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Understanding Christian Nationalism
Parsing the data and assessing the threat
Is Christian nationalism a threat to American democracy?
First, some background. If it seems like the term Christian nationalism is suddenly everywhere, you’re right. There’s data to support that:
It’s a rare day that goes by that I’m not giving an interview to some media outlet helping to explain this phenomenon. What is Christian nationalism? How prevalent is it? Is it new? Is it a threat?
When talking with journalists, I often feel the urge to apologize in advance because I won’t be offering quippy sound bites or simple definitions.
(See here, for how I try to convey complexity while still bringing some clarity:)
The truth is, it’s complicated. There is no set definition of “Christian nationalism” that everyone agrees on and employs in the same way. There are people who check all the Christian nationalist boxes but disavow the term. There are those who champion “Christian America” but in a way that fully aligns with democratic norms and institutions. There are those who would gladly subvert democracy to achieve their ends. In assessing Christian nationalism, we need to retain sight of these distinctions.
It’s helpful to keep in mind that the term Christian nationalism isn’t a new one, and more importantly, the core commitments encompassed by the term predate its widespread use.
In Jesus and John Wayne, I employ the term in a descriptive way, offering a layperson’s definition to describe the broader concept and drawing on the work of sociologists to describe some of its contemporary facets:
For evangelicals, domestic and foreign policy are two sides of the same coin. Christian nationalism—the belief that America is God’s chosen nation and must be defended as such—serves as powerful predictor of intolerance toward immigrants, racial minorities, and non-Christians. It is linked to opposition to gay rights and gun control, to support for harsher punishments for criminals, to justifications for the use of excessive force against black Americans in law enforcement situations, and to traditionalist gender ideology. White evangelicals have pieced together this patchwork of issues, and a nostalgic commitment to rugged, aggressive, militant white masculinity serves as the thread binding them together into a coherent whole. A father’s rule in the home is inextricably linked to the heroic leadership on the national stage, and the fate of the nation hinges on both (4).
For conservative white evangelicals, the “good news” of the Christian gospel has become inextricably linked to a staunch commitment to patriarchal authority, gender difference, and Christian nationalism, and all of these are intertwined with white racial identity. Many Americans who now identify as evangelicals are identifying with this operational theology—one that is Republican in its politics and traditionalist in its values. This God-and-country faith is championed by those who regularly attend evangelical churches, and those who do not. In this way, conservative white evangelicalism has become a polarizing force in American politics and society (6-7).
What makes things tricky is that many Americans believe that America is or ought to be a Christian nation, but precisely what they mean by that, and how they want to achieve their stated goals, varies widely. And this brings us to the latest survey data released yesterday by the Pew Research Center.
At first glance, the numbers are jarring. Forty-five percent of all U.S. adults believe that the U.S. should be a “Christian nation.” Sixty-two percent of all Christians, 68% of Protestants, and, as usual topping the charts, 81% of white evangelicals. (Once again, the notorious 81%.)
These numbers provoked alarm among some:
And glee among others:
But the Pew survey digs beneath the surface, adding open-ended question to better understand what respondents meant by “Christian nation.” What they found is that “overall, Americans express widely varying ideas of what being a Christian nation means”:
…some say it specifically means people having faith in God (11% of all respondents) or Jesus Christ (7%), while others say a Christian nation is one in which the majority of the population is Christian (7%).
One respondent with this understanding defines a Christian nation as “people that believe in God and follow his word and beliefs.” Another says, “A nation that loves God and others with no discrimination.” Many respondents also express some version of “in God we trust” or “one nation under God.”
Another 12% of the public describes a Christian nation in terms of being guided by beliefs and values, but without specifically referencing God or Christian concepts. They describe a Christian nation as one where, for example, “Overall, the nation as a whole has a basic faith and believes all people, regardless of race or creed, be treated equally. A solid belief in our humanity and willingness to act upon it.” Others reference “tolerance, morals and ethics,” “caring and loving,” “a nation of faith,” and “love all. No matter of differences.”…
About one-in-five Americans (18%) describe a Christian nation as having Christian-based laws and governance. Those who think the U.S. should not be a Christian nation are far more likely than those who think the U.S. should be a Christian nation to express this view (30% vs. 6%).
Often, these descriptions are negative. One respondent describes a Christian nation as “being controlled by only people of the Christian faith.” Others say, “To me it means theocracy,” or that a Christian nation means “imposing incredibly selective and often untrue to their own faith ‘rules’ on everyone else, out of a perverse need to control others and feel better about themselves.” One respondent describes a Christian nation as “one whose laws are in line with the Christian faith at the exclusion of other values or opinions.”
…At the same time, however, many Americans express positive views of a Christian nation with Christian-based governance. For example, one respondent said, “A nation that honors God and Jesus Christ, and doesn’t make laws that fly in the face of what God has said, and certainly doesn’t persecute Christians for following what they believe the Bible tells them about issues such as homosexuality and abortion being sinful.”
A notable theme throughout respondents’ descriptions of a Christian nation is their ambiguity.
There are more fascinating details in the study, and it’s worth reading through the many variations on your own.
Given that I’d been giving an interview on Christian nationalism to an Axios reporter at the very time the survey released, I was relieved to see that the new findings corresponded closely with my own qualitative observations that I’d just shared. (That interview will release early next week.)
What are the real takeaways here?
Is Christian nationalism a threat to American democracy? Or is there really nothing to see here? Is it a proto-authoritarian movement? Or are we just talking about salt-of-the-earth Americans who love their country and their God?
Sifting through this new data, the answers aren’t entirely clear to me. These are questions I’ve been trying to tease out for years. What does seem clear to me is that understanding the trajectories of what we’re seeing now depends on the relationship between the moderates (the well-meaning, values-voting Christians) and the extremists (those for whom democracy is an obstacle that must be done away with to achieve their vision for Christian America).
This morning, a tweet from Andrew T. Walker, Professor of Ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, caught my eye:
University of Oklahoma sociologist Sam Perry was quick to respond:
Historians are well aware of the fact that authoritarian regimes frequently seize power by leveraging democratic structures. In many ways, this is one of the central stories of twentieth-century history, the backstory to war and genocide, to unspeakable atrocities that have caused untold suffering—and there’s nothing particularly funny about it. As Perry points out, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt offer an overview in their book How Democracies Die, an essential resource for our current moment.
Last year, over at Smerconish, I reflected on how Levitsky and Ziblatt’s analysis might help illuminate dynamics within American evangelicalism as well. And here’s where Prof. Walker might want to pay close attention:
In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt describe the essential role that political parties play as stewards of democracy. By acting as gatekeepers, parties can weed out authoritarian candidates before they pose a real threat to democracy. Timing, however, is critical. As establishment politicians in places like Germany, Italy, and Venezuela discovered too late, there is a window of time when it’s possible to reign in potential demagogues.
The same logic may well apply to the white evangelical world. For too long, evangelical gatekeepers failed to denounce and expunge extremists. Too many evangelical leaders turned a blind eye to the white supremacy, nationalism, and abusive cultures in their own midst in the interest of culture-wars coalition building. Now, these very establishment evangelicals are being removed from positions of power. Others learn to keep quiet or switch sides like SBC leader Al Mohler.
Over and over again, we have seen this pattern play out in American evangelicalism. Respectable evangelical gatekeepers remain invested in protecting the brand. They denounce those pointing to dangers within by accusing them of hating evangelicals and attacking Christianity. They circle the wagons and purge critics from their midst. They offer cover to those on the far Right while purging those to the Left:
One of the central themes I explore in Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation is a connection between evangelicalism’s more extreme expressions and its more “respectable” representatives. I found deep affinities between the rigid patriarchy and social hierarchies advanced by an “outlier” like Bill Gothard, and the patriarchal family values promoted by an indisputably mainstream figure like James Dobson. I saw how respected leaders like John Piper and organizations like Christianity Today platformed unapologetic racists like Doug Wilson, and how the abusive and misogynistic behavior of pastors like Mark Driscoll was excused or tacitly condoned by the same, if not openly celebrated. Misogynists, abusers, and racists were defended as “brothers in Christ,” as allies in a larger cause.
Yet evangelicals rarely hesitated to draw stark boundaries around orthodoxy to the Left. When evangelicals such as Jen Hatmaker or Rachel Held Evans moved to the Left on issues related to gender and sexuality, they quickly found themselves excluded from the fold by evangelical gatekeepers.
Today, after decades of asymmetrical alliances and boundary-drawing, respectable leaders are left powerless in the face of a rising Right-wing populism within their own ranks. Those who attempt to speak out against these forces are trolled, denounced, and not infrequently find themselves deposed of their positions of leadership. Many others take note and stay quiet. Others, like the party leaders Levitsky and Ziblatt describe, try to play both sides—thinking they can use the extremists to advance their own agenda while chiding those pointing out the dangers of doing so.
The degree to which Christian nationalism poses a threat to American democracy is as of yet not entirely clear, but it depends on the willingness of Christians—including conservative white evangelicals—to denounce extremists, even (especially) extremists who share their vision for social and moral traditionalism.
The unwillingness of far too many who hold positions of power and influence to do so is what should make the numbers we see in surveys deeply concerning.
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