Critics of Christian nationalism often assert that its adherents believe that America was founded as a Christian nation and therefore Christianity should be favored by the federal government. On more than one occasion, I have been accused of holding these positions, perhaps in part because I argue in Did America Have a Christian Founding? that America’s founders were profoundly influenced by Christianity. However, critics who bother to read the book will see that I conclude that “the constitutional order the founders created has benefited citizens of every faith—as well of those who do not hold to any faith at all. One need not be a Christian to profit from limited government, checks and balances, and the rule of law. With respect to religion, the founders were clear that citizens of any faith are free to worship and act according to the dictates of their conscience.”1 Moreover, I specifically criticize the view that the First Amendment protects only Christians. Leaders of four religious liberty advocacy groups—all of which advocate for Christians and non-Christians alike—and scholars from multiple religious traditions endorsed the book.
Given my record on these issues, I must confess to being surprised when Andrew Seidel, then of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, accused me of being the “Zamboni of Christian nationalism” during a debate at the University of Louisville.2 About a year ago, a sociologist who writes on Christian nationalism speculated on Twitter that I thought religious liberty only applied to Christians. I would provide a link to his tweet, but its author has since blocked me (to my knowledge, the only person ever to do so). As a final example, without offering any evidence to support his claim, activist historian Jemar Tisby has labeled me a “white Christian nationalist.”3
Prior to 2022, virtually no American had self-labeled as a “Christian nationalist” or advocated for “Christian nationalism.” Indeed, in the United States, almost no one used the phrase until 2006, when polemical critics started using it to describe a horrifying movement of Christian theocrats who desire to take over America and oppress everyone except for white Christian males.4
"GIVEN MY RECORD ON THESE ISSUES,
I MUST CONFESS TO BEING SURPRISED WHEN ANDREW SEIDEL, THEN OF THE FREEDOM FROM RELIGION FOUNDATION, ACCUSED ME OF BEING THE ‘ZAMBONI OF CHRISTIAN NATIONALISM’ DURING A DEBATE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF LOUISVILLE."
Georgetown’s Paul Miller accurately describes these polemical works as “rather extreme and almost comical examples of beating up on straw men—or would be, if they weren’t also fear-mongering scurrilous libel masquerading as scholarship.”5 But the polemical authors have been joined by academics who paint a similarly frightening picture. For instance, sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry describe Christian nationalism as “an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture” that “includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism. It is as ethnic and political as it is religious. Understood in this light, Christian nationalism contends that America has been and should always be distinctively ‘Christian’ … from top to bottom—in its self-identity, interpretations of its own history, sacred symbols, cherished values, and public policies—and it aims to keep it this way.”6 They calculate that 51.9 percent of Americans fully or partially support this toxic stew.7
Fortunately, as I have argued elsewhere,8 excellent reasons exist to believe that Whitehead and Perry have grossly inflated the percentage of Americans who are Christian nationalists. Like most critics of the phenomenon, Whitehead and Perry do not hide their political biases. For instance, they explain that opponents of abortion are merely concerned about “male authority over women’s bodies” and suggest that citizens who believe that religious liberty means “something more than freedom to worship” are bigots.9
Critics of Christian nationalism are not against Christians bringing their faith into the public square to advocate for laws and policies that they favor. For instance, they laud American abolitionists and civil rights activists who were motivated by their faith—as well they should.10 But it is evident that an underlying motivation of most critics is to shame conservative Christians who desire to bring their faith into the public square. Polemical and scholarly works of this sort do little to foster civil discourse.
"PRIOR TO 2022, VIRTUALLY NO AMERICAN HAD SELF-LABELED AS A ‘CHRISTIAN NATIONALIST’ OR ADVOCATED FOR ‘CHRISTIAN NATIONALISM’."
Nor is it helpful that critics of Christian nationalism breathlessly declare that Christian nationalism poses “an existential threat to American democracy and the Christian church in the United States”;11 an “existential threat to a government of the people, for the people, and by the people”;12 or “the greatest threat to democracy and the witness of the church in the United States today.”13 Such rhetoric stirs fears and encourages critics to regard their fellow Americans as fascists14 or
Few Americans had claimed to be Christian nationalists until the summer of 2022, when Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene embraced the label.16 Shortly thereafter, Douglas Wilson, the provocative pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, argued that the concept is “salvageable.”17 The fall of 2022 saw the publication of two books advocating for Christian nationalism, most prominently Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism.18 Michael Flynn’s “ReAwaken America” rallies19 and inflammatory antics20 by pastors such as Greg Locke stoke concerns about Christian nationalism—or something closely akin to it.
"IT IS CERTAINLY REASONABLE TO ENGAGE SUCH CHRISTIANS AND OBJECT TO THEIR PREFERRED POLICIES, BUT WE WOULD ALL BE FAR BETTER OFF IF WE FOCUSED ON DISCUSSING THE ISSUES RATHER THAN NAME-CALLING."
Advocates who openly embrace Christian nationalism differ among themselves, but some of them embrace views that are rightly a cause of concern for many Americans, including me.21 For instance, Wolfe contends that a Christian nation will be led by a Christian “Prince” who may tolerate non-Christians who keep their beliefs to themselves, but their political status “is a matter of prudence.”22 On the other hand, “arch heretics” may be put to death, although “banishment or long term imprisonment may suffice as well.”23 As well, the Christian Prince will not permit married women to vote.24
Although no Christian Prince is on the horizon, such claims reasonably alarm citizens who believe in religious liberty and gender equality. More broadly, it is simply imprudent for Christians to attempt to “salvage” a term that until recently has only been used to criticize conservative Christians who bring their faith into the public square. Greene, Wilson, Wolfe, and their fellow travelers are not contributing to reasonable civic debate.
In October 2022, Pew reported that 54 percent of Americans haven’t even heard of the phrase “Christian nationalism”; 5 percent have a favorable view of it; and 24 percent have an unfavorable view.25 If even 5 percent of Americans adhered to the toxic stew that Whitehead and Perry call Christian nationalism, that finding would be troubling. But it is entirely possible that these Americans embrace something better-called Christian patriotism. I concede that one could be a Christian nationalist by some definitions and not identify oneself as such, but this Pew report should at least give pause to those who warn that America is one step away from becoming a theocracy.
I have been critical of much of the literature on American Christian nationalism, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think it exists or that it is not problematic. Indeed, I have defined and suggested ways it may be measured26 and am currently writing a book on the topic that greatly expands these arguments. Because many of its adherents consider themselves to be Christians, Christians should be among its leading critics.
Since 2006, Christian nationalism has primarily been used to shame Christians who bring their faith into the public square to advocate for policies deemed to be “conservative.” It is certainly reasonable to engage such Christians and object to their preferred policies, but we would all be far better off if we focused on discussing the issues rather than name-calling. And the handful of Christians who do advocate for Christian nationalism should stop attempting to “salvage” a label that has become synonymous with racism, sexism, and religious intolerance.
1. Mark David Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding?: Separating Modern Myth from Historical Truth (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2019), 154, ii–vi, 145–146.
2. Mark David Hall and Andrew Seidel, "Influence of Christianity on America’s Founders," C-SPAN, September 11, 2019, video, 1:20:28, https://www.c-span.org/video/?463878-1/influence-christianity-americas-founders.
3. Jemar Tisby, “White Christian Nationalists Are Scrambling to Respond to Public Criticism of Their Ideology,” Footnotes, October 24, 2022, https://jemartisby.substack.com/p/white-christian-nationalists-are.
4. Mark David Hall, “Tilting at Windmills: The ‘Threat’ of Christian Nationalism,” Standing for Freedom Center, February 8, 2022, https://www.standingforfreedom.com/2022/02/tilting-at-windmills-the-threat-of-christian-nationalism/.
5. Paul D. Miller, The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022), 44.
6. Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), ix–x, 10.
7. Ibid., 25.
8. Hall, “Tilting at Windmills.”
9. Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back, 76, 119.
10. Americans United (@americansunited), “The life experience of Sojourner Truth is an excellent example of how religion can be used as a means of activism and not as an excuse to discriminate….,” Twitter, February 23, 2023, https://twitter.com/americansunited/status/1628741881713553415; Jemar Tisby, “The Patriotic Witness of Black Christians,” BJC, February 9, 2022, 7–9, https://bjconline.org/wpcontent/uploads/2022/02/Christian_Nationalism_and_the_Jan6_Insurrection-2-9-22.pdf.
11. Andrew Whitehead (@ndrewwhitehead), “Christian nationalism is an existential threat to American democracy and the Christian church in the United States….,” Twitter, February 13, 2022, https://mobile.twitter.com/ndrewwhitehead/status/1492960031595282439.
12. Andrew L. Seidel (@AndrewLSeidel), “‘I think that Christian nationalism is the biggest threat to America today. An existential threat to the government of the people, for the people, and by the people.’…,” Twitter, February 9, 2021, video, 1:06, https://twitter.com/AndrewLSeidel/status/1359315394209722371.
13. Nick Reynolds, “A Powerful Minority, Christian Nationalism is Democracy’s ‘Greatest Threat’,” Newsweek, February 9, 2023, https://www.newsweek.com/christian-nationalism-democracy-greatest-threat-brookings-public-religion-research-institute-survey-1780236.
14. Carolyn Baker, Confronting Christofacism: Healing the Evangelical Wound (Hannacroix: Apocryphile Press, 2021), 3–25.
15. Dave WinX (@davewinx), “Christian Nationalism is just another term for Nazi. It is inherently racist, bigoted, violent, and unAmerican. America is not and has never been a Christian country….,” Twitter, February 22, 2023, https://twitter.com/dave_winx/status/1628381464923451392.
16. Jack Jenkins, “Republicans Mostly Mum on Calls to Make GOP ‘Party of Christian Nationalism’,” Washington Post, August 19, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2022/08/19/republicans-mostly-mum-calls-make-gop-party-christian-nationalism/.
17. Caldron Pool, “The Caldron Pool Show: #34 What Is Christian Nationalism? (with Doug Wilson),” YouTube, October 3, 2022, video, 1:01:14, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsFhrtx_zgk.
18. Stephen Wolfe, The Case for Christian Nationalism (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2022); Andrew Torba and Andrew Isker, Christian Nationalism: A Biblical Guide for Taking Dominion and Discipling Nations (N.p.: Gab Publishing, 2022).
19. Michelle R. Smith and Richard Lardner, “Michael Flynn Is Recruiting an ‘Army of God’ in Growing Christian Nationalist Movement,” PBS, October 7, 2022, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/michael-flynn-is-recruiting-an-army-of-god-in-growing-christian-nationalist-movement.
20. Aysha Khan, “Tennessee Pastor Posts Video Burning Book That Critiques Christian Nationalism,” Religion News Service, October 24, 2019, https://religionnews.com/2019/10/24/tennessee-pastor-posts-video-burning-book-that-critiques-christian-nationalism/.
21. Mark David Hall, “The Case for Patriarchal Christian Localism,” American Reformer, December 7, 2022, https://americanreformer.org/2022/12/stephen-wolfes-gift/.
22. Wolfe, The Case for Christian Nationalism, 392.
23. Ibid., 391.
24. Ibid., 73.
25. Gregory A. Smith, Michael Rotolo, and Patricia Tevington, “3. Views of the U.S. as a ‘Christian Nation’ and Opinions about ‘Christian Nationalism’,” Pew Research, October 27, 2022, https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2022/10/27/views-of-the-u-s-as-a-christian-nation-and-opinions-about-christian-nationalism/.
26. Mark David Hall, “American Christian Nationalism: What Is It? What Should We Think about It?,” Discourse Magazine, October 24, 2022, https://www.discoursemagazine.com/culture-and-society/2022/10/24/american-christian-nationalism-what-is-it-what-should-we-think-about-it/.
Mark David Hall is a professor at George Fox University. He is currently serving as a Garwood Visiting Fellow at Princeton University’s James Madison Program, a Visiting Scholar at the Mercatus Center, and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Law, Religion, and Democracy. He is the author of Proclaim Liberty throughout All the Land: How Christianity Has Advanced Freedom and Equality for All Citizens.