• Glenn Packiam

What is "Christian Nationalism" Anyway?

Updated: Jan 19



We urgently need to confront the misappropriation of Christian language and symbols for un-Christlike goals and means. God talk has long been used to justify political causes. In the wake of the storming of the US Capitol on January 6th, videos of speeches and prayers have surfaced from the rally and from inside the building. Now is the time to take a long hard look at "Christian nationalism".


I recently finished reading "Taking American Back for God" by two sociologists on Christian nationalism in America. Unlike the many news articles or stories or op-eds that claim that "white evangelicals" are responsible for the demise in our political system, Whitehead and Perry offer the conversation more specificity and clarity. And like any diagnosis, the better we understand the problem, the closer we are to developing a cure. My hope here is not to offer a solution or even to define the problem with finality, but simply to summarize the key insights from Whitehead and Perry, who themselves claim not to have found the sole cause but a key contributing factor. I'll begin with key terms, move to a summary of core arguments, and then list the bad news and good news for Christian leaders. Do consider purchasing the book yourself.


TERMS

What is “Christian Nationalism”?

Sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry use the term “‘Christian Nationalism’ to describe an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture”.[1]


What they don’t mean:

  • “White evangelicals”— there is overlap, but the groups are not interchangeable.[2]

  • ”Nationalism” in the sense of “believing that one’s nation is superior to others”[3]

  • ”Theocracy”— there is “some technical overlap between the goals of strong nationalists and theocrats”, but there are key distinctions: bible vs. constitution, clergy led vs. pragmatic leaders.[4]

In the final page of the conclusion to the book, the authors offer another summary definition:

“Those who embrace Christian nationalism insist that the Christian God formed, favors, and sustains the United States over and above the other nations of the world. They proclaim the United States plays a central role in God’s plan for the world”.[5]


In short, Christian nationalism believes that the Christian God is responsible for America’s history, central to America’s identity, and invested in America’s destiny.

Whitehead and Perry then map people onto a Christian nationalism scale. They used the responses (strongly agree/agree/disagree/strongly disagree) to the following six questions in the Baylor Religion Study from both 2007 and 2017 to plot people along a four point scale that maps their relationship to “Christian Nationalism”[6]:

  1. The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation.

  2. The federal government should advocate Christian values.

  3. The federal government should enforce strict separation of church and state (reverse coded)

  4. The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces.

  5. The success of the United States is part of God’s plan.

  6. The federal government should allow prayer in public schools.


Responses were sorted into four points on a scale-- four categories of Americans based on their relationship to Christian nationalism. Each is described with a quote from people whom they interviewed.[7]

  • Ambassadors: “I believe we were founded on Christian principles, so, yes, I believe that, in essence, how we were created was the principle of Christianity. It’s Christian beliefs. That’s where we come from.” — Trina

  • Accommodators: “I would agree that it was founded on Christian values, and maybe it was founded as a Christian nation. But today, presently, I don’t know…That’s a harder question to answer, right?” — Luke

  • Resisters: “I don’t feel comfortable identifying the United States as a Christian nation even though I know that Christianity has been a major part of the history of this nation.”— Deb

  • Rejectors: “No, I don’t think the United States is a Christian nation. We are founded on a godless and secular Constitution.” — Donald


CORE ARGUMENTS

First, understanding Christian nationalism matters if we are to understand the polarization in America.[8] “...the degree to which Americans— perceiving current political conflicts through the lens of Christian nationalism— wish to institutionalize conservative ‘Christian’ cultural preferences in America’s policies and self-identity”.[9]Ultimately, Christian nationalism is about “seeking to retain or gain power in the public sphere” and therefore is in a sense “about privilege”.[10]

In my view, it is the difference between wanting Christianity to shape the moral principles by which a country operates and wanting Christianity to occupy a seat of cultural power.

Secondly, Christian nationalism is distinct and must be understood in its own terms. It is not the root cause or the sole issue. But it is distinct.

Christian nationalism is not the same as being white or being a white evangelical.

“Stated simply: being an evangelical, or even a white evangelical as pollsters often define that category, tells us almost nothing about a person’s social attitudes or behavior once Christian nationalism has been considered”.[11] But “the two categories often overlap...[r]oughly half of evangelicals (by some definitions) embrace Christian nationalism to some degree”.[12]


Thirdly, “Christian nationalism is not ‘Christianity’ or even ‘religion’ properly speaking”.[13] “In fact...Christian nationalism often influences Americans’ opinions and behaviors in the exact opposite direction than traditional religious commitment does”.[14] At the end of the book, they reiterate this point.

“For the most part we find that the association between Christian nationalism and various hot-button political issues or attitudes toward racial and religious minorities tends to work to work in the complete opposite direction than the association between private religious practice and these same things”.[15]

Thus to “condemn Christian nationalism as we define it is not to condemn Christianity or religion per se”.[16]


THE BAD NEWS FOR CHRISTIAN LEADERS

A Disturbing Obsession with Power

A major theme of Christian nationalism is its focus on boundaries and order. “...the degree to which Americans seek to impose Christianity on the public sphere operates as a powerful indicator of their commitment to a specific social order...”.[17] It’s about order and boundaries to preserve power and privilege. “In short, Christian nationalism is all about power”.[18] Again, “Christian nationalism uses Christian language and symbols to demarcate and defend group boundaries and privileges”.[19]


A Troubling Correlation with Policies

This shows up in their favor of or opposition to several key policies. Take, for example, the travel bans and restrictions on refugees. The more you embrace Christian nationalism, the more likely you are think that refugees from the Middle East “pose a terrorist threat to the United States” (even though many refugees from the Middle East are actually Christians feeling persecution).[24] And, “as Americans more strongly equate Christian identity with American civic belonging, their willingness to deny the free speech of hostile Muslims increases considerably”.[25] It’s important to note that “being an evangelical Protestant, a Republican, or political conservative had no discernible influence on any of these attitudes— only Christian nationalism does”.[26]


A Worrying Exit from the Pews

“The fusion of the Christian religion with conservative politics played a central role in ‘The Great Abdicating’ in which, since the mid-1990s, the number of Americans who do not affiliate with a religious tradition has increased dramatically. And not only is Christian nationalism turning people away from Christianity, it is creating fissures within the tradition as well”.[32]


THE GOOD NEWS FOR CHRISTIAN LEADERS

Christian nationalism is a “cultural framework” that functions like a religion but is not a religion in one of the most obvious ways: it “does not encourage high moral standards or value self-sacrifice, peace, mercy, love, justice, and so on. Nor does it necessarily encourage conforming one’s political opinions to those that Jesus might have”.[36] To make the contrast even more clear, they highlight how political appeals are made. “Appeals to someone’s religion, in this case Christianity, may involve a plea to live out transcendent Christian values of love, mercy, or justice. Appeals to Christian nationalism, by contrast, involve either a proprietary claim or a call to arms, always in response to a perceived threat”.[37]

Christianity is about self-giving love. Christian nationalism is about self-protecting power.

The distinction goes deeper.

“...the great paradox is that Christian nationalism and religiosity often influence Americans political views in the exact opposite direction.”[33]

To illustrate, Whitehead and Perry take some of the key policies associated with it. “As Americans show greater agreement with Christian nationalism, they are more likely to view Muslim refugees as terrorist threats, agree that citizens should be made to show respect for America’s traditions, and oppose stricter gun control laws. But as Americans become more religious in terms of attendance, prayer, and Scripture reading, they move in the opposite direction on these issues…These situations are not anomalous. In fact, the crisscrossing patterns we observe here holds true for other political issues”.[34]


This is huge because it means that “it would be a mistake for sociologists or other observes to conclude that ‘religious commitment’ necessarily inclines Americans to hold more conservative political positions. In fact, religious commitment often appears to do the opposite. This should be welcome news for those who fear religion is a barrier to promoting greater tolerance and ushering in what they believe to be more equitable, humane government policies”.[35]

There is good news here for Christian leaders: the more closely you follow Jesus, in devotion and discipleship, the less likely you are to adhere to Christian nationalism.

Friends, we have work to do. But take heart, no labor in the Lord is ever in vain.

[1] p. IX-X [2] p. X. [3] ibid. [4] ibid. [5] p. 164. [6] p. 169. [7] p. 23. [8] p. 16. [9] p. 153. [10] Ibid. [11] p. 20. [12] ibid. [13] ibid. [14] ibid. [15] p. 155. [16] p. 21. [17] p. 5. [18] p. 86. [19] p. 87. [20] p. 67. [21] p. 67. [22] Ibid. [23] ibid. [24] p. 71. [25] p. 72. [26] p. 72. [27] p. 75. [28] ibid. [29] p. 80 [30] p. 82. [31] p. 84. [32] p. 163 [33] p. 84. [34] p. 84. [35] pp. 85-86. [36] po. 86. [37] ibid.

1,536 views2 comments