What is Christian Nationalism?

Barton

In the wake of the recent statement by Christians opposing Christian nationalism, several folks have suggested that Christian nationalism does not exist and the authors and endorsers of this statement are trying to knock down a straw man.

 

Read the entire piece by Tony Perkins linked in the last tweet above.  He, like many Christian nationalists, builds his entire case on the teachings of David Barton, most influential Christian nationalist in America.  More on him below.

I have written extensively on Christian nationalism–the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and should continue to privilege Christianity over all other religions, including atheism.  The most extreme Christian nationalists create political platforms focused on restoring, renewing, and reclaiming America in such a way that privileges evangelical Christianity.  Many of these extreme Christian nationalists may also be described as “dominionists” because they want to take “dominion” over government, culture, economic life, religion, the family, education, and the family.  Christian nationalists of all varieties are marked by their unwillingness or failure to articulate a vision of American life defined by pluralism.

As a political movement, Christian nationalism is defined by a fear that America’s Christian identity is eroding, a belief that the pursuit of political power is the way to “win back” America, and a nostalgia for a Christian nation that probably never existed in the first place.

Christian nationalists also do not have a problem bringing patriotism into their congregations through holiday celebrations, American flags, and nationalist sermons that focus on American exceptionalism or endorse political candidates.  With the exception of Easter and Christmas, their yearly services tend to focus more on the secular/national calendar than the Christian calendar.

Christian nationalism not only exists, but it is a view of church and state that drives a significant part of the Donald Trump presidency.  As I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, some of the fastest-growing evangelical groups in the United States embrace Christian nationalism.

If you want a recent glimpse of Christian nationalism at work, read the following transcript from David Barton’s “Wallbuilders” radio program.  As many of you know, Barton is a self-professed dominionist and GOP politician who uses the past to promote his Christian nationalist agenda.  He knows a lot of facts about American history, but he does not think historically about these facts.  In other words, he is oblivious to context, change over time, contingency, causation, and the complexity of the human experience.  Despite the fact that his work as a historian has been discredited, he still has a large following and his disciples include GOP lawmakers and most of Donald Trump’s court evangelicals.  Those who still follow him believe that his critics–many of them evangelical Christian historians–have been overly influenced by secular ideology.

Here is an exchange between David Barton and his son and protege Tim Barton:

Free Exercise of Religion Involves Free Speech

The government is supposed to protect those rights. It’s interesting that there is free speech; but, in addition to free speech, there is also free exercise of religion which often involves free speech. For me to exercise my faith means I will speak about it, live it out,  activate, and do it.

By the way, I have the right to assembly. So, I can get together with other believers and we can act out our faith. When you look, secular speech is protected by the Constitution; but, religious speech has several protections in the First Amendment.

It’s not the same as somebody has the right to say, “I dislike Trump.” Okay, your free speech is protected. But, what I have in the First Amendment is, really, my religious speech-slash-expression protected by three clauses.

So, it really gets more attention, or more protection if you will, than just normal, secular speech. But, what the decision did back in 1980, said, “No, religious speech is equal to secular speech, and you get no more protection than anybody else gets.” Well, that’s not what the First Amendment gave me.

It gave me more protection because I get my speech but if it’s religious, I get it twice. And, if it is religious with others, I get it three times.

TIM:

Now, is it religious with others? Because, let’s unfold this little bit. We have the freedom of speech.

You have the freedom of religion or expression, the free exercise thereof. So, we would say that you have speech and free exercise; those are two clauses from the First Amendment. What’s a third one you’re saying we get if we are religious with others, that we’re also protected there; what’s the third one?

The Right to Peaceably Assemble

DAVID:

You have the right peaceably to assemble. That means you can get with others, and you can get with others who believe what you believe express your beliefs as a group.

TIM:

So, the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, and the freedom of assembly. As a Christian, it actually protects you in all three of those aspects.

DAVID:

That’s Right.

TIM:

So, it’s not just you have the freedom of speech, we also have the free expression of religion. And, you have the right assemble with other people who believe what you believe, as you mentioned, as long as it’s peaceably. So, there really are multiple protections of religious faith in the First Amendment.

DAVID:

While religious folks have at least three different forms of protection under the First Amendment for their speech, secular folks how their protections as well for speech and assembly. But, they just don’t have the same religious {motivation}.

TIM:

Arguably, they have the exact same protections that a religious person does, it’s just that if they choose not to have a religion or exercise their religion, they don’t have to. But, the same protection is there for everybody. And, this is where, as a Christian, you don’t lose the protection because you’re a Christian.

DAVID:

You actually get added protection because it singles out your religious expression. And, that’s a level of protection the Founding Fathers wanted to make sure that religious folks had. So, they singled that out to give, if you will, added protection if you’re a religious folk.

What happened in that decision in 1980 was the court said, “No, no, no. Religious folks, secular folks, everybody gets the same protection. Well, that’s not what the First Amendment says.

What Does the First Amendment Say?

The First Amendment says, “Hey, religion is so vitally important that you get added, special protection.” And, that’s why when you look at George Washington’s Farewell Address, it says, “Hey, of everything that makes politics work well, religion and morality are the two things you can’t separate out.” So, they went to great lengths to make sure that religion and morality through religion, were protected in the public square.

Well, that decision, Smith in 1980, said, “No, no, your religion is just speech. That’s all it is, nothing more; there’s no added protection.” So, since 1980, whenever we have to argue religious expression cases, we don’t argue on the basis of religion, which is what the First Amendment protects.

See what Barton is doing here?  He is twisting the Constitution to make it say that Christians have more protection under the law than non-Christians.  This is an attempt to privilege Christianity over other religions and no religion.  This, my friends, is Christian nationalism.

I still would like to see more evangelicals–leaders or otherwise–sign this statement.   I know that there are a lot of political reasons not to sign a statement like this. I get it.

But what if we inverted the major points of this statement?  It would read something like this:

  • Only Christians have the right to engage constructively in the public square
  • Patriotism requires us to minimize our religious convictions
  • Only Christians should contribute to one’s standing in the civic community
  • Government should prefer Christianity or other religions
  • The government, not the churches, should be instructing people in religious belief
  • You can’t bring your religious convictions to bear on civic life in a pluralist society unless you are a Christian.
  • Conflating religious authority and political authority is not idolatrous.
  • When Christian nationalism leads to acts of violence and intimidation and hate crimes we should be silent.
  • America has many second-class faiths and not all faiths are equal under the U.S. Constitution.

11 thoughts on “What is Christian Nationalism?

  1. Lots of agonizing that so many people are doing things that God does not approve of. They speak of these people exactly as if they are backslidden christians. They “need to come back to God” for instance. They view the country like new Christian version of the nation of Israel.

    During my time in-country in the Seventies, this was all empowered by a visible undercurrent of FEAR manipulation. FEAR that God would send Thermonuclear War to punish America if we didn’t “come back to God”, usually in a context limited to Pelvic Issues. Quoting proof texts from the Prophets about God punishing Israel for its Apostasy.

    A specific example was claims from the pulpit and on Christianese AM radio that HOMOSEXUALITY(TM) was the Tipping Point that triggers God’s Wrath, coupled with such preaching as “GOD’S JUDGMENT FOR AMERICA’S SINS SITS READY AND WAITING IN THE NUCLEAR MISSILE SILOS OF THE SOVIET UNION!!!!!”

    Which motivated Christians for the coming Culture War like that concentration-camp doctor doing mass castrations in Leon Uris’ QB VII: “If I don’t take your balls, the SS will have mine.”

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  2. If these rightwing thugs do indeed represent what Christianity has become, Christianity is in need of another reformation.

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  3. Alex,

    Keep in mind that the first full gentile convert was Cornelius, a Roman Centurion. The Bible describes him as “…a just man, and one that feareth God…” Acts 10:22

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  4. That would mostly mean we are mentioning God and maybe Jesus now and then, and not worshiping God as we should.

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  5. Jeff,

    So you seem to be saying that your fellow church members may soon be saying farewell to Fanny Crosby, Isaac Watts, and Charles Wesley. The passé sounds will be replaced by Greenwood and John Philip Sousa. Will the new low-brow music hurt or help attendance?

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  6. I am not a church historian. But I have always been told and believed that often the church becomes more vibrant and Christlike during times of persecution.
    It would seem to me there is perhaps no better protection from persecution than the merger of the church and state, along with the compromise that would inevitably accompany that.
    So the clamor for a Christian Nation is basically a begging to be the state religion and to be a a soft warm spot where not much of what it means to be a Christian is called upon.

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  7. Many of these extreme Christian nationalists may also be described as “dominionists” because they want to take “dominion” over government, culture, economic life, religion, the family, education, and the family.

    As was done in Massachusetts Bay and is done in Islamic Republics and The Handmaid’s Tale.

    And after a generation or two of such a Godly Christian Nation, the name “Jesus Christ” will have acquired the exact same baggage as the name “Adolf Hitler”.

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  8. The church I attend had a baptism service and a high school senior announced he decided to join the military instead of going to Liberty University. That elicited cheers that were just as loud and enthusiastic as any testimony or baptism at that service.

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  9. I hear conversations on a weekly basis along with statements from the pulpit that come from a context that America is a Christian Nation and is somehow synonymous with the church.
    Lots of agonizing that so many people are doing things that God does not approve of. They speak of these people exactly as if they are backslidden christians. They “need to come back to God” for instance.
    They view the country like new Christian version of the nation of Israel. Since the OT says things like “if my people”, with God treating with them as a whole, then they speak of the USA as a whole, as a Christian nation.
    Nothing rouses people I know more than being in church and having a video of Lee Greenwood singing “Proud to be an American” with images of beautiful scenery, Eagles, the Statue of Liberty, military figures, the World Trade Center towers falling and the like. They get much more visibly emotional than when singing about Christ’s resurrection.

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  10. Dear skeptics,
    Just a straw man? Visit the youtube channel of an organization called camp constitution, or the website of the self-proclaimed “patriot pastor,” Garrett Lear, who i once saw preach a sermon while holding a musket and dressed as a continental soldier.

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  11. “…his [Barton’s] work as a historian…”

    This stopped me cold. He does no work as a historian. He is a mangler of history to serve a clear political – Christian Nationalist & Republican – agenda. He’s a political operative making a handy living from his work – many pieces of silver. He’s a proven fabricator and distortionist via the half truth, the no truth, and all other manner of prevarication. He’s a myth builder and propagandist. Some like the con and some just ignore the con but how many innocent, otherwise decent and honest people are unaware of the con and led into believing and acting and giving witness falsely? That is stolen agency.

    Now, back to reading.

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