What Exactly Do the Christian Nationalists Want? 

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: A man dressed as Uncle Sam, whos a regular attendee of events held by former President Donald Trump, stops to pray near community faith leaders during a vigil on the second anniversary of... WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: A man dressed as Uncle Sam, whos a regular attendee of events held by former President Donald Trump, stops to pray near community faith leaders during a vigil on the second anniversary of the January 6 attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2023 in Washington, DC. Speakers called for an end to Christian nationalism and denounced political violence. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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Over the past month, I’ve been speaking with people who describe themselves as Christian nationalists, with Christians who are vehemently opposed to that movement, and with those who seem to agree with its overall aims but dislike the term. 

Christian nationalism has become an umbrella term for people who generally agree that the American nation should be defined by a certain strain of Christianity, and who want to see the government take aggressive action to uphold the social mores that come from that. 

Christian nationalists overlap in their policy goals with the familiar, Christian right activists of previous decades, which means they often support policies that have long been mainstays of the Republican Party’s social agenda — restricting abortion access, adding more religion to public schools in various forms, banning federal support for gender-affirming health. But public statements from Christian nationalists, conversations with them, and their behavior when in power suggests less that they’re after a specific list of Christian-influenced policy items — instead, it is a broader approach to public life: one focused on obtaining power and using it to both instruct and shape the behavior of American society in accordance with specific, hardline interpretations of Christianity on which they believe the country was founded. 

The universe of Christian social conservatives who embrace Christian nationalism as a label is broad, and extends from more studied, experienced professionals like Trump-era acting OMB Director Russ Vought to a coterie of Ignatius Reilly-esque quasi-medievalist figures who theorize the eventual ascent of a “Christian Prince” to power. 

They, and the “Christian nationalism” label, have gained currency in recent years. Donald Trump has embraced messianic language in his campaign appearances; the recent Alabama Supreme Court IVF ruling sparked accusations of “Christian nationalism” after a concurrence invoked the Ten Commandments, the Book of Genesis, and medieval theologians to support the opinion that embryos are “extrauterine children.” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) described herself as a “Christian nationalist” in 2022, signaling that the term, once largely used by those examining the movement from the outside, had become familiar to — and had been appropriated by — a segment of the MAGA right. 

The agenda on tap is broadly unpopular. But it reflects the reality of how America has changed in recent decades: Christian hegemony has declined along with church attendance. Same-sex marriage exists and has been upheld by the court; banning abortion has been quickly recognized as a political liability for the GOP.

What Christian nationalism offers instead is an approach to enacting that same old Christian-right social conservatism that’s rooted in a more muscular, aggressive approach to the use of federal power. If a previous generation of the Christian right would have preferred their children to be home-schooled; the Christian nationalists may want to see government-funded chaplains in schools. 

At its core is a deeply held, manichean belief that there’s no such thing as a neutral, secular public square — only competing religions that shape public morality — and that America cannot last in its current social form.

William Wolfe, a former Trump administration appointee and current head of the Center for Baptist Leadership who embraces the term, framed it to TPM in similar terms.

“The New Christian Right unapologetically argues for laws based upon the natural law and an explicitly Christian moral framework, acknowledging that all laws ‘legislate morality,’” he said in a statement. “And if America is going to endure, the morality that we need is a Christian one.”

‘We’ve Been Too Secular’

What’s drawn attention more than anything else is the growing sense that Christian nationalism could inform the agenda for a second Trump term. 

It’s come up in a few ways. Project 2025, one proposed agenda for a second Trump term, includes abortion restrictions, the curtailment of federal funding for gender transition treatment, and, in a ploy to attract labor, congressional action on “Sabbath Rest,” requiring employers to pay time and a half for work done on the sabbath. The proposal leaves it up to the employer — not the employee — to decide when the Sabbath is, saying that it would default to Sunday “except for employers with a sincere religious observance of a Sabbath at a different time.”

Russ Vought, the former Trump OMB director, appears most frequently in conversations about the link between Christian nationalism and a second Trump term. As head of the Center for Renewing America, a think tank formed in 2021, Vought has played an influential role in crafting potential policies for a second Trump term — earlier, as OMB chief, he played a key role towards the end of the Trump administration in implementing them. 

Vought laid out his vision for immigration restriction last year in explicitly Christian nationalist terms, and has endorsed the label. Last month, he told Charlie Kirk in a podcast episode titled “Why ‘Christian Nationalist’ should be a compliment” that “as a country, we’ve been too secular.”

Vought added that Christianity, in his view, should define the American nation — “Christian nation-ism would probably be the most accurate aspect of what I believe.” 

Wolfe, the former Trump appointee who was a visiting fellow at Vought’s Center for Renewing America, appeared in a Politico article this year in part for his advocacy for hardline policies like an end to same-sex marriage, the banning of abortion, and an end to federal support for gender transition. 

He doubled down on those ideas to TPM, and cast the Christian nationalist agenda in broad terms.

“All of politics is about the acquisition of power; the question is to what ends will that power be used?” Wolfe told TPM. “We want to see bold, virtuous leaders who rightly use the levers of power in this nation to promote the good, the true, and the beautiful and to unapologetically defend America’s Christian heritage and the necessity of a Christian foundation for a free and functioning society.”

A Christian Prince

The starting belief for many Christian nationalists is the idea that secularism isn’t incorrect so much as nonexistent. 

The term of art among evangelicals is the “public square,” referring to society and politics — what exists outside of the home and the church. One story you hear from Christian nationalists goes something like this: for the longest time, Americans were sold a bill of goods. They could have secular public schools and practice their religion at home with no offense or impingement on their own beliefs. 

That’s wrong, the thinking goes. Instead, the public square has not been neutral, but has been dominated by liberal, quasi-religious thought — that’s what’s led to same-sex marriage, abortion, declining church attendance, and higher divorce rates. 

As a correction, two things are needed: First, Americans must recognize that we’ve been living with a public square dominated by legal, moral, and religious values all along. Second, Americans armed with that new understanding must ask themselves: What religion-based moral and legal system will dominate it?

This view has a history. In the 1980s, Christian conservatives on the fringe argued that the promulgation of what the right labeled “secular humanism” in public schools violated the separation between church and state. This non-religion, they sought to argue, was a form of religion. 

Today, the argument lingers in various ways. It undergirds Vought’s view that federal policy could make the country less secular, and also comes out from the fringe thinkers who have promulgated these ideas long before they made it into Trumpworld. 

One pastor who has been influential on the fringe in spreading this view is Doug Wilson of Moscow, Idaho. Wilson appeared at an event with Vought last year, and told TPM that “the secular experiment told us that there was such a thing as neutrality in this realm, and I don’t believe there is.”

And though other Christian nationalists like to cite him, Wilson may remain relegated to the fringe in part because of his other views: he’s written that “sodomy is worse than slavery” and that abortion is “at least as great an evil as slavery was.” 

But Wilson’s overriding view — that the pluralist status quo has allowed a secular religion to infest the public square — has come out in other ways, as well. In 2022, Stephen Wolfe (no relation to William) published a book called “The Case for Christian Nationalism.” The book was published by Canon Press, a publishing house that began as a ministry of Wilson’s church. Stephen K. Bannon, the Trump adviser, reportedly had a copy of the book stacked on his table. 

In the book, Wolfe lays out a vision that veers very far into the fantastic — he rails against the advancement of women over the past several decades by using the term “gynocracy,” and describes both the Obergefell decision and the 1965 immigration reform which abolished quotas on national origin as an “imperial imposition.” One chapter, called “The Christian Prince,” advocates for a “measured and theocratic caesarism.” Wolfe has suggested that he’s playing a somewhat coy game here, using “prince” to refer not necessarily to a monarch, but possibly to the aggregate form of American governmental power. Whatever it is, in his version of Christian nationalism the prince would promote “national self-love and a manly, moral liberty.”

“The prince can adorn himself and his residence with Christian symbols, as crosses were once painted on royal armor and portraits of monarchs with scepters and crosses,” he wrote. “The point is that the Christian prince should exercise his power to secure and supplement Christian civil and material culture and do everything in this power to make his people’s culture, as a whole, Christian.” 

Playing the Media

The agenda here dramatically departs from the country’s recent history. Even if it’s not Stephen Wolfe’s “Christian Prince” with scepters and crosses, what’s being proposed is a sweeping expansion of federal power to explicitly ground unpopular, socially conservative goals in Christian rhetoric, to the exclusion not only of other faiths — but of many who would describe themselves as Christian. 

To achieve this, Christian nationalists like to conflate their view of the world with that of broader, less controversial Christian politics. They emphasize right-wing messaging which accentuates opposition to progressivism while conflating the exclusionary parts of the agenda with policy items that are relatively common among conservatives. 

Wolfe, for example, wrote to TPM that “Evangelical Christians believe that America should be a sovereign nation that promotes Christian virtues, respects the biological reality of the binary nature of sex, passes just laws, and respects the Christian founding of our country, and the freedom of religion for Christians that extends beyond just our churches but carries with us into the public square, government, and places of business.” 

Amanda Tyler is a Baptist who disagrees with the Christian nationalist agenda. She’s a Baptist who heads the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Freedom, a faith-based non-profit that advocates for religious freedom. There, she founded a campaign called Christians Against Christian Nationalism in 2019 — a few years before the term was picked up by the mass media.

She regards the Christian nationalist agenda as partly a “recognition of a loss of privilege,” and a threat to the religious freedom that her group fights to protect. 

“We’ve never fully protected religious freedom in this country, but we have made attempts to do so in a way that has allowed genuine religious diversity to flourish in this country. And the outcome of that through immigration, through freedom, through the fact that people aren’t forced to adhere to a given religion, has meant that those who once held a strong majority position in all places have lost some of that.”

“And I do think that that sense of loss often drives fear and then drives a sense of wanting to retain it at all costs,” she added. 

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