How "Christian" is Christian Nationalism?Historians in the News
tags: far right, Christianity, evangelicalism, Christian Nationalism
Seven years ago, during the Republican Presidential primary, Donald Trump appeared onstage at Dordt University, a Christian institution in Iowa, and made a confession of faith. “I’m a true believer,” he said, and he conducted an impromptu poll. “Is everybody a true believer, in this room?” He was scarcely the first Presidential candidate to make a religious appeal, but he might have been the first one to address Christian voters so explicitly as a special interest. “You have the strongest lobby ever,” he said. “But I never hear about a ‘Christian lobby.’ ” He made his audience a promise. “If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power,” he said. “You’re going to have somebody representing you very, very well.”
By the time Trump reluctantly left office, in 2021, his relationship with evangelical Christians was one of the most powerful alliances in American politics. (According to one survey, he won eighty-four per cent of the white evangelical vote in 2020.) On January 6th, when his supporters gathered in Washington to protest the election results, one person brought along a placard depicting Jesus wearing a maga hat; during the Capitol invasion, a shirtless protester delivered a prayer on the Senate floor. “Thank you for filling this chamber with patriots that love you, and that love Christ,” he said.
The events of January 6th bolstered a growing belief that the alliance between Trump and his Christian supporters had become something more like a movement, a pro-Trump uprising with a distinctive ideology. This ideology is sometimes called “Christian nationalism,” a description that often functions as a diagnosis. On a recent episode of “revcovery,” a podcast about leaving Christian ministry, Justin Gentry, one of the hosts, suggested that the belief system was somewhat obscure even to its own adherents. “I think that, spitballing, seventy per cent of Christian nationalists don’t know that they’re Christian nationalists,” he said. “They’re just, like, ‘This is normal Christianity, from the time of Jesus.’ ”
In contemporary America, though, the practice of Christianity is starting to seem abnormal. Measures of religious observance in America have shown a steep decrease over the past quarter century. In 1999, Gallup found that seventy per cent of Americans belonged to a church, a synagogue, or a mosque. In 2020, the number was forty-seven per cent—for the first time in nearly a hundred years of polling, worshippers were the minority. This changing environment helps explain the militance that is one of the defining features of Christian nationalism. It is a minority movement, espousing a claim that might not have seemed terribly controversial a few decades ago: that America is, and should remain, a Christian nation.
Anyone looking for a charter of American Christian nationalism might begin in 1630, the year John Winthrop, the future governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, delivered his speech comparing the settlement to a “city upon a hill,” in “covenant” with God, serving as a beacon to “all people.” (The famous phrase came from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.”) In the eighteenth century, arguments for American independence were often cast in religious terms. Congregationalists, who structured their churches around ideals of self-governance and free conscience, were particularly influential: Jonathan Mayhew, a Congregational minister in Boston, published a sermon in 1750 in which he denounced the “tyranny and oppression” of Charles I, the former king. (One of Charles’s transgressions: “He authorized a book in favor of sports upon the Lord’s day”; on this front, anyway, America is indisputably less Christian than it used to be.) And in November, 1777, the Continental Congress issued a message of wartime commemoration and gratitude—it is sometimes considered the first Thanksgiving proclamation—which extolled “the Principles of true Liberty, Virtue, and Piety.” There is a certain tension, of course, between the principle of liberty and that of piety: in 1791, the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibited the “establishment of religion” by the new federal government, but Massachusetts did not officially break with the Congregational Church until 1833.
Then, as now, Christian identity in America was often tribal—which is to say, anti-tribal. In a fascinating book called “Heathen,” the religious historian Kathryn Gin Lum suggests that, in many times and places, the divide between Christian and “heathen” was the central divide in American life. The original British colonies were sometimes taken to be efforts to promote the “propagation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ amongst those poor heathen,” as a 1649 act of Parliament declared. The term could justify both exclusion and engagement: the scourge of heathenism was later adduced as a reason to oppose Chinese immigration to California, and to support the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands. But “heathen” is an unstable identity, because it denotes a condition that ought to be cured. A heathen is someone who has not yet been exposed to and converted to Christianity.