“The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
― John Adams
What is Christian Nationalism and why should all American believers, non-believers, and even those of other faiths pay attention? Today, as the nation slides further and further into decisive debates over everything from education to the rise of MAGA to immigration to the rights of women to control their bodies, Christian Nationalism can be seen as a major contributor driving these destructive trends. Simply put, whereas once Christianity was a positive force in people’s lives, the rise of Christian Nationalists has cast a dark shadow over the role religion plays in American society, and more importantly, in how government works.
The origins of Christian Nationalism, oddly enough, lies in the roots of our democratic republic in the form of the First Amendment to the Constitution which states,
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The problem from the beginning was two fold. First, the Founding Fathers were well aware of the problems created when a government placed religious restrictions on its populace. For years, Britain forced the Church of England’s doctrine on the new colonials. “Religious freedom attracted settlers to America. English Protestants sought to structure their society so that every part of life experienced the renewal of the Reformation. Quakers, Roman Catholics and others came to America to escape persecution.”
Consequently, the Founding Fathers had little patience with the way the British government insinuated religion into its policies of governance. They wanted to ensure the burgeoning American government kept religion out of governmental affairs and vice versa. Complicating the issue, the population of the new republic was heavily steeped in Christian belief and Christian ideals. The founders believed strongly that for a citizen to function at their best they should cleave to their religious ideals and live in accordance with those beliefs. This is where confusion came into play and has continued so through the years. Were the Founding Fathers opening the door for the intrusion of religion into governing of the nation? If not, why put it there in the first place.
The answer lies in the the phrase “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .” What was meant to be seen as creating a “wall of separation” between church and state always held the potential of being misinterpreted by zealous Christians wanting power that extended into the governance of the country. Both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson supported a “wall of separation” that kept religion and the state separate.
Today, Christian Nationalism is all the rage in conservative circles. It is important to recognize that the movement is staunchly embedded in both the conservative movement and the Republican Party. It would be easy to dismiss the culture of Christian Nationalism as just another phase that will pass in time. It will not, and it can only be assumed that as conservatism gains a firmer grasp on the nation, so too, will the Christian Nationalism. Understandably, the movement is one of white identity politics which reflects a portion of white America who believe they are being pushed out of their positions of power they held since the nation’s inception.
The Founding Fathers were not sanctioning Christianity as the one and only “American Religion”, but rather, were speaking in general terms about all religions. In the late 1600s through the middle of the 1700s, Anglicanism and Congregationalism were the driving forces in colonial America. Both were derivates of the English Puritan movement and emphasized the Protestant aspect of religion. There were, of course, people of the Jewish faith, some non believers, Native Americans, and others who did not fit the mold that the larger denominations espoused. Still, in the Founding Fathers’ eyes, all were afforded the same protection given them by the First Amendment. As Christianity prospered, other less popular belief systems remained in the shadows as the juggernaut of Christian faith grew wealthy, powerful, and ambitious.
Unfortunately, along with white identity politics, the movement harbors sinister and dehumanizing attributes. Racism, negative gender positions, violence, blind trust in leaders who shouldn’t be trusted, and an “us against them” mentality are part and parcel of the movement. Savvy political operatives like Ron DeSantis, Lauren Boebert, and Marjorie Taylor Greene (no matter how negative or untruthful) are just a few of those who have tapped into the angst that permeates the Christian Nationalist negative worldview.
Understandably, Donald Trump who has a huge political base associated with his MAGA movement has reaped the most from the Christian Nationalist movement. He has mined the depths of Christian Nationalism to further position himself as a Messiah for those hungry to see their beliefs brought to the national stage. Conspiracy theories, the attack on the Capitol on January 6, and a plethora of unfounded lies and fake news stories can be attributed to Trump’s wooing of the Christian Nationalist movement. As he becomes more and more threatened by the courts as they pursue him on a variety of fronts, Trump’s modus operandi is to further embrace those who would foist their religious views on the rest of the nation; something that will surely lead the nation into dire straits in coming months and years.
At this point it would be useless to point to nations around the world who are actually governed by religious nationalist. Everyone knows the horror that is the Taliban. Their repressive belief system leads to death and defilement of any one, especially women, who dare step out of line and confront their thuggish actions. Iran is another example where people live in fear for their lives as morality police are a constant threat of all who don’t share their brand of religious extremism.
Could Christian Nationalists succeed in gaining sufficient access to the American halls of power to institute a national religion (Christianity)? Would its faithful followers act to subvert the freedoms that are guaranteed by the constitution? In many ways it has begun already. It is important to note that Christian Nationalism is not strictly an evangelical movement although many evangelicals are a part of the crowd. In an article published in Christianity Today titled “Christian Nationalism is Worse than You Think“, the publication’s global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen sat down with Paul D. Miller, professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, to discuss Christian Nationalism to better define the movement. Miller notes that Christianity is a religion dedicated to worshiping the Christian god. He makes an important distinction, however, when he states,
“Christian Nationalism is a political ideology about American identity. It is a set of policy prescriptions for what the nationalists believe the American government should do. It’s not drawn from the Bible. It draws political theory from secular philosophy and their own version of history as well.” Source
In hindsight, Americans watched as Trump courted evangelicals and other religious leaders as part of his goal of spreading his conservative views to groups around the nation. Christian Nationalists took Trump’s acknowledgment of them as a carte blanche nod to spread the group’s devisive agenda. And it worked frighteningly well. The question is can they be stopped and will America have the wherewithal to say enough is enough? Only time will tell.