February 25, 2024

Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, And The Quotidian Academic Terror Of “Christian Nationalism”, Part 1 (Carl Raschke)

The following is the first of a two-part series.

What exactly is “Christian nationalism”?  Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this year, a tight little clique of prominent academics and journalists have been on a campaign to convince Americans that riding on last November’s narrow Republican success in electoral control of the House of Representative  is a murky, but extremely malevolent political fifth column that seeks to end democracy as we know it – something called “Christian nationalism”.

Journalist Catherine Stewart has been the most vehement in sounding the tocsin. Writing last July in The New York Times, Stewart warned that the would-be Christian nationalist agenda “should terrify anyone concerned for the future of constitutional democracy”.[1]  The controversial SCOTUS decision is merely the first step in prosecuting “a war on individual rights” in every sector of American political life from imposing Christian doctrine in the public schools to mobilizing Bible-waving brownshirts to behave in future close elections even more violently than certain Trump supporters did on January 6, 2021.

In a more recent article Stewart argues that what makes the movement even more dangerous is that “Christian nationalists” don’t even know how dangerous they really are, and that those leaders who have the inside view go out of the way to deceive both the public and their own followers about what they are really up to.[2]   Indeed, Christian nationalism is the secret agenda of the entire Republican party, so far as Stewart is concerned. If Republicans take over Congress, she opines, “we can be sure that they will pursue the authoritarian agenda laid out for them by the Christian nationalist movement’s leadership and its allies.”

To be fair, “Christian nationalism” is an expression that has been around for quite a while. Although scholars have rarely reached any kind of real consensus on what it means, the term has been historically associated with a wide spectrum of conventional as well as fringe politics that seek to foreground “Christian” symbols values, broadly understood, in the shaping of both domestic and foreign policy.  Both Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., who invoked Biblical imagery in their speeches, could be considered Christian nationalists in this fairly generic sense.  

Sociologists Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead in an oft-cited study, however, stipulate a more precise signification for Christian nationalism, characterizing it as “an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture.”  That particular ideology just happens to correspond in most details in their work with what since the Reagan era has been known simply as “the religious right.”[3]

At the same time Perry in a piece for Religion News Service takes it one step further, conflating “Christian nationalism” with the violent anti-government militia movements of the 1990s, some of whom were openly neo-Nazi, as well as David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, who died in a fiery standoff with federal agents in their compound near Waco, Texas.[4]  In a similar essay forTime his colleague Whitehead equates Christian nationalism with “authoritarian control” that “includes the threat and use of violence.”[5]

In going far beyond their earlier, more modest claims about what is Christian nationalism, Stewart, Perry, and Whitehead are clearly engaged in not-so-subtle agitprop to throw shade on what in the 2004 election were blandly construed as “values voters,” that is, religion-minded members of the American electorate who opted for George W. Bush over John Kerry, because the former came across to them as endorsing their traditional views of faith and family.[6]

In contrast, the Christian nationalist alarmists wield a rucksack of rhetorical subterfuges aimed at equating the same perennial set of conservative voters with all sorts of negative political stereotypes. Some, particularly on the trending Twitter thread #Christian Nationalism, even go so far as to gaslight them with the label of “Christofascists”.  

The litmus test for whether someone is a Christian nationalist, according to Perry and Whitehead, is whether they agree with the proposition that America is a “Christian nation”. A recent inquiry by Pew researchers found that almost half of the country does, in fact, agree.

Accordingly, such a finding would suggest half the country is on the verge of goose-stepping us all into a dire, dystopian, Handmaiden-like future.  However, what the Pew data actually shows is that the same respondents have wildly divergent views concerning what a “Christian nation” actually means, ranging from whether the United States should be “guided by Christian values” to allowing words from the Bible to be inscribed in public places.[7] 

Furthermore, a sizable majority of these purported “Christian nationalists” in Pew’s inquiry have no interest in breaching the fabled “wall of separation” between church and state.  notwithstanding some random off-the-cuff comments by attention-grabbing politicians such as Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, whom the alarmists constantly cite as proof of the underlying conspiracy to turn this country into an Iranian-style theocracy.[8]

The other ambiguity in the polling question, of course, is whether America is statistically a Christian nation (it is), or whether it should be in perpetuity. Most of the change in recent years has not come from a surge of other religions to shift the historic balance between dominant and minority faiths, but between those who identify as Christians and those who consciously do not embrace any religious view whatsoever.  Between 2007 and 2012 alone, according to Pew, the proportion of so-called religious “nones” swelled from 15 to 20 percent of the population, and since then has accelerated even faster.[9]  Today it stands at about a third of the population and continues to accelerate.[10]  

The data does not show by any significant measure that “Christian nationalism”, as the alarmists use the term, is on the rise to the degree that it is a clear and present danger to democratic norms.  If one examines even Perry’s and Whitehead’s own data closely, it rarely supports the exaggerated and increasingly reckless claims they are routinely making in the media.  What does seem to be happening, however, is that some very prominent spin doctors from among the academic and media cognoscenti are going out of their way to convince us that what not so long ago was garden variety cultural conservatism must now be reimagined as an apocalyptic plague on humanity.

In many ways “Christian nationalism” has simply become an all-purpose branding term used to derogate the more conservative forms of Christianity in America, which have flourished since the first Puritan settlers arrived in Massachusetts in the early 17th century.   Academic arguments against conservative Christianity, depending on the era in which they appear, are not only nothing new, they are simply boilerplate.  Furthermore, attacks on “Christian nationalism”, regardless of the presumed connotations of the expression can be traced back several generations.  They were especially during the administration of George W. Bush, who frequently employed triumphalist Christian language to justify American military expeditions into the Middle East as well as domestic policy on certain occasions and who was, of course, a self-proclaimed evangelical Christian.[11]

But the term has always lacked precision and is used far more indiscriminately these days than in the past.  What is different nowadays, however, is that in the aftermath of the Trump era it seems to be wielded as a rhetorical weapon less against the overt politicization of religious assumptions in the pursuit of partisan aims than as a smear against whole swathes of Christian belief and practice itself, which have nothing to do with “nationalism” per se in the sense it is normatively deployed by political researchers or theorists.  

Sociologists Jesse Smith and Gary Adler, Jr. make a extremely well-documented and meticulously argued case against the current “overdetermination” of the term by such prominent authors as Whitehead and Perry. Smith and Adler point out that much of the ongoing hype concerning “Christian nationalism” derives from the systemic misuse of quantitative methods that elicit sweeping inferences from vaguely worded polling queries. Such polling fails to distinguish between Christian nationalism in its obvious manifestations, “civic nationalism”, and generic “religious conservatism”.[12]  

For example, Whitehead and Perry have established something known as a “Christian nationalism” scale that consists in such anodyne questions as “the federal government should advocate Christian values” and “the success of the United States is part of God’s plan.”  If one were to ask such questions of the typical American citizen in the 1950, the answer most likely would have been overwhelmingly affirmative.  Such attitudes have historically belonged to the strain of religiously tinged “civic nationalism” that the sociologist Robert Bellah identified in the late 1960s as America’s “civil religion”.[13] 

Whitehead and Perry do not break down how Americans might parse in different dimensions the the wording of the polling questions, but blithely assume that they somehow increasingly advocate the inseparability of church and state or somehow prefer authoritarianism to electoral politics.  Smith and Adler note the former worry that the fact that the majority of Americans are becoming “Christian nationalists” definition and scaling, which therefore constitutes “an existential threat to the democratic process.”   However, they wryly conclude that if one considers the implications of this analysis, “It seems to follow, paradoxically, that American democracy can be secured only if the political will of more than half of the electorate is decisively thwarted.”[14]

Of course, it is easy to sound the alarm that Christian nationalism is not only on the rise, but consists in an “existential threat” if, as Smith and Adler remark, one simply frames “Christian nationalism as an explanatory mechanism…with few theoretical resources for explaining differentiation between groups who reject the scale items to different degrees.”[15]  There is an abundance of literature – and of course historical evidence – highlighting the close correlation between Protestant sectarianism, Christian messianism, and American democracy[16].  

These trends are not growing, nor are they simply becoming more apparent.  They were always there, and they never abated. As Reinhold Niebuhr so poignantly put it in 1952 at the beginning of the Cold War and the height of the “Red Scare”, the American redemptive “myth” was simultaneously secular and religious. “Whethernour nation interprets its spiritual heritage through Massachusetts or Virginia, we came into existence with the sense of being a ‘separated’ nation, which God was using to make a new beginning for mankind.”[17]  The idea of a “new beginning” is inscribed to this day on the American dollar bill – annuit novus ordo seclorum (“now begins a new order of the ages”).

If we are to go out on a limb, we can perhaps go so far as to claim that “Christian nationalism,” regarded not as a specific policy agenda but as the broader notion that historical Christianity is inextricably interwoven with what Anatol Lieven has dubbed “America’s creed.”[18]  Of course, that is not to make the companion assertion that Christianity, even in the broadest connotation of the phrase, should be the touchstone of the American ideal overall.  The notion, however, that the American “thesis”, as Lieven alternately describes its “creed”, has always been some kind of thoroughly secular, multi-religious pluralism of utterly diverse and privatized practices and convictions is prima facie absurd.

 Such a seemingly intuitive concept was inconceivable in all cultures prior to the second half of the twentieth century and, despite familiar polemics seeking to anchor the architecture of American constitutional government within some kind of pure, “secularist” vision of the European Enlightenment, the hard, historical evidence connects it straightaway to the prevailing traditions of English common law and Lockean liberalism.  Locke, of course, was himself a devout Puritan, and the vast majority of American colonists were Biblical foundationalists, or what in the present era we would label “evangelicals”. 

As Mark Lilla underscores in a groundbreaking, but controversial book over a decade ago, it is only recently – and largely in that part of the world that regards itself as “Western” – that the political and the religious aspects of human life could have been imagined as in any way “separate”.  Lilla dubs this phenomenon “the Great Separation,” which he traces to the thought of the English political theorist Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century as a reaction to the devastating English Civil War between monarchists and Presbyterians.[19] Indeed the very idea of the “secular” as an autonomous political space can be traced to the various Wars of Religion that ravaged the European Continent throughout much of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. 

The inconclusive outcomes of these wars turned out to be the motivating factor behind the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which brought an end to the devastating Thirty Years War that left dead a fifth of the entire German population.  Likewise, it was the Peace of Westphalia that did not simply establish the modern framework for international relations among sovereign nation-states but also for more generalized theories of secular governance and the subordination of the role of religion.[20]

In short, secularism is not a timeless sort of proposition.  Only in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has it become embedded, and even then its permanence or viability remains in doubt.  With the eclipse of Anglo-European hegemony on a planetary scale a moment that has been loosely labeled the time of the “post-secular” is perhaps upon us.[21] Lilla writes:

For over two centuries, from the American and French revolutions to the collapse of Soviet Communism, political life in the West revolved around eminently political questions. We argued about war and revolution, class and social justice, race and national identity. Today we have progressed to the point where we are again fighting the battles of the sixteenth century—over revelation and reason, dogmatic purity and toleration, inspiration and consent, divine duty and common decency. We are disturbed and confused. We find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still inflame the minds of men, stirring up messianic passions that leave societies in ruin. We assumed that this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong.[22]

The issue today is not really, if it ever was, the separation of religion from politics, but the question of whose politics, whose religion?  As I myself have argued forcefully, the political struggle today is inherently one of progressive neoliberalism, which dominates the American academy, and populism.  It is more a class issue than anything else.[23] The expression “Christian nationalism” amounts in many respects to a scramble for useful nomenclature that can be “weaponized” on the part of certain narrowly focused, historically benighted, and politically activist scholars to magnify their own anxiety about long embedded strains of cultural nativism, white racism, and religiously coded forms of working class populism that gained outsize attention because of their support for the Trump presidency. 

These strains, combining classical Christian fundamentalism with anti-elitism, hark all the way back to early years of the twentieth century (cf. the political crusades of William Jennings Bryan) and have been the bulwark of rural and suburban American conservative politics for generations. But there is no evidence they have any greater, or more nefarious, impact now than they did twenty or fifty years ago. The problem arises when bad scholarship and sloppy methodology merge to conjure up a Marvel comic-style caricature of political villainy out of what is, in point of fact, a complicated, profoundly imbricated, and highly ambivalent genome of American cultural self-identification that has persisted for over the two and a half centuries.  As the rudely disparate results of World War II and the Vietnam conflict attest, American messianic politics can in different circumstances prove to be either heroic or felonious.

Lieven stresses that the central issue is how an inherently “redemptive” nationalism plays out on the world stage.  He writes: “Present in all the great powers in modern history has also been an American-style sense of themselves as ‘universal nations’, summing up the best in mankind and also embracing the whole of mankind with their universally applicable values. This sense allowed these nations to claim that theirs was a positive nationalism or patriotism, while those of other nations were negative, because they were morally stunted and concerned only with the interests of nations.[xxiv]”  

Does such a mission lead to social transformation or sustained and largely inconsequential conflict that leaves things much the same as they were at the beginning?  Do we have in mind the glories of securing the beaches of Normandy or the inglorious pullout from Afghanistan in August of 2021?  We revel through our “civil religion” in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, but we forget the failure of Lincoln’s generals almost cost him re-election in 1864, and if it were not for the terrible military miscalculation on the part of the Confederacy during the Battle of Gettysburg that is known as “Pickett’s Charge,” there would have probably been no address in the first place.

Continued

Carl Raschke is Professor of Philosophy of Religion at the University of Denver and Senior Editor of The New Polis. He is the author of numerous books including his Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics (Edinburgh University Press, 2019) and Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015). His forthcoming work is entitled Monopolitics: Sovereignty in the Twenty-First Century.


[1] Katherine Stewart, “Christian Nationalists Are Excited About What Comes Next”, The New York Times 5 (2022).

[2] Katherine Stewart, “Why Are Some Christian Nationalist Leaders Opposed to Being Called Christian Nationalists?”, Oct. 27, 2022, https://newrepublic.com/article/168314/republicans-scared-called-christian-nationalists.  Accessed Feb. 5, 2023.

[3] Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), xix.

[4] Samuel Perry, “After Trump, Christian Nationalist Ideas are Going Mainstream – Despite a History of Violence, Religion News Service (Aug. 5, 2022), https://religionnews.com/2022/08/05/after-trump-christian-nationalist-ideas-are-going-mainstream-despite-a-history-of-violence/.

[5] Andrew Whitehead, “3 Threats Christian Nationalism Poses to the United States”, Time (Sept. 26, 2022), https://time.com/6214724/christian-nationalism-threats-united-states”.  Accessed Dec. 11, 2022.

[6] See my own analysis of this phenomenon in Carl Raschke, “Catholics as ‘Values Voters’”, Guernica Magazine, Oct. 27, 2004, https://www.guernicamag.com/catholics_as_values_voters/.  Accessed Feb. 10, 2023.

[7] Gregory Smith, Michael Rotolo, Patricia Tevington, “45% of Americans Say U.S. Should Be a ‘Christian Nation’”, Pew Research Center, Oct. 27, 2022.

[8] The most common of these targets is a previously obscure author named Stephen Wolfe who has authored a book entitled The Case for Christian Nationalism (Moscow ID: Canon Press, 2022). Wolfe’s author bio on amazon.com states that he is “is a country scholar at Wolfeshire in central North Carolina where he lives with his wife and four children. He recently finished a postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton University’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. Wolfe is co-host of the Ars Politica podcast and has written for Mere Orthodoxy, First Things, Chronicles Magazine, and History of Political ThoughtThe Case for Christian Nationalism is his first book.”

[9] “’Nones’ on the Rise: One in Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation”, Pew Research Center, Oct. 9, 2012.

10] “Modeling the Future of Religion in America”, Pew Research Center, Sepr. 13, 2022.

[11] For a collection of scholarly essays on the influence of evangelicalism on the Bush presidency, see Mark J. Rozell and Gleaves Whitney, eds., Religion and the Bush Presidency (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).  The influence on a militaristic foreign policy is closed analyzed in one of the essays, Kevin R. den Dulk, “Evangelical ‘Internationalists’ and U.S. Foreign Policy During the Bush Administration”, 213-34.  A collection of essays critiquing Bush’s religious efforts to influence domestic policy can be found in Amy E. Black, Douglas L. Koopman, and David K. Ryden, Of Little Faith: George W. Bush’s Faith-Based Initiatives (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2004).

[12] Jesse Smith and Gary J. Adler, Jr., “What Isn’t Christian Nationalism”, A Call for Conceptual and Empirical Splitting,” Socius 8 (2022); 1-14.

[13] Robert Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Daedalus 96 (1967), 1-21.

[14] Smith and Adler, op. cit., 12.

[15 Op. cit., 11.

[16] Redeemer nation.

[17] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (New York: Scribners, 1952), 24.

[18] Anatol Lieven, America Right of Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[19] See Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (New York: Vintage Books, 2008).

[20] The literature covering the subject area of the birth of secularism  is profuse.  However, two major books offer their own version of an apercu into the broader topic.  They are Robert Jackson, Sovereignty: Evolution of an Idea (New York: Polity, 2007) and Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007).

[21] The currency given to the term “post-secular” is usually traced back to a speech by Jürgen Habermas in 2001, even though it was clearly used before that juncture (See Habermas, “Faith and Knowledge – An  Opening”, Frankfurt, German Booksellers Association, Oct. 14, 2001).  See Péter Losonczi and ‎Aakash Singh, eds. Essays on the Habermasian Post-Secular Turn (Münster: LIT Verlag, 2010); Hent de Vries and Lawrence Sullivan, ds., Political Theologies in a Post-Secular World (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006); Roger Haydon Mitchell, Cultivating New Post-Secular Political Space (New York: Routledge, 2020).

[22] Lilla, op. cit., 3.

[23] See Carl Raschke, Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019).

[24 Lieven, op. cit., 34.


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