Sovereign Nations, sites like Gab, organizations like the Heritage Foundation and Claremont Institute, and funding networks like CPI/the Clubhouse. Expanded out, the networks are extensive. Understanding the rise of Christian nationalism and connections to a rising extremism requires understanding these shifting networks and alliances. Surfacing conversations on social media often helps to enhance the visibility of these networks.
So, when you see something disturbing, how should you respond? To tweet or not to tweet?
It’s up to you. (Even if I wanted to tell you what to do, it should be clear by now that trying to control a space like Twitter is hopeless.)
A few guidelines, though:
The closer you are to the person and the more respect and standing you have among their followers, the more important it is to engage.
Tweeting just to stoke outrage will probably hurt your cause more than help. If you want to express outrage anyway, consider that sharing videos or images of a book’s cover is exactly what the publisher and author are hoping you will do.
Usually it’s best to engage in serious and measured ways, rather than trying to pounce with the hot take or clever rejoinder. That said, sometimes things are absurd, and making light of absurdies may sometimes be a perfectly appropriate response.
If you do choose to engage, do so with care. In culture wars skirmishes, loyalty too often substitutes for accuracy. Take care not to misrepresent or exaggerate the views under critique. Doing so only erodes trust and plays into the post-truth tactics that extremists thrive on. In a space that rewards more heat than light, what we desperately need is less heat, more light.