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A Virtual Roundtable on the Threat of Christian Nationalism, Part 3 of 4 by Kristin Du Mez
A conversation with Kristin Du Mez, Jemar Tisby, and Robert P. Jones
As many of you have seen, we’re trying a unique experiment here on Substack. I’m co-hosting—along with Jemar Tisby and Robert P. Jones—a four-part virtual roundtable discussion on the threat white Christian nationalism poses to our democracy and our churches. If you missed the first two posts, be sure to check them out below.
1. Last Thursday, Robby kicked us off at with part 1. Read it here.
2. On Sunday, Jemar posted his reply as part 2. Read it here.
3. My post today is part three.
4. Robby will wrap us up with a final post this weekend at White Too Long by Robert P. Jones.
Below I’m including reflections I gave as part of a panel at the Brookings Institution (both text and video), which was focused on the recent PRRI/Brookings Christian Nationalism Survey.
For an abridged version, here’s a brief synopsis where Robby and I weigh in on NPR’s All Things Considered.
As a historian, the first thing I want to point out with respect to the PRRI/Brookings survey and to the broader conversation around Christian nationalism taking place in recent months is that Christian nationalism is not new.
“Christian nationalism” is a term that describes a set of commitments stretching not just decades, but centuries even—essentially, it entails the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation, that laws should be based on Christian values, and that true Americans are Christian Americans.
Exactly what shape these commitments have taken, however, has changed over time. From seventeenth-century Puritans to early-twentieth-century liberal Protestants to Black civil rights activists, what it means for America to be a Christian nation has taken dramatically different forms. Since the 1970s, the dominant expression of Christian nationalism is that of the Christian Right, and this is the form of Christian nationalism reflected in the new PRRI/Brookings survey.
If Christian nationalism isn’t new, what is new is that the term itself has recently moved from largely academic spaces into the broader public discourse. Only recently, too, have American Christians begun to self-identify as Christian nationalists—not only prominent figures like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Gab founder and CEO Andrew Torba, but also certain conservative evangelical pastors and leaders. We can see this trend reflected in the survey data: 54% of Christian nationalist adherents have a favorable view of the term. Not only do a growing number of Christians now self-identify as Christian nationalists, but I have also seen a shift towards a more combative insistence on the part of some proponents that in fact all Christians ought to be Christian nationalists—even that to be a Christian is to be a Christian nationalist.
This is not the only view inside conservative spaces, however; it not uncommon to encounter pushback to the term “Christian nationalist.” Just last week, I received an email from a man who identified himself as a deacon in his church. Having come across a quote from me in a recent article on Christian nationalism, he reached out to express his frustration: “I have yet to hear anyone define Christian nationalism. It’s just a smear tactic used by the Left—by scholars and the media to smear good Christian Americans.”
I responded to this note by recommending books by Andrew Whitehead, Samuel Perry, and Philip Gorski, and by sending links to recent surveys that offer clear definitions and careful metrics. I urged him, too, to take another look at the journalistic coverage of Christian nationalism, suggesting that he would see many of these nuances reflected. Although he wasn’t particularly receptive at the time, if he does bother to take a closer look, here’s what he’d see:
First, social scientists make clear that there is a spectrum of commitment when it comes to Christian nationalism. As this PRRI/Brookings survey shows, not all Americans are Christian nationalists (29% qualify as adherents or sympathizers), and not Republicans are Christian nationalists (here the number is higher, at 54%). Although white evangelicals are far more likely than other Americans to support Christian nationalism (64% are either adherents or sympathizers), 33% remain skeptics or rejectors. There is also variation in the levels of support, from strong adherents to sympathizers, and within these categories there exists a spectrum of allegiance to these principles.
Survey data also reveal the contours of Christian nationalism today—the precise shape Christian nationalist commitments take among those who might qualify as Christian nationalists. The PRRI/Brookings survey reveals many correlates when it comes to views on race and racism, immigration, antisemitism, patriarchy, and political violence and authoritarianism.
The correlates identified here align closely with what I uncovered in my historical research. Years ago, before my book Jesus and John Wayne published, I’d started sharing some observations based on my findings on social media that I thought could help explain current events. It wasn’t long before I started hearing from social scientists who were eager to tell me: “You know, we have data for that.” They were right. The narrative I was piecing together aligned remarkably closely with the survey data sociologists and political scientists were compiling. From our different disciplinary vantage points, we were describing much the same thing. With respect to studies of Christian nationalism, it’s worth noting that across surveys and across disciplines, there is a significant degree of overlap, and very few surprises.
One thing that I can add as a historian is a sense of context. There is a reason that we see the same correlations across surveys and across time. Historical sources make clear how these are not random connections, but rather that the different facets of Christian nationalism hold together as pieces of a larger story. A deep story that gives adherents and sympathizers a sense of identity and purpose.
We can see a glimpse of this deeper story with respect to the connection between gender roles and Christian nationalism, a connection that is at the very heart of Jesus and John Wayne. The PRRI/Brookings survey reveals that Christian nationalists are more likely to believe that America is “too soft and feminine,” to uphold patriarchy, and to believe that men are punished just for acting like men.
From historical sources, I discovered that ideals of Christian patriarchy and support for a rugged ideal of Christian manhood went hand in hand with a larger commitment to Christian nationalism. The nation—God’s nation—needed strong men to defend it against foes, foreign and domestic. Christian men needed to fight to defend faith, family, and nation. During the 1960s and 1970s—the crucible of the modern Christian Right—feminism, the antiwar movement, and the civil rights movement all threatened the status quo for conservative white evangelicals, and the assertion of white patriarchal authority was the answer to all of these challenges. White parents—led by the patriarch—asserted authority over where their children attended school, and with whom. Patriarchal authority, too, stood as a bulwark against feminism and its threats to God-ordained masculinity and femininity. The Vietnam War, and especially the antiwar movement, were also seen as a reflection of the failure of American manhood and the emasculating forces of modern feminism.
For conservative white evangelicals, then, the assertion of white patriarchal authority would restore the foundations of “Christian America.”
At the very end of my book, I include a story about a Christian publisher who published many of the books on rugged Christian masculinity and Christian patriarchy written by authors such as James Dobson, Stu Weber, Steve Farrar, John Piper, Chuck Holton, and others. Over time, however, he began to distance himself from the movement he helped foster due to a growing discomfort with Christian nationalism:
After studying more closely the history of Native Americans and accounts of imperial conquest, he could no longer sustain the idea of America as an anointed nation. If you believe that America is God’s chosen nation, you need to fight for it and against others, he realized. But once you abandon that notion, other values begin to shift as well. Without Christian nationalism, evangelical militarism makes little sense. “Jesus makes it really clear in John 13…People will know you’re my disciples if you love me”—but too many evangelicals have forgotten “where our true citizenship is.”
The deep story of Christian nationalism is one rooted in a sense of loss, the loss of a (mythical) Christian ideal that must be restored. At the center of this story resides a stark us vs. them mentality. You are either with us or against us. And since God is on our side, those who are against us are against God. In this way, fighting one’s enemies, real or imagined, is always justified. And the ends will always justify the means.
This story is deeply rooted in white evangelical culture. Christian school textbooks, homeschool curricula, and popular “history” books by writers such as David Barton spell this out explicitly. Promoted in popular devotional literature, on Christian radio, and preached from evangelical pulpits, these themes define for countless American Christians what it means to be Christian, and what it means to be American.
So what does all of this means when it comes to assessing the threat that Christian nationalism poses to American democracy?
Because Christian nationalists believe that God is on their side and that the fate of Christian America is at stake, among staunch adherents there is no space for compromise. And for many, aligning the country with God’s laws trumps any commitment to democratic practices. This is why you will hear some Christian nationalists insist that the United States is not a democracy, but rather a republic. (It is of course a representative democracy). Or why you might hear conservative evangelical pastors reminding people that “democracy is not in the Bible,” or even denouncing democracy as idolatry. Allegiance to God comes before allegiance to any system of democratic governance.
We see these commitments reflected in terms of higher levels of comfort with voter suppression, with election denial, and with higher levels of support for political violence as reflected in stark terms in this PRRI/Brookings survey.
Sixteen percent of Americans agree with the statement “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” 81% of Americans disagree. But Christian nationalism adherents are nearly seven times as likely as Christian nationalism rejecters to support political violence. (Four in ten Christian nationalism adherents agree with this statement.) Perhaps even more alarmingly, nearly one in five Americans agree not only “that the United States is a white Christian nation but that they are willing to fight to preserve it.”
This is not the majority of Americans. But it does represent an influential faction within the Republican party; most Republicans qualify as either Christian nationalism sympathizers (33%) or adherents (21%).
Together, these data points help explain the state of our political landscape today, both in terms of its assymmetrical polarization and the response to the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
Ultimately, what lessons can be gleaned from this survey? For Republicans, one unfortunate takeaway may well be that it pays to play to the Christian nationalist base, at least in the short term. In terms of the state of our society and health of our democracy, the implications are sobering.
It is clear that ardent Christian nationalism poses a very real threat to American democracy. As I read these numbers, the level of that threat ultimately comes down to the question of where, when push comes to shove, the sympathies of the sympathizers will lie.
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