Editor’s note: This blog post by AU President and CEO Rachel Laser originally appeared in the July-August 2023 issue of AU’s Church & State magazine.
When I arrived at AU nearly six years ago, I noticed that we spoke about church-state separation mostly as advancing the value of freedom — religious freedom. As I immersed myself deeply in our work, I saw how church-state separation is also about equality, and conversely, about power. I knew that the power we talked about is primarily sought by ultraconservative, primarily white Christians — but I’ve not always called it that.
Obviously, we’re witnessing far-right, mostly white Christians fighting for their own power and privilege. When conservative Christian lawmakers led by white Christian state Sen. Phil King try to pass a law requiring every Texas public school classroom to display the Ten Commandments, that’s an effort to shift our laws to give Christian beliefs power over everyone else. (And no, the Ten Commandments push is not “Judeo-Christian.” As a rabbi friend put it, for Jews, the Ten Commandments “are an ethical code meant for our community, not a legal code meant for society.”)
When Christian Nationalist legal outfits like Alliance Defending Freedom (whose leadership team appears to be 100% white) repeatedly bring cases to allow white evangelical Christian business owners to circumvent our shared secular laws that protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination, that’s an effort to grant special favor to those with their narrow set of religious beliefs.
When the former (white) president of the United States, Donald Trump, tells the Faith & Freedom Coalition gathering of evangelical activists that “no president has ever fought for Christians as hard as I have” and doesn’t say that about any other religious group, that’s him admitting that he did everything he could as president to advance ultra-conservative Christian interests.
State power to support Christian privilege
These are merely three examples of a much broader and deeper problem that we are witnessing across our country and throughout many levels of government. But it’s fair to say that these powerful interests have one thing in common: Their leading champions are white, far-right Christians who are seeking to use the machinery of the state to impose their views on the rest of us.
In light of all this, it may seem odd for me to confess that I have found myself hesitant at times to use the terms “White Christian Nationalism” and “Christian Nationalism.” I’ve noticed that I lean toward using “religious extremism” in my personal writings.
Finding the right terminology
Why? I have three reasons.
The first comes from the perfectionist and lawyer part of me. Too often, Orthodox Jews and ultraconservative members of other minority religions have joined with far-right Christians to pursue theocratic goals. As a Jew, I’m very aware of this disturbing phenomenon. Similarly, Black and Brown people have sometimes joined Christian Nationalist crusades to impose narrow beliefs on all of us. So, factually speaking, I know I am covering all my bases if I don’t limit my critique to “white” or “Christian.”
The second reason is likely because I’m Jewish. On some deep level, I worry about alienating Christians, as many Jews do. When you are part of a mere 2% of the population, it can feel perilous to risk fostering adversity with 65% of the population. Interestingly, from some cursory research I have done, I’ve noticed that Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism rarely use “Christian Nationalism” instead of, say, “extremism” to describe the problem. If my reasoning has some truth, then the decision not to use “Christian” is more fear-based, although it isn’t irrational. In my lived experience, including “Christian” in the critique (even though it’s paired with “Nationalism”) can evoke a defensive reaction from some Christians and also has sometimes been flat-out rejected by Black Christians who resist identifying the “Christian” part of White Christian Nationalism as any relative of their own Christianity.
Finally, I’ve seen public opinion research that points to some confusion about what these terms mean. People know what “religious extremism” is, and they oppose it. “Christian Nationalism” is a less familiar term.
But despite these concerns, I’ve concluded that “White Christian Nationalism” is often the truest term to use. I will always think about my audience when I choose a descriptor, and I will strive to define my terms instead of assuming they are clear. But in the end, I will push myself to err even more on the side of calling out “White Christian Nationalism,” because like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The day we see the truth and cease to speak is the day we begin to die.”