Christian Nationalism is a Popular Topic. But What Does it Mean?
January 5, 2023
In recent years, there has been growing scholarly and media focus on Christian nationalism.
Google nGrams, a search engine that tracks word frequencies in books, show that the contemporary resurgence of interest in Christian nationalism seems to correspond with the 2016 election cycle. A search on Google Scholar produces roughly 7,000 results for scholarly works on Christian nationalism, roughly 60% of them produced since 2015.
Looking at the pattern over time on Google Trends, the public conversation really took off roughly two years from the present date. The events of Jan. 6, 2021, led to a huge spike in searches about Christian nationalism, as many were eager to find some easy narrative or master framework to explain that was wrong with “those people” who engaged in the riot and/or embraced the “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen. Christian nationalism became one of the more prominent frameworks for understanding “the problem.”
Search interest reached unprecedented highs from April – July 2022, corresponding with the publication of timely and highly-influential books by sociologists Andrew Whitehead, Samuel Perry and Philip Gorski: “Taking Back America for God” and “The Flag and the Cross” (both published by Oxford University Press).
With respect to media discussion, Boolean Query data from Lexis Nexis Newsdesk shows that over the last year there have been roughly 2,100 print and online news media articles published mentioning Christian nationalism – on average roughly six published each day over the last year — with the coverage skewing decisively negative (according to sentiment analysis).
The term “Christian nationalism” is on many people’s lips. What, specifically, people are referring to, however, is often a little unclear.
Setting the Stage
According to Pew Research surveys, most Americans believe that the U.S. was founded as a “Christian nation” – although most do not believe that America currently is or should be one. The American public also holds widely divergent views on what it would entail for the U.S. to be a “Christian nation.” And despite the huge increase in contemporary discussion, most Americans remain unfamiliar with the specific term “Christian nationalism.”
For readers who may, themselves, be unfamiliar with the term, there are many varieties of Christian nationalism, but they generally start with a belief that the U.S. is fundamentally a Christian nation. In many conceptions, this is interpreted to mean that America was founded on Judeo-Christian values. Commonly, it is further asserted that the state and its representatives have a responsibility to represent, uphold, and promote Judeo-Christian values in order to ensure the country can fulfill its God-given purpose (as a beacon of freedom, justice, peace, prosperity and Christian virtue worldwide). Although Christian nationalism is far from exclusive to the political “right,” most of the contemporary conversation is focused on right-aligned conceptions of the ideology.
Complicated Past, Multifaceted Present
On the one hand, the strong contemporary focus on Christian nationalism is both appropriate and overdue. As historian Sam Haselby has deftly illustrated, Christian nationalism is older than America itself and was central to the formation of the U.S. as we understand it today, for better and for worse. It has played an enduring role in U.S. public life, inspiring some of the darkest episodes in American history, yes, but also many of the inspiring ideals, institutions, and norms that Americans have long taken for granted but are now under threat … menaced, ironically, by Christian nationalism.
According to many conceptions of the ideology, should the faithful find themselves in a durable electoral minority, they should seek ways to exert their will on the majority anyway – for the public’s own good. Moreover, the thinking goes, Christian nationalists should work to modify everything from immigration laws to institutions of cultural production, to their own reproductive aspirations and behaviors, in order to restore Christians to an electoral majority downstream. This is a project that many in the right are engaged in, and have long been engaged in. This project has historically been interconnected with campaigns to establish and preserve white supremacy as well. However, it is critical to emphasize that these projects are not coextensive. Christian nationalist impulses need not express themselves in illiberal or parochial ways.
According to polling by Pew Research, for instance, most contemporary Republicans oppose the state favoring one religion over others – and they believe the government should advocate morals shared by people of many faiths rather than imposing Christian values on non-Christians. Republicans overwhelmingly believe that religion should have a place in public life. However, a plurality also believe that the state should enforce a separation between church and state.
And contrary to what histrionic headlines might suggest, the reality is that over the course of Trump’s tenure, Republicans have actually become less likely to endorse parochial understandings of Christian nationalism. For instance, GOP voters increasingly reject the idea that one needs to be a Christian in order to be a “true” American.
This is not to say there aren’t serious challenges posed by certain strains of contemporary Christian nationalism. There are. It should also be emphasized, however, that actual adherence to, and political influence of, Christian nationalism seems to be on the decline, even as discussion of the phenomenon is growing ever more pronounced.
One should also bear in mind that much of the current pushback against illiberal strains of Christian nationalism is coming from other coalitions of patriotic Christians who are eager to preserve the character of their faith and their country, and who view illiberal interpretations of Christian Nationalism as a threat to both. This resistance could itself be construed as an alternative project in Christian nationalism — promoting a different understanding of what the fusion of commitments to Christ and country entail.
Too Much and Not Enough
Much like “empire”, Christian nationalism is a multifaceted phenomenon. It has played a pivotal and complex role in American society, from the foundation of the U.S. through the present. For this reason, it is a phenomenon that cries out for study — and the recent works by Haselby, Gorski, Perry, Whitehead, et al. mark important contributions to understanding the American sociological landscape.
However, in interpreting various contemporary phenomena in terms of Christian nationalism, analysts should also bear in mind the warning of Edward Said, “It is important that as a critic who has learned from someone else’s theory he should be able to see the theory’s limitations, especially the fact that a breakthrough can become a trap, if it is used uncritically, repetitively, limitlessly.”
Indeed, as discussion of Christian nationalism has increased in recent years, the phrase has become something of a catch-all term to describe virtually everything that contemporary liberals don’t like about American society and culture —the source of all America’s perceived shortcomings, from racism, to misogyny, to authoritarianism, and beyond. Many social scientists and media folks have taken to basically branding anything that seems morally, politically, aesthetically unsavory that happens to be done by Christians as examples of Christian nationalism in action – prompting one sociologist to ask in a recent journal article, “What isn’t Christian Nationalism?”
These tendencies are especially pronounced in contemporary discussions of white evangelicals, widely portrayed as the core drivers of contemporary Christian nationalism. The connection between evangelicalism and Christian nationalism is longstanding and deep. However, as Jean Baudrillard observed, “Behind every image, something has disappeared.”
In the case of Christian nationalism, contemporary discussions, focused near-exclusively on whites and evangelicals, often obscure as much as they elucidate about the persistence and growth of the contemporary religious nationalism. My recent essay for Interfaith America Magazine argued that the current fixation on white evangelicals misses where “the action” is in contemporary American politics. Christian nationalism is no exception to this general rule. The ideology has exerted, and continues to exert, a powerful influence over American politics precisely because it resonates with large numbers of non-evangelicals and non-whites.
According to Whitehead and Perry’s estimates, 21.5% of Americans are ‘”ejectors” of Christian nationalism and another 26.6% are “resistors.” This leaves a slight majority (51.9%) of Americans as “accommodators” or “ambassadors” of the ideology. In short, Christian nationalism is not a fringe ideology shared by a small set of cisgender heterosexual white men clinging to their privilege. It is a worldview that seems common to most Americans. In fact, versions of the ideology resonate with non-Christians as well.
Obviously, these constituents are not moving to the Republican Party because they want to promote a Christian nation. However, they are typically highly patriotic, share many of the same nationalistic impulses with Christian nationalists, and often embrace American exceptionalism as well. They align with Christian nationalists in asserting that religion should play a strong role in public life. They share a desire to protect religiously-grounded freedom of conscience and association, and in preserving a right to religious education. And, perhaps most important, they share many of the same cultural disaffections with the contemporary left and the Democratic Party as their fellow-travelers on the Christian right.
All said, then, there is a sense in which the term “Christian Nationalism” has come to be used to broadly – referring in many circles to almost anything the contemporary left doesn’t like that Christians happen to do. At the same time, the term seems too narrow: A tight focus on Christian nationalism, and especially white Christian nationalism cannot well-account for the growing religious nationalist movements among contemporary U.S. Jews, Muslims, Hindus and other believers (and even some non-believers who nonetheless advocate for religious nationalism).
To get around this latter problem, historian Sam Haselby has argued that the more inclusive term “religious right” is perhaps a better framework for understanding contemporary trends than Christian nationalism. To get around the former problem, journalists and scholars should stop using Christian nationalism as a shorthand for any right-aligned politics we find unpleasant or threatening, and discuss the Christian nationalism, its historical legacy and contemporary influence in more precise and nuanced ways.
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Musa al-Gharbi is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University and a Daniel Bell Research Fellow at Heterodox Academy. His work explores how people talk about, think about, and produce a shared understanding of various social phenomena. His first book, “We Have Never Been Woke: Social Justice Discourse, Inequality, and the Rise of a New Elite,” is forthcoming with Princeton University Press. Al-Gharbi is also committed to public engagement. He is a columnist with The Guardian, and his research and writing has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, The Atlantic, New Republic, The Nation and many other outlets. Readers can connect to his research, social media, and public writing via his website: musaalgharbi.com.