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Mark David HALL: ‘Christian Nationalism’: An Existential Threat to America and the World?[1]

In the traditional telling of the tale, an acorn falls on Chicken Little’s head and she runs around wildly telling all who will listen that the sky is falling. Since January 6, 2020, a host of polemicists and a few social scientists have been loudly proclaiming that Christian nationalism may cause the collapse of America’s constitutional order. Recently, some authors have even contended that American Christian nationalists are fomenting “civil wars across the globe.” National and international critics have warned of the dangers of Christian nationalism in European countries including Italy, Poland, and Hungary. In this essay, I explore American Christian nationalism and conclude that most—perhaps all–critics of Christian nationalism should largely be dismissed as contemporary manifestations of Chicken Little.

The sociologist Andrew Whitehead recently asserted on Twitter that “Christian nationalism is an existential threat to American democracy and the Christian church in the United States.” Similarly, Andrew Seidel, vice president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, claims that it is an “existential threat to a government of the people, for the people, and by the people.” In The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American, the same author explains that Christian nationalists seek to codify “Christian privilege in the law, favoring Christians above others [and] disfavor the non-religious, non-Christians, and minorities.”

Amanda Tyler, president of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, another organization dedicated to the separation of church and state, more modestly contends that Christian nationalism is merely the “single biggest threat to America’s religious liberty.”  Finally, and many other examples could be given, Philip S. Gorski and Samuel L. Perry inform us that white Christian nationalism is a “threat to American democracy.”  (Note the addition of “white.” As Jemar Tisby explains elsewhere, African-Americans bring their faith into the public square in helpful, inclusive ways. Christian nationalism, it would seem, is only problematic if its adherents are white).

Christian nationalism, as defined by its critics, is an ugly phenomenon. In Taking America Back for God, Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry explain that it is “an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture” that includes assumptions of “nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism.”  

It is not unreasonable to fear that people who embrace the ideology described by Whitehead and Perry pose a threat to liberal democracy, but are there enough of them to make a difference?  Whitehead and Perry answer this question with a resounding “yes.” According to them, 51.9% of Americans partially or wholly support Christian nationalism (respectively labeled by them as Accommodators (32.1%) or Ambassadors (19.8%)). These figures include the 65% of African-Americans who are Christian nationalists but, like Tisby, Whitehead and Perry explain that these are goodChristian nationalists who need not be a cause for concern (it is unclear if Hispanic and Asian Christian nationalists are as morally pure as African-Americans).

As I have explained elsewhere, there are excellent reasons to be skeptical about the statements Whitehead and Perry use to measure Christian nationalism. They may be interpreted in different ways, and three of the six simply measure whether one is committed to the strict separation of church and state. One may reasonably conclude, for instance, that religious monuments should be permitted to remain on public land, that voluntary prayer should be permitted in public schools, and that states should not be able to discriminate against religious institutions and not be Christian nationalist. Separationists like Andrew Seidel and Amanda Tyler clearly favor a public square stripped of religious images and government discrimination against religious institutions and individuals, but many Americans (and a majority of Supreme Court Justices, including, in some cases, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan) do not.[2]

Among the most far-fetched assertions made by critics of American Christian nationalism is that the modern American manifestation of the movement can be traced to Rousas John Rushdoony (1916-2001). This obscure Presbyterian minister did, in fact, contend that Christians should actively reconstruct society along thoroughly Christian lines, a project that resulted in Rushdoony and his followers being labeled Reconstructionists or Dominionists. 

Critics of Christian nationalism inflate Rushdoony’s importance because he advocated views that may reasonably be interpreted as racist and sexist, and because he argued that Christian societies should punish eighteen offenses with death, including witchcraft, “incorrigible juvenile delinquency,” and homosexual activities by men (but not women).  In other words, he advocated something approximating the toxic mix described by Whitehead and Perry. I have shown elsewhere that reports of Rushdoony’s influence are grossly exaggerated, but this does not stop even serious scholars from asserting that he was influential, as Philip S. Gorski and Samuel L. Perry do in their 2022 book The Flag and the Cross.   

Most of the literature on Christian nationalism in the United States is polemical, and much of it is motivated by a progressive political agenda. This is most evident in the polemical works, but even social scientists like Whitehead and Perry tip their hand when they characterize pro-life Americans as simply being committed to“male authority over women’s bodies” and explain that Christian nationalists are redefining religious liberty to mean something more than freedom to worship.  Whatever one’s position on these issues, fair consideration of pro-life Americans reveals that they oppose abortion because they are concerned with protecting innocent human life. And Americans on both the right and the left have long understood religious liberty to protect more than the “freedom to worship.” After all, the First Amendment protects the “free exercise of religion.”

Critics of Christian nationalism are not against some Christians bringing their faith into the public square; indeed, they encourage those advocating progressive causes to do so. But if someone is motivated by faith to oppose progressive ideas or support conservative ones, he or she is a Christian nationalist who poses an existential threat to the nation.

Almost all of the literature on American Christian nationalism vastly exaggerates the number of citizens who embrace the ideology and the extent to which it threatens America’s constitutional order. But that does not mean that Christian nationalism has not existed throughout American history or that it has not been harmful. Thus, it stands to reason that we provide a short overview of the American literature of Christian nationalism, and try and refute those allegations that do not correspond with the arguments above presented.

Paul D. Miller, a professor at Georgetown and author of The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism, has described most of the existing works on Christian nationalism as “rather extreme and almost comical examples of beating up on straw men—or would be, if they weren’t also fear-mongering scurrilous libel masquerading as scholarship.” There are also a handful of books written by academics that make a good faith attempt to understand Christian nationalism in America. In addition to Miller’s book, these include Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry’s Taking America Back for God and Philip Gorski and Samuel Perry’s The Flag and the Cross – both already mentioned above.

In my previous writings on the subject, I expressed dissatisfaction with current definitions and the authors’ assessments of the “threat” that Christian nationalism poses to the country. But I never deny that American Christian nationalism exists and is problematic. In the United States, Christian nationalism is best understood as the view that the country was founded as a Christian nation and that the federal government should protect and promote Christianity in special ways. Christian nationalists often believe that other faiths should be tolerated, but that the national government does not need to treat all religions equally.

Earlier attempts to measure American Christian nationalism conflate it with lack of support for the strict separation of church and state. But, one can support religious exemptions, religious monuments on public land, and even voluntary student prayer in public schools without being a Christian nationalist—at least as I define the concept.  The following three statements in a recent Pew survey do a better job of measuring American Christian nationalism:

  1. The United States Constitution was

(a) Inspired by God, reflects God’s vision for America (15%)

(b) Written by humans and reflects their vision, not necessarily God’s vision (67%)

(c) Neither/no opinion/refused (15%)

2. [The] Federal government should

(a) Declare U.S. a Christian nation (15%)

(b) Never declare any religion as official religion of U.S. (69%)

(c) Neither/no opinion/refused (17%)

3. Public school teachers should

(a) Be allowed to lead students in Christian prayers (30%)

(b) Not be allowed to lead students in any kind of prayers (46%)

(c) Neither/no opinion/refused (24%)

If we average the percentage of Americans who agree with each statement, we can estimate that roughly 20% of Americans are Christian nationalists. Although I personally disagree with all three statements, I am not terribly troubled by those who agree with them. 

Consider the first statement. I love the Constitution and believe that many of its authors were influenced by Christian ideas, but I am not prepared to say that it was “inspired by God.” Perhaps it was. How are we to know?

For the federal government to declare the U.S. ‘a Christian nation’ would be imprudent and off-putting to the 37% of Americans who do not identify themselves as Christian, but it is not clear that these citizens would be harmed in any material way. Currently, every American state constitution references the deity (see: Pew Research, 2017), and in the context in which they were written there leaves room for little doubt that they reference the Christian God. For instance, the third paragraph in Massachusetts constitution reads: 

“We, therefore, the people of Massachusetts, acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the goodness of the great Legislator of the universe, in affording us, in the course of His providence, an opportunity, deliberately and peaceably, without fraud, violence or surprise, of entering into an original, explicit, and solemn compact with each other; and of forming a new constitution of civil government, for ourselves and posterity; and devoutly imploring His direction in so interesting a design, do agree upon, ordain and establish the following Declaration of Rights, and Frame of Government, as the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

If Massachusetts were to rewrite its constitution tomorrow, I would recommend removing this language because what was completely inoffensive in 1780 may be divisive today. But all Americans live under state constitutions with such language and enjoy religious liberty and are treated with equality. Should the national government declare America to be a Christian nation, there is little reason to think this would change.

It is not at all clear that agreement with the first statement above has any relevance for law and public policy, and in the unlikely event that the national government declared the United States to be a Christian nation and allowed public school teachers to lead children in prayer, the harms would be minimal. 

Again, there is no denying that such Christian nationalism exists, but it does not pose an existential threat to America that its critics claim. Nor are there good reasons to think it poses a danger to constitutional democracy around the globe. Critics who claim it does are simply parroting the American Chicken Littles who have written so breathlessly about the phenomenon. 

Mark David HALL is a Professor in Regent University’s Robertson School of Government and a Senior Fellow with the Center for Religion, Culture and Democracy.  His most recent book is Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land: How Christianity has Advanced Freedom and Equality for All Americans.  

[1] Portions of this article were originally published by Discourse Magazine.


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