Opinion: What is Christian Nationalism, exactly?

File photo/Pete Marovich/The New York Times / Paula White, a Florida televangelist and religious adviser to President Donald Trump, speaks at the White House in Washington on Jan. 16, 2020.
File photo/Pete Marovich/The New York Times / Paula White, a Florida televangelist and religious adviser to President Donald Trump, speaks at the White House in Washington on Jan. 16, 2020.

If you're alarmed by the rise of Christian nationalism, the single worst thing you can do is define it too broadly. If you define it too broadly, then you're telling millions of ordinary churchgoing citizens that the importation of their religious values into the public square somehow places them in the same camp or on the same side as actual Christian supremacists, the illiberal authoritarians who want to remake America in their own fundamentalist image.

Enter the new feature-length documentary "God and Country," which examines the role of Christian nationalism in American politics. Even before I knew that Rob Reiner (the director of "A Few Good Men") was involved in the project, I agreed to be interviewed by the filmmakers for two key reasons: First, I wanted to make sure that I could offer a sensible definition of Christian nationalism, one that didn't cast aspersions on Christians simply for bringing their values into the public square. And second, I wanted to outline exactly why actual Christian nationalism presents a real danger to our Constitution.

To understand what Christian nationalism is, it's important to understand what it is not. It is not Christian nationalism if a person's political values are shaped by the individual's Christian faith. In fact, many of America's most important social movements have been infused with Christian theology and Christian activism. Many of our nation's abolitionists thundered their condemnations of slavery from Northern pulpits. The Civil Rights Movement wasn't exclusively Christian by any means, but it was pervasively Christian — Martin Luther King Jr. was, of course, a Baptist minister.

The problem with Christian nationalism isn't with Christian participation in politics but rather the belief that there should be Christian primacy in politics and law.

Sociologists Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead define Christian nationalism as a "cultural framework that blurs distinctions between Christian identity and American identity, viewing the two as closely related and seeking to enhance and preserve their union." Author and pastor Matthew McCullough defines Christian nationalism as "an understanding of American identity and significance held by Christians wherein the nation is a central actor in the world-historical purposes of the Christian God." Both definitions are excellent, but what does ideological Christian nationalism look like in practice?

In 2022, a coalition of right-wing writers and leaders published a document called "National Conservatism: A Statement of Principles." Its section on God and public religion states: "Where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private." That's an extraordinary — and ominous — ideological statement, one that would immediately relegate non-Christians to second-class status. It's utterly contrary to the First Amendment and would impose a form of compelled deference to Christianity on both religious minorities and the nonreligious.

But Christian nationalism isn't just rooted in ideology; it's also deeply rooted in identity, the belief that Christians should rule. This is the heart of the Seven Mountain Mandate, a dominionist movement emerging from American Pentecostalism that is, put bluntly, Christian identity politics on steroids. Paula White, Donald Trump's closest spiritual adviser, is an adherent, and so is the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Tom Parker, who wrote a concurring opinion in the court's recent IVF decision. The movement holds that Christians are called to rule seven key societal institutions: the family, the church, education, the media, the arts, business and the government.

The use of Christianity as an unofficial but necessary qualification for office is a routine part of politics in the most churhgoing parts of America.

But what is Christian identity politics but another form of Christian supremacy? How does Christian identity alone make any person a better candidate for office? After all, many of the worst actors in American politics are professed believers.

Finally, we can't forget the intense emotion of Christian nationalism. Most believers don't follow ideological and theological arguments particularly closely. In the words of historian Thomas Kidd, "Actual Christian nationalism is more a visceral reaction than a rationally chosen stance." It is tied, in other words, to a visceral sense that the fate of the church is closely tied to the outcome of any given political race.

That fervor can make believers gullible and potentially even dangerous. Its good-versus-evil dynamic can make Christians believe that their political opponents are capable of anything, including stealing an election. It artificially raises the stakes of elections to the point where a loss becomes an unthinkable catastrophe, with the fates of both church and state hanging in the balance. As we saw on Jan. 6, 2021, this belief invites violent action.

Committed Christian nationalists represent only 10% of the population, according to a 2023 PRRI/Brookings Christian Nationalism Survey. But even members of a minority that small can gain outsize power when they fold themselves into the larger Christian electorate, casting themselves as "just like you." That's why we cannot conflate Christian activism with Christian nationalism. One can welcome Christian participation in the public square while resisting domination, from any faith or creed.

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