Do you know if you have ever been a part of a cultish or high-demand community? Do you know what qualities to look for in a high-demand community?
High-demand communities may bring images of cults with extreme behaviors, demands, and rituals to your mind. But when you examine the communities you love, some fall on the spectrum of cultish or high-demand communities.
Cultish and high-demand communities fall on a spectrum, and not everyone associated with a group or organization with those tendencies necessarily falls into the trance of these spaces–but many of us do–often without noticing.
Today’s guest got me thinking more about the high-demand or cultish communities we choose. His most recent book was inspired by his experience watching the January 6th insurrection on TV and wondering if he had not left his high-demand faith community, would he have been at the US Capitol with many who showed up that day, including some from his former community.
Bradley Onishi is a social commentator, scholar, writer, teacher, coach, and co-host of the Straight White American Jesus (SWAJ) podcast. In everything he does, Bradley seeks to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange by providing insight into life’s most fundamental questions. He often speaks about topics related to the radical conservatism and extremist religions that shape our world, some of it right in our own neighborhoods. He is the author of Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism – And What Comes Next.
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Bradley Onishi: In weird ways, I think we need to just admit that authoritarian leadership alleviates some of the burden of being leaders because a lot of the thinking, a lot of the debating, the working together, the compromising never happens. It’s one person telling everyone how it’s gonna go. Unfortunately, as I said, that leads to exclusion, it leads to usually very bad leadership choices, and it leads to an environment that stifles any kind of expression, any kind of sense of equity, any kind of sense of people sharing in the enterprise as those who can voice their concerns or their pain or their needs. Authoritarians don't allow for that. That makes it problematic in any setting.
[Inspirational Intro Music]
Rebecca Ching: Do you know if you've ever been a part of a cultish or high-demand community? Do you know what qualities to look for in a high-demand community? Suppose you ever left a cultish or high-demand community. I suspect if that’s the case, you went through a period of feeling disoriented and disillusioned after experiencing what felt like a deep connection and community.
Now, high-demand communities may bring images of cults with extreme behaviors, demands, and rituals to your mind. But when you examine the communities you love, some fall into the spectrum of cultish or high-demand communities. We often choose these communities to further our personal and professional development, like a faith community or a recovery community or a work or fitness community or even a professional community aligned by a certain methodology or theory, like in psychotherapy.
When you know the signs of a cultish or high-demand community, you get clear on how to discern if the group welcomes you as you are or if your belonging depends on your following the group norms or you risk being shunned.
One of the big tells of a high-demand or cultish community shows up when you're exiled if you choose to leave to go on your own journey of exploration, questioning, and change.
I'm Rebecca Ching, and you're listening to The Unburdened Leader, the show that goes deep with humans who navigate life’s challenges and lead in their own ways. Our goal is to learn how they address the burdens they carry, how they learn from them and become better and more impactful leaders of themselves and others.
When you see the signs of a high-demand or cultish community, you really can’t unsee it. In her must-read book Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, Amanda Montell shares, in great detail with many familiar examples, how language is used to coerce, discourage deeper analysis, and cultivate a heightened emotional state while judging those considered outsiders. Amanda believes the key to cultivating intense ideology, community, and that us/them, with us/against us attitudes are built through specific language. In both positive ways and dangerous ways, cultish language is something we all hear and are influenced by every single day.
Amanda writes in her book:
“The fact is that most modern-day movements leave enough space for us to decide what to believe, what to engage with, and what language to use to express ourselves. Tuning into the rhetoric these communities use and how its influence works for both good and not-so-good can help us participate however we choose with clear eyes.”
Now, cultish and high-demand communities fall on a spectrum, and not everyone associated with a group or organization with those tendencies necessarily falls into the trance of these spaces.
But many of us do without even noticing, especially if you joined a group or an organization during your formative years and trust those who lead you while feeling the love and belonging offered. It can be seductive, it can be healing, it can be grounding, until it isn't. For me, looking back on my life, I clearly see my love of high-energy communities that can tip into high-demand cultures.
For me, I go all in with the spaces and organizations I choose. There really isn't much lowkey about how much I love sports teams or certain fitness groups and my faith community and theoretical approaches to my work. I am a proud member of the Peloton Fitness Community, and before the pandemic, I was an Evangelist for Orange Theory and our local SPARKCYCLE group fitness classes. Professionally, I’ve been all in with the communities that influence my clinical and leadership practices, like Brené Brown’s The Daring Way and the Internal Family Systems community founded by Richard Schwartz.
In my earlier years, I worked in politics, the campaign side and the legislative side, where I worked hours and hours advocating for causes I believed in for low pay but held deep meaning. I’ve been a part of various faith communities since graduating high school that offered connection, community, and healing. I even went to work for a parent church organization for four years raising money that went towards supporting the work I did and my salary.
So, like I said, I’m usually all in when I dive into something, which I think is great. I’m not a wishy-washy person. I jump in feet first, and I commit, and all of these communities have offered something so meaningful to me, and some still do.
And I see how the groups I've been a part of develop cultish tendencies, some not because of the leaders, per se, but more because of the communities that develop around a person, a group program or an ideology. I also see how some people can lean towards more insular communities with this rigidity around purity and proficiency and polity. Then I pull back a little bit, and I see other high-demand groups in the fitness, faith, and corporate space develop more extreme rituals while pushing toxic positivity and the pressure to conform or be excluded or, even worse, banished.
Now, I don't like how people drop labels like “cult” super casually. I appreciate the language Amanda Montell offers in her book with more nuance and complexity about the language styles of groups or organizations with many cultish qualities. Some of these communities we’re in take us to a tipping point though where we face a crossroads with our values, our boundaries, and our identity, and it gets tricky when we face these crossroads with communities connected to our paycheck, our livelihood, and our support systems. Amanda Montell talks about how language can get community members on the same ideological page to help them feel like they belong to something big, and when language and marketing and charisma all come together, phew, it can get the best of us. It’s often hard to identify when you're in a high-demand community, for some, if you know nothing else.
Today’s Unburdened Leader guest really got me thinking more about the high-demand or cultish communities we choose, and his most recent book was inspired by his experience watching the January 6th insurrection on TV and wondering if he had not left his high-demand faith community, would he have been at the US capitol with many who had shows up that day, some from his former community.
Dr. Bradley Onishi is on the faculty of The University of San Francisco and is the co-host of the podcast Straight, White, American Jesus. He’s also author of Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism-- and What Comes Next. So some light and breezy stuff, y’all. But he does it with a lot of heart and humor along with some incredible research and historical fact.
So, in this show today, pay attention to what Brad said he left behind when he moved from his insular community in Southern California to Oxford to work on his masters. Notice when Brad talks about his definition of nostalgia and how it’s being used today in rhetoric. And listen for how Brad unpacks the impact of authoritarian leadership in high-demand communities and how it takes out the hard work of leadership and healthy community-building. All right, y’all. Please welcome Dr. Brad Onishi to The Unburdened Leader podcast!
Brad, welcome to The Unburdened Leader podcast!
Bradley Onishi: Thanks for having me! Great to be here.
Rebecca Ching: As we were talking about, before I started recording, there’s so much I want to talk to you about, probably just selfishly, but we’re gonna ease in. We’re gonna just talk about light and breezy topics today.
Bradley Onishi: Sounds good.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, yeah. That’s what we do. We kind of just chill out here on The Unburdened Leader podcast. I want to start off just by having you go back in time for a moment.
You grew up in Southern California. That’s where I’m based. I didn't grow up here, but I’ve been here for over 20 years now. I want you to take me back to the moment where you left Southern California to pursue a masters at Oxford. Talk to me about what led to that decision to pursue this masters and also share what you were leaving behind.
Bradley Onishi: Yeah, so I got converted at 14 to Evangelicalism at a megachurch, and so, I didn't grow up religious. And so, in some ways, that just made me a lot more zealous and enthusiastic because it was all new. By the time I was 20, I was a full-time minister, and I married my high school sweetheart. We were both in the youth ministry at this really big church, and I started seminary by the time I was 22.
So I was really on this path. There were really two career paths for me, either missionary or pastor of a new church. That’s what we thought we wanted. We got married young. We were these youth ministers of a group of 200 kids. However, once I got to the later stages of college and started seminary, I just started reading so much that I began to question a lot of some of the main tenets of what I’d been taught about Evangelical theology and politics and the closed worldview I’d been living in. And so, I just had to be very honest with myself and say I don't think I want to be a missionary right now because I don't know exactly where I’m at. I don't think I want to be a minister because I’m doubting a lot of things, and I need time to kind of figure this out.
So I thought the best thing would be to be a professor, and I can teach at a Christian college. I could teach at Azusa Pacific where I went or Westmont or any of the others in Southern California, Biola. And so, I told my wife, “Hey, I want to get a master’s degree,” and she said, “Well, I want to keep playing basketball.” She was a collegiate athlete, so we said, “Let’s move to England. You can play semi-professional basketball, and I will get a master’s degree.”
So, somehow, I finagled and fooled and cajoled Oxford University into letting me in, but my goal in going there was to be a theologian. When I got there, for the first time in my adult life, I was free to think and reflect and construct my world without any policing by older pastors who were wondering what kind of crazy thoughts I was having, or without -- and this might just fill into being a leader. I was 24 years old. I had been a leader of hundreds of people since I was 18, and it was the first time in my adult life I didn't have the responsibility of leading hundreds of other young people, and I needed that.
And so, when I got there, I just sort of started to read and read and read and think and think and think, and it led me to a very different place than I expected, but it’s all been pretty good thus far.
Rebecca Ching: So, yeah, just bringing it back now. What did you leave behind then when you got to Oxford, and you were thinking and reading, and you had space for the first time in your adult life just to be with these thoughts and these thinkers. What did you leave behind in Southern California?
Bradley Onishi: You know, I think in one word I left behind certainty.
Rebecca Ching: Ooh.
Bradley Onishi: I had social certainty. I lived in my hometown. I was a minister at a big church. There was a career path ahead of me. There was a respect level. When I went to the grocery store, the kids and their parents would say hi to me. If I went to the coffee shop, I saw three people I knew. There was a sense of who I was and what I would be. So that’s one.
I also left intellectual certainty because I was free to question things that seemed untouchable before. So I’d left a worldview that all kind of was constructed in a loose way to make total sense, and all of a sudden, every beam in my house, every wall, every piece of architecture and flooring, and anything related to the structure of my understanding of the world was open for deconstruction, reconstruction, questioning, testing, the whole thing.
So, I’m not gonna lie, when I got to Oxford, in some sense it was liberating. In some sense it was incredibly terrifying to leave all of that behind.
Rebecca Ching: What were you most afraid of as you were facing leaving certainty? There’s a certain kind of trauma, too, in that, and also like, “Wait, what I’ve been told --,” all of a sudden all your certainty anchors were crumbling. And so, yeah, what were some of those fears as you deconstructed your faith and even your heritage too?
Bradley Onishi: I think that the exhilarating part was this incredible privilege to wake up every day and for my job to be to learn. People in ministry know you're supposed to work 32 hours a week, and that’s what they pay you for, and you actually work 52 hours, and people call you at midnight and say, “My kid ran away. Come help me,” and this and that.
So I, for the first time in my life, could wake up in the morning and go learn, and I was exhilarated by it. I couldn't wait to just go to the library and read and reflect and understand. The terrifying part is you realize that if you keep going down the path that you intuitively know is the right one for you, you’re leaving behind the certainty of every other aspect of your life. So your intellectual horizon is open to wonder. Your social horizon is like I’m now a pariah at my old church. No one will talk to me because they think I’ve lost it. My wife and I kind of think we should probably split. Not because we hate each other and we had some terrible, ridiculous breakup, just because we’ve been together since we were 14, and both of us were like, “You know, we’re kind of different at 24, and our lives are changing. Do we need to be married? I love you. You love me.”
So that relationship ended, and my career path became, “Well, I’m not gonna be a missionary probably or a pastor, so I better make this professor thing work, otherwise I’m 24/25 years old, and I really have no future other than this one. So let’s see if this works.”
So that’s the terrifying part. On top of the fact that you have to tell your family and friends that your complete identity and worldview has changed. They knew you as that golden boy, young minister guy who did no wrong, and now you’re questioning everything you’ve ever been taught, and they don't know how to relate to you. Those relationships all get reconfigured. They all get transformed. Some of them break. Some of them heal. But it’s not easy to go through.
Rebecca Ching: So all of your relationships (your marriage, your friends, your former colleagues, the community that you served and supported) all of a sudden -- were they gone? Yeah? Did they reject you, or did you just kind of say, “Listen, I’m not even gonna try.” Did you try to make bids for connection?
Bradley Onishi: I did. I think there was a great benefit and a great disadvantage to being 6,000 miles away from home in England.
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Bradley Onishi: The great benefit was that, for the first time in my life, I felt I could just explore who I was without worrying about bumping into people who had expectations for me, and that felt great. On the other hand, you know, you move across the world and then your entire identity and beliefs change. You get divorced. Your understanding of God is different. How do you explain that to the people who are most important to you when they're 6,000 miles away and you might talk to them once in a while or over email or over a video call?
So that was hard, and I remember the first time I went home after all this happened. I went to the coffee shop, and I got ignored. People wouldn't look at me. When I was in town visiting for Christmas, there was a lot of people walking the other way when they saw me. And so, I had to kind of just come to grips with that and understand that.
Now, there were many others who reached out, asked what was happening, and we talked, and we’re friends to this day. I certainly had a lot of long discussions with my parents and with my brothers. Again, it wasn't always easy, but when you love each other, you do your best to kind of understand where everyone’s at.
So, yeah, some of those relationships survived. Others were dead on arrival because those folks just considered me to be a traitor who’d left the fold, and that’s something I just had to come to accept.
Rebecca Ching: Mm, thank you for sharing that. Fast forward to January 6th. I want to talk a little bit about your book and also the term white Christian nationalism, but what you talked about in the beginning of the book is, “Wow, if I hadn’t gone to Oxford and gone through this journey, would I have been there at the capitol with other folks waving artifacts that claim faith,” things that, for me, identify with love and peace, but we’ll get into that later.
So you write this book, Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism, and it was inspired by the curiosity of watching January 6th unfold before your eyes.
Bradley Onishi: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: Can you take me back to that day and what was going through your mind as you were watching this unfold?
Bradley Onishi: You know, January 6th, 2021, I woke up that morning. I went surfing at dawn, and I live up here in Northern California now, so it was really cold, and I was the only one in the water. I was pretty stoked because Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff had just won Senate seats in a runoff, and the Democrats were gonna have control of the Senate by, like, one vote. I was just feeling a little bit optimistic about just the state of things, and I get home and open the computer to start work, and it’s just image after image, video after video of January 6th. I think, like most of us (not all) watched in horror just like, “How can this be happening?”
But I also realized quickly that, okay, 19-year-old me was so committed to this stuff that when I was in high school, my mom said, “What do you want for Christmas?” I told her to take whatever money she was gonna spend on Christmas and to buy bibles through this organization, and they would send them to Nepal because people in Nepal needed to hear about Jesus. That’s where I was as a young man in terms of my very extreme commitment.
So if 18-, or 19-year-old me has an older mentor in the church who approaches him and says, “Hey, we need to fly to Washington, DC. I’m gonna buy your plane ticket because we need to stand up for our country, for our faith, for what’s right. Are you in?” I’m the kind of guy that would have been like, “Yeah, let’s do it. That sounds right. Let’s go,” you know?
And so, as I’m watching January 6th, I’m just like how many people who are like me got caught up in this? How many of them go to churches or converted in the last few years, and they're looking for community and meaning, and their church has filled them with rhetoric about a stolen election and about QAnon and about the need for battle, spiritual or otherwise. That scared me, and then I learned later that there were people from my hometown and churches that I’d been part of that were at January 6th, so it confirmed what I had feared. And so, I think that added a whole layer for me just thinking about that day.
Rebecca Ching: I really think it’s important to define terms. I think we often throw around all these terms lately, and I think that can be overwhelming for folks. I’d love for you to walk me through how you define -- and you specifically talk about white Christian nationalism. So how do you define that, and then I’d love for you to share how that understanding has impacted your worldview.
Bradley Onishi: Yeah, so let’s start with Christian nationalism. Christian nationalism, there are some easy definitions. I think one is if you think that Christians should be privileged in The United States, economically, politically, socially. If you think that, as a Christian, you should have privilege over others just because you’re a Christian, that we should always have a Christian president, that we should always have a Christian majority in Congress, that you would never vote for a non-Christian.
Okay, so you might be a Christian nationalist if that’s what you think, okay? If you think that the country was built by Christians, full stop. I don't want to hear debates about the fact that Thomas Jefferson doesn't believe in miracles or James Madison thinks that religion should not enter the public sphere in any or almost all cases. I just want to tell you it’s a Christian nation, it should stay a Christian nation, and that means that Christians are the ones who built the country, and they know what’s right for the country.
That’s Christian nationalism because what you're doing is you're ignoring the fact that you have many neighbors, right, who live in your community, who live in your country who are not Christians, not theists. They may be Hindu. They may believe in many gods. They may be Buddhist and believe in no god. They may be secular, Atheist, free thinker, whatever may be. So Christian nationalism is a desire to privilege Christians in The United States.
Now, the reason that the white part is important is because there are Christian nationalists who are not white. There are Black Christian nationalists. There are others. But when you ask those folks, “Okay, so you think this is a Christian country? How so?” a lot of them will tell you, “Well, it’s a Christian country that’s never really been Christian. We had enslaved people for centuries. We had Jim Crow. We had Chinese Exclusion. But you know what I’m hoping for is a Christian country that finally lives up to its billing. That one day, we will be a more perfect union.” So they tell you this story about hope and moving forward, right? Coming out of Egypt into the promise land. That’s the kind of tenor.
When you ask white folks -- and this is all in sociological data. This is not just me saying, “Hey, I talked to three white people in my family,” or something. This is all -- there have been a lot of studies on this. Not everyone, but on the whole, if you are a white Christian nationalist, you're gonna tell the story of nostalgia. “The country used to be great. The country used to be wonderful. It was a city on a hill,” Matthew 5, “But things got bad.” And then you say, “Well, when did things get bad?” and, like, 70% of white Christian Nationalists will tell you, “They got bad in the 1960s because the 1950s were awesome. That was the renaissance of America, but in the sixties, everything went bad.”
You start saying, “Okay, so you're telling me that in the sixties when we had the Civil Rights Movement, the Civil Rights Act, Immigration Reform, when we had the Voting Rights Act that prevented the poll tax and other things, when we had mass women’s liberation movements, queer liberation movements -- I could go on and on -- you're telling me that’s when things went wrong?” And the white Christian nationalist is like, “Yes, that is when things went wrong.”
So they're starting to tell you what kind of American society they think is great and what kind of American society they think is not great, and you're getting an image of what they want America to look like now. And so, the white Christian nationalist tells a very different story and has a very different vision of America than their counterparts who are Black or people of color in another way. That’s why, for me, the white in white Christian nationalism is really important for us to talk about because they're telling a very distinct story that tends to be one that looks back at the fifties as the way they want life to be now, which most of us don't agree with.
Rebecca Ching: And yet, there is almost this intoxicating overcoming that everyone -- there’s a comfort in nostalgia. Nostalgia feels good, but it’s quite dangerous in these topics. And even sometimes, too, the folks who, “The good old days in high school.” I’m like, “Don't peak in high school, people. Do not peak in high school.” But I digress. But there’s this nostalgia and this kind of infectious feeling because things are changing. The shifts in power, the discomfort that many folks never had to feel because of the privilege that you talked about.
What’s interesting when these rumbles are happening and I have these conversations with folks that I care about too in my community and I ask them more, they're like, “But I’m a good person.” I’m like, “I didn't even say you weren't a good person. I want to know more. Tell me more. I don't understand. If you think this is bad but this is the outcome of this…”
“But I’m not a bad person!” And so, there’s almost this tenderness around identity. “I’m not a bad person, and it really was better back in the fifties.” I don't know. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Bradley Onishi: I have some thoughts on nostalgia. Nostalgia and history are not the same. So I think your high school example’s a really great one, right? I don't know about everyone listening. I think back to high school, and I’m like there were some really fun things about being 18. My back didn't hurt when I woke up. That was great. My knee didn't pop for no reason. I was 15 pounds lighter. My friends and I went surfing all the time. We didn't have to worry about taxes or 401(k)s, or we didn't have parents who are aging (a lot of us, not all of us). But there was a sense of, “Oh, wow! That was great!”
And so, what I can do, then, is I can generate a nostalgic view of high school and say, “That was the golden days. Life will never be the same. I wish we could get back to that.” And then I remember, “Oh, yeah, high school was this time of great uncertainty, and my sense of self was in formation and there was high school which was a whole bastion of sharp objects and things that were not easy, and there were a lot of hormones and not understanding my body and my life and my parents and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” If we’re honest, it was the good old days and it was the bad old days. It was both. But nostalgia doesn't give you that. What nostalgia does is it gives you a myth of the past.
Rebecca Ching: Ooh.
Bradley Onishi: It invents a past. Nostalgia is an invention of what was so you can motivate what can be. You’re like, “Hey, it used to be like this. Let’s make it like that again.” The problem with that equation is that it was never like that.
When you tell me the 1950s were so great, I’m like, “Okay, so were they great for the Black folks living under Jim Crow? Okay, how about the Japanese folks in my family that were put in camp during the forties during World War II? All right, how about women who were in marriages, and they couldn’t get divorced because no-fault divorce laws were kind of hampering the fact that that was gonna be difficult unless they had some reasons that allow for it? What about interracial marriages in dozens of states where if you were of different races it was illegal to get married? Was this great for everybody or just certain people?”
I’ll give you another example. I have friends who will tell me that the pandemic was actually kind of a nice breather for them, right? They're like, “You know, during the pandemic, I got to work from home. I don't have kids. I didn't have to commute. I didn't have to go do a lot of social functions that I don't like to do because I’m introverted. I have a friend or two that’s like, “Pandemic? Loved it. Got to be at home all the time. No kids. Didn't spend a lot of money because I wasn't out doing stuff. Didn't have to sit in traffic. After work, I had more time. I would read and go to the gym, or I would go on a hike.” What I would tell that person is, “Hey, I totally get it. The pandemic seemed kind of like a nice breather for you. But you’re totally with me, right? Like, a million people died, and a lot of kids couldn't go to school for two years, and it was really tough for them,” and we could go on and on about how this was just really hard. And my friend will be like, “For sure. I’m not saying I want to go back to the pandemic. Just because it was good for me doesn't mean it was good for everybody. So I’m not gonna turn the pandemic into the golden age of my life or anyone else’s even though it was actually kind of breezy for me and really excruciating for many others.
When people tell me the 1950s was better, what I hear is it was easier for you because you didn't have to reflect on things. You didn't suffer marginalization like many others did. So when you want to go back to that, I feel like you're just ignoring the pain and the exclusion that so many felt in favor of just you wanting to feel comfortable. You can see why a lot of us just don't see your comfort as more important than inclusion and equality.
Rebecca Ching: Period.
Bradley Onishi: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: Circling back to, then, the term white Christian nationalism, how has this impacted your personal understanding of this worldview in your own worldview? What shifted for you?
Bradley Onishi: When I left my church was 2005. When I got to Oxford, it was 2005. I stayed there a couple years, and I think I would have told you in 2010 or 2015 or 2020, “Hey, I’m an ex-Evangelical. I used to be an Evangelical. No more. Just not who I am anymore. Okay, great.” I think what I’ve had to come to grips with is that I’m an ex-Christian nationalist. I’m mixed race (my dad’s Japanese American), but I’ll say that I’m an ex-white Christian nationalist because my church was not an overtly political one. It wasn't one of these where there were political candidates coming to preach or anything. But we were imbued with this ideology that God and country were together. We were the real Americans. The country would be better if everyone would return to church and the government allowed schools to mandate prayer and schools to mandate bible reading. We need a Christian president. Could you ever vote for a godless heathen like Bernie Sanders or a Jewish person or a Hindu person? No way, much less Barack Obama. He’s a Muslim. Blah, blah, blah, right? It’s a lot harder to say, “I used to be a Christian.”
There are a lot of folks these days who are like, “Yeah, I’m an ex-Evangelical. Now I’m Atheist or Catholic. Now I’m something else mainline.” No problem. All right. Cool. When you say ex-Christian nationalist, you're like, “Wow, that didn't feel good. Okay.” And you know what it does? I think this is actually really important for everyone. It makes you realize that Christian nationalism is not just extremists, right? It’s easy to think, “Oh, Christian nationalists. You mean dudes who are in militias or people storming the Capitol or people who want to outlaw being gay,” right?
It’s actually so much more imbued in our everyday than we think. If you are sitting in church and someone says, “You know, we’d be a lot better off if we put prayer back in schools and every kid in this place in this country had to read the bible every day,” I’m sorry, that’s Christian nationalism. You're forcing the Hindu kid, the Atheist kid, the Buddhist kid to read a religious text.” That’s Christian nationalism.
There are a lot of really nice 50-year-old ladies at churches and 36-year-old dads of two at churches who are good people trying their best, but they're holding those Christian nationalist views. And then here’s the part that really worries me, increasingly, when they go to church, when they listen to their podcasts, when they go to their YouTube channels, when they read their books, the leaders in their lives are telling them Christian nationalist ideas, right, like passing laws where the ten commandments have to be hung in schools and this and that are the only way to get the country back. So they're being told by influencers in their life that they need to actually increase their belief in this intimacy between Christianity and the federal government or any government. That’s what worries me.
So the ownership to me is an ownership of the mainstream. This is not just a few churches that are having Mike Flynn come talk or are encouraging people to form militias. This is a lot of everyday people sitting in pews who are willing to support this kind of stuff and increasingly hearing rhetoric that I think is more hardcore.
Rebecca Ching: Is this why in your book you talk about how January 6th you believe -- and you even acknowledge, you're not meaning to be hyperbolic -- but is kind of pregame?
Bradley Onishi: Yeah, so I think with January 6th, there’s a bunch to talk about there. I think it’s not something we really want to talk about.
I think a lot of us are tired of it. A lot of us are just like, “Okay, it happened. I don't need any more. There were hearings. There was a whole thing.” Here’s the reason I’ll just keep talking about it as long as anyone will allow me. More people believe the big lie that the election was stolen now than before January 6th. There’s a higher popularity of Donald Trump now than when he ran in 2016. There are also many communities in the country that look at January 6th as a first battle in a new Civil War. There are people who wear Ashli Babbitt and have flags of her waving. There are political rallies where the American flag that is raised to say the Pledge of Allegiance is a flag that was at January 6th, so it turns into kind of a relic, right? It turns into a sacred object. There are people who think, “That was the beginning. It may not have been successful, but neither was the Alamo, and we’re gonna remember it, and it’s gonna propel us forward.”
And so, who was at January 6th? Was it all extremists? Was it all militias? No. It was real estate agents from Dallas suburbs. It was a school board member from my hometown, a 43-year-old mom of 2 who decided to get on a plane and go. Those folks are still sitting in the same pews, listening to the same leaders, the same podcasts, reading the same books, and I just don't think that we fully adjudicated that. January 6th, politically in our country, is not a pariah. It’s not the thing we never think of as positive. It’s not that moment of national reckoning. It’s one that really highlights the polarization that still remains, and I think it portends a lot of what we’re gonna see in the future in terms of that continuing.
Rebecca Ching: Thank you for that. I feel similarly and why I keep talking about it. I’m curious, too, just pulling back a little bit too how this kind of authoritarianism, how we see this play out in the workplaces and in organizations in expected ways that maybe we’re not identifying.
Bradley Onishi: Authoritarianism is seductive, let’s just be honest. It means that one person makes decisions and others cannot have the burden of working together to come to a consensus or a majority. So, in weird ways, I think we need to just admit that authoritarian leadership alleviates some of the burden of being leaders because a lot of the thinking, a lot of the debating, the working together, the compromising never happens. It’s one person telling everyone how it’s gonna go. However, the tradeoff is that it’s incredibly hurtful. One person has the power to make decisions in an organization or in a government without consulting the majority, without taking a vote, without having to balance the needs and desires of all stakeholders.
And so, authoritarianism can creep into organizations when -- and this is, I think, what we see also in our government and in our country -- there is fear of change and there’s fear of threat, right? Everyone talks about being the kind of leader who wants to listen and dialogue and have a process of hearing everyone’s voice and coming to a really good strategy for how to move forward. When there’s threat, when there’s concern, when there’s anxiety, power gets consolidated and one person speaks the loudest, and they shout down most of the others. Because of the threat, a lot of people are willing to go along with it and say, “Okay, yeah, let’s just follow the leader here and go.” Unfortunately, as I said, that leads to exclusion. It leads to usually very bad leadership choices, whether in the short or long term. And it leads to an environment that stifles any kind of expression, any kind of sense of equity, any kind of sense of people sharing in the enterprise as those who can voice their concerns or their pain or their needs. Authoritarians don't allow for that, and so, that makes it problematic in any setting.
Rebecca Ching: There are folks listening to this show who, whether they're helping professionals, they're small business owners, they’re working in larger organizations or corporations, what would you say to them? What are the stakes for them to understand this and really get strategic in finding out ways to respond to this kind of authoritarianism and its pursuit of power as they run their businesses and lead their teams?
Bradley Onishi: I have this saying I have for myself now. I was just on a big family vacation, family reunion kind of situation, the kind of scenario where there are over a dozen people staying in the same house and there are grandparents and children and you're worried about spouses and brothers and everyone else getting along and wanting to go along with the program. All right. What’s the point? My motto on that trip was I knew I was gonna have to be the leader of a lot of it, kind of direct the group. I’m the oldest brother, and that’s just kind of what I do in the family. But my other motto internally to myself was don't be the problem, meaning, yes, we need to get things done. We’re gonna have to get 12 people going in the same direction every day. That’s totally fine, and we’re gonna need someone who’s willing to take on some of the planning and the time keeping and the, “Hey, guys. We’ve got to get in the car. Let’s go!” That doesn't mean you're allowed to be the problem, right? You don't get to be the one who, in the name of getting things done, treats people with anger, with impatience, with selfishness.
And so, as leaders, I think we have to say to ourselves, “Yes, there are always gonna be moments of crisis, of concern, of threat. We’re gonna have to figure out what to do next.” In those moments, can I build in a muscle memory, a reflex, that says I’m gonna take a breath, and yes, I’m gonna have to make decisions. Some of those decisions may not be easy, but I’m not gonna be the problem. I’m not gonna revert to a fight or flight mode where I react with impatience and callousness because I’m feeling like I’m in a state of alert.
That’s easier said than done, but if we can do that more times than not, that, I think, prevents us from slipping into that kind of authoritarian mode as leaders and I think creates a better environment for anyone involved.
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So, in reading your book, and I binged a bit of your podcast too, there’s this one topic that you touch on that, in my clinical work especially, I’ve been a bit of a specialist in around purity culture over the years and seeing how it intersects with so many other pieces, but the way that you talk about it, I was reading your book and cussing out loud, and my husband’s like, “What’s happening?” I’m like, “This is just huge!” He was like, “What? And also children!” And I’m like, “I’m sorry!” you know? I tried to explain it to him, and he kind of glossed over a little bit, and I’m like, “Okay, we’ll talk about it later.” He’s a historian, but he’s learning about purity culture from me.
And so, you wrote about this deep connection of purity culture with Christian nationalism. So, just for defining terms, I’d love for you to first define purity culture, for those listening, and then walk me through the intersection of purity culture and Christian nationalism and its continued impact (and as we noted in our pre-call) especially on women, but also in business and wellness. You know, the business and wellness culture? There’s that piece there too. So that’s a big question. So, first, how do you define purity culture?
Bradley Onishi: Yeah, so purity culture is really a late eighties, nineties phenomenon. It’s an ethos of Christian ethics that says that one should remain sexually pure before marriage. So what does sexually pure mean? Sexually pure means, number one, don't have sex before marriage. Okay, all right, pretty simple. It also means don't have lustful thoughts or feelings before marriage, and if you do, you are committing adultery. Like, you are literally cheating on your future husband, wife, etcetera. So if you are 16 and you have a sexual thought or desire, you have a thought about someone you have a crush on, whatever may be, that is akin to cheating on your future spouse, okay? So don't even think about sex.
Now, on top of that, there is a really rigid set of gender roles that are introduced into purity. So being pure is not just, “Hey, I didn't have sex before marriage and I did my best not to think about sex at all, even though I’m now 21 years old. That’s pretty hard to do.” It also means that I ascribed to the gender roles that God wants, and that means that men are understood to be leaders of church, of society, of household. Women are submissive to their husbands, and when it comes to sex and sexual desire, men are ravenous sexual lunatics. They cannot control themselves, and they are always on the verge of just sexual explosion. Women and girls, on the other hand, do not want sex for pleasure. They just want sex to feel close to their companion, their spouse, and so, they have to be the gatekeepers of sexual purity. If you're 17 and you're having a kiss goodbye and things get a little excited, girl/women, it’s your job to shut it down and not let this ravenous, sex-crazed, lunatic man go any farther.
Well, that puts incredible pressure on young girls and women. There have been so many great memoirs and books written about this. There is an existing literature that is so helpful if you've never read it, please do. Linda Kay Kline’s Pure. Julie Ingersoll’s work. There’s so much -- Sarah Moslener’s work.
Rebecca Ching: Yep. We’ll link them all.
Bradley Onishi: So purity culture then says this: your family should be what? It should be a family where there’s a man who’s the leader, authoritative, sexually ravenous; there should be a wife who’s submissive, who is willing to meet his needs sexually; the children in the family should see their dad as the voice of God in their home. Okay, that is a model for the family. It’s also a model for society. That is how purity culture builds from the teenage sexual relationship to the cis, het household, to how society and church should all look, right? It’s the building blocks.
Well, my thesis is that Christian nationalism is the original purity culture because white Christian nationalism, if you do the history, all the way from 1630 and the Massachusetts Bay Colony to the present day, the desire is for what? It’s a society that has a white Christian patriarchal structure. It’s one that if you're like, “Hey, what does the American body look like?” “Hey, tell me, when you think of America, what kind of body does it have?” Well, it has a straight body. It has a Christian body. It has a patriarchal body. It speaks English with no accent. English is the first language. It’s a land-owning man, right, who is in charge of his household and his society. Christian nationalism for 400 years has tried to create that kind of American way of life.
So purity culture is an attempt in the nineties, when things started to seem to go awry, when gay people were on television and Bill Clinton was doing things with interns, it was an attempt to reinstitute the Christian nationalist vision of society by throwing all of its desires and all of its wants onto the canvas of teenage flesh. If we can just regulate teenage bodies, maybe we’ll eventually get the American body we so badly want and that seems to be slipping from our fingers.
And so, purity culture wants white kids to marry white kids in heterosexual marriages. Interracial marriage is not explicitly outlawed but certainly not something people are in love with for the most part, right? It has to be a productive marriage. If you don't have kids, what are you doing? There can be no sense of equality or a sense where men and women share the same roles. I can go on and on, but the thesis is Christian nationalism has been purity culture, and when we got to the nineties, there was just launching all of Christian nationalism’s desires onto this canvas of young people, trying to regulate their bodies so we can regulate America, and that’s hard.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, your connection of that was just like -- a big F-bomb came out of my mouth when I read that, I saw it. I mean, I’ve been reading a lot of these other scholars that you've talked about over the years, but when you connected that to, particularly, white Christian nationalism and it just was like here it is. You think about trying to police and regulate bodies particularly those with uteruses, those who identify as female, and then you see how that plays out. I’d love for you to just even riff on how you see that play out in the business of wellness culture, which I know predominantly a lot of women who fit this identity, where do you see this kind of play out there too? There’s a big intersection of that with Christian nationalism, with a lot of the conspiracy stuff out there too.
Bradley Onishi: Yeah, I think, and I don't want to caricaturize, and I don't want to -- my every day is really studying and thinking about white Christian nationalism, the religious right, all that stuff. But I’ve done work with scholars, especially Susannah Crockford, who are scholars of wellness culture. I talk to various folks on my show and have dug into research, and one of the things that I’ve seen in terms of overlap is wellness culture often wants to have an ideal type of body and an ideal type of body and an ideal type of soul. There’s a sense in which if we just do it right (the way we eat, the way we stretch, the way we practice, the way we take care of our bodies), then we’ll have the ideal body. That’s where it overlaps with everything I just said, that if you think that there’s a way you can kind of shed the impurities of yourself for a pure self, then you might be kind of playing the same game as the Christian nationalists just in a tone that is more likely to be engaged in organic food and yoga and other stuff, right?
And so, I think there’s a temptation there to then go a step further into conspiracy theory, because if you want an ideal body and you want an ideal state of life that’s pure from anything that you consider a contaminant, it’s really hard to do actually. It just turns out that that’s near impossible, right? And that any time we pursue an ideal body, we kind of have this sense that anything that’s not ideal about me is wrong, okay?
So conspiracy is really actually helpful because it can start to be explanatory as to why things are just always wrong and not how they should be. “Oh, you would have this pure life. Oh, you would have this pure state. Oh, I would be able to have an unvaccinated kid, and we wouldn't need all these medicines if this cabal of elites wasn't trying to get us, if big pharma wasn't in bed with the illuminati, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” right? And so, there’s tons of work going on right now that is showing how, during the pandemic especially, wellness communities and white Christian nationalist communities actually started to kind of be weird bedfellows. I’m sure you can talk about this more than me, so I will see the floor to you, but that’s what I’m seeing from my seat at least.
Rebecca Ching: No, no, I appreciate that perspective. And it’s a conversation I enter in with a lot of care and reverence because a lot of folks are just really wanting to be safe, to be well, to care for their kids well. And so, to me, though, it’s more about folks that are exploiting folks with those needs to make a lot of money and to achieve a lot of power. That’s really where I want to call BS to. Not the pursuit to being well or to not being in pain.
Bradley Onishi: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: So I just wanted to name that and just bring back, too, the burden on women to take care of men who have desire.
The blame -- that dynamic still plays it out. There’s a lot of pain and a lot of burdens that a lot of folks carry, and I think you even touched on, before we started recording, that probably your next book is gonna be around this topic of purity culture in men, and not to say poor men but to just talk about the damage it’s done and how they keep perpetuating harm in that sense.
So I just think it’s important to connect these dots so folks who are, like you talked about your friend from your hometown, or a lot of folks are like, “I’m just showing up. I’m just contributing to my community.” Who are we listening to? Where are we giving our trust, our money, our time? We’ve got to stay curious on that.
So I want to shift a little bit just to you too. I think this is worthwhile to note, too, with your journey is just your own evolution as a leader from being a teenager leading hundreds of kids in youth group every week to the work you're doing today. You're a professor. You're a podcaster. You're an author. You're a parent. I’d love for you to talk about how you see your own evolution as a leader.
Bradley Onishi: What I’ve discovered is I’ve changed so much over the last 15 years. My life, my beliefs, all of that has really transformed. But my leadership style has remained consistent in this sense. When I was a youth minister, I loved it because I had -- and I know there are so many jokes about youth pastors, and I’m here for all of them, don't get me wrong. So please send them my way. But here’s what I loved. When I was 14 I converted, and the reason I converted is I got invited to church by my girlfriend, and I didn't have any interest in church. I just wanted to see if I could, A --
Rebecca Ching: It was the cute boys for me, too. I mean, come on!
Bradley Onishi: But what I met at church were these leaders who were, like, 21, 22, 25. They cared about me. They wanted to talk to me. I had hair that was three different colors. I dressed like a punk, and they didn't say, “Get out of here.” They were like, “Who are you? What’s your story?”
So when I became a youth minister, that was the thing that gave me the most joy was this is a space where everyone’s gonna be included, and I’m gonna find something special about every kid that walks through here.
When they come in, they're gonna be like, “I’m safe here, and I get to enjoy being me in a place where old adults recognize who I am.” And so, some kids, that’s easy, right? They're really socially adept, and they come in and they're happy, and they're super stoked to be at summer camp. There are other kids, right, that are not used to fitting in. At school it’s hard, and you find that thing about them. You take them out to lunch. You listen to them talk about who they are. Then they feel included. That was so, to me, addictive because I just felt so good to provide people a place to live and exist where they could be themselves.
If I fast forward now, I’ve taught so many years as a professor at liberal arts colleges, right? So I have classes that are, like, ten students, fifteen students, four students. My approach there -- and my colleagues rarely listen to me about this. Everyone wants to talk about pedagogy like, “How do we teach?” And I’m here for it. That’s great. Good. Let’s do pedagogy. Sounds fun. A lot of my pedagogy throughout the years (I’ll be very honest with everybody) has been I get to class ten minutes early, and every kid that walks in, I’m like, “Yo! What’s up? Jennifer, good to see you! You're on the basketball team, is that right? Yeah? Cool, okay, how’s it going? What position do you play? Great! Where did you grow up again? I can't remember. Oh, yeah, got it! San Diego, okay.” Right? Throughout the semester, it’s just asking questions of students like they're human beings and like they matter.
When you have a group of eight or ten, you can do that. You can remember names. You know where their hometown is. You know that they're really into frisbee golf and they love the summers being at summer camp because they're into horses and helping kids. You see them on campus, and you ask them how it’s going. You see them on campus, and you say, “Hey, how’s your poli-sci major? Did you pass that test?” And all of a sudden, you're back to being somebody who’s creating new community where people feel like they matter, where they're significant, where somebody wants to know who they are as a human being, and then in class, they want to discuss, they want to participate, they want to let their guard down and actually contribute. They don't feel like they're gonna get attacked or like they’re not sure if they are safe to speak up. You have this dynamic discussion, and people really want to get into the material. It changes the feeling of the room.
And so, as a leader, whether that is a youth pastor, whether that is a professor, whether that’s now somebody who has a podcast and has a community that’s digital and online, to me, the number one thing has always been treat everyone like they matter and everyone like their story has significance, and if you're willing to do that in a way that they trust, then you're halfway there to having them as somebody who wants to be part of what you're up to. It’s not easy, but I don't know. I don't know any other way to do it, and I know that there are probably people out there that are like, “That’s inefficient.”
Rebecca Ching: So I’m just curious. I want to push you a little bit on this. Me having worked in the youth workspace too, we know intellectually asking the questions, getting them to open up, those things work, but I think there’s also this sense of the person doing the asking, what is your intent? What is your heart? What’s your motivation?
I'm curious for you then, you’ve kind of had this evolution over the last couple decades, how do you view success, and what does success look like for you today and how is this different from what you were taught?
Bradley Onishi: It’s just so easy to -- I live in California. I live in The Bay Area at the moment, and there’s so much like Silicon Valley and success is measured by influence and by money, and it’s hard not to get sucked into that culture and to think that way. I think that’s a lifelong temptation that we manage success in terms of how many people follow us, how much money we have, and that has not gone away from me as I’ve gotten older.
I mean, I’m a professor and a former pastor. Wealth was never on the table. So it’s easy to get like, “Oh, what would that be like?” When I come back to myself, I have an understanding of success that really just comes back to what is meaningful.
This is gonna sound really strange, and I apologize if people don't get it, but I come back to this question: why are we alive? That sounds like, I don't know, maybe Philosophy 101 freshman class or I don't know. It sounds like a sermon title or something. But you can think about all the aspirations for wealth or status or followers or influence. And then you come back to a place where you’re able to bring your kids to a Mother’s Day lunch with their grandmothers or you're able to have a moment where your two-year-old is wearing her traditional Japanese cover and going to a festival with your dad in Japantown. Or you’re able to just enjoy a moment where you’re with someone you love, you're safe, you're connected, and you're enjoying a moment of what feels like a sense of intimacy and trust. That’s success, and it’s really easy to miss that. It’s easy to write those things off as small and not success should be this great journey towards excellence and achievement and standing on top of a mountain.
Believe me, I’m very driven. I do too much. My wife is always saying, “Please do less, and we don't need to do 19 projects. We could do 16 maybe or 12 or maybe 1 like a normal person.”
So none of this is a means of not wanting to work hard, to achieve, to set goals. It’s more like success is living a life that has meaning. Why am I doing those things? And I want to come back to that every day. I want to come back to, every day, why am I alive? I think the pandemic taught us this: life is so fragile. Life is so fragile.
Being human is so embarrassing. It’s so embarrassing to be a human being. It’s the most effing embarrassing thing to ever be a human, you know? Because you show up to this world naked, crying, and you’ve got no idea where you came from. That’s so embarrassing. You didn't want to be here, but you are, and you may not want to leave, but you have to, and you’re always in between. You’ll never be safe from either end. You’re always vulnerable. You're always open to a mortal wound. To be human is to be wounded, and there’s no curing that condition. It is incurable. The human condition is an incurable one.
Rebecca Ching: No, no, no. But if we go back to the fifties, maybe we could cure it.
Bradley Onishi: And that’s the thing. This is why nostalgia is so seductive because we want a cure to our condition, right? I want the Garden of Eden to be the thing I get to go back to. I want the fifties to be the place when I was safe. I want there to be two genders because if there is, it makes sense to me. It’s just so scary to be human and deal with that change. So it’s easy to be like, “Yeah, nostalgia will fix that, right?” or, “I’ll find a leader that will fix me.”
Going back to being a leader, if you ever promise to fix people, you’re doing it wrong because there is no fixing human beings. There is a simple way that we can live in this embarrassing condition with meaning, significance, and value. That’s what the human condition is, and to create, to sing, to break bread together, to open up a space where you can connect, to write, to play, those are ways that this curse and embarrassing condition can be overcome with wonder.
But we overlook it half the time because we want to do other stuff and be successful and have 100,000 followers and whatever else. And so, I’m just embarrassed every day to be human, but I’m pretty excited about it too, and I think that’s the best we can do.
Rebecca Ching: Sitting with the polarities and the tensions and upping our capacity for discomfort for sure. Well, that’s a great note to -- I don't want to say end -- I think pause because I have a feeling I’m gonna want you back on the show.
I’d love to wrap up with just some traditional, fun, quickfire questions. I’m curious. What are you reading right now?
Bradley Onishi: Always too much. I’m reading Middlesex, which is a popular book about six/seven years ago. It’s a long novel. It’s really good. It's about an intersex person. I’m reading Hitler’s American Example, which is a book about how Hitler learned a lot from The United States and its racial division when putting together his stuff. And I’m always reading The Maigret Series by Simonon. It’s a French detective novel. That is my vice. If you want to know where I give into temptation at night, it is by reading French detective novels. So that’s it.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] What song are you playing on repeat right now?
Bradley Onishi: Unfortunately, the Moana soundtrack because that’s what my daughter wants to listen to. I can recite it verbatim, yeah.
Rebecca Ching: I thought you were gonna say Rich Mullins for a moment.
Bradley Onishi: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: I’m just kidding. Sorry, I couldn't help it even though I have a special place in my heart for Rich. What is the best TV show or movie you’ve seen recently?
Bradley Onishi: So we have two shows we watch right now. One is Ted Lasso, and one is Succession. So I think Succession is really --
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Oh, my gosh!
Bradley Onishi: I know.
Rebecca Ching: Talk about polarities!
Bradley Onishi: It’s like one night of just utter human viciousness and another of uplifting, semi-corny stuff. But yeah, so those are the two that we watch right now, and I like both of them.
Rebecca Ching: What is your favorite piece of eighties pop culture?
Bradley Onishi: That’s a good question. So my brothers and I watched Back to the Future as a series maybe 100 times. So we watched Back to the Future when it came out. We kept watching it. So we’ve watched that set of movies so many times. We’ve also watched The Karate Kid, the original Karate Kid movies
Rebecca Ching: Oh.
Bradley Onishi: The Mr. Miyogi, Daniel-san ones.
Rebecca Ching: Wax on, wax off, yes.
Bradley Onishi: So those have a big place in my heart for sure. Yeah. I’ll leave it there. Those two really stick out.
Rebecca Ching: So what is your mantra right now?
Bradley Onishi: My mantra is -- I have two. One is don't be the problem. When I’m in a leadership position, when I’m in my family, when I’m anywhere, am I the one who’s acting in a way that’s selfish or impulsive or impatient or anything above? The other is acceptance. For me, having a little kid and having another one on the way means just accepting, like, “Hey, we’re gonna go on this vacation. It should take two hours to get there.” It took eight hours! Well, that happens. Yep, we had to change diapers and eat and feed and calm down because somebody was crying, and that’s okay. Yes, things didn't get done today like I wanted. I accept it. It’s not that we didn't do our best. It’s just that’s how life is right now, and so, I’m gonna accept where we’re at. Not as a way of compromising or giving in, but as a way of saying, “I don't always get what I want. Things are not always gonna go how I planned. It’s not gonna be perfect, and that doesn't mean it’s bad. It just means we did what we could.”
Rebecca Ching: What’s an unpopular opinion that you hold?
Bradley Onishi: Oh, man. I have so many of these. So we should be totally done with James Bond.
Rebecca Ching: Ooh.
Bradley Onishi: James Bond should have ended 25 -- and I lived in the UK for so many years. I have so many UK friends who I’ve told this to. There have been fist fights. There have been turned tables.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah.
Bradley Onishi: There’s no reason that anyone should ever get a burger at Shake Shack because it’s trash compared to Five Guys or In-N-Out, so just take that. I don't know if Shake Shack sponsors this show.
Rebecca Ching: No, no.
Bradley Onishi: But if it does you're gonna have to edit this out.
Rebecca Ching: No, we’re safe.
Bradley Onishi: So I think that’s another one. Yeah, so I think that’s there. I think San Jose, where I live, is the best immigrant food city in the country. So take that, Los Angeles and New York. Y’all can look down on San Jose, but I'll defend it ‘til I die, and the food here will rival anyone’s in the country. I’m just gonna put it there, and if you don't believe me, come to San Jose and find out because it’s amazing. I could go on. I have so many. I give these to my students, and they think I’m crazy, but I don't care.
Rebecca Ching: I love it. And who or what inspires you to be a better leader and human?
Bradley Onishi: My daughter, first of all. I think that’s a pretty common one, and I think that’s one that many people will identify with. My dad’s another, and I just have a deep sense of the idea that if we go back to that embarrassing condition of being human, one of the ways that we make meaning of that condition is by inheritance and anticipation and by giving ourselves ways to hand people (meaning our children and our younger generations) ways of overcoming the curse I talked about with wonder. And so, my dad’s done that with me, and you try to do that with your own kids, and you start to see a chain form, and it starts to be really meaningful. And so, I think thinking about it in those terms helps me come back to what’s important.
Rebecca Ching: Where can people find you if they want to connect with you and your work?
Bradley Onishi: Yeah, I’m on social media @bradleyonishi. My website’s www.bradonishi.com. I do a podcast called Straight White American Jesus. We don't think Jesus was straight, white, or American, but we want to figure out why people do, and we talk about Christian nationalism and the religious right three days a week. So yeah, those are the main places, and I’m happy to talk or hang out when folks contact me.
Rebecca Ching: Thank you so much for your time today. It’s been a really rich and fruitful conversation, and this has been a real honor to listen and learn from you. Thank you for your time!
Bradley Onishi: Thanks for having me. I’m honored to be here, and I really appreciate it!
Rebecca Ching: Wow, wow, wow. Brad left us with a lot to think about from how nostalgia is used to weaponize public opinion, to the importance of stating white when saying Christian supremacy culture, to the long and challenging process of deconstructing your beliefs and worldview system and rebuilding your community and identity in that deconstruction process. I can’t stop thinking about when Brad shared his idea and perspective that the original purity culture stems from white Christian supremacy culture through how it polices young bodies, particularly female bodies, and ways to garner control over culture and our country. I mean, mind blown as I connected the dots that he connected in our conversation.
Now, we move in and out of various groups with cultish or high-demand tendencies, yes, and we have the power to call in and call out and identify these groups, name our experiences to help decrease their power, and I think, more importantly, to help others feel less alone and more empowered to make the changes that they need to. This is the ongoing work of an Unburdened Leader.
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