Christian Nationalism and Why There is Concern About It

Christian scholar and professor Paul D. Miller defines Christian nationalism by contrasting it with Christianity: “Christianity is a religion. It’s a set of beliefs about ultimate things: most importantly, about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s drawn from the Bible, from the Nicene Creed, and the Apostles’ Creed” (1).

Christian nationalism, however, is a political ideology about American identity. According to Miller, it is not drawn from the Bible but draws its political theory from secular philosophy and a specific version of history. It is about how society and politics should be ordered. Other scholars view Christian nationalism as constituting a cultural framework as a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems. In the doctrinal dimension, Christian nationalists believe that God especially favors the United States. Christian nationalists claim that the United States is a “Christian country” or they wish to make it a Christian country once again. It is a fusion of Christianity with American civic life. Miller explains that,

“Christian nationalism believes that the American nation is defined by Christianity and that the government should take steps to keep it that way to sustain and maintain our Christian heritage. It’s not merely an observation about American history. It is a prescription for what America should do in the future. We should sustain and continue our identity as a Christian nation. That’s Christian nationalism… If you believe that the Constitution is divinely inspired, that puts you high up on the scale of Christian nationalism. You don’t get much more Christian nationalist than that.”

Miller argues that Christian nationalism, in its purest form and essence, is religious. It embeds Christian symbols, rhetoric, and concepts into a political ideology. Christian nationalism is also based on fear. Members feel that their way of life is under threat; Miller articulates: “Over the past hundred years, as America has grown less Christian and less white, it has put the white Christian conservative population on the defensive. We feel like the world’s against us. We’re shrinking, our power is shrinking, our influences are shrinking against all of the other forces in the world.” Christian nationalists believe that Christians are under attack and are being persecuted.

Christian Nationalism in the United States

There are several indicators that Christian nationalism is alive in the United States. In recent times, perhaps the most conspicuous example is found in the so-called “Trumpism” or “Trump Cult.” It is believed by many that Christian nationalism has flourished under President Trump (2).

During the incident involving the storming of the Capitol, Christian imagery, among other images connected to other ideologies (like Confederate flags, etc.) was on display. There were angry protesters holding signs reading “Jesus Saves” and “Jesus 2020.” A woman could be heard singing “Peace in the name of Jesus. The blood of Jesus covering this place.” Many onlookers have connected such sentiments to Christian nationalism. A number of these diehard supporters of Trump are hardcore ideologues “who spend time developing the energy, thinking about it [Christian nationalism], praying about it, and advocating for it, writing their congressmen, and attending the riot.”

It was not lost on Trump the need to appeal to his Christian supporters. In 2016, he said, “We will respect and defend Christian Americans.” He also promised that “Christianity will have power.” Miller says that no other political candidate has ever come as close to Trump in championing Christian power: “That’s Christian nationalism in a nutshell, advocating for Christian power rather than Christian principle.” One cannot help but be reminded of Trump holding a Bible in front of St. John’s Church for a photo op during the protests surrounding the death of George Floyd.

It is because of this rhetoric that Trump has been so popular with the majority of white evangelicals invested in Christian power. It is little surprise then that one sees Christian symbols finding their way into public demonstrations from some of Trump’s more radical and devoted followers. This ideology is expressed in many American Christians believing that the country’s political system is the means by which God’s kingdom spreads.

According to Jeremie Beller, an adjunct professor of communication for Oklahoma Christian University, Christian nationalism is seen in using religious language to describe the United States that is reserved for the Kingdom of God,

“For instance, to speak of America as a “city on a hill” borrows from Jesus’ image for God’s kingdom. The marriage between patriotism and righteousness further blurs the line between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world” (3).

Miller draws a helpful distinction between ambassadors and accommodators of Christian nationalism. Ambassadors constitute a small group who preach and spread the ideology. Accommodators, however, are those who are tolerant of Christian nationalism and who accept it enough to not get in its way. There is a big difference between these two groups that should not be missed. Miller argues that we should oppose and expose the ambassadors as the deceivers they are. But when it comes to accommodators, we should provide “gentle correction if they’ll accept it.” Miller says that when ambassadors and accommodators are combined, one arrives at a statistic of seventy-eight (78%) of evangelicals who embrace this ideology. This is a large number equating to several tens of millions of Americans.

Christian nationalism can also be seen in the attempts to place religious symbols in public spaces, such as the Ten Commandments. It is the desire to see the slogan “In God We Trust” etched into public buildings, hung in schools and displayed on public vehicles including police cars (4). It is expressed in churches brandishing American flags and in pastors praying for specific presidential candidates to win the elections so that the country keeps its Christian roots. One pastor was heard praying his desire that “communism and socialism and transgenderism and homosexuality and abortion will not have their way in this land” (5).

Sociologist Robert Bellah was fascinated with the phenomenon of American religion, which he approached from a sociological perspective, and has identified how the United States has maintained a thoroughly biblical civil religion that uses biblical language.

Christian Nationalism Versus White Nationalism, and Conspiracy Theories

What is the relationship between Christian nationalism and white nationalism? A major difference between the two is that white nationalism is built upon the foundation of an inherently racist ideology. It maintains that whites are inherently superior to other races and its proponents will explicitly equate Western civilization with European DNA. White nationalists also seldom talk about Christianity except as a historical artifact that is part of the heritage of Europe and Christendom. But Miller maintains that although Christian nationalism isn’t on its surface racist like white nationalism, it remains the case that when one digs deeper “you’ll find that Christian nationalists and white nationalists, agree on a range of subjects.”

“For example, if you ask whether racial inequality in America is primarily due to individual merit or due to structural systemic factors, Christian nationalists and white nationalists would agree it’s due mostly to individual merit. They would both advocate for strong immigration restrictions. They would reject that systemic racism exists. There is a difference, but there is some overlap in those underlying attitudes.”

It is also the case that conspiracy theories are embraced by many Christian nationalists. It is often a problem of “pride: a refusal to listen, a refusal to reevaluate their beliefs in the light of reality.” In many ways, Christian nationalism is about a denial of reality, or at least viewing Christianity’s relationship with the United States as more important than reality,

“They hold onto their beliefs in the face of conflicting reality. They invent a way to explain these aberrations and that’s exactly what gives rise to conspiracies. Conspiracies are a way of explaining reality way and taking refuge in fantastical beliefs.”

Response to Christian Nationalism

Is there a solution to Christian nationalism? Several have been offered. First, Americans need to realize that Christian nationalism and patriotism are not the same things. These should never be confused. One can indeed be a patriotic American and there is nothing about being a patriot who is proud of his country that makes one a Christian nationalist.

Miller draws another distinction and between embracing Christian principles versus embracing Christian nationalism. Miller finds no difficulty with the United States pursuing Christian values. To support this would not make one a Christian nationalist. Christian values are good for the country because they emphasize principles of justice, love, and care for the needy and vulnerable. A society that inculcates such principles is a good one that should be encouraged. Again, this must not be confused with Christian nationalism.

Further, it needs to be remembered that the Christian religion transcends any particular historical community. Americans, especially white Christian evangelicals, need to be cognizant of “becoming too narrow in our Americanness or whiteness, we need to expose ourselves to critiques from people of other traditions and other communities.” When Christianity becomes too narrow in its focus, then one might well be on his or her way to perpetuating Christian nationalism.

In particular, churches need to become involved so as to call out the “false gospel” of Christian nationalism. It is a false gospel to proclaim the name of Jesus yet to engage in sin by engaging in riots and even political violence. Christians need to realize that the true Kingdom of God does not rest with any nation or political party. Churches also need to cultivate community by providing people with meaning, purpose, and a sense of belonging that is separate from their political lives. They need to “preach correct political theology and eschatology. They need to preach about the kingdom, that Jesus is our King and His kingdom is not of this world.”

References

  1. Lee, Morgan. 2021. Christian Nationalism Is Worse Than You Think. Available.
  2. Whitehead, Andrew. 2020. Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. Oxford University Press.
  3. Ross Jr., Bobby. n.d. What is Christian nationalism? Available.
  4. Taylor, David. 2019. ‘In God We Trust’ – the bills Christian nationalists hope will ‘protect religious freedom.’ Available.
  5. Pulliam Bailey, Sarah. 2020. Seeking power in Jesus’ name: Trump sparks a rise of Patriot Churches. Available.

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