June 2023 Church & State Magazine - June 2023

Exposing extremism: Scholars shine a light on the threat of Christian Nationalism


Editor’s Note: During Americans United’s recent Summit for Religious Freedom, speakers exposed the extremism of Christian Nationalism. Church & State is pleased to present two more perspectives on this dangerous ideology from leading scholars. These articles are reprinted from Religion News Service (RNS) with permission. They do not necessarily represent the views of RNS. 

A building backlash: Growing numbers of Americans are opposing Christian Nationalism. It’s time their stories were heard.

By Ruth Braunstein

Christian Nationalism — the idea that being Christian is core to the American identity — is nothing new, either in American religious culture or its politics. But it used to be a radical proposal, and holding Christian Nationalist views disqualified politicians and even clergy from higher leadership. 

Recently, however, it has been embraced as a badge of honor. A sitting member of Congress has sold “Proud Christian Nationalist” T-shirts on her website. Books defending Christian Nationalism are given serious discussion. And according to a recent survey from Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), nearly one-third of Americans now hold Christian Nationalist attitudes.

Rallying for rioters: Protesters gather in D.C. in defense of Jan. 6 insurrectionists (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

These developments rightfully raise concern. But there is another, relatively untold, side of this story: The most recent rise of Christian Nationalism has ignited a wave of resistance.

According to PRRI, Americans who have heard of Christian Nationalism are twice as likely to hold a negative than a positive view of the term. These Americans also reject the specific ideas associated with the ideology. Indeed, the 3 in 10 Americans that PRRI found who align with Christian Nationalism to some degree are opposed by nearly the same percentage (29%) who completely reject the ideas associated with Christian Nationalism. Another 39% is skeptical.

Most importantly, these Americans are joining a growing movement I call the pluralist resistance. They are taking action through a diverse set of organizations that each tackles a different dimension of Christian Nationalism’s influence.

One pivotal front of this battle is in the nation’s churches. Conservative Christians, lured by new online platforms and hyper-partisanship, have been sucked into a vortex of right-wing disinformation, conspiracy theories and fear. They are repeatedly told by right-wing influencers and politicians that Christians need to “take their country back.” Mistrustful of outsiders, these believers can only be convinced of the threat Christian Nationalism holds for our democracy and to Christianity itself if other Christians are doing the talking.

Christians Against Christian Nationalism and Vote Common Good are the most visible of the groups attempting just that. Amanda Tyler of the Baptist Joint Committee, which leads the Christians Against Christian Nationalism coalition, has been speaking around the country to raise alarms about the dangers of Christian Nationalism. Last December, she testified before a House subcommittee about the role Christian Nationalism played in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.

Vote Common Good recently completed a “March on Christian Nationalism” campaign, which builds on the group’s year-round work to educate Christians about how to identify and confront Christian Nationalism through podcasts, webinars and a state-of-the art training program, titled “Confronting Christian Nationalism Curriculum,” for faith community leaders and individuals.

Meanwhile the Poor People’s Campaign, a social movement led by the Rev. William Barber II and the Rev. Liz Theoharis, attacks Christian Nationalism in the arena of policy and politics. The group has identified Christian Nationalism as “a key pillar of injustice in America that provides cover for a host of other ills” and is leading a multiracial and multi-faith “moral movement” to confront it in the minutia of public policy, but also in demonstrations outside statehouses and the nation’s Capitol buildings.

In their policy fights, the Poor People’s Campaign challenges a Christian Nationalist mythology of scarcity set against a mythologized past of plenty, but only for those who “belong.” Activists like Barber and Theoharis draw up a narrative in which patriotic citizens work together toward a more perfect, inclusive and abundant future that lives up to the country’s founding ideals.

Corporations, motivated by profit not politics, also recognize their influence over how we understand what it means to be an American. Over the objections of right-wing critics, companies such as Coca-Cola use their advertising to promote an image of a racially and religiously diverse and thriving America that is “beautiful.” 

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is among the legal nonprofits challenging demands for religious privilege under the guise of religious freedom, as Christian Nationalist extremists seek to impose laws on abortion, public school curricula and other issues to force conformity with their religio-political worldview. 

Finally, philanthropies, including one funding collective calling themselves “New Pluralists,” are taking the lead in helping local communities by funding projects that attempt to repair the frayed bonds of democracy.

Pluralism is not new. Since the early 1990s, Harvard’s Pluralism Project has tracked the country’s growing religious diversity and corresponding efforts to promote a pluralistic culture and politics. But my research suggests that projects to promote pluralism tend to emerge in waves, in response to different opportunities and threats, like rising religious diversity; the rise of Islamophobia after Sept. 11; and now ascendant Christian Nationalism. Each wave builds on previous efforts, while also bringing new players into the fold.

What’s different about today’s wave of pluralist resistance is that it has attracted greater numbers of white Christians to a field previously led by non-white Christians and people of other faiths. This is important given the privileged position that white Christians have long enjoyed in American politics and society.

Christian privilege is so baked into our society that it is often hard to recognize it and it offers cover for some Christian Nationalist arguments. But Christian privilege is rooted in demographic power, not divine right. As demographic shifts change the face of power in America, we are better able to imagine what a truly pluralist culture might look like. The participation of a more racially and religiously diverse cohort of leaders in the current fight is helping all Americans to be more conscious of this historical barrier to pluralism.

Deep cultural and political change is never easy. But with a diverse majority of Americans on their side, these leaders are making inroads. As Christian Nationalists take advantage of a moment of political precarity to call for a turn toward authoritarian theocracy, the press should be paying attention to those rising up to preserve democracy in America. The leaders of the resistance are on the front lines of this war. They should be making headlines, too.

Ruth Braunstein is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and the director of the Meanings of Democracy Lab.

Disturbing doctrine: The ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ paved the way for Christian Nationalism. It must be wholly repudiated.

By Andrew Whitehead

In late March of this year, the Vatican formally — and somewhat surprisingly — repudiated the centuries-old “Doctrine of Discovery,” based on papal dictates of the 15th century that justified the domination of newly “discovered” lands and peoples by European Christian explorers.

Indigenous activists and organizations in North America were pleased but ultimately underwhelmed by the Vatican’s move, however, as the formal statement failed to submit the Roman Catholic Church to any accountability for the extensive harm the doctrine caused over the centuries — colonization itself, as well as the motivating values and beliefs inherent in the Doctrine of Discovery that continued well after the first several centuries of active colonialism and conquest declined. 

The repudiation, which came in a statement from a bureaucratic office, not Pope Francis himself, said the doctrine had been “manipulated” by colonizers “to justify immoral acts against Indigenous peoples that were carried out, at times, without opposition from ecclesial authorities.”

The Native Americans also felt the statement downplayed the active role the Catholic Church took in driving the colonization and destruction of Indigenous populations.

The real question is, how much can we expect such a statement to change long-held attitudes regarding the right of European Christians to displace and destroy Indigenous peoples in centuries past?

Indigenous advocates’ fears about the lack of a long-term impact appear well-founded. Surveys of the American public demonstrate that the influence of the theological justifications for dominion and violence created by the Doctrine of Discovery is still strong, primarily through the cultural framework of Christian Nationalism.

Christian Nationalism is the desire to see a particular expression of the Christian faith fused with American civic life and identity. Christian Nationalism regards its version of Christianity as the principal and undisputed moral and cultural framework in the United States and prefers a government that vigorously preserves it.

In 2023, a survey on Christian Nationalism in the United States from the Public Religion Research Institute and The Brookings Institution measured the prevalence of Christian Nationalism by gauging how much Americans agreed with the following five statements:

  • The U.S. government should declare America a Christian nation.
  • U.S. laws should be based on Christian values.
  • If the U.S. moves away from our Christian foundations, we will not have a country anymore.
  • Being Christian is an important part of being truly American.
  • God has called Christians to exercise dominion over all areas of American society.

Those who agree or strongly agree with these statements score higher on the scale, while those who disagree or strongly disagree score lower on the scale.

As the figure above clearly shows, Christian Nationalism is intimately intertwined with the belief that God intended America to be a new promised land where European Christians could create a society to serve as an example to the rest of the world.

Americans who embrace Christian Nationalism are much more likely to agree that America was destined by God to be a new “promised land” for European Christians. Furthermore, Christian Nationalism considers these European Christians as tasked with creating a society that would be “a shining city on a hill,” in the words of Ronald Reagan, echoing Puritan leader John Winthrop.

The declarations of the Doctrine of Discovery were the earliest iterations of many of these ideas and formed a theological foundation for the white Christian Nationalism we see in our body politic today. The Doctrine of Discovery created a binary society of European Christians on the one hand and those deserving of domination on the other. Only such a society would align with the will of the Christian God.

This theology survived the Reformation and its cleaving of Christianity. The Protestant sect we call the Puritans viewed themselves as special in the eyes of the Christian God, a status that justified their forceful occupation and seizure of land, resources and people in North America. As Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah write in their 2019 book Unsettling Truths, “The Doctrine of Discovery allowed Native genocide to be understood as a holy act of claiming the promised land for European settlers.”

After a massacre of hundreds of Pequots in 1637, one captain of colonial forces declared, quoting Psalm 110, “thus did the Lord judge among the Heathen.”

Beyond baptizing the use of violence in order to take hold of the “promised land,” the Doctrine of Discovery implicitly required settlers to distinguish “us” from “them,” encouraging the creation of racial categories in North America. European Christians quickly differentiated themselves from the Indigenous people they encountered, as well as those they brought to these shores as slaves. White skin signaled good and Christian, while black or brown skin signified bad and heathen.

This fruit of the doctrine is still with us today. Americans who embrace Christian Nationalism are much more likely to deny the reality of racial injustice, view authoritarian violence toward minorities as justified and view racial diversity as a greater hindrance to national unity than even religious diversity.

At its root, Christian Nationalism idolizes self-interested power, fear of outsiders and violence toward those who threaten the boundaries between “us” and “them.” The Doctrine of Discovery was essential to creating these idols of Christian Nationalism.

And as the heinous actions of those expounding the doctrine through history show us, quests to protect self-interested power based on hierarchical relationships between “us” and “them” – founded on fear of “them” – usually results in violence.

Conquest: An old print shows Columbus ‘discovering’ the New World

While the statement from the Vatican is an important step, Indigenous activists point out that more direct action from the Catholic Church is necessary to repair prior wrongs, perhaps in the form of reparations for those communities most harmed by the Doctrine of Discovery. At the very least, the church can speak out against the cultural framework of Christian Nationalism.

Otherwise, those who believe God promised this land and its fruits to our forebears will remain convinced of their right to allow nothing — not even those who were here long before — to stand in their way.

Andrew Whitehead is an associate professor of sociology at the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and author of the forthcoming American Idolatry: How Christian Nationalism Betrays the Gospel and Threatens the Church (Brazos Press) due out in August 2023. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @ndrewwhitehead. 

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