Culture Wars/Current Controversies

How prominent is “Christian nationalism” becoming in the U.S.?

The Signal

How prominent is “Christian nationalism” becoming in the U.S.? Curtis Chang on the challenges for American democracy, and American Christians, from “the secular god of politics.”
Thomas Vitali
Thomas Vitali
“We need to be the party of nationalism,” the U.S. Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene told an interviewer earlier this year: “We should be Christian nationalists.” Green is well known in America for her far-right politics and extreme rhetoric—the Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell even once called her views a “cancer” for their party—but the idea that the United States should be a “Christian nation” appears to be moving further into mainstream American public opinion. There are cartoonish versions of this idea at play in the media, including Nick Fuentes’s—Fuentes is a white-supremacist influencer who recently made headlines for having dinner with Donald Trump and Kanye West—which is that America needs a dictatorship to enforce his vision of reactionary Catholicism. But Christian nationalism did motivate many of the Donald Trump supporters who attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. And according to recent polling from the Pew Research Center, most American adults say their country was founded to be a “Christian nation”—with 45 percent saying it should still be one. At the same time, Pew notes, “many supporters of Christian nationhood define the concept in broad terms, as the idea that the country is guided by Christian values.” How are these movements in American Christianity shaping U.S. political life?
Curtis Chang is the founder of the Evangelical organization Redeeming Babel, a senior fellow at Fuller Theological Seminary, and on the consulting faculty of the Duke Divinity School. To Chang, most American Christians aren’t really Christian nationalists—but it’s hard to make sense of what exactly they believe altogether about their religion’s role in the public square. Chang sees a lot of confusion and contradiction in the views of American Christians, many of whom are receptive to illiberal rhetoric—and from there, to being taken in by political tribalism—not because they’re inherently illiberal, but because they’re just not experiencing any powerful alternative messages about how to live their faith in a way that’s consistent with democracy and pluralism.
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Graham Vyse: How do you understand the phenomenon of Christian nationalism in the U.S.?
Curtis Chang: I understand it as part of the broader phenomenon of nationalism we’ve seen rising globally—in which a subset of a country’s population will try to claim that its beliefs, values, and politics ought to shape the entire country … and that people who don’t share those beliefs, values, and politics should be relegated to a subordinate status in the country, if not excluded from it altogether. In this sense, nationalism contradicts the idea of pluralism—the idea that each person can have a unique set of convictions while coexisting with people who have different convictions.
America’s Christian nationalists tend to have a narrow understanding of Christianity, which they associate with the dominance of white, right-wing political power—and they tend to be hostile to differing viewpoints, including left-wing, progressive, or “woke” ideas. They tend to have a very binary, us-versus-them attitude, based on the notion of opposing them, who are out to get us. Frankly, it’s a very paranoid outlook.
Vyse: How widespread do you see it being?
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Chang: That’s a difficult question to answer. You might see public-opinion surveys asking self-identified Evangelical Christians whether they hold Christian-nationalist views, but it’s often hard to know who in that group actually believes in Evangelical theology, who attends church regularly, and who treats being Evangelical as less of a spiritual or religious orientation and more of a cultural or political orientation. We also know that the loudest voices are often the most extreme—that’s as true on the left as it is on the right—and in that context, there’s an exhausted majority of American Evangelicals that’s increasingly withdrawing from political engagement.
I find it hard to make sense of Pew’s data showing that 45 percent of American adults think the U.S. should be a Christian nation but two-thirds of American adults say churches should stay out of politics. I certainly believe that people with views like Nick Fuentes’s are a small minority of the population, but when Donald Trump elevates their voices, they can influence other people who’re trying to figure out what it means to be a Christian—or to have Christian politics.
Think about the phenomenon we saw around Covid vaccines. Historically, vaccines haven’t been politicized in the U.S., and American Evangelicals have been in favor of them. Then Trump and others on the right sent the message that Republicans should be against vaccines, and Evangelicals became the most vaccine-skeptical population in the world. That demonstrated just how much the actions of national leaders—including the messages they send about who Christians should be and what Christians should do—can have a significant influence on the people at large.
Vyse: I sometimes worry about overstating the influence of someone like Fuentes, who was a little-known figure before his dinner with Trump, and Greene, whose politics are unusually extreme even within a Republican Party that tolerates a lot of extremism. At the same time, as you point out, it’s undeniable that Trump has elevated their voices. What role do you see them playing in shaping the Republican Party and public conversation about Christian nationalism?
Chang: They’re very influential, because they shape the boundaries of conversation. Views like Fuentes’s won’t be embraced in the mainstream of Republican politics, but they will shift the boundaries of mainstream discussion simply on account of being introduced into mainstream dialogue. In this way, Trump and his allies have given seats at the table to extremists who wouldn’t have been mentioned a decade ago.
Terren Hurst
Terren Hurst
More from Curtis Chang at The Signal:
Given the extent of political polarization in America, many church leaders are now disincentivized from preaching about politics—desperately afraid their words will be misinterpreted. Most Evangelical pastors avoid politics in order to try to hold their congregations together, but in doing so, they’re ceding the ability to influence the minds of their congregations to Fox News and MSNBC—and even worse influences.”
If you’re in progressive circles—including progressive Christian circles, which I traffic in sometimes—you can see a dogmatic, inflexible, impulse toward persecution. If you don’t always use the right pronouns or adhere to the progressive party line, you can be ousted in much the same way you can be on the right. The Christian Left can be as prone to following the secular god of politics as the Christian Right can.”
There’s a very real, very strong impulse on the left toward banishing conservative Evangelical Christian views from the public square. Conservatives aren’t making that up. This truth can be weaponized by extremists to foment us-versus-them sentiments and conspiracy theories, but the core concern is entirely rooted in reality.”

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