April 2021 Church & State Magazine | Perspective

I have struggled to find the right term to refer to opponents of church-state separation. AU’s trad­itional go-to has been “Religious Right.” Starting last year, we began also using “religious extremists.” And more recently, we have increasingly used “white Chris­tian nationalists” and “Christian nationalists.” None of these is perfect; let me share some thoughts.

We must look at these terms in context and consider all the words used in them. Many religious people are not part of the Religious Right, and not every person on the political right is involved. But put together, the two words express a concept: a movement of extremely religious people, often fundamentalists of some type, dedicated to advancing a far-right political agenda. In the U.S., this has manifested itself as hostility to religious and other minorities, the nonreligious, LGBTQ rights, reproductive freedom, secular government and public schools, among other things.

Our current members understand the intended meaning of Religious Right, but our extensive public opinion research for the past two years demonstrates that the general public views the term more favorably than unfavorably. In a focus group we ran, participants discussed how the term “Religious Right” must mean that religion is good or “right,” meaning “correct,” a reality that raises con­cerns about the term’s effective use in mobi­lizing new supporters outside of our typical base.

We will not abandon using “Religious Right,” but the search continues for better terms. Many would say we are fighting “religious extremists,” folks whose views are so extreme that they want their religion to be supreme above anything else in our society. As a Jew, I like the fact that this term, like Religious Right, does not overlook that non-Christians, such as a small slice of Jews, are also viciously attacking church-state separation. From a polling point of view, religious extremists rises to the top of groups whom Americans overwhelmingly view nega­tively. 

One issue with “religious extremists,” however, is the propensity of some to associate the term with Muslims – an unfair stereotype that AU does not want to evoke. As you know, from suing the Trump administration over the Muslim Ban to fighting the dangerous denial of patient care regulations, AU’s work benefits Muslims’ religious freedom as much as any other group. Fort­unately, the context in which we use “religious extremists” almost always makes clear that Muslims are not who AU is fighting.

You have likely noticed that AU has added “white Christian nationalists” and “Christian nationalists” to our descriptors, especially following the Jan. 6 insurrection. This magazine explores experts’ views on these terms. Personally, I believe that the architects of the movement to destroy church-state separation are most accurately described as white Christian nationalists because their ultimate goal is to assert and perpetuate white Christian power in America. Just think about the history of vouchers, which derived largely from efforts to fund segregation academies, or recall that the issue that sparked the rise of the original Moral Majority wasn’t abortion or LGBTQ rights but efforts by the federal government to end racial discrimination in conservative Christian academies and colleges.

At the same time, white Christian nationalists have grown their ranks to include non-whites. Some of my LGBTQ friends have pointed out that “Christian nationalists” better describes a multi-race movement that promotes male, straight, cisgender – as much as Chris­tian – supremacy. While roughly 40% of Americans don’t have a clear understanding of either white Chris­tian nationalists or Christian nationalists, Christian nationalists overall are seen favorably, whereas white Christian nationalists are seen unfavorably.

As much as I think the term white Christian nat­ionalists describes our opponents’ leaders, I sometimes find the term too strong to describe some of the rank and file. Pivoting to white Christian nationalism instead of nationalists as our adversary can help in such situations. Any term with “Christian” also risks alienating the wider community of Christians – many of whom do not think there is anything “Christian” about our op­ponents – and thus we must remember to state clearly and often that we do not intend to include all or even most Christians.

Where do I come down? I vary my choice depending on the context in which I’m using it. I would love to hear what term you prefer and why.

No matter what we call our opponents, AU will continue to fight them strategically and effectively as we guard Ameri­ca’s promise of freedom of religion for all.

Rachel K. Laser is president and CEO of Americans United .