If you’ve been paying attention to the news over the last six years, you’ve probably noticed the phrase “Christian nationalism” being tossed around with increasing frequency. This is due to the fact that there has been a surge in the number of people who identify as Christian nationalists. Their influence as a voting bloc has wielded huge influence on the direction of politics in the United States.
Put simply, Christian nationalism is “the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way.” This might seem pretty straightforward, but the reality is Christian nationalism is an extremely complex organism that cannot be easily defined. For example, I dedicated an entire episode of Season 3 of my podcast to the interconnectedness of QAnon and Christian nationalism.
Therefore, I want to begin by discussing the history of Christian nationalism in the United States because, in spite of the recent press, Christian nationalism has deep roots in American history. After we have explored all the various permutations of Christian nationalism, we’ll explore the current incarnation and why it is so seductive to an increasingly large portion of the population.
To fully understand Christian nationalism, one first has to understand Manifest Destiny, which you may remember briefly discussing during your high school U.S. history class. Manifest Destiny is the idea that it is God’s will that the United States should overspread the North American continent from Atlantic to Pacific (this would eventually expand all the way to the Philippines and to Hawaii and Guam and territories in the Pacific).
“To fully understand Christian nationalism, one first has to understand Manifest Destiny.”
The term was coined by John L. O’Sullivan, editor of United States Magazine and Democratic Review in 1845. According to John Wilsey, whom I interviewed for my podcast, Manifest Destiny imports four elements from Christianity: Providence, moral regeneration, millennialism and mission.
Let me quickly summarize for you what each of these mean because they lay the foundation for Christian nationalism as we know it today.
Providence: The Christian doctrine that God is guiding human society in a particular direction. Manifest Destiny suggests God wants North America to be reserved for the Anglo-Saxon people so they can establish a democratic republic. With God’s help, the United States, over time, will become the perfect representation of ideal freedom.
Moral regeneration: The Christian notion that everything God does is right. Manifest Destiny suggests that everything America does is right. For instance, if America decides to expand its territory, then that decision is the right thing to do regardless of the consequences.
Millennialism: The belief that Jesus will return from heaven and establish a perfect thousand-year reign on earth. Manifest Destiny suggests America is a millennial nation, a beacon of hope that will be the pinnacle of God’s work in the world.
Mission: The idea that God wants Christians to spread the gospel throughout the world. Manifest Destiny suggests God has chosen America to be an active agent whose mission is to spread democracy by bringing liberty and enlightenment to an uncivilized world.
These four doctrines are what allow Manifest Destiny to become a political religion where the object of worship is the United States as a chosen nation. As you might expect, this was not just a minority opinion held by the aristocracy or the intellectual elite. This belief in American exceptionalism trickled down into every corner of American society.
From Manifest Destiny to Christian nationalism
Before we go any further, it’s important to emphasize how political religions are incredibly potent vehicles for generating momentum among large groups of people. Unlike actual religions where the doctrines can be nuanced and difficult to understand, political religions are very easy for the average person to grasp. The issues often are reduced to simple black-and-white ideas.
For example, Manifest Destiny undergoes a shift in the early 1900s after World War I when Woodrow Wilson creates the League of Nations. Wilson described the League of Nations as a covenant where the United States would be the elder to the world, spreading Christian civilization and making the world safe for democracy.
For the average person, proof of American exceptionalism was demonstrated when the United States entered World War I.
The addition of American troops turned the tide against the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria and were a big reason they ultimately were defeated. As a nation that was predominantly Christian, this reinforced a sense that God ultimately would allow for the United States to be the dominant nation in the new world order.
In other words, the American victory in World War I reinforced the belief among the general population that the United States acts as a political extension of God’s will.
By the time you get to World War II and the Cold War, another iteration of Christian nationalism has emerged, this time against what is characterized as a godless communism and the evils of the Soviet Union. This is when “under God” is added to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” is made the national motto in 1956 thanks to President Dwight Eisenhower, who was regarded by many as America’s pastor.
During this period, there’s a huge civil religious awakening, where America views itself as God’s chosen people with a divine mission to export American democracy and American ideas of liberty all over the world.
What’s critical with all these versions of Christian nationalism is that they all assume inevitable progress. The United States will continue to grow to become the greatest nation on earth with the greatest citizens on earth because we are a Christian nation God has chosen to lead the world. Interestingly, this belief undergoes a massive revision among conservative evangelicals in the late 1970s.
The Christian America thesis
The version of Christian nationalism we’re living with today is known as the Christian America Thesis, which emerged in 1977. It appears with the publication of a book called The Light and the Glory by Peter Marshall and David Manuel. They argue that not only did God choose America, but America is a new Israel. This book is wildly popular and is published around the same time Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye and several others formed the Moral Majority in opposition to policies of the Carter administration.
Unlike previous versions of Christian nationalism, which looked toward the future, the Christian America Thesis looks to the past. They argue America has lost its way and needs to be taken back for God.
“They all agree on one thing: We’ve got to go back to our Christian founding and our Christian roots.”
Although the Christian America Thesis is argued by a host of different people who disagree about what a Christian nation should look like, they all agree on one thing: We’ve got to go back to our Christian founding and our Christian roots.
This dramatic shift was inspired by a number of factors. Christianity was beginning to lose cultural relevance. Liberal policies promoting equality and civil rights for minorities and women were becoming mainstream. Globalism was creating economic turbulence, disrupting industry in the United States. With the military loss in Vietnam, the Soviet Union seemed to be winning the Cold War and threatened to overtake Asia and Europe.
All these factors combined to make evangelicals feel God was punishing the United States for straying from the Christian foundations that made America so great in the first place.
An imagined past
Modern Christian nationalism is obsessed with the Revolutionary War period. The leaders of this movement often describe how the Founding Fathers who wrote the Constitution were evangelical Christians who came to this land because of their deep Christian faith. Proof of this dedication is the fact that the United States won the war against the British. This victory was so statistically improbable given the power of the British Army that the only way the Americans could have won was because God was on their side.
Of course, this belief that the Founding Fathers were evangelical Christians is a fiction. Most of the Founding Fathers were Deists.
Deism came about as the result of Enlightenment thinking. When Isaac Newton created the mathematics of calculus, the science of physics was born. Physics made everything predictable. Everything was a known quantity and, therefore, the idea that God was manipulating the universe felt implausible to educated individuals. They viewed God as akin to a watchmaker who set the universe in motion and stepped back to let it run.
As a result, 18th century Christianity went through a major revision. Many Enlightenment thinkers still believed in the existence of God, they simply rejected the idea that God intervenes in the universe.
This means most Enlightenment Christians (which were the vast majority of the Founding Fathers who wrote the United States Constitution) rejected miracles. Thomas Jefferson is a great example of this perspective. Jefferson created his own version of the Bible where he took a scalpel and cut out any portion of the New Testament where miracles occurred.
However, you never would know this was the case listening to modern evangelicals. From their perspective, the Founding Fathers mirrored every single one of their beliefs down to specifics on every issue critical to them in the 21st century.
The Founding Fathers were pro-life and anti-abortion.
The Founding Fathers were pro-gun and would want every American to own an AR-15 rifle.
The Founding Fathers not only would want prayer in schools but for those schools to teach an explicitly Christian education.
Finally, and most importantly, even though the First Amendment to the Constitution introduced religious freedom, the Founding Fathers created the United States to be an explicitly Christian nation.
Within this purview is a belief that the closer you get to the founding of our nation, the more the American population was free from government interference. Sadly, what is often omitted from this revisionist history is the fact that this freedom really only applied to a certain subset of white, European males.
Until the late 19th century, if you were Black, you were enslaved. If you were native, you were exterminated. If you were a woman, you had no fundamental rights to own property or to vote. If you were Irish or Italian, you were sequestered into urban slums and often taken advantage of by industrialists.
In this way, the Christian nationalist perspective is deeply infused with a belief that a Christian nation is really a white nation.
Recall that in O’Sullivan’s articulation of Manifest Destiny, Anglo-Saxonism is a very prominent feature of the inevitable progress of a future American society. For modern Christian nationalists, white culture and white prosperity are considered dominant features of the foundation of the United States.
This is why in the election of 2016, Christian nationalists and white nationalists found themselves politically aligned as an overlapping voting bloc.
‘Make America Great Again’
The racial elements of Christian nationalism cannot be overstated. With the emergence of white evangelical Christianity in the 1970s, the evangelical church became intertwined with the Republican Party, whose political platform enacted policies directed at crippling the forward progress of minorities, in particular the Black community.
The War on Drugs gave rise to the prison industrial complex, ensuring one out of every three Black men in America would find themselves behind bars. Cutting funding for public education and social services, particularly in poor urban areas, ensured Black men would earn 87 cents for every dollar made by a white man, while Black women, who are often the primary income earners for families who have been ripped apart by the American legal system, make just 64 cents for every dollar a white man makes.
This symbiotic relationship between white evangelicals and the Republican Party worked well until an unexpected political phenom rose through the ranks to become president in 2008. All of sudden, the unthinkable had occurred with the United States electing its first Black president.
This was a seismic shift that signaled how the demographics of the country were rapidly changing. With declining birthrates, the white majority was quickly losing ground, while minority populations were increasing in size, set to become the majority by 2045.
“This slogan signaled to evangelical Christians that Trump was going to return America to its former glory as a Christian nation.”
With the election of Barack Obama, an existential angst set in among white evangelical Christians where, for the first time in recent memory, they perceived an imbalanced power dynamic. This is what Donald Trump homed in on with his election slogan Make America Great Again. This slogan signaled to evangelical Christians that Trump was going to return America to its former glory as a Christian nation, which among Christian nationalists signaled his mission was to reestablish white prosperity.
Therefore, when Trump won the election, even though the odds were highly stacked against him, many evangelicals believed Trump’s victory was God’s providence at work. Similar to George Washington’s victory during the Revolutionary War, God gave Trump the presidency because his intention was to return America to its roots, allowing the United States to reclaim its true identity as a white Christian nation.
From Evangelical Christianity to Christian nationalism
The evangelical reaction to Trump’s victory pulled back the curtain to reveal an important truth: Many evangelical Christians today, because their religious identity is so infused with politics, particularly the politics of the Republican Party, are worshiping the political religion of Manifest Destiny. There is no distinction between their politics and their religion. They are one and the same.
“Christianity has become a cultural identity for many who see the United States as the center of their worship.”
They have unknowingly confused the Christian religion with Christian nationalism. In fact, in the last six years, a shocking trend has occurred where there are an increasing number of people who identify as evangelical Christian, but have no connection to the Christian religion itself. Similar to Judaism as a cultural identity, Christianity has become a cultural identity for many who see the United States as the center of their worship.
Indeed, many evangelical churches are knowingly complicit in cultivating this cultural identity among their followers. They promote a version of Christianity that emphasizes all the elements of Christian nationalism, while deemphasizing any teachings from Jesus that might undercut their very narrow perspective. They will say Jesus was a capitalist, when, in reality, Jesus despised materialism. They will say Jesus desires violence against the enemies of the United States, when, in reality, Jesus was heavily pacifistic. They will say Jesus deplores homosexuality and abortion, when, in reality, he never addressed the subjects at all in the Gospels.
It’s no coincidence that there is such a high correlation between states that overwhelmingly voted for Trump and states with low educational achievement scores. The states ranked worst in education are the same states where evangelical churches are most likely to preach political religion from the pulpit.
Even though a number of evangelical churches in recent years have taken a stand against Trump because of the January 6 insurrection, as we gear up for the 2024 elections, the internal conflict among evangelical Christians who are actually Christian nationalists will quickly become evident.
“Trump never was a Christian candidate for president. He was a Christian nationalist candidate.”
If the polls remain consistent, Trump likely will be the Republican candidate again for the 2024 election. Trump never was a Christian candidate for president. He was a Christian nationalist candidate. The question on everyone’s mind is whether or not the power of Trump’s political religion will be enough to take him over the top to once again become the leader of the free world.
As a pastor who cares deeply about Jesus’ teachings and his message of love and reconciliation, I certainly hope not. But then again, I am a pastor who preaches the Christian religion, not Christian nationalism.
My voice is in the minority. I always have been, I just never realized it. I normally end my articles with some kind of practical solution. This time, I don’t have one. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last 20 years of working in the church, these beliefs are deeply entrenched. They cannot be overcome with logic and conversation.
Alexander Lang is a Presbyterian pastor in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Known for his distinctive preaching style, he blends history, science, culture and Scripture into spiritually relevant messages. He runs a website called Restorative Faith, where this column originally was published. He is the author of a recently viral piece there on why he left the pastorate.
American exceptionalism at a crossroads? | Opinion by Bill Leonard
It’s time to stop giving Christianity a pass on white supremacy and violence | Opinion by Robert P. Jones