What is Christian nationalism? Shootings spark renewed debate

The congregation of First Baptist Dallas during a special Freedom Sunday service June 25, 2017. Part of the service involves saluting each branch of the armed forces, and guests to the church receive free copies of messages titled “America at the Crossroads” and “America is a Christian Nation.” Photo posted by Dr. Robert Jeffress on  Twitter .

The congregation of First Baptist Dallas during a special Freedom Sunday service June 25, 2017. Part of the service involves saluting each branch of the armed forces, and guests to the church receive free copies of messages titled “America at the Crossroads” and “America is a Christian Nation.” Photo posted by Dr. Robert Jeffress on Twitter.

As the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio dominated U.S. headlines this week, the hashtags #ChristianNationalism and #ChristianPrivilege trended on Twitter. There was no clear evidence that either gunman espoused Christian faith as a motive, but many posts implied it was somehow linked to their violence. The Dayton shooter even promoted atheism on Twitter.

So what is Christian nationalism, and why are people talking about it?

A term surfaces 

The hashtags appeared before the shootings, shortly after a statement released on July 29 by Christians Against Christian Nationalism (CACN), a loose coalition of 6,000 mostly liberal signers from various denominations.

The July 29 statement denounced what it described as a distortion of Christianity that threatens religious communities and democracy. 

“Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian,” it stated. “It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation.” 

As of Aug. 8, the number of signers had surpassed 10,000.

The group didn’t invent the term, and the debate predates it, according to Sam Haselby, historian and author of The Origins of American Religious Nationalism. “It’s an old debate, as old as the United States itself,” he wrote in an op-ed.

Then, after the attack in El Paso, media reported a Twitter account that seemed to belong to the shooter described him as a “proud, God-loving Christian.” The account is no longer active. In his manifesto, the 21-year-old shooter said he was motivated by the “Hispanic invasion of Texas,” and criticism of churches and Christians who offer “only thoughts and prayers” erupted on social media, claiming a connection between white supremacy and Christian nationalism.

In 2006, journalist Michelle Goldberg tied Christian nationalism to America’s religious right in her book Kingdom Come: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. Goldberg, argues that Christian nationalism is both a political ideology and particular theology of a Christian right to rule. According to her, Christian nationalists: 

  1. Believe the U.S. was founded by Christians who had no intention of a secular republic or church-state separation (called Reconstructionism) 

  2. Believe Christians have a God-given right and responsibility to rule the earth (an interpretation from Genesis to take dominion over creation, called Dominionism) 

As an example, Goldberg cites an instance in 2000 when a Hindu priest was allowed to say a prayer in the U.S. Congress for the first time. The Family Research Council (FRC) condemned the act online (now deleted) and in a weekly newsletter:  

“Our founders expected that Christianity – and no other religion – would receive support from the government as long as that support did not violate people's consciences and their right to worship. They would have found utterly incredible the idea that all religions, including paganism, be treated with equal deference.”

Family Research Council is headed by Tony Perkins, who Trump appointed to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom last year. 

Trump’s election and the Republican Party’s prioritization of issues that are important to conservative Christians is causing left-leaning and non-Christians to define Christian nationalism in a way that implies it has sinister motives, according to David Closson, director of Christian ethics and Biblical worldview at FRC.

Closson rejects the idea that many Christians want any style of theocracy and criticized the CACN statement in a post on the FRC website

“At best, the project is a solution in search of a problem,” Closson wrote of the coalition. “At worst, it's an attempt to drive conservative Christians out of the public square.”

America was founded on principles of human rights and human dignity influenced by Christianity, Closson argues. Most of the founding fathers were Christian. Since it remains the largest faith in the country, the U.S. could be fairly described as a Christian nation. Patriotism shouldn’t be something Christians are ashamed of, Closson said.

Ralph Drollinger, who leads a weekly White House Bible study, said in an online statement in May that the term Christian nationalist is being used by secular journalists and left-leaning activists to instill fear in voters that right-leaning Christians want a theocracy or a church-controlled state, which isn’t true, he says.

“For a Public Servant to be genuinely labeled a Christian Nationalist, it would necessitate that person be in favor of replacing America’s present democratic form of governance with something else — where Christians hold all the power,” Drollinger wrote. “It then follows that a Christian who desires NOT to change the existing form of the government is not a Christian Nationalist! Many, however, are the believers in office who are pursuing the objective of maturing in Christ so as to better represent Christ and His teachings IN THE EXISTING GOVERNMENT STRUCTURE. It follows that such are not theocratic-craving Christian Nationalists!”

Overlapping concepts

As other terms like white nationalism and white supremacy have grown more prominent in political discourse, concepts like white nationalism and Christian nationalism are often conflated. That’s partly because they overlap, said Jessie Daniels, a sociologist at Hunter College who studies white supremacist movements online.

In the early days of the Ku Klux Klan, Protestant identity was an assumed part of membership. Catholics were excluded and hated, partly because so many were immigrants. That started to change in the late 1970s when people like David Duke began to modernize the Klan. Catholics became more accepted only as Christian identity diminished in the movement, replaced by whiteness.

The white supremacy movement further diverged from Christian identity because of people like Tom Metzger, founder of White Aryan Resistance. He was an atheist and was explicitly anti-Christian, believing that the religion duped white people into a false consciousness that made them less aware of white supremacy’s ideals and interests.

White supremacy and Christian nationalism have continued to diverge in some ways in recent years. The most ardent white supremacist groups are actually anti-theist, neo-pagan or atheist, following atheist leaders like Richard Spencer. 

At the same time, Daniels thinks that the political and cultural phenomenon of “Trumpism” blends aspects of Christianity with white supremacy. White Protestants are the target audience for the president’s rhetoric, particularly his anti-immigrant statements, she said.

Of course, many Christian conservatives have said they “settled” for Trump rather than support him simply because he’s reliable on the moral and political issues they care most about, like reducing abortions.

Christian nationalist support for Trump

In a report published last year, a team of researchers identified Christian nationalism as a strong predictor of support for Trump in the 2016 election. It defined the term more loosely as a “unique and independent ideology that can influence political actions by calling forth a defense of mythological narratives about America’s distinctively Christian heritage and future.”

Andrew Whitehead, an associate professor of sociology at Clemson University and one of the study’s authors, said that voters’ support for Trump was highest among people who believe Christianity belongs at the core of America’s identity and leadership. It was a stronger predictor than economic dissatisfaction, sexism, anti-black prejudice or anti-immigrant sentiment, features often said to have played a large role in voter support for Trump.

At the same time, his study states that “this brand of religious nationalism appears to be unmoored from traditional Christian ideals and morality, and also tends toward authoritarian figures and righteous indignation.”  

It creates a social order that designates who are insiders and outsiders, Whitehead said. He cautioned against ascribing the ideology to the shooters in the El Paso and Dayton attacks before their motives are thoroughly investigated. A religious motivation was more apparent in the synagogue attack in California, he noted.

“Where Christian nationalism really matters is in the discourse around these shootings,” Whitehead said. When people direct the conversation away from gun control legislation and instead propose a reclaiming of the country’s morality or Christianity, it’s the ideology in action, he said.

One of his report’s conclusions is that it serves a practical purpose for white Christians. Theirs is a demographic in decline, and anxious about what its loss of dominance will mean. Christian nationalism is a cultural creation that will remain a “powerful political force for years, and elections, to come,” he said.

Patriotism or nationalism?

If the debate about what Christian nationalism is, or whether it exists, inevitably leads to the intent of the country’s founding, history doesn’t uncomplicate things. John Fea, a historian at Messiah College, wrote the book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? 

“It’s a complicated question, but largely it’s a very hard case to make that the founding fathers of this country wanted to privilege Christianity over all other religions,” Fea said.

Demographically, Christianity certainly was dominant well into the 19th century, and it did shape the culture, he said. It is still the largest religion. Yet legal bulwarks against its codification in public life were part of the nation’s founding. The First Amendment is clear that there is to be no established religion, and Article 5 of the Constitution prohibits any religious test for those serving in government. 

Richard Gamble, a historian at Hillsdale College, said opposing views of Christianity’s role in public life actually share a key characteristic. “Both sides of the debate have understandings of Christianity that are very politicized,” he said.

What used to be a debate about how churches engage in politics has given way to a broad consensus that churches must take an active role in society. Historically, there was a louder argument for staying focused on maintaining religious traditions. 

Gamble points to the Civil War as a watershed moment in that conversation. His book, A Fiery Gospel: The Battle Hymn of the Republic and the Road to Righteous War, examines how the song merged theology with politics. It was during that period when churches began flying American flags on their roofs, he said.

Such displays of patriotism were a major departure from the idea that religion transcended national boundaries, Gamble said. It shocked people.

Fast forward to today, when high-profile pastors like Robert Jeffress hold elaborate Independence Day celebrations in their churches, endorse candidates and sing the National Anthem with their congregations as if it were a hymn. 

Both politically liberal and conservative churches share a strong desire to be relevant and engaged with their society, which pits them against each other in what each side sees as a battle for the soul of the country, Gamble said.

“Both care more about having a correct vision of America than having a correct understanding of theology,” he said.

That pushes aside perspectives like Gamble’s, who is Orthodox Presbyterian. Though he might share a given pastor’s theology, an American flag in that pastor’s church would offend Gamble’s notion of religion as a spiritual practice.

Gamble’s view turns the debate on its axis. His argument is ecclesiastical - church-based - rather than political. If Christian conservative gains in the public sphere represent a threat to left-leaning church leaders, and liberal opposition to those gains are of primary concern to right-leaning church leaders, it puts them all in conflict with a theologically conservative position against political activism. 

It can create a somewhat paradoxical position for those who worry that mixing politics into religion diminishes the true purpose of spiritual practice.

“I can sound like the people signing the declaration,” Gamble said. “But I’m doing it for distinctive theological reasons and ecclesiastical reasons.”