It has been called the “’single biggest threat’ to America’s religious freedom,” a “severe and present danger to American democracy,” and a “dangerous heresy,” among other things.
What is this menace imperiling the nation? Neo-Marxism? Climate change denial? The originalist Supreme Court?
No, it’s “Christian Nationalism,” a term with no settled definition, yet something that people in the know want you to know is bad—no, dangerous.
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As to how dangerous, the week before the Court ruling on Roe v. Wade was finalized and made public, conservative Christians of my acquaintance expressed worry that a pro-life victory would embolden Christian Nationalists. In other words, the existential threat of Christian Nationalism is greater than the legalized killing of hundreds of thousands of children every year. If true, that’s a monumental threat deserving all opprobrium being heaped upon it.
But that depends on what is meant by “Christian Nationalism.” Is it a sectarian mood, an organized movement, a dominionist or integralist ideology, or just a name for the Christian Right?
At surface, “Christian Nationalism” is a term of relatively recent vintage that is a mash-up of two words that can have vastly different meanings. Depending on whom one asks, “Christian” can apply to beliefs of the “spiritual but not religious” as well as the Bishop of Rome.
Likewise, “Nationalism” can apply equally to beliefs of the patriot and the fascist. To the former, it is the ideal that nations should be a self-governing body of citizens with a set of cultural norms sustained by traditional liberal values like liberty, equality, and freedom. To the latter, it’s the exclusion from that ideal of certain people groups because of ethnicity, race, religion, or country of origin.
Consequently, “Christian Nationalism” is bound by two extremes. On the one hand, it is the belief that America is and must remain an exclusively “White” Christian nation by force or violence if necessary. Here, the association with “White Nationalism” and neo-Nazism conjures up the harrowing specters of white robes, lynchings, and holocausts.
On the other hand, it is the view that America is a pluralistic nation founded on Judeo-Christian principles that form the basis of its rule of law and must be preserved for the common good—a position that nearly every American church since the nation’s founding would agree with. For while the Founders may not have endorsed the Church as an arm of the State, nor the State as an arm of the Church, they considered biblical faith essential to the principles of liberty, justice, law, and governance that became institutionalized as uniquely American.
Between those extremes is the description of Christian Nationalism by Yale sociologist Philip Gorski as “an ideology based on…the myth that the country was founded as a Christian nation by white Christians and that its laws and institutions are based on Protestant Christianity” and that America “is divinely favored and has been given the mission to spread religion, freedom, and civilization.”
Yet even that description, argues historian Miles Smith, would have been apt for “most American churches and denominations historically.” As he explains, “American Protestants and Catholics both argued that God had favored the United States and that Christians owed God our labor to make our society more virtuous per broadly Christian precepts. If this is the standard of Christian nationalism, every American from John Winthrop to Abraham Lincoln to Franklin D. Roosevelt to Billy Graham could be termed a Christian nationalist.”
Smith points out that Roosevelt “saw Christian civilizational precepts as essential for the maintenance of the American republic.” For example, in a 1940 letter to the Jewish Education Committee, FDR wrote, “our modern democratic way of life has its deepest roots in our great common religious tradition, which for ages past has taught to civilized mankind the dignity of the human being, his equality before God, and his responsibility in the making of a better and fairer world.”
So maybe it is not this mainstream variety of Christian Nationalism that has churned up the fever swamps. Perhaps, it is the strain author Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove considers to be “the greatest threat to democracy” because it “has built a base that is ready and willing to subvert the will of the American people.”
Whether or not he has divined the intent of that strain correctly, his claim that it is “the greatest threat to democracy” is specious, at best, given that, by his admission, it is a “minority movement with a diminishing base.” As he points out, that base is predominately “white evangelical Protestantism,” which has been in free fall for decades and now accounts for only 14 percent of all Americans.
Even if it is (generously) granted that half of all White evangelical Protestant’s are so-called “Christian nationalists,” that is only 7 percent of Americans. Yet, as evidence of this grave threat to the republic, he suggests that this fringe group is responsible for overturning Roe v. Wade against the majority of Americans who support legalized abortion and reject theocracy. If not stopped, he warns, these people, “who claim to speak for all Christians, will impose their will on all Americans.”
But the recent SCOTUS decision was not made possible by a small percentage of Christians who might have endorsed a toxic concept of nationalism. Rather, it was made possible by 56 percent of all Christians who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 not because they were racists or xenophobes, or because they wanted a theocracy or Margaret Atwood’s Gilead, but because they held traditional beliefs about marriage, sexuality, and personhood and valued fiscal responsibility, secure borders, energy independence, and school choice.
In a prior day, these mainstream folk were called social and fiscal conservatives or “values voters.” But today, as the progressive utopia (not the Republic, as claimed) is slipping away at the ballot box, they’re labeled “Christian Nationalists”—this, despite the fact that a vanishingly small percentage would fit the nefarious descriptions presumed by most critics and denounced by all decent people, including those who are being so labeled.
It is a clever strategy intended to marginalize and delegitimize anyone and anything standing athwart the progressive march to new moral norms and government expansion.
What better way to silence your opponents than to associate them, and their beliefs, with the darkest examples of human history? What better way to impose your will on them and undermine democracy?