Christian nationalism has been all over the news lately, but it is neither a new term nor a new phenomenon in American politics. The label gained greater usage during former President Donald Trump’s presidency because of his mobilization of the Christian right around his strongman politics. Interest in the ideology — and the term — grew even more following the January 6 insurrection, where Christian nationalist rhetoric and symbols were on full display, sometimes violently. As Trump acolytes Michael Flynn and Roger Stone enthrall crowds with their Christian nationalist “Reawaken America” tour, and Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano fuses Trump’s stolen election lie with Christian nationalism, its threat to democracy has never been more vividly apparent.
Many on the Christian right have long rejected the term, but Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has embraced it, and even started selling “Proud Christian Nationalist” t-shirts. “I am being attacked by the godless left because I said I’m a proud Christian Nationalist,” she tweeted in response to criticism. “They hate America, they hate God, and they hate us.”
Although Greene made it more popular, not all Christian nationalists wear the label on their sleeve, or a t-shirt. So how can you tell who is a Christian nationalist?
The Christian Founding Mythology
Christian nationalists believe that God had a “providential hand” in America’s founding. They contend that, carrying out God’s will, the founders intended America to be a “Christian nation.” They insist, falsely, that the founding documents prove both this intent and that the separation of church and state is a “myth.” God also intended government to play a limited role in people’s lives, they assert — but to the extent government carries out its functions, it should be done from a “biblical worldview.” That is why, in the Christian nationalist view, Christians should run for office, and voters should support them, so that America will be freed from what they claim is the anti-Christian overreach of a secular government.
The leading proponent of this revisionist history undergirding contemporary Christian nationalism is David Barton, a prolific writer and energetic speaker whose false and misleading claims about this history have been thoroughly debunked by historians and researchers. Nonetheless, his extensive writings and lectures maintain a kind of doctrinal status within the religious right. Barton first made national headlines in 2004 when the Republican National Committee hired him as a political consultant during the presidential campaign to mobilize evangelical pastors and their flocks. Today, he remains an influential fixture in Christian right circles through his extensive writings, lectures, radio show, and other programs produced by his WallBuilders organization.
The impact of the perpetuation of this ideology is clear. A recent poll by the University of Maryland found that 61 percent of Republicans support officially declaring the United States a Christian nation. That number is far higher — 78 percent — among Republicans who identify as evangelical or born-again.
Restoration and Dominionism
A corollary of the Christian nation founding myth is that if the founders were carrying out God’s will, then any erosion of America’s “Christian heritage” must be fought by patriotic Christians who seek to rescue America from ungodly forces and “restore” it to its Christian foundation. Based on claims that the Bible calls on Christians to “take dominion” over earthly institutions, Christian nationalists contend that it is the duty of Christians to run for office and seek political and judicial appointments to ensure the government crafts law and policy from a “biblical worldview.”
In nearly two decades of reporting on the Christian right, I have seen this directive manifest itself in myriad ways: activists engaging in “spiritual warfare” and vetting political candidates, evangelical pastors mobilizing “to restore America to her Judeo-Christian heritage”, candidates running for president to Christianize government, governors holding mega-prayer rallies in professional basketball stadiums — all building toward the movement attempting to foment a coup. Greene’s call for the GOP to “lean into biblical principles” showed how the decades-long quest to elect “biblical worldview” representatives continues to bear fruit, and in increasingly radical ways.
A key element of this dominionist vision is the claim that Christians are persecuted by social, cultural, political, and legal changes that they claim have undermined the Christian nation. Much of the supposed subversion of Christian heritage and values, and the attendant claimed persecution, stems from both conspiratorial thinking about political adversaries and apocalyptic claims about their ambitions. From the Cold War to the present, perceived enemies of the Christian nation have included Communism, Marxism, socialism, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., mainline Protestantism, atheism, secular humanism, feminism, abortion rights, the “homosexual agenda,” Islam, political correctness, President Barack Obama, “gender ideology,” COVID mitigation policies, the “deep state,” critical race theory, and “wokeness.” Many of these figures, beliefs, and policies might ostensibly have little in common, but they are imagined as conspiring to form a single movement to undermine America — as Greene put it in her tweet, the “godless left.”
In practical legal and political terms, these persecution claims, litigated in the courts and in the court of public opinion by well-funded lawyers and activists, have led to cataclysmic erosions of church-state separation, the reversal of Roe v. Wade, ongoing assaults on LGBTQ rights, and the accompanying elevation of religious freedom rights — for right-wing Christians.
Subversions of church-state separation, and the imposition of fundamentalist religion to deprive others of their civil and constitutional rights, are in and of themselves signs of a democracy in danger. But since the 2020 election, the Christian right’s embrace of Trump’s stolen election lie — fueled by the belief that Trump is a savior of the Christian nation — has contributed to direct threats to the electoral process itself. Sixty percent of white evangelicals believe the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.
The QAnon movement, which claims that a deep state cabal of satanic pedophiles is running a secret sex trafficking ring inside the government and seeks to drive Trump out of power, is not just a conspiracy theory. It is another means of energizing right-wing white Christian voters, who have been steeped in this kind of conspiracism for decades, to take extreme steps to “save” the Christian nation that (they believe) Trump has so ardently defended. Polling by the Public Religion Research Institute has found that QAnon adherents “express strong Christian nationalist beliefs,” with 71 percent agreeing with the statement that “God has granted America a special role in human history,” and 55 percent saying they believe being a Christian is “at least somewhat important to being a ‘true American.’”
Finally: Is Donald Trump A Christian Nationalist?
The Bible is just a prop for Donald Trump, and, like autocrats throughout history, he uses religion and religious leaders to consolidate the support of enraptured followers. It doesn’t really matter whether Trump himself is a Christian nationalist, since he is a salvific figure to Christian nationalists, one who can achieve their long-sought goals by crushing the “godless left” and giving them more power. One of the leading contenders to be Trump’s successor, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, is abusing his current office to engage in fascistic crackdowns on migrants, public education, and LGBTQ kids while making direct Christian nationalist appeals. In recent political speeches, DeSantis has been using a verse from Ephesians 6 (“Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes”), but with a notable substitution: instead of “the devil’s,” he has said “the left’s.” The meaning is not lost on evangelical audiences, who are well familiar with the actual words of the verse.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the 2024 GOP presidential primary will be a competition to choose not just the party’s standard bearer, but its Christian nationalist battle commander as well.