April 2021 Church & State Magazine | Cover Story

The treasonous mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6 included a large cohort that hoisted Confederate battle flags and Trump banners. But mixed among those standards were other signs, ones bearing crosses and references to Christ. It’s clear that for some of the insurrectionists, the attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election was a holy crusade. 

These people soon attracted the attention of political commentators. In the wake of the failed coup, a spate of columns appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post and other media outlets focusing on the role Christian nationalists played in the riot. A column in The Times by Thomas B. Edsell carried the blunt headline: “The Capitol Insurrection Was As Christian Nationalist As It Gets.”

Increasingly, members of the media, academics, Americans United and others are using the term “Christian nationalism” and often “white Christian nationalism” to describe a political movement that seeks to topple church-state separation and declare America a “Christian nation” – with “Christian” in this case being far to the right and supremely fundamentalist.

While they’re sometimes openly aligned with racist movements, their ultimate goal is seen as a branch of white supremacy because it would result in a society governed by conservative white Christian men who would make decisions for everyone else.

The terminology is new, but the movement is not. Since the late 1970s, Americans United has been warning Americans about the machinations of the Religious Right, a religio-political force of extreme Christian fundamentalists who seek to tear down the church-state wall, “Christianize” public schools and other government institutions, roll back women’s rights, strip LGBTQ Americans of basic freedoms and impose a theocratic state on the country.

Are Christian nationalists and the Religious Right just two different terms to describe the same movement? Some researchers say yes, while others feel there are important differences.

Sarah Posner, a freelance reporter who has tracked white Christian nationalists for decades, finds them to be one and the same; while Katherine Stewart, a researcher whose most recent book is The Power Worshippers: Inside the Rise of Religious Nationalism, said she uses the terms “Religious Right” and “Christian nationalists” but gravitates toward the latter as more descriptive.

“Although I make use of both terms depending on context, I often think Christian nationalism is a more accurate term,” Stewart said in an interview with Church & State. “The term ‘Religious Right’ suggests to me a social movement arising from the ground up, motivated by a narrow set of cultural and symbolic concerns, and operating within the norms and traditions of pluralistic, democratic politics in America. ‘Chris­tian nationalism’ makes clear that the thing that matters here is really a political movement, and that its politics are profoundly hostile to pluralism and democracy.

“I also think that there is something not quite accurate about the ‘right’ in ‘Religious Right,’” Stewart continued. “It suggests that this is a conservative movement. But it isn’t. Christian nationalism is a radical movement, and as the Trump era made blindingly clear, it sometimes supports policies and practices that have little to do with traditional conservatism.” 

Scholar Andrew L. Whitehead, who, along with Samuel L. Perry, wrote the recent book Taking Back America for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, notes the overlap between the two terms but sees important differences, too.

“I think what we are identifying is the cultural framework that is broadly accepted by those who identify as part of the Religious Right,” Whitehead said. “Using data from 2007, 65% of those who say the ‘Religious Right’ describes their religious identity ‘very well’ are ambassadors of Christian nationalism, meaning those Americans who most strongly embrace Christian nationalism.”

Added Whitehead, “I see the Reli­gious Right as more of a social movement made up of networks of religious leaders, politicians, congre­gations and organizations. Christian nationalism is the political theology that this social movement largely embraces in order to baptize their political ends with the support of the transcendent.”

The researchers all agree that there is an important racial element to Chris­tian nationalism.

Posner, whose most recent book is Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump, says it is appropriate to include “white” before “Christian nationalism” even though, obviously, most white Americans don’t support the movement or the groups that back it.

“The American version of Christian nationalism grew out of a backlash to changes that took place over the course of the second half of the 20th century – school desegregation and civil rights, increasing secularization and the Supreme Court’s bolstering of church-state separation and the rise of feminism and LGBTQ rights,” Posner told Church & State. “All of these factors played a role, but it’s crucial to recognize how griev­ances driving the backlash were deeply rooted in the white supremacy many evangelicals and fundamentalists were taught to find in their Bibles. That in turn shaped their conception of America as a Christian nation – that is, a white Christian nation.”

Added Posner, “Of course, over time the Religious Right sought to temper its reputation with efforts to engage in ‘racial reconciliation’ and bring more minority worshippers into their churches and minority activists into their political organizations. But the movement’s decision to tether itself to Trump – all the while still claiming it had many Black and Latino believers in its ranks – laid bare the superficiality of those claims.”

Indeed, the Trump presidency forced the issue of race front and center. For many years, white Christian nationalist groups could claim to be anti-racist, and during their conferences they would often highlight the handful of far-right Black, Latinx and Asian-American figures who back them. But Trump, whose racism was always thinly veiled at best, was a kind of test – one these groups failed.

Early in 2018, Trump famously called Haiti, El Salvador and several African nations “sh*thole countries” and said he would like to see more immigration from Norway, a country that is 93 percent white. The remark led CNN anchor Don Lemon to begin his broadcast reporting this shameful presidential declaration with the words, “This is CNN Tonight, I’m Don Lemon. The president of the United States is racist. A lot of us already knew that.”

Anderson Cooper, also a CNN anchor, followed up by saying, “Not racial. Not racially charged. Racist. Let’s not kid ourselves or dance around it. The sentiment the president expressed today is a racist sentiment.”

Trump was also known for his attacks on Mexico and his claim during the 2016 campaign that Mexican men were prone to be rapists. His Muslim ban, which affected primarily nations from Africa and the Middle East, and his defense of Confederate monuments were seen as more evidence of his racism, as was his calling COVID-19 “the China virus” or even “Kung Flu.”

Through it all, white Christian nationalist groups either remained silent or came to Trump’s defense.

In their book, Whitehead and Perry, who are sociology professors at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and the University of Oklahoma respectively, define Christian nationalism as “an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture.”

They also write that Christian nationalism “includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism. It is as ethnic and political as it is religious.”

Whitehead told Church & State that he finds it useful to stress the whiteness of Christian nationalism.

“Yes, I do think qualifying Christian nationalism ‘white’ is important,” he said. “For many of the relationships we look at in the first two chapters of our book, there are times when Black Americans who embrace Christian nationalism are different from white Americans who embrace it. But for questions about gender and sexuality, Christian nationalism operates the same way for Black and white Americans. So for the most part, I think much of what we’re studying truly is white Christian nationalism.”

Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, found it significant that the crowd that assailed the Capitol on Jan. 6 was overwhelmingly white.

In a column published by Religion News Service on Jan. 7, Jones observed, “This seditious mob was motivated not just by loyalty to Trump, but by an unholy amalgamation of white supremacy and Christianity that has plagued our nation since its inception and is still with us today. As I show in my book White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, there remains a disturbingly strong link between holding racist attitudes and identifying as a white Christian.” (For instance, MSNBC commentator Law­rence     O’Donnell, in his news hour entitled “The Last Word,” once displayed a photo of an all-white Southern lynch mob and commented that every man in that mob would undoubtedly have called himself a “Christian.”)

Stewart, however, said she uses the qualifier “white” only in certain contexts.

“There is no question that the Christian nationalist movement is deeply rooted in racism, but the relationship is complex,” Stewart said. “Christian nationalism does indeed promote highly­ racialized narratives about American ‘heritage’ and ‘culture.’ It has also thoroughly identified itself with a political party that has adopted race-based gerrymandering and voter suppression as a strategic imperative.

“At the same time,” added Stewart, “there is a small but growing segment of the movement that is not white, including a subsection of leader­ship. America’s Christian nationalists also form alliances with religious nationalists in other parts of the world. While there is some overlap in people and purposes between Christian nationalist groups and white suprem­acist groups, I think it is still useful to distinguish between them.”

The word “Christian” has also proved to be a flashpoint. Some on the far right, such as William Donohue of the Catholic League, have penned columns implying that groups like Americans United and others are smearing all Christians by using terms like “white Christian nationalism.” In fact, it should be pretty clear that just as not all white people embrace white Christian nationalism, nor do most Christians.

In fact, many Christian clergy and laypeople have assailed Christian nationalism as a corruption of their faith; and in light of recent events, their voices are getting louder. The Christian-based counteroffensive against white Christian nationalism got started in earnest in 2019 when the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty launched Christians Against Christian Nationalism, an effort to highlight faith voices opposed to the injudicious mixing of church and state, one that also singled out white Christian nationalism’s racist undertones.

The group’s statement reads in part, “Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian. It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation. We reject this damaging political ideology and invite our Christian brothers and sisters to join us in opposing this threat to our faith and to our nation.”

So far, more than 21,000 Christians have endorsed the statement.

Amanda Tyler, executive director of the BJC, told Church & State that the organization was motivated to act because “many Christians view [Chris­tian nationalism] as a distortion and perversion of Christianity and as an urgent threat to the health and vitality of the religion going forward.”

Remarked Tyler, “We believe that it is our responsibility as Christians to raise awareness of Christian nationalism, to understand how it operates in our communities and to work to root it out. From a theological perspective, Christian nationalism is idolatrous because it conflates God and country and leads to the suppression of theological convictions that conflict with political power.”

More recently, a separate group of evangelicals issued an open letter condemning the role of Christian nationalism in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which they labeled a “violent, racist, anti-American insurrection.”

“Just as many Muslim leaders have felt the need to denounce distorted, violent versions of their faith, we feel the urgent need to denounce this violent mutation of our faith,” the statement, which was released in late February, reads. “What we saw manifest itself in the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, is a threat to our democracy, but it is also a threat to orthodox Christian faith. The word ‘Christian’ means ‘Christ-like.’ As leaders in the Church, we do not agree on everything, but we can agree on this – Christians should live in a way that honors Jesus, and reminds the world of Him.”

Stewart points out that white Christian nationalism has more to do with ideology than religion.

“Christian nationalism is not a religion, it is a political ideology,” she said. “There are two ways to make this point clear: One is to assert that the object of our concern is with the political agendas of Christian nationalism – above all, its assault on pluralistic democracy – and not with the religious ideas that it invokes to justify its positions. The other is to draw attention to the fact that many, if not most, American Christians take a very different view of both their religion and its alleged political imperatives. At least half of American Cath­olics, a fifth or so of white evan­gelicals, and the vast majority of black evangelicals were opposed to the movement’s favored political candidate in this last national election cycle.”

As an organization that has monitored and responded to religious extremists for decades, Americans Uni­ted has a special interest in the heightened attention white Christian nationalism is receiving.

On the day of­ the assault on the Capitol, Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser issued a statement that didn’t hesitate to call out the perpetrators.

“Make no mistake: These rioters threaten every freedom we claim, including religious freedom,” Laser said. “The noose hung on the West Lawn of our Capitol and the signs calling on Jesus only re-emphasize the unholy alliance of this president with white Christian nationalists. The same people who profaned Black churches in Washington, D.C., three weeks ago are responsible for today’s abhorrent actions with the blatant backing of the president they support.”

Will the current moment lead Americans to finally come to grips with the anti-democratic extremists in our midst who yearn to merge their narrow interpretation of Christianity with government?

Whitehead said the ideology of Christian nationalism isn’t going to fade away any time soon.

“It’s always tough to predict the future,” he said. “I am completely confident saying that Christian nationalism will be with us for decades to come and will continue to be a force in American politics. It will only be more salient to those Americans who embrace it, especially if they feel that they are becoming even more of a minority.”

Added Whitehead, “I sincerely hope that we are at a moment where people of faith, especially white Chris­tians, begin to wrestle with Christian nationalism and the way it perverts democracy, as well as the global Christian faith. But this is an uphill battle because Christian nationalism is so widely embraced by religious Americans.

Posner echoed that view, but held out hope that the Trump years may have served as a wake-up call.

“The Religious Right for many decades was variously portrayed as a political power broker, defender of sexual purity and unborn babies, promoter of Christianity or traditionalists with a legitimate gripe about having been left behind by massive social, legal and political change to protect the rights of previously marginalized groups,” Posner said.

“I think the failure to recognize how dangerous it is was driven in part by a complacency that because the movement represents a minority view in the United States, it would not be able to impose its beliefs because our democracy would hold,” she added. “The Trump era not only proved that our democracy held only by the barest of threads, but that white Christian nationalists were Trump’s dedicated partners in his anti-democracy project.”