The term “Christian nationalism” was invented by the nation’s liberal “occupiers” as part of a “Maoist insurgency” to deny evangelicals’ religious freedom and democratic rights, according to a recent town hall moderated by Family Research Council President Tony Perkins.
The conservative church “is surrounded by this huge army” determined “to discourage us and call us to step back,” Perkins said Oct. 12 during “The Rise of the Term Christian Nationalism: Where Did It Come from and Why Is It Being Used?” a hybrid gathering featuring former U.S. congresswoman and presidential candidate Michele Bachmann and other conservative voices.
But their assertions were met with immediate opposition during a follow-on webinar by Christian leaders asserting that Christian nationalism is the political and religious ideology driving efforts to limit voting rights, threaten democracy and end the separation of church and state.
“Perkins and his guests made the claim that Christian nationalism is simply a label assigned to ‘followers of Jesus Christ’” in an effort to smear critics as bigots, said Nathan Empsall, an Episcopal priest and executive director of Faithful America, a grassroots Christian social justice organization and host of a webinar convened immediately after the conservative town hall.
“In making that claim, it was actually Perkins and his panel who marginalized tens of millions of Christians by conflating all Christianity with conservative, white evangelical Christianity, ignoring that ours is a diverse, beautiful, global religion and that many, if not most, critics of Christian nationalism are Christians,” Empsall said.
Christianity under attack?
But participants in the “Pray Vote Stand” event hosted by FRC and Regent University, where Bachmann serves as business dean, were adamant that it is they and other conservative Christians who are under attack.
Those warning against the rise of Christian nationalism “are intentionally trying to intimidate the church, yes, intimidate Christians, make us think that we are the haters and the bigots,” said Gary Hamrick, pastor of Cornerstone Chapel, the Leesburg, Va., church that hosted the town hall. “It’s just an attempt to marginalize us. They want you to sit it out. They don’t want you to be engaged.”
Speaker Mark David Hall, a professor of politics at George Fox University, described the term “Christian nationalism” as a concoction of those “who wanted to conflate God and country” with racism, sexism and militarism.
The ideology’s role in the Jan. 6 insurrection has been overblown, and popular research claiming its widespread support has been “fundamentally flawed” and designed to communicate that “if you try to defend a more robust understanding of religious liberty, you’re a bigot,” he told the conservative group.
Stephen Coughlin, an attorney and former military intelligence officer, said the term is a weapon of “political warfare” based on “the Maoist insurgency model,” which is “the dominant form of the left that occupies the United States right now.”
The LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter movements are expressions of that insurgency, Coughlin added. “It denies your right to say that you’re an American, that you’re a Christian.”
Defending ‘biblical values’
Bachmann told the conservative audience to take heart because the left’s need to use the term “Christian nationalism” shows that Christians are standing up for the biblical values.
“We’re here today because some of us have noticed that there was something happening in the culture, and it was aimed at all of you. It was aimed at the church. … And it was aimed at the church because the church has been doing something right and believers have been doing something right.”
Those biblical values got Donald Trump elected to the presidency in 2016, which led to the appointment of values-driven Supreme Court justices who in turn ended Roe v. Wade, she said. “And that is how a nation can be a nation that serves the Lord, because it understands the Lord.”
Empsall countered that this fundamental misunderstanding of Christianity and nation proves Christian nationalism exists.
“This is how they justify passing public policies grounded in a conservative form of religion, such as the denial of LGBTQ rights, abortion access and attacks on school curriculums,” he said. “Without the claim that America is a Christian nation where conservative Christians should have more rights than non-Christians, there is no legal justification to support these theocratic attacks on equal rights.”
Hence the urgent need for an impromptu webinar to push back against the assertions made by Perkins and his fellow speakers, he said. “Tonight, we’re talking about Christian nationalism, which is perhaps the greatest threat facing democracy and the church today. And that’s why more and more Christians across the country are speaking out against this political hijacking of our faith, why it contradicts the gospel and why so many Christians object to Christian nationalism.”
A ‘danger to the church’
In addition to being a threat to democracy, Christian nationalism also is a danger to the church itself, said Jemar Tisby, professor of history at Simmons College of Kentucky and author of How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey Toward Racial Justice.
“When people say they are leaving Christianity or that they don’t want to have anything to do with it, what reasons do they give? Is it because Christians are being too inclusive, too loving? No, it’s because they look at white Christian nationalists who say the nation should privilege Christians who have a certain kind of understanding of religion over and against all others.”
Tisby, some of whose tweets denouncing Christian nationalism were criticized during Perkins’ town hall, added that the Black church is discounted by those who believe the United States should be linked to only one form of Christianity.
“The Black church and Black people have been patriotic from the beginning, fighting in every war this nation has had despite not having the same rights as anyone else.”
“This is one of the things that weighs most heavily on me: the complete dismissal of the existence and legitimacy of the historic Black Christian tradition,” he said. “There is no analysis or room for the idea that people can practice Christianity in any other way than what they’re putting forward. The reality is Black Christians have put forth a very different model of how faith and politics interact. … The Black church and Black people have been patriotic from the beginning, fighting in every war this nation has had despite not having the same rights as anyone else.”
Tisby noted that Perkins and his supporters offered “no acknowledgement that people can deeply, deeply believe in Jesus and try to follow Jesus, but do it in a way that’s so different. Just understand what is put forth as Christianity by white Christian nationalists is not the only witness.”
In ‘conflict with Scripture’
The hierarchy of value that Christian nationalism places on human beings based on skin color and religion is in direct conflict with Scripture, said Jennifer Butler, a Presbyterian minister, founder in residence of Faith in Public Life and author of Who Stole My Bible?: Reclaiming Scripture as a Handbook for Resisting Tyranny.
Understanding that the God of the Bible is a liberator, she said, will help in the push “for a multiracial, multifaith democracy and to reclaim our faith for what it is: a truly radical call to honor the dignity of every single human being on this planet regardless of race, nationality, religion, sexuality and gender, and to understand that God is the God who liberates slaves and who frees those who’ve been oppressed.”
Butler urged an examination of biblical accounts such as the ancient Israelites’ freedom from bondage in Egypt to better grasp God’s role toward the kind of subjugation envisioned by Christian nationalists.
“Christian nationalism is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
“I think a lot of white Christians in America today have been led astray. Christian nationalism is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s not Christianity, but it uses the symbols and the images of Christianity to cloak violence and hierarchy and oppression, and it uses language that looks palatable to people.”
Opposition to Christian nationalism must be rooted in holy Scripture, she said. “Our text truly is a handbook for resisting tyranny and authoritarianism” because “our whole Bible helps ground us in spiritual practices that can help us through this present moment.”
People of faith must also join in coalitions to oppose Christian nationalism and white supremacy, Butler added. “It’s important now that we really speak out and help people understand the values that we bring, in terms of human dignity and liberation, to the public square. There have been times where we’ve been reticent to do that, but we can do that in a way that lifts up an inclusive vision for the entire nation.”
Connection to January 6
Sojourners President Adam Russell Taylor invoked the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election as examples of Christian nationalism run amok. “This marriage between white Christian nationalism and the MAGA movement represents a grave threat to our democracy.”
That fact was discernible even during the Family Research Council event which “severely misrepresented and understated the degree to which Christian symbols were misused and abused on Jan. 6,” Taylor said. “They never mentioned the Oath Keepers by name. They never mentioned the Proud Boys and other extremist groups, many of whose members prayed not just in the Capitol, but before they entered the Capitol and engaged in a violent insurrection.”
The consequences of Christian nationalism have been obvious in other ways, as well, Taylor said. “Former President Trump has doubled down on the Big Lie … as a pretense to justify a series of efforts around the country to make it more difficult for communities of color, particularly Black and brown communities, to exercise their sacred right to vote.”
The fruits of this deceit can be witnessed in race-based voting barriers being erected in Southern and Midwestern states, he asserted. “There is this strong connection between the white Christian nationalist movement and a strong embrace of an anti-democratic movement in this country. They both need to be resisted to rehabilitate the witness of the church and to protect what has become a very fragile democracy.”