Christian nationalism is increasingly coming under scrutiny as an ideology and a political movement that is a threat to the American values of democracy and pluralism.
What is Christian nationalism and why is it a cause for concern? Is there anything wrong with being a Christian and a patriot?
A recent ICJS panel, “God on the Ballot? A Discussion of Christian Nationalism Before the Election,” stressed the importance of defining terms.
Panelist Samuel L. Perry, co-author of “The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to Democracy,” said that Christian patriotism can be a good thing if it means
“supporting the founding principles and creeds that unite us as Americans under constitutional democracy… That means we commit to the First Amendment, that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
“Where it becomes Christian nationalism is to either imply or to outright say that America belongs to people like us,” he said. “That includes Christians, but … there are often other kinds of cultural baggage uploaded into Christian,” including white ethnocentric ideologies.
Philip S. Gorski, Perry’s co-author on “The Flag and the Cross,” described Christian nationalism as a “deep story” that attempts to preserve a mythological version of American history: of a country founded as a Christian nation based on biblical principles and blessed with power and prosperity in order to carry out a divinely inspired mission to spread freedom, religion and capitalism to the rest of the world.
Gorski said this deep story relies on three narratives drawn from particular interpretations of the Christian Scriptures. The Promised Land story sees the American colonists as the successors to the ancient Israelites and America as their Promised Land, which they have a divine right to possess, forcing out anyone standing in their way. The End Time story—borrowed from apocalyptic biblical literature—envisions a contemporary cosmic battle between forces of good and evil. And the Curse of Ham story, in which the biblical Noah curses his son’s descendents, was used historically as a theological justification for slavery and persists as a means of othering people of color.
“So what, if anything, does a story have to do with our present-day situation?” Gorski said.
“The idea that the United States is ultimately a country for white people is an echo of the Curse of Ham story. The idea that politics is a Manichaean struggle between forces of good and evil is an echo of The End/Times story. And the idea that the United States is a nation above all others is echoed in various forms of American exceptionalism. It’s very clear that all of this is echoed right up into the present day and into our present politics.”
What is particularly troubling about Christian nationalist ideologies, Perry said, is that they are strongly associated with behavior that is authoritarian, anti-democratic and ethnocentric. This includes extreme xenophobia, a disregard for voter rights, and a desire to suppress votes in some ways, he said. “We also find that [support for] Christian nationalist ideologies is highly associated with patriarchal attitudes and even support for authoritarian violence.”
Panelist Matthew D. Taylor, ICJS Protestant scholar, takes a more focused view on the religious and theological beliefs that inspire many Christian nationalists and on the leaders who espouse them. He finds that much of the leadership of what he calls the “hardened core” of those described as Christian nationalists come from a network of self-described apostles and prophets associated with the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). NAR is a revivalist movement among Pentecostal and charismatic churches that seeks to imbue Christian values into all segments of society and culture.
This religious influence was on full display on January 6, 2021 during the Capitol Riot, Taylor said.
“They’re doing spiritual warfare, they’re leading worship music, they’re singing,” he said. “It was actually a very ecstatic type of spirituality that surrounded the Capitol Riot, and a lot of the leaders were coming out of this New Apostolic Reformation network of leaders.”
Taylor believes that this movement within charismatic Christianity needs a lot more scrutiny.
“The core of the religious right over the course of the last decade has become much more independent-charismatic than it ever has been. I think we need to pay attention to the particular leaders, particular ideas,” he said. “The idea of battling against demons, battling against witchcraft in American politics, and Christians taking over society comes out of that independent charismatic world,” Taylor said.
“That’s not a historic, mainstream evangelical idea, but it’s very much a mainstream, independent charismatic idea.”
Panelist Amir Hussain noted the confusion of some non-Christians who consider what they know about Christian values about justice, charity and protection of the vulnerable, and measure that against the behavior of nationalists who consider themselves to be ardent Christians.
Hussain, a Muslim who teaches at a Catholic university and studies Christian theology, referenced an essay by his mentor, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, titled “Christian—Noun or Adjective?” that focused on whether Christian actions live up to the Gospels they profess to follow. Smith poses the question, “Are you behaving as Christians are supposed to behave?” Hussain said.
“And that’s where you get this really interesting thing of what’s happening with the behavior of [Christian nationalists]: How is that seen by folks who aren’t Christian, who recognize the history of this country as multi-religious?”
The panel agreed that while outright Christian nationalists may represent a relatively small percentage of the U.S. population, their influence outweighs their size.
“I think a somewhat erroneous objection that you hear is, ‘well, this is just a small group of people,’” Gorski said. “This, I think, just reflects a fundamentally erroneous understanding about how politics works, particularly how authoritarian movements work.
“You don’t need to be an electoral majority. You just need to be a well-organized, well-armed, highly mobilized minority,” he said. “And so the fact that the really extreme white Christian supremacists might only be 15%, and of that maybe only another 10% or 15% are really prepared to engage in political violence, gives me absolutely no comfort.”