For decades, Americans United has highlighted the threat Christian nationalism poses to our nation’s shared civil life and our constitutional values. The Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol only served to underscore that. Yet, 14 months later, Christian nationalists aren’t cowed – they’ve only grown more extreme.
Thankfully, some members of Congress recognize this and are sounding the alarm. Last week, the Congressional Freethought Caucus, a body that exists to protect the secular nature of American government, held a briefing on Christian nationalism titled “God is On Our Side: White Christian Nationalism and the Capitol Insurrection.”
Michelle Boorstein, a veteran religion writer at The Washington Post, noted that some experts on religious extremism called the briefing “the biggest Congress-related event on the topic in years.”
Speakers focused on an important report issued by the Baptist Joint Committee and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) last month. One of the authors of the report, Andrew Seidel, called the Jan. 6 assault “the culmination but not the end. … Insurrectionists were given moral license for the attack, and since then a growing slice of Americans are justifying it.”
Seidel told The Post, “I look at what’s happening now, the rhetoric leading up to the midterms, and am more worried, not less. We have more brazen nationalism. The Republican Party saying that day was ‘legitimate discourse.’ We are going to see something like this again.”
(Seidel was with FFRF when he worked on the report, but he has since joined the staff of Americans United. Today is his first day, and we’re delighted to have him aboard.)
Scholars and activists who study Christian nationalism note that these groups are now backing voter suppression efforts in many states, a topic we explored last year in Church & State. Among the speakers at the briefing was Samuel Perry of the University of Oklahoma, author of the forthcoming book The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy, coauthored by Phillip S. Gorski of Yale University. Perry and Gorski used a seven-point scale to assess acceptance of Christian nationalism. They found that the higher people score on the scale, the more they tend to agree with the statement “we make it too easy to vote.”
The term “Christian nationalism” may be new, but the spirit behind it has been with us since the founding of our nation. The ink was barely dry on the Constitution before a band of budding theocrats began complaining about that document’s secular nature; they were disappointed that the founders hadn’t crafted an officially “Christian nation” instead. These people never went away, though their power has waxed and waned over the years.
When the modern Religious Right arose in the late 1970s, AU warned that the leaders and followers of this movement were a throwback to those religious extremists of old, people who, at the end of the day, simply do not respect or value the secular, democratic state fashioned by our founders. They want a narrow definition of fundamentalist Christianity merged with the government, and that’s why they make separation of church and state their top target. That’s why they say it wasn’t in the Constitution. That’s why they call it a myth. That’s why they lie about it. Unfortunately, all too often, Americans United has been accused of overreacting when we point this out.
The irony is, Christian nationalists have never tried to hide what they want to do to our nation. They put it right out there. The insurrection of Jan. 6, during which participants waved “Jesus Saves” signs and hoisted crosses even as they mauled police officers and smashed the windows of the most visible symbol of American democracy, was a vivid example of that.
Their goal is to end separation of church and state and establish a society based on “biblical law” or “Christian values” – as they define those terms, of course. They are an existential threat to our nation.
There can be no more denying a threat that is staring us in the face. Because we can see it, we can also defeat it. The first step is to awaken the American people to the real and present danger in our midst.