On ‘Christian Nationalism’: an Essay in Five Parts

1. Fear of a Christian Nation

The term “Christian Nationalism” has been trending on Twitter over the last several days, but it has been circulating in the culture for much longer than that. I first encountered it several years ago, before I was Orthodox, when I signed a statement called “Christians against Christian Nationalism.” At that time, “Christian Nationalism” seemed to give a name to something that had existed for decades: the idea, prevalent among American Evangelicals, that not only was the United States a Christian nation with a unique mission from God (something Americans have believed since the beginning), but that correct Christian belief was more or less coterminous with right-wing ideology and conservative policies.

For years, we’ve told ourselves a story about how conservative Christianity came to dominate American politics that went something like this:

Sometime in the late 1970s, Evangelicals in the U.S. committed themselves to a version of Christianity that was simpatico with the neoliberal ideology of the modern Republican Party. Before the late ’70s, Evangelical Protestants had been at best ambivalent about abortion. In 1976, they were happy to support a fellow Evangelical, Democrat Jimmy Carter, for the president. But as 1970s feminism challenged traditional gender roles and as the gay rights movement gained visibility, Evangelicals grew more culturally conservative. At the same time, Catholic views on abortion began to infiltrate and influence conservative Protestant clergy. Meanwhile, the Republican Party, which was already taking a rightward turn, began to realize that Evangelicals constituted a huge segment of the population and, because they were already organized in little (or not-so-little) communities called “churches,” they could be mobilized without much effort. A perfect storm.

By the late 1980s, to be an Evangelical was to vote Republican; to oppose gay rights, abortion rights, and feminism; to view the culture and the media with suspicion; and to view the Founding Fathers as a combination of Ronald Reagan and Billy Graham. The line between Christianity and patriotism had been blurry throughout American history, but rarely had American religion been so partisan. Even issues that seemed unrelated to Christian faith became religious issues. Being an Evangelical in the 1980s meant that you held conservative views on abortion and gay rights and that you rejected tax increases and supported the apartheid regime in South Africa. The Republican Party had captured the Evangelical Church.

We all basically know this story. At the end of this post, I’ll discuss how historians of conservatism have begun challenging this story, but for now, let’s stick with it.

I grew up within this political milieu in the 1990s, by which time Evangelicals had consolidated power within the Republican Party. The large Pentecostal church I attended had three flags near the altar: the “Christian flag,” the Israeli flag, and the American flag. This probably struck visitors from mainline Protestant denominations as a little…weird. To me, it felt totally natural. The only time you heard someone criticize the United States, it was to criticize American culture, to bemoan the damned secularism and godlessness that was apparently rampant during the Clinton years. We needed God in America again.

The Christian flag (bottom)

Flash forward twenty years. Liberals had been fretting about Evangelical’s theocratic tendencies since the 1980s and up through the George W. Bush years, when God Himself apparently advocated for the invasion of Iraq. Sometime after Trump’s election, they started using the phrase “Christian Nationalism.” This new term described Trump’s politics, which openly embraced right-wing nationalism and depended on a large constituency of self-identified (if not necessarily churchgoing) Evangelical voters. Of course, very little had actually changed within among Evangelicals who did attend church—they had voted exclusively for Republicans ever since Reagan, and Trump proved to be no exception, whatever his personal morality. None of this should have surprised anyone. “Christian Nationalism” was nothing new.

But to me, something seemed different. For decades, despite their innate weirdness, Evangelicals and conservative Catholics had presented themselves as ordinary, salt-of-the-earth Americans. They called themselves the “Moral Majority,” evoking Richard Nixon’s “Great Silent Majority” of quiet, middle-class centrists. With this came a pretense of what I’ll call “respectability”—a problematic term, I know, but useful in this context. But by 2020, Evangelicals appeared to prefer Donald Trump over more conventionally Evangelical politicians like Mike Pence. And not only did they get behind Trump and the MAGA movement, they also made up a disproportionate number of QAnon conspiracists. Their conception of “middle-class respectability” had drifted far to the to the fringes of American culture. They no longer even pretended to occupy the normative center. This wasn’t your father’s Moral Majority.

Last Friday, the Religious News Service (RNS) published an article entitled “Republicans keep mostly mum on calls to make GOP ‘party of Christian nationalism.’” The article’s author, Jack Jenkins, wrote:

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia has spent much of the summer calling on her fellow Republicans to become the “party of Christian nationalism,” even selling T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Proud Christian nationalist.” Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference’s meeting in Texas Aug. 5, she said the Christian nationalism label is nothing to be “ashamed” of and encouraged other members of her party to “lean in to biblical principles.”

Two other Republican politicians have disputed the principle of the separation of church and state. In late June Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert, speaking at the Cornerstone Christian Center in Basalt, Colorado, proclaimed she is “tired of the separation of church and state junk that’s not in the Constitution.” Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano referred to church-state separation as a “myth” in a speech earlier this year.

Elizabeth Neumann, who resigned from the Trump administration in April 2020 after serving as assistant secretary of counterterrorism and threat prevention at the Department of Homeland Security, attributed Republicans’ reticence about Christian nationalism partly to a shift under President Trump that legitimized allegiance to Christian nationalist ideas as a pillar of Republicanism.

“Trump said in a 2018 speech that he’s a nationalist, so if you’re a really big Trump supporter, then think of yourself as a nationalist, too,” Neumann said. “So the idea that you’re merging Christian values with nationalism, it’s not a big leap.”

As a result, she added, “Elected officials are afraid of their base.” 

Her view is supported by a 2021 Pew Research survey, in which “Faith and Flag Conservatives” — a category Pew researchers call the organization’s attempt to assess hardline Christian nationalist views — make up 23% of those who identify themselves as Republican or lean toward the party. Faith and Flag Conservatives also reported the highest political activity of any conservative group, suggesting an outsize influence on GOP politics, likely including party primaries.

The Jenkins article got a lot of attention on Twitter, which is probably why the term “Christian Nationalism” was trending. I’ll post a few of the tweets I saw, beginning with Jenkins’s own thread:

Those are the most informative and useful tweets I found in the recent Twitter storm over “Christian Nationalism.” The less useful, more representative tweets consisted of virtue-signaling: hand-wringing liberals declaring that “Christian Nationalism contradicts the teachings of Jesus!” and stuff like that. I’ll discuss those tweets, and my problems with them, below. Suffice it to say, liberals have always been afraid of ferociously patriotic Evangelicals, and that fear is especially acute right.

In the sections that follow, I reflect on the American Evangelicalism and their liberal opponents. Who are Evangelicals today? Have they changed over time and, if so, why? Is “Christian Nationalism” actually Christian? Let’s consider those questions carefully.

2. The Fire-eaters and the Kingmakers

From what I can tell, most so-called “Christian Nationalists” are either a) rowdy, Trump-supporting MAGAites who have re-discovered their own Christianity or b) traditional, churchgoing Evangelicals who have come around to supporting the rowdy MAGA scene. Some have speculated that these two groups began to merge within the Tea Party movement. Back then, many conservatives discovered for the first time that crowding the streets, dressing up in stupid costumes, chanting stupid slogans, and waving racist signs was…kind of fun. At the very least, it really triggered liberals, and that was fun, too. Trump himself said, “The Tea Party still exists—except now it’s called Make America Great Again.”

But alongside the MAGAites and the Evangelicals, there are two other groups that fascinate me. One is far-right extremists who are beginning to embrace views that really do look and sound like “Christian Nationalism.” Some of these extremists openly flirt with neo-Nazism, but most disguise otherwise fascist views in layers of intellectual gobbledygook. I would call this group the Fire-eaters (a name I stole from a radical proto-Confederate collective). The second are political cynics: mainstream Republicans and wealthy Republican donors who support rabid MAGAites like Marjorie Taylor Greene. These powerful and wealthy Kingmakers seem willing to fund MAGA politicians on purely cynical grounds. They hope the MAGAites will advance policies that have nothing to do with Christianity or nationalism but everything to do with preserving their own power and their own wealth.

First, let’s talk about the Fire-eaters. I’m particularly struck by a passage from Jenkins’s article, quoted below, which details how far-right extremists and ethno-nationalists who were previously unaffiliated with Christianity of any kind have suddenly begun to adopt Christian identities. I noticed this trend in my own circle of conservative friends and acquaintances. Libertarianism was always a haven for secular-minded conservatives, but now my onetime libertarian friends—the kind of folks who vociferously defended the decriminalization of weed—are identifying as culturally conservative Christians. The more intellectual among them are flirting with Catholicism and toying with ideas like shifting the entire social safety net toward Catholic welfare programs and criminalizing pornography. Jenkins writes:

In the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, right-wing figures such as Andrew Torba, head of the social media website Gab, a haven for extremists, and Nick Fuentes, the leader of America First, began ramping up their religious rhetoric and identifying as Christian nationalists.

Torba, who has feuded with Jewish groups over allegations of antisemitism, made headlines last month by saying Jewish people and non-Christians are not welcome in his vision for American conservatism, which he described as “an explicitly Christian movement because this is an explicitly Christian country.”

In a recent email exchange with Religion News Service, Torba claimed he is preparing to unveil a new book on Christian nationalism titled “Christian Nationalism: A Biblical Guide For Taking Dominion And Discipling Nations,” saying the book would be “distributed by us to every church in the nation,” though he did not name a publisher and declined to list a release date.

Mastriano made use of Gab during his primary campaign, reportedly paying the platform $5,000 for “campaign consulting.” Torba has disputed the characterization, describing the transaction as more of an ad buy. Mastriano has since deleted his Gab account from the platform, saying Torba “doesn’t speak for me,” and condemned antisemitism while declining to condemn Torba himself.

Meanwhile, Greene spoke alongside Torba and others at Fuentes’ AFPAC conference in Florida, where she opened her remarks by invoking her faith.

Fuentes, who is Catholic, declared his desire in June to “impose Christian laws on everyone” in the U.S.; he insists “there should only be Christian countries” and has celebrated the idea of a “Catholic Taliban rule in America.”

Greene maintains she doesn’t know Fuentes and wasn’t aware of his views when she spoke at his conference. But her rhetoric seems to have emboldened extremist voices such as Fuentes, who lauded her invocation of Christian nationalism.

“That’s the first time that I’ve ever heard a politician really say something that on the money about where the American right wing needs to go,” he said in a recent livestream, referring to Greene’s remarks.

Torba, for his part, has continued to convey both avid support for Christian nationalism and a desire to influence Republican politics.

“We are the GOP now,” Torba wrote on Gab this week. “Get used to it or get out of the way.”

Perhaps this radical turn shouldn’t surprise us, given the prominence figures like Steve Bannon and Jordan Peterson, who have popularized far-right interpretations of Christianity with an intellectual veneer. Meanwhile, if you spend much time on YouTube, you’ll discover an entire ecosystem of right-wing Christians who interpret their faith through the lens of radically traditionalist (“radtrad”), Eurocentric Catholicism, sometimes with a little Reformed Protestantism thrown in for good measure. Nostalgia for “Christendom” abounds. I noted in a previous post how some young people are adopting traditional Catholic aesthetics as a reactionary gesture. In Appalachia, a not-insignificant number of former Baptists are converting to an ultra-conservative branch of Russian Orthodoxy. The journal First Things seems more relevant and more extreme than ever. Meanwhile, weird crypto-monarchists like Peter Thiel—who, in an interview for the Hoover Institution’s Uncommon Knowledge program, called the 18th-century European Enlightenment a mistake—are funding an entire intellectual and cultural program that will, they hope, give credibility to whatever this whole “Christian Nationalist” thing is.

As you’d expect, the Fire-eaters are willing to take their ideas to some pretty dark places. Jenkins’s article was not the only one making the rounds this week. Former FoxNews commentator Juan Williams published his concerns about the rise of Christian Nationalist rhetoric, calling attention to its anti-Semitism:

“We’re not bending the knee to the two percent anymore,” said Andrew Torba, founder of the right-wing-friendly social platform Gab, referring to Jewish people in the United States.

Gab is characterized by CNN as “a haven for QAnon conspiracies, misinformation and antisemitic commentary.” The platform was paid a “consulting” fee by Doug Mastriano, the Republican running for governor in Pennsylvania. 

Mastriano downplays his ties to Toba. He has said, “I reject anti-Semitism in any form”. But he has campaigned by pledging that “we are going to take our state back, my God will make it so.” 

His talk about his “God” is particularly chilling because Mastriano’s Democratic opponent in the gubernatorial race is Josh Shapiro, who is Jewish.  

If you think anti-Semitism would make power brokers like Mitch McConnell and the billionaire class of Republican donors uncomfortable, think again. Since at least 2014, and certainly since Trump came to office, McConnell has worn his cynicism like a badge on honor, using the MAGA movement to solidify his own grip on power. As for the wealthy donors: yesterday, Nicholas Powers of Truthout examined the impressive financial backing that so-called Christian Nationalists receive from major donors. Many of these donors are not interested in Christian Nationalism but, like the Marxist intellectuals who united with Islamic fundamentalists during 1979 revolution in Iran, they find an alliance with Christian Nationalists useful:

Why has the GOP carried out a draconian assault on the right to abortion, a right that a majority of people in the U.S. support? At least part of the reason is that the Republican drive for power has found Christian nationalism a useful tool. Funded by a 1 percent of megadonors and corporations, the religious right, like Frankenstein’s monster, has grown to a grotesque size. The reality is that some of the richest people and corporations in the world bankroll Christian nationalists who, in turn, attack the already limited freedoms of poor people, people of color, women and LGBTQ people in the name of God. Yet the wealthy and the politicians they pay often break the very biblical codes they make into law. Now the danger has intensified. A Republican White House, Senate, House and Supreme Court can overturn democracy and replace it with a Christian nationalist state, fueled by ultra-wealthy donors who see attacks on fundamental rights as handy tools in securing their power.

A cruel irony is in the U.S., wealthy individuals and rich corporations bankroll Christian nationalists, even when they don’t believe in religious extremism themselves. They reap the benefits of supporting Republicans in the forms of lower taxes, unregulated capitalism or promoting libertarian ideas. Depriving millions of their bodily autonomy is a small price to pay.

“I’m basically a libertarian,” David Koch told Barbara Walters in a 2014 interview. “And I’m a conservative on economic matters and I’m a social liberal.” He died that year but his and his brother Charles’s political legacy is that since the 1970s, they have donated $100 million to conservatives. The main vehicle the Koch brothers use to bankroll pet causes is the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, an organization that in 2014 gave $885,000 to CitizenLink, which itself was founded by Focus on the Family, an extremist Christian organization that opposes abortion and gay marriage. CitizenLink used part of the money for direct mail support for Republicans like Tom Cotton, who wants to restrict immigration and called for the military to patrol the streets during the George Floyd protests.

Since 2010, the Koch brothers’ nonprofit network has poured $24 million into Catholic and right-wing Christian groups like Concerned Women for America (which got $11 million) and the Susan B. Anthony List (which received $1.5 million). Both groups specifically target abortion rights. At a 1999 meeting with conservative leaders, Charles Koch said the money was intended to “rally the troops” for his economic goals.

So the Kingmakers who support so-called Christian Nationalists are profoundly hypocritical. But hypocrisy is, in my view, an ineffective charge to make against your political opponents. I don’t think it’s worthwhile to engage in the parlor game, beloved by liberals, of pointing out the inconsistencies in right-wing logic. Most of us contradict our own deeply held beliefs with other deeply held beliefs. Hypocrisy is part of the human condition, as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman understood; it is, at the very least, a feature, not a bug, of political ideology.

I am more troubled by the cynicism of the Kingmakers, and not because cynicism itself irritates me. Republican donors and men like Mitch McConnell don’t lose any sleep over their own cynicism (that’s the nature of cynicism), so accusing them of cynicism doesn’t really work. What concerns me, rather, is that political elites frequently make alliances with political extremists in order to achieve their own aims, only to have those extremists turn on them and on the rest of society. The Fire-eaters have a tendency to kill the Kingmakers. Again, look at the intellectual elites who backed the Iranian revolution in 1979…or look at the conservative backers of Hitler’s chancellorship in 1933. The outcomes of such alliances are often very, very bad.

3. “Christian Nationalism”: an oxymoron?

The majority of the tweets I’ve seen this week decry “Christian Nationalism” in strong moral terms. They claim that Christianity and nationalism are antithetical, that the term “Christian Nationalism” is itself an oxymoron. Such tweets tend to contain use the phrase “follower of Jesus” in lieu of “Christian.” This phrase suggests that there exists an “authentic Christianity,” one that adheres to the New Testament teachings of Jesus…especially teachings selected from His most oft-cited sermons in the Gospels, such as the Sermon on the Mount. These teachings contrast sharply with the teachings of the institutional Church and with politicalized Christianity. “Authentic Christianity” is, in this view, distinct from historical or institutional Christianity, which are (again, in this view) deviations from the actual teachings of Christ.

For instance:

C.S. Lewis once wrote that it’s best not to argue about whether or not someone is an “authentic Christian.” The real issue, he argued, was whether or not they are a “good Christian.” This informs my approach to “Christian Nationalism.” It’s not worth arguing that the Christian Nationalists aren’t real Christians. It’s better to focus on the obvious immorality of their politics.

You may have noticed that I’ve been putting quote marks around the term “Christian Nationalism.” I do this because I’m not convinced that the term itself is actually useful. “Christian Nationalism” sounds too much like liberal propaganda to me. The term implies that nationalist Christianity is ersatz Christianity, that it’s always inauthentic or heretical to combine Christianity with nationalism. I don’t necessarily agree.

Of course, many “Christian Nationalists” in the United States aren’t really interested in Christianity; they’re more concerned far-right ideology and with white American identity. I’ll discuss those points in the next two sections. But in this section, I want to dwell on the idea that “Christian Nationalism” is somehow heretical. This idea is, in my view, a Protestant conceit and a liberal conceit, and doesn’t reflect actual Christian doctrine or Christian history.

Let me start with the Protestant angle.

In general (and I’m speaking in very broad terms here), Protestants view the centuries of Christian history between the death of the first apostles (circa 100 CE) and the Protestant Reformation (circa 1517) as a series of wrong turns. Many Protestants, especially Evangelical Protestants, know very little about Church history between the book of Acts and the founding of their specific denomination. Growing up in an Assembly of God church, I was taught nothing about Christian history prior to the Azusa Street Revival of 1906. Occasionally I heard about the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries. Sometimes I heard the name “John Wesley.” But the centuries between the Early Church and John Wesley were a fog of misinformed, inauthentic, largely irrelevant pseudo-Christians.

If forced at gunpoint to identify the point at which the Church went astray, most Protestants would (I believe) identify the reign of Constantine the Great, the Roman emperor whose edicts legalized and then sponsored Christianity. This led to the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 CE, which made Nicene Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire. In 391, Theodosius the Great banned pagan worship throughout the empire. The paganism of antiquity, and the persecution of Christians by the Romans, was over forever.

This establishment of Christianity as a state religion is a very big deal to Catholic and Orthodox Christians. The Orthodox Church canonized Constantine as a saint and “equal to the apostles.” Eighty years before Rome adopted Christianity as the state religion, the Kingdom of Armenia became the first nation to adopt Christianity as its state religion…a fact many Armenians today never shut up about. And ever since then, most Christians (including a huge number—a majority?—of Christians today) have lived in Christian states. Throughout its history, Christianity relied on the state to support its institutions, to support Christian practice, and to support orthodox Christian belief. State-sponsored Christianity is, arguably, the dominant form of Christianity.

Protestantism, meanwhile, emerged when new ideas about the relationship between “nation” and “state” were developing in Europe. In fact, many of these new ideas were a direct result of wars between Catholics and Protestants, wars that divided old empires into smaller “nations” that required new conceptions of statehood. Over the decades following the brutal Thirty Years’ War, concepts like “state,” “kingdom,” “nation,” “nationality,” and “ethnicity” began to morph and blur. People in Europe began to identify with political communities that were bound by common soil, common blood, and common language. Following the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, many of these political communities organized under the rubric of “nationalism.” Nationalist revolutions broke out all over Europe, as various national and ethnic groups began to agitate and fight for political independence from the old European empires.

These events coincided with the Enlightenment and the emergence of liberalism. And Protestantism had a huge role in the birth of liberalism. In general, Protestants and liberals regarded the individual as the fundamental moral unit. An individual’s relationship to God, and an individual’s ability to choose right from wrong, was paramount. Furthermore, Protestants and liberals understood “freedom,” which was a self-evident moral good, in terms of the individual.

Many theoreticians of liberalism argued for the individual’s right to freely choose their own religion. In this view, religion was a matter of individual choice and individual conviction. For the state to impose, or merely sponsor, one religion on behalf of the body politic was a violation of the tenets of liberalism. Consequently, liberal theoreticians argued—sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly—that no official state religion should exist. The famous “wall of separation” was being constructed in Western Europe and North America.

Although it may seem strange to us today, liberalism and nationalism often went hand-in-hand. Nationalist movements often advocated for citizens’ rights, democratic parliaments, independent judiciaries, and other liberal institutions. The refrain “Deutschland Über Alles,” which we usually associate with Hitler’s nationalism, was actually an anthem among leftists and liberals during the German revolutions of 1848. The revolutionaries wanted to replace all the independent states of Germany—the scores of kingdoms, duchies, and empires—with a single, unified nation, Deutschland, that would confer political equality to all Germans. The alles referred to all the kingdoms, duchies, and empires that divided Germany; for the liberals, Deutschland should trump all of them.

These are the origins of our nationalist conception of the state and of the liberal conviction that the state should not impose a single religion. After the end of the First World War, when the last of the old European empires finally unraveled, nationalism took a dark turn. Reactionaries and fascists used nationalism to organize majorities within their own nations against ethnic minorities, resulting in the murder of millions. Consequently, nationalism became taboo in many liberal democracies. Nationalists were associated with extreme political violence. When Democrats and moderate Republicans accused Barry Goldwater of extremism and nationalism, they were essentially calling him a Nazi.

So to call someone a “Christian Nationalist” today is to place them outside the liberal norms that guide our political institutions. To decry “Christian Nationalism” is to imply that Christianity and the state should be separate, that Christianity and nationalism are incompatible, because religious faith is an individual matter and because the state should not sponsor a single religion. If you oppose “Christian Nationalism,” you’ve got a good grasp of liberalism…but not necessarily a good grasp of Christianity.

Let me be clear. Politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene or Lauren Boebert or Doug Mastriano or Donald Trump do exist outside the liberal norms that guide our political institutions. The United States is a liberal democracy and, as such, should not sponsor a single religion. I am both a Christian and a liberal subject. As a liberal subject, I am inclined to reject any government that sponsors an official religion. But as a Christian, I cannot claim that any instance of state-sponsored Christianity as inauthentic or heretical. To suggest that any marriage between church and state is heretical is just wrong.

For the majority of Christians throughout history, church and state go hand-in-hand. Christ is embodied by the Church. He built the Church as an institution to represent Him on earth. The Church is legitimized through apostolic succession and through orthodox belief. And both apostolic succession and orthodox belief have been legitimized by the state. You cannot argue that state Christianity is inauthentic without rejecting almost all of Christian history and Christian tradition…which, of course, is exactly what Protestants tend to do, and why the fetishize scripture at the expense of tradition. And how can you have scripture without a tradition to affirm it? And on and on the debate goes…

(Aside #1: Some liberal democracies—Great Britain, Germany, et al—do sponsor certain religions, but they do so only as a kind of formality, an extension of their history and traditions. Such state religions do not actually interfere with the liberal institutions that determine political life in those countries. It’s sort of like having a constitutional monarchy or something.)

(Aside #2: I categorically reject the idea that, because the state opposed Jesus during His life, Jesus opposed the state. This idea is common among liberals and leftists who want to claim the moral credibility of Jesus for their political ideologies. Such liberals and leftists tend to support the separation of church and state and to criticize right-wing Christian Nationalists as “heretical,” but they somehow view their own politicization of Jesus as consistent with authentic Christianity. That’s bad faith, bad liberalism, and—perhaps most offensive to me—bad history. I don’t view Jesus, a first-century Palestinian, as some kind of modern revolutionary. I’m not going to retrofit my historically contingent political beliefs onto Christ.)

My view that Christianity can be both authentic and nationalist is rooted in my own understanding of Orthodox Christian history and practice. Today, perhaps no nation represents “Christian Nationalism” better than Russia. Nearly all Russian Orthodox Christians are in some sense “Christian Nationalists.” And although I believe that the Russian state is currently diseased, that it’s hopelessly corrupt, that it’s imperialistic and even fascist, etc., etc., I can’t argue that Russian Orthodoxy can simply cut itself free from the state to preserve its own integrity. I’ve heard Western commentators marvel at how Patriarch Kirill has collaborated in the Russian state’s invasion of Ukraine, how he has actually blessed Russia’s nuclear submarine fleet. Isn’t this heresy? Isn’t this the opposite of authentic Christianity? Going along with C.S. Lewis, I might call Kirill’s actions bad Christianity…but it’s still Christianity.

Likewise, an Evangelical minister who aligns Christian faith with the state interests of the U.S. is absolutely a heretic…but he’s a heretic of liberalism, not a heretic of Christianity.

To argue that Christianity cannot be a state institution, that Christianity cannot be aligned with a nationalist agenda, is to reject the faith of genuine, authentic Orthodox Christians in Russia. Which is, of course, what many American Evangelicals do all the time. They look at the world beyond the United States and see nothing but inauthentic Christians. That’s the reason why MAGA politicians like the late Jackie Walorski go on mission trips to already Christianized nations like Romania. It’s why my best childhood friend went spent years proselytizing in the Baltic states. He didn’t think he was spreading Protestantism or Pentecostalism to Orthodox lands—he believed he was spreading Christianity to lands without authentic Christianity.

I wouldn’t call that “Christian Nationalism.” I’d call it American chauvinism, which is as old as the republic.

4. Evangelical Respectability and the Redneck Turn

Earlier, I argued that it’s pointless for Democrats to dwell on right-wing hypocrisy, just as it’s pointless for Republicans to dwell on left-wing hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is a feature of ideology. Our beliefs do not arise from any kind of pure, rational engagement with the world. Appeals to reason are either silly or made in bad faith. People do not believe what they believe for logical reasons, and virtually nobody has changed their minds because their own hypocrisy has been revealed to them.

So with that qualification, I want to talk a little about Evangelical hypocrisy: not to accuse them of bad faith, but rather to note the strange changes that have occurred within Evangelical culture.

If you pay close attention to politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Doug Mastriano, and Lauren Boebert—politicians who seem willing to embrace the term “Christian Nationalism”—you’ll notice how uninterested they seem in Christianity. It’s unclear to me if these people go to church, or listen to Christian music, or participate in Evangelical culture apart from its politics. They seem like opportunists who didn’t think twice about religion before entering politics.

Yes, I know that the Evangelical politicians of my youth—the “Moral Majority” folks—were also hypocrites. Their personal lives hid all kinds of sleaze and they probably didn’t care much about Christian practice. But they at least made an effort to appear Evangelical, to speak Christianese, to go to church occasionally. Likewise, today’s Catholic integralists and Catholic jurists like Amy Coney Barrett seem faithful. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, on the other hand, don’t offer even a pretense of Christian faith. They don’t look, speak, or act like the Evangelicals I knew growing up.

And what’s interesting to me is that Evangelicals don’t seem to care.

The Evangelicals of my childhood were crazy, to be sure. They spoke in tongues. They hated homosexuals and feared “the homosexual agenda.” They duct-taped themselves to one another in giant circles around abortion clinics to prevent women from entering. They believed that the world was going to end after the United Nations or the European Union installed a one-world government led by the Antichrist. They supported Israel in order to hasten the Second Coming. This is all legitimately crazy. But you had to look pretty close before you saw all that. On the whole, the Evangelicals I grew up around seemed like “respectable,” middle-class people. You’d see them at work, school, or Target, and they blended in.

The Evangelicals I knew were engineers and accountants and business owners. They looked and dressed and acted like Mitt Romney or John Ashcroft or Mike Pence, not the guys from Duck Dynasty. They didn’t curse or drink alcohol or go to secular movies or listen to secular music. They avoided having premarital sex and extramarital affairs as best they could, and they certainly won’t open about it. If they owned an arsenal of guns (a few of them did), they kept pretty quiet about it. They didn’t threaten their neighbors with violence and property damage. They didn’t expose their genitals to women, and they certainly didn’t get tattoos on their genitals. They didn’t “do jail time.”

Look at these Trump-supporting Christian Nationalists. I mean, really look at them. I look at them, I listen to them, and don’t see or hear anything that resembles Evangelicalism. They’re more like drunk parents at a children’s sporting event.

So what happened?

I believe the change began at the end of the George W. Bush years. Democrats viewed Bush as an idiot cowboy, a total rube, and there’s some truth in that. But on the whole, Bush presented himself as an ordinary Texan, a simple businessman. He was certainly not an unhinged redneck. He wore suits to work, enjoyed middle-class American comforts, and maintained an “aw shucks” demeanor. He was just a “regular” suburban guy. That was schtick.

Then came the 2008 election, Barack Obama, and Sarah Palin. Something cracked. I think Obama threatened Evangelicals in a way no previous presidential candidate had, and I’ll discuss that in the final section. For now, let’s talk about Palin.

Nothing about Palin, her family, and its behavior resembled the Evangelicals I knew growing up. On television, they tried to look like a stable, Christ-loving family…but they seemed more committed to their beer and their hunting and their snowmobiles than to their Christianity. The Palin daughter had a child out of wedlock, which would have been a church-splitting scandal in my Evangelical community. Palin clearly gave us a glimpse of what was coming, but at the time, I saw her as little more than an aberration, not an embodiment of the future of Evangelical politics.

Then came the Tea Party, and things got a little more unhinged. The fringes began to eat inward toward the core of the Republican Party. Instead of George W. Bush and John Ashcroft, you had Rand Paul and Paul Ryan. They weren’t complete looney toons; they just had a little crazy behind their eyes, in a frat-boy sort of way. On the whole, however, they didn’t pretend to embody Christianity. These were “libertarians” and “fiscal conservatives.” The Evangelicals remained distinctly Evangelical. But something was definitely brewing. Glenn Beck rose to prominence during the Tea Party years, and perhaps his chalkboard ravings about Communist messages encoded in Rockefeller Center were priming Evangelicals for QAnon conspiracies.

I remember 2015, when Ted Cruz announced his presidential candidacy to an audience of students at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. The students had been compelled to attend, and a few wore Rand Paul t-shirts. The symbolism was clear: Cruz may be the natural candidate for older Evangelicals, but younger Evangelicals wanted something different.

During the 2016 primaries, the majority of Evangelicals did throw their support behind Cruz, a man who plays a Christian on television and speaks fluent Christianese. His Evangelical constituency kept Cruz’s candidacy alive late into the primaries. They all seemed embarrassed by Trump. When Trump eventually won the nomination, he chose Mike Pence as his running mate. Pence was the avatar of “respectable” Evangelicalism. He was intended to be an olive branch to the Evangelicals, who were not Trump’s natural constituency (or so it was believed). And even when he won the presidency, Trump’s whole demeanor was so explicitly anti-Evangelical, his disdain for devout Christians was so apparent, that Evangelicals had to make up a Biblical justification for supporting him.

Then, at some point between 2016 and 2020, Trump suddenly began to click with the Evangelical psyche. Maybe it was his uniquely strong support for Israel, which catered to Evangelicals’ most obnoxious apocalyptic tendencies. Maybe it was the way Trump rallied his enemies into a frothing, demonic, unified whole, giving Evangelicals something to fear and to hate. Maybe it was the specter of cultural chaos: the Black Lives Matter protests and the Women’s March, “wokeism” and “SJWs.” I think a lot of it had to do with the liberal media’s obvious opposition to Trump, which fed Trump’s penchant for self-pity and his belief, probably justified, that everyone was out to get him. Like most Christians throughout history, Evangelicals identify with martyrs, and Trump seemed to fit the bill.

Trump was certainly eager to court Evangelical voters, even if he privately mocked people of faith. Trump is first and foremost a celebrity, and Evangelicals, like conservatives in general, love celebrity attention. They incredulously accept any celebrity’s profession of faith…unless that celebrity is a liberal. Maybe this goes back to the Evangelical doctrine that professing your faith—i.e., asking Jesus “into your heart” and declaring Him your “personal Lord and savior”—is all it takes to be a Christian.

I remember, around 2018, a childhood friend of mine—someone who indefatigably opposed the “gay agenda,” someone who probably now believes that liberal schoolteachers are grooming children—posted an online defense of the fascistic charlatan Milo Yiannopoulos on the grounds that “we should judge a person by the content of their character.” Yiannopoulos’s character, it seemed, was worthy of defense. That surprised me.

Then came QAnon and then the pandemic. Part of me understood why Evangelicals gravitated toward conspiracy and suspicion. I had seen a lot of crazy stuff growing up among them—Y2K was a wild time, and many “respectable” Evangelicals I knew devoted huge sums of money on bunkers, canned goods, and generators in preparation for civilization collapse. In 2020, the whole notion of a mandated lockdown, which pressured some churches to close their doors, triggered fears that the government had begun persecuting Christians. As for QAnon, well…I was surprised that Evangelicals made up such a huge portion of the QAnon movement. But Evangelicals had always been obsessed with conspiracy theories about world government. Most of the Evangelicals I knew growing up loved Rush Limbaugh. Had they really gone from Limbaugh to Alex Jones? Some of them apparently had.

Beyond COVID and QAnon, I saw something more fundamental change. Evangelicals no longer seemed embarrassed by Trump’s raunchy behaviors, or the behavior of his rowdy MAGA acolytes. They no longer relied on “respectable” Christians like Mike Pence to apologize for Trump, as he had after the Access Hollywood tape. In 2016, most Evangelicals I knew seemed to believe that Trump’s bad behavior should be tolerated in order to achieve Evangelical political goals; if you were Evangelical, you’d grit your teeth and vote for him, even though he’s obviously not a Christian. By 2020, however, they seemed to view all of Trump’s insanity as actually Christian in and of itself. They came to see Trump’s actions and character as an expression of genuine Christian values.

Today, it’s not only possible to be a beer-chugging, neighbor-assaulting, f-bomb-dropping, adulterous, redneck Evangelical; it’s positively encouraged. Perhaps Evangelicals have simply stopped hiding their true nature and now let it all hang out. Perhaps Evangelicals were always like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert deep down, and now they’re just explicit about it. That might be true. But this shift in their behavior and class signifiers is really, really striking and strange to me.

Some people think this is how Evangelicals imagine Trump. I think they see him for what he actually is—and they like it.

If pressured to offer an explanation, I’d say that today’s Evangelical insanity is rooted in the fact that many Evangelicals genuinely believe that they’ve lost the culture war. Sure, “Make America Great Again” is ostensibly a call to return to an idyllic American past. But what I see when I look at Evangelicals today is despair and nihilism about the future. Something happened in the last ten years that made them finally give up hope and decide to burn the whole house down…and I think it has something to do with old racial anxieties, with the symbolism of Barack Obama’s presidency, and with a fear of whites becoming a minority in the United States. And this despair over race and demographics arguably goes to the very heart of Evangelical politics.

5. Christian Nationalism and Race

Lately, historians of conservative Christianity have challenged the traditional narrative of the Moral Majority’s rise within national politics. According to that traditional narrative, a unified front of Evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics emerged in the 1970s after Roe v. Wade and consolidated power during the Ronald Reagan administration. The reality, these historians argue, is much more complicated.

Christians in the United States had been wielding political power from the beginning—just look at the abolition and defenders of slavery, both of whom relied heavily on Scripture. Look at the religious underpinnings of the Ku Klux Klan, First Wave feminism, prohibition, and early progressivism. Christians have always mixed faith and politics. But after the American fascist movements of the 1930s, which spread with help from figures like Father Coughlin, overt political action became somewhat taboo among conservative Christian clergy. Something like today’s “Christian Nationalism” wouldn’t fly. Joe McCarthy, his supporters, and the John Birch Society all denounced Godless Communism, it’s true. But McCarthy quickly became a marginal figure when he turned on the military, prompting the Eisenhower administration to turn on him. Eisenhower famously distanced himself from all but the most general professions of faith. And the Birchers were relegated to the fringes by mainstream conservatives like William F. Buckley (even if those mainstream conservatives privately sympathized with extreme right).

Despite all this, Christianity remained a political force…on the left. Liberal clergy, most famously Martin Luther King Jr., frequently melded their politics and their faith. Today, it’s liberals who argue against the use of religion in politics. In the 1960s, it was conservatives. A young Jerry Falwell actually denounced King in 1964 for his Christian activism, stating,

We are not told to wage wars against bootleggers, liquor stores, gamblers, murderers, prostitutes, racketeers, prejudiced persons or institutions, or any other existing evil as such. Preachers are not called to be politicians, but soul winners.

This appeal was blatantly hypocritical—in the same sermon, using anti-Communist rhetoric and saying, “I do question the sincerity and nonviolent intentions of some civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mr. James Farmer, and others, who are known to have left-wing associations.” But the fact that Falwell could make such an appeal, that he could argue that faith and politics shouldn’t mix, is evidence that such a sentiment was common among conservative Christians.

So what happened in the 1970s that caused right-wing Christians to gain so much influence so quickly? What mobilized them out of dormancy?

The old answer to that question was simple: abortion. The new answer suggest that the real mobilizing factor was race. The united front of Evangelicals and Catholics that emerged in the 1970s seized power in the 1980s formed as a reaction to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Conservative white Evangelicals in the South were threatened by the political gains made by Black Americans. Churches were a space that had enforced the Jim Crow status quo, and while Black churches became vital centers of the civil rights movement, white churches became a source of reaction against it. Conservative Catholics in the North, meanwhile, were threatened by civil rights-era policies that desegregated schools, including many private, Catholic schools. In the past, Evangelicals and Catholics viewed each other as enemies. After the successes of civil rights movement, they found common cause.

The above quote from Falwell provides some evidence for this. For more evidence, Irecommend listening to the podcast Know Your Enemy, which did a recent series on right-wing Christian politics since the 1970s. I also recommend an excellent Politico article, published in May of this year, by Randall Balmer. His account details how ambivalent, how downright uninterested, Evangelicals were about abortion in the early 1970s. The anti-abortion movement was tiny, unorganized, and mostly Catholic. Evangelical opposition to civil rights legislation, however, was strong. Balmer writes:

According to Paul Weyrich, a conservative activist and architect of the Religious Right, the movement started in the 1970s in response to attempts on the part of the Internal Revenue Service to rescind the tax-exempt status of whites-only segregation academies (many of them church sponsored) and Bob Jones University because of its segregationist policies. Among those affected was Jerry Falwell, who referred to the civil rights movement as “civil wrongs” and who had opened his own segregation academy in 1967. The IRS actions against racially segregated institutions, not abortion, is what mobilized evangelical activists in the 1970s, and they directed their ire against a fellow evangelical, Jimmy Carter, in the run-up to the 1980 presidential election.

Weyrich’s genius, however, lay in his understanding that racism — the defense of racial segregation — was not likely to energize grassroots evangelical voters. So he, Falwell and others deftly flipped the script. Instead of the Religious Right mobilizing in defense of segregation, evangelical leaders in the late 1970s decried government intrusion into their affairs as an assault on religious freedom, thereby writing a page for the modern Republican Party playbook, used shamelessly in the Hobby Lobby and the Masterpiece Cakeshop cases.

Because evangelicals had considered abortion a Catholic issue until the late 1970s, they expressed little interest in the matter; Falwell, by his own admission, did not preach his first anti-abortion sermon until February 26, 1978, more than five years after Roe. During the midterm elections of 1978, however, antiabortion activists — Roman Catholics — leafleted church parking lots in four Senate races during the final weekend of the campaign: New Hampshire, Iowa and two races in Minnesota, one for the unexpired term of Walter Mondale, Carter’s vice president. Two days later, in an election with a very low turnout, anti-abortion Republicans defeated the favored Democratic candidates.

Abortion did not take hold among evangelicals until the eve of the 1980 presidential election, the result of assiduous promotion by Weyrich, Falwell and other leaders of the Religious Right following the 1978 midterms. In addition, although it was poorly received when it toured the country early in 1979, Frank Schaeffer’s anti-abortion film series Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, which featured his father, Francis A. Schaeffer, and C. Everett Koop, began finally to take root among evangelicals.

Opposition to abortion, therefore, was a godsend for leaders of the Religious Right because it allowed them to distract attention from the real genesis of their movement: defense of racial segregation in evangelical institutions. With a cunning diversion, they were able to conjure righteous fury against legalized abortion and thereby lend a veneer of respectability to their political activism.

In short, Evangelical politics in the United States has been bound up with white identity politics since at least the 1960s. And if you look at the politics of race over the course of American history, you’ll almost always find Protestants using Christianity to justify racism. Over the last few days, many people on Twitter have been making this point:

In a recent article published on his substack, Benjamin Dixon wrote along similar lines:

Christian Nationalism has been for white men in America what religion was for European rulers throughout Western Civilization — a dependable tool of justification for the political ambition of powerful men. God is even depicted as a white man for their convenience.

It is in the name of Christ that hundreds of thousands were slaughtered throughout the Crusades and the Inquisitions. 

Religion was used to justify the enslavement of Africans in America. When Black Christians prayed for deliverance from slave masters, they were praying to be delivered from the power of white, Christian men. 

As succinctly stated in 1964, “The religious community in American society produced and sustained—sometimes on Biblical grounds—the anti-[Black] bias which has permeated the American mind from the beginning of the nation until the present day.”

Given my previous statements about the relationship between state and church, I don’t accept Dixon’s version of Western civilizational history. He reduces 1,500 years of Christian doctrine and practice to a single, half-sentence jab. He vastly oversimplifies complex historical phenomena like the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. But his more general point about the politics of whiteness in the United States holds up. As Dixon shifts his analysis toward the present, his argument strengthens. He continues:

Falwell discovered in the Reagan era what politically ambitious preachers such as Greg Locke have discovered in the era of Donald Trump: a preacher can quickly rise from obscurity to fame by peddling his pulpit for political power.  

Locke, who pastors a pro-Trump congregation in Tenessee, declared that he didn’t want any Democrats attending his church because he considered them to be “demons.” This approach has made Locke a celebrity in conservative circles.

But as recently as 2008, Republicans lambasted Barack Obama and his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, for his sermons condemning America’s wars, greed, and racism. 

Wright’s liberation theology was anathema to the Christian Nationalists of the Republican Party. To use religion to call for peace was a “bridge too far” for conservatives. War, on the other hand, was an acceptable tool of god. 

In 2003, the same evangelicals who would reject Jeremiah Wright heard and believed George W. Bush when he announced to the world that “god told him to end the tyranny” of Saddam Hussien in Iraq – leading to the deaths of one million Iraqis and the recovery of not a single weapon of mass destruction. 

In short, Evangelicals are thrilled to politicize Christianity in order to advance right-wing political ends. But when liberals and leftists do the same, conservatives cry foul.

Dixon links Evangelical politics to white replacement theory. You only need to watch Tucker Carlson on any given night, or listen to Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik, to witness the prevalence of conservative anxiety over demographics. Consider the fact that Viktor Orbán, perhaps the most prominent advocate of white replacement theory in Europe, has become a celebrity among U.S. conservatives. Orbán also promotes reactionary Christian politics and right-wing nostalgia for European Christendom (he calls it “Christian democracy,” which is code for a Russian-style illiberal “democracy”).

I would argue that, these days, Orbán is more an American political figure than a Hungarian political figure. Just watch his recent speech at CPAC. Orbán’s American admirers seem incapable of viewing him within a Hungarian context. His popularity in Hungary hinges on the unique structure of the European Union, which provides Hungary with large infusions of German capital and allows huge numbers of liberal Hungarians to flee to Western Europe. But this is lost on conservatives like Carlson and Rod Dreher, who interpret Orbánism through the lens of the American culture wars.

And as the culture wars getting uglier, and as the conservative’s right flank gets more desperate, we will likely see the Republic Party—which, for better or worse, monopolizes half of the U.S. political system despite thin popular support—turning more and more toward a Hungarian-sty politics of illiberalism and racial panic. Evangelicals will be the tip of the spear.

Coda

Late last month, CNN’s John Blake editorialized on “Christian Nationalism,” calling it an “imposter Christianity.” Kristen Du Mez, historian and author of Jesus and John Wayne, responded by arguing in the strongest possible terms that, whatever “Christian Nationalism” is, it is not an “imposter.” Christian Nationalism, she wrote, absolutely represents historical American Christianity:

Yes, this is American Christianity.

White Christian privilege was woven into the very fabric of our nation from its very inception. Slaveholder Religion is real, and it has a powerful hold on how many American Christians understand and live out their faith. Moreover, before America came into existence, Christianity had been wedded to imperial power for well over a millennium.

Which isn’t to say that this is the whole of American Christianity. To insist that it is, is to erase the many expressions of Christianity that have contested this particular form of Christianity. Consider, for example, the prophetic tradition that has characterized much of African American Christianity across the centuries. Nor is it the whole of global Christianity. As a historian, it isn’t difficult to acknowledge that both of these things are true.

I find Du Mez’s argument compelling. She reveals the extent to which authentic Christianity can be wedded to objectionable politics and still be authentic Christianity.

Again, the notion that authentic Christianity must be completely free of human corruption is pure Protestant idealism. There’s a reason why Catholic and Orthodox Christians have historically possessed an incredible capacity to tolerate hopelessly corrupt popes or abusive clergy, whereas Protestant churches split and balkanize over the slightest doctrinal disagreements. Yes, it’s true that fewer and fewer Catholics are attending church regularly in the United States and Europe. But I’d argue that secularization, more than scandal, has contributed to declining church attendance in the West. Catholic and Orthodox Christians—over 60% of the Christians in the world today, and the vast majority of Christians over the centuries—understand that the Church is both the Body of Christ and a human institution. As a human institution, the Church is frequently corrupt. The Church is frequently wedded to evil, immorality, and oppression. But the Church is Christianity, nationalist or otherwise.

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