September 2023 Church & State Magazine - September 2023

Origin story: The history of Christian Nationalism is littered with hate and extremism

  Rhys Long

During my summer internship with Americans United, religious extremism was a central focus of my work. It was also the primary motivation behind my decision to major in religious studies. The rise of Christian Nationalism, in particular, has colored my educational, work and life experiences over the last eight years.

I was a freshman in high school during the 2016 election. This was, for me and many others, an introduction to the real-world stakes of church-state separation. Until this point, the famed wall of separation had been a nebulous-but-stable concept, a strong but ill-understood rule that demarcated the personal and political. 

It seemed as if this wall had come tumbling down overnight. Suddenly I saw the power of the forces that sought to ban marriage for same-sex couples, overturn Roe v. Wade and legalize discrimination in the name of religion. A new threat had sprung from the depths to make an extreme interpretation of Christianity the law of the land. Christian Nationalism had entered my world.

Except, it turns out, that is not quite how it happened; Christian Nationalism had not appeared overnight. The term and belief have a much longer history, and Christian Nationalism has been snaking its way through society since at least the 1920s. Christian Nationalism is a specter that has been haunting America for 100 years at least, even if it only entered the mind of the average American a decade ago. 

To gain a better understanding of the origins of Christian Nationalism and its various echoes throughout history, I sat down with Prof. Seth Cotlar of Willamette University, a historian with an interest in the American right wing. 

Cotlar began our discussion by informing me that Gerald Lyman Kenneth Smith is the man to blame for the inception of Christian Nationalism. A political organizer for U.S. Sen. Huey Long (D-La.) in the 1930s, Smith was a fascist, a rabid antisemite and anti-communist. In the early 1940s, Smith started the Christian Nationalist Crusade, the Christian Nationalist Party, the America First Party and an extremist monthly publication called The Cross and the Flag. Smith was, as Cotlar describes him, “someone who believed that Communism was a Jewish plot and that communists used Black people as their pawns to try to overthrow white Christian American civilization in the name of communism.” 

Smith peddled the myth of America’s Christian founding to his base, including through his publication, which had a mailing list of over three million people. Smith used this idea to paint non-Christians as outsiders, although his definition of “Christian” was somewhat narrow: For a while, Catholics and Mormons were not included under the Christian Nationalist umbrella of “Christianity.” 

Cotlar explained that “the idea that America belongs to Christian people, to white Christian people, and that others are maybe to be tolerated as kind of guests, as visitors, as second class Americans but not quite real Americans like us builds upon a history that is surrounded by patriotism around the Founding Fathers and how Christian they were.”  

Christian Nationalism has always been deeply rooted in antisemitic and fascist beliefs. What has changed, however, is that Christian Nationalism has seen increased influence among the right wing.

Cotlar attributes this, in part, to the lack of counterweights against Christian Nationalism within the religious community: “One thing that is different is that the counterweight to this Christian nationalism was always these mainline Protestant churches. What folks understood, which was this point that the Founders understood, was that you’d separate church and state to protect the purity of the church. For many of the Founders, the idea was to keep the state out of the church in the name of keeping the church focused on its spiritual mission.” 

He cites the 1962 Supreme Court ruling to ban school-sponsored prayer in public schools as a turning point within contemporary Christian Nationalism, especially regarding its wider embrace by the American right. The set of rulings in Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) angered certain people within Christianity and gave Christian Nationalists new material with which to recruit the newly outraged crowd. 

This combination of access and ammunition helped shape the movement. Before this ruling, there was “an energy that builds up into the ’60s, but part of what the Christian Nationalist political movement was up against was this historical reticence of Christians to be open in their politics,” Cotlar said. “There was that sort of separation from church and state, and it’s like, ‘Well, we have our religious beliefs, and we care about it but, like, I’m not going to go campaign and talk to people about my faith or my church.’” 

But after these rulings, that reticence started to melt away. 

Gerald L.K. Smith: Grandfather of Christian Nationalism (Library of Congress)

Although people were outraged over the school prayer rulings for a number of reasons, a segment of the opposition was very clearly antisemitic, especially against the Anti-Defamation League and the American Civil Liberties Union. The rulings fed into Smith’s antisemitic rhetoric and bolstered Christian Nationalism’s appeal to extremists looking for a scapegoat. That antisemitism fits well into the platform of Christian Nationalism because hate is critical to the upkeep of a white, Christian society. 

This trend continued into the 1970s, and religion became a force that was not to be kept to oneself, but that legitimated one’s voice in politics. This energy was capitalized upon in the 1980s with the rise of the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, and later TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition. During the 1980 election, Ronald Reagan actively courted these forces. The story from there has been one of continued GOP acceptance of Christian Nationalist ideals and talking points, which have helped Christian Nationalism go mainstream. 

When I asked Cotlar about any changes he’s seen since the 1970s, he was particularly concerned about one development in the way Christian Nationalists wield religion as a weapon.

“To me,” Cotlar said, “one of the troubling innovations that has happened is using the language of religious freedom and defining that as the freedom to discriminate in the name of your religion.” 

He draws similarities between this language and that of Walter Huss, a pivotal figure in the history of Oregon’s far-right movements. Huss was an antisemite and conspiracy theorist who, while he claimed not to hate individual Jews, argued that Judaism was “an existential threat to America and to Christianity,” Cotlar remarked. “And so, when he speaks ‘the truth’ about that, people call him a bigot. But he says, ‘I’m not being a bigot. I’m speaking the truth. And Jews get mad about it because they can’t handle the truth they want to shut me up because I’m speaking the truth.’”

Cotlar sees the same thing happening with Christian Nationalists concerning the LGBTQ+ community, observing, “It’s just like what people say to discriminate against same-sex couples: ‘It’s because God tells us the truth about what proper sexuality is. God has told us what these truths are, so we’re just acting out this truth. You call it bigotry, right? You call it discrimination? We call it expressing our religious freedom.’  And that argument back in the ’60s and ’70s, by most people, was regarded as ludicrous. It’s not the way that works.  But that’s become pretty much an accepted part of our national discourse, and I think the way a lot of these folks think about it is that the job of the Supreme Court is to protect the right of religious people to be bigots in the name of freedom. And prioritizing that freedom over the experience of people who’ve been subjected to historical forms of marginalization and oppression and so on.”

And this is a fundamental problem with Christian Nationalism: It’s not just a political belief, but it puts anyone who opposes it into disagreement with God and the Constitution’s promise of religious freedom. The viewpoint of Christian Nationalists is divinely inspired, and there is no room for disagreement. To Christian Nationalists, discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, or against Jews or liberals, is not only not bad – it’s not even discrimination. It’s a direct application and enforcement of God’s commands. 

Christian Nationalism was founded upon antisemitism, anti-communism and the upkeep of a white Christian ethnostate. It is rooted in hate and relies on discrimination by design. Knowledge of Christian Nationalism’s origin is essential to understanding the threat it poses today. 

While Christian Nationalists and their allies cloak themselves in the language of religious freedom, a look at the movement’s history paints a different, clearer picture – one of intolerance, fear, abuse and deception. As much as Christian Nationalists may try to obfuscate those origins, the movement will forever be colored by the hate they practice and the harm they continue to inflict. 

Rhys Long, a senior at Brown University, interned in Americans United’s Communications Department this summer.

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