Today is the National Day of Prayer (NDP). You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Americans United is no fan of this event. Under a 1952 law, the president is required to issue a proclamation recognizing the NDP. Furthermore, while many NDP events are privately sponsored, state and local governments often celebrate NDP with proclamations that laud the value of prayer and call on citizens to engage in acts of worship. Sorry, but that’s simply not the government’s job.
Rather than take part in a government-sponsored prayer, you could spend today boning up on the impulse behind it: Christian nationalism.
My colleague Andrew Seidel often refers to Christian nationalism as an “existential threat” to the United States. He’s right. Our country was founded on the principle of religious freedom for all, a place where the government respects the rights of believers and nonbelievers equally but refrains from endorsing or advocating a specific faith. If Christian nationalists succeed in merging their narrow fundamentalism with state policy, America can no longer be that beacon of hope and freedom.
This situation is dire, but, thankfully, growing numbers of analysts, scholars and writers are sounding the alarm about the threat of Christian nationalism.
Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin recently took the Supreme Court to task for its assault on church-state separation. Rubin observes, “If the Supreme Court contributes to the plague of Christian nationalism, it would reveal itself to be both a partisan and sectarian combatant. Moreover, it would risk injecting even more religious antagonism into our society and replacing the American creed with the sort of theocratic authoritarianism seen in some illiberal societies.” (In her column, Rubin quotes Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, who bluntly stated, “I believe that the single biggest threat to religious freedom in the United States today is Christian nationalism.”)
Writing in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, a nonprofit news website, Chuck Ardo, a retired political consultant, asserted, “Having strong religious beliefs is a fundamental right all Americans cherish. But, the rise of a movement that believes the separation of church and state is a myth and advocates for a government shaped by conservative Christian values as a political force is a threat to a democratic, multicultural America. Having Christian nationalists imposing their beliefs on the rest of us is counter to everything America has championed throughout its history.”
Academics and others are also getting the word out. Recent books by Anthea Butler, Philip Gorski, Samuel Perry, Andrew L. Whitehead, Katherine Stewart and others dissect Christian nationalism and explain its stubborn hold. (Seidel will soon be joining them. His new book, American Crusade: How The Supreme Court Is Weaponizing Religious Freedom, looks at the threat posed by a growing Christian nationalist interpretation of religious freedom at the Supreme Court. It will be published this fall, but you can pre-order it now.)
Is there hope in the face of this Christian nationalist onslaught? Absolutely. At the end of the day, what Christian nationalists are offering us simply doesn’t work for America. In a country where growing numbers of people are exploring spirituality outside the confines of religious communities or adopting wholly secular outlooks, public policies based on a theology held by a shrinking segment of the population can’t survive in the long haul.
To be sure, the next few years will be difficult. But they’ll also present an opportunity to expose Christian nationalism for what it is: an extreme ideology based on control, force and intolerance that’s incompatible with the nation we were founded to be, the nation we are and the nation we’re becoming.
Be assured that Americans United – and many others – will be taking full advantage of that opportunity. If you’re religious and want to pray for our success, that’s fine – as long as it’s your own choice.
Photo: President George W. Bush speaks at a National Day of Prayer event in 2008. By Win McNamee/Getty Images.