In the Appalachian foothills of Tennessee, a congregation gathers every Sunday like many churches across the United States. The church is a barn-like structure with a giant American flag painted across a tin roof. The nationalistic decoration gives a ostentatious preview of the message within. The pastor of this church, Ken Peters, starts his message with an overtly political prayer, not unlike the thousands of prayers he has done before. With the crowds approval parsed with “amens,” and “yes, Lords,” Pastor Peters prays for, “communism and socialism and transgenderism and homosexuality and abortion will not have their way in this land,” . His prayer entails a wish that the nation’s “Christian roots” will hold fast against the growing tide of secularism . Peters gives thanks to God, interpreting in his prayer that “this nation is a miracle for you,” proclaiming “You rescued us, and you gave us our independence for a purpose,” . Ken Peters is the pastor and founder of Patriot Church, a more overt example of a constellation of beliefs framed as Christian Nationalism; an ideology that has become a growing threat to American democracy.
Christian Nationalism is described by religious scholar Dr. Andrew Whitehead as a belief “that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture,” . This Christian identity emphasizes a historical Christian nature, cultural preeminence, and political necessity for influence within the United State’s government . For Christian Nationalists, the United States was founded as an explicitly Christian nation, because of this, Christinity not only deserves a privileged place in government, but a necessary one to ensure God’s continued blessing on his chosen country. However, this Christian nation is under assault by “evil” internal and external forces that are trying to degrade this Christian culture . Christian Nationalism in some cases is also a sort of “ethnicism” that co-opts traditional Christian beliefs and conflates Christian identity with white, politically conservative, and natural born citizenship in the United States. This creates a cultural framework in which there is a morally pure “us” (often white, natural-born, social and fiscal conservative) and a morally corrupt “them” (everyone else) . This “us” versus “them” mentality adds a populist dynamic to an already worrisome ideological scaffolding. In its most docile form, Christian Nationalism inherently counters the idea of pluralism, a foundational condition for democracy . In its most extreme cases, Christian Nationalism legitimizes anti-democratic legislation and even violence. What is certain, is that the United States can’t both be a diverse and democratic nation of nations and a monocultural Christian one.
Far from the quiet foothills surrounding Patriot Church, on January 6th, a collage of ideological beliefs, fears, and fervor manifested violently on the steps of the Capitol building. The riot has since become a symbol of anti-democratic and far right aggression that has simmered in the increasingly polarized American political landscape. However, far right discontent wasn’t the only thing the insurrection revealed. Among the images and videos of angry and disgruntled Americans carrying American flags, extremist symbols, and Trump banners, were also scattered significant amounts of Christian iconography. People in droves carried crosses, bibles, and signs with Christian scripture and ideology. Inside the breached Senate chamber, some insurrectionists even led a prayer invoking the name of Jesus Christ . Similarly to Ken Peter’s prayer at Patriot Church, they proclaimed that they wanted to send a message to “all the tyrants, the communists, and the globalists,” so that they would know that this was their nation . The conspicuous presence of Christian iconography demonstrates an emblematic return-address for much of the rioters ideological makeup. While some rioters were religiously unaffiliated extremists or a part of other radical right movements, there is no mistake that there were also Christian Nationalists there. The January 6th insurrection is certainly an outlier example of what Christian Nationalism can provoke. But it is important to know that Christian nationalist ideas that legitimized the riot for some don’t just exist on the extreme periphery. The Christian insurrectionists are just the most visible tumor of an ideological body of American Christianity that is riddled with an often overlooked Christian Nationalist cancer.
The ideas that culminate into Christian Nationalism are widespread among a significant minority in the United States. In a study done by religious scholars Samuel L. Perry and Andrew L. Whitehead, they found that nearly 20% of Americans scored very high within the Christian Nationalism spectrum . They called this demographic, Ambassadors, who are those that wholly support the gamut of Christian Nationalist ideology. However, more alarming were a demographic they call Accommodators, a population in the United States that makes up 31% of the population and leans toward Christian Nationalist ideals . While these Accommodators may not hold more extreme ideas such as the United States government should declare itself a Christian nation they still are receptive to advocating for Christian preference in government and a government ruling through Christian values . Furthermore, Christian Nationalism isn’t just an ideology that exists within one particular Christian group. In another study done by Samuel L. Perry and sociologists Philip S. Gorski, the scholars found that along ethno-religious lines, nearly 20% of white evangelicals can be identified as fervent Christian Nationalists . In other ethno-religious groups, Christian Nationalists can be found in the double-digits outside of the evangelical realm as well, with nearly 15% of Eastern Orthodox, White Roman Catholics, and Mormons . Even among white “liberal” protestants, nearly 14% score high in Christian Nationalist ideas . Among Christian denominations, 20% of Pentecostals, 19% of the Holiness movement, 18% of Baptists, Non-denominationals, and Jehova’s Witnesses, and 16% of Methodists and Reformed traditions all can be determined as Christian Nationalists .
While the vast majority of Christian Nationalists did not participate in the violence of Janurary 6th they still hold Christian nationalistic beliefs that foster anti-democratic sentiments espoused by the rioters. Among those responding high to Christian Nationalism there was a positive correlation with the belief that “it is too easy to vote” in America . A belief that has translated into support for legislation that restricts voting access. Likewise, support for partisan gerrymandering is highly correlated with belief in Christian Nationalism . Christian Nationalists are also more likely to believe that voter-fraud is rampant and that voter suppression targeting minorities isn’t a problem . Much of this anti-voting sentiment is fueled by another idea in Christian Nationalism that believes that Christians in the United States are disproportionately discriminated against . This means for many Christian Nationalists there is an active force trying to stamp them out both spiritually and politically. This persecution complex coupled with populist “us” versus “them” mentality has created easy pathways for far right figures like Donald Trump to swoop in as a “savior” figure. Even more, this persecution complex gives these “savior” figures permission to implement more authoritarian measures if they promise to save them from this wrongly perceived imminent extinction.
Christian Nationalism is a growing and often overlooked threat within American democracy. At first glance it is seemingly innocuous, hidden behind myths about America’s “Christian roots”, or a desire for visible Christian symbols in government. However, the language of Christian Nationalism supports a sort of spiritual irredentism. Where Christian Nationalists not only feel they have historical preference within government but have a deserved, and necessary role in leading the United States. It creates social hierarchies that exclude people of other religions, marginalize immigrants, and in some cases devalues the rights of minorities. The populist mentality of Christian Nationalism heightens a sense of urgency in their need for political dominance, and makes easy pathways for authoritarian minded leaders like Donald Trump. Christian Nationalism also justifies violence like what was seen at the January 6th riots, and anti-democratic legislation that restricts voters’ access, all in the name of defending a Christian nation. What Christian Nationalism calls for above all else, is a spiritual aristocracy, where their narrow Christian identity supplants the pluralistic views and popular sovereignty that makes up American democracy.
Footnotes “Trump sparks a rise of Patriot Churches – The Washington Post.” 26 Oct. 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2020/10/26/trump-christian-nationalism-patriot-church/. Accessed 18 Apr. 2022.  Ibid. 1.  Ibid. 2.  Whitehead, Andrew L.; Perry, Samuel L.. Taking America Back for God (pp. ix-x). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.  Ibid 1., pp. x-xii.  Gorski, Philip S.; Perry, Samuel L.. The Flag and the Cross (p. 7). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition  Ibid. 1., pp. 7-9.  Gorski, Philip S.; Perry, Samuel L.. The Flag and the Cross (p. 8). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition  “A Reporter’s Footage from Inside the Capitol Siege | The New Yorker.” 2021. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=270F8s5TEKY.  Ibid. 1.  Whitehead, Andrew L.; Perry, Samuel L.. Taking America Back for God (p. 25). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.  Ibid. 1., pp. 25.  Ibid. 2.,p p. 33-35.  Gorski, Philip S.; Perry, Samuel L.. The Flag and the Cross (p. 18). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition  Ibid. 1., p. 18.  Ibid. 2., p. 18.  Ibid. 3., p. 18.  Gorski, Philip S.; Perry, Samuel L.. The Flag and the Cross (p. 113). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition  Ibid. 1., p. 119.  Ibid. 1., pp. 113-122.  Ibid. 1., p. 111.
I found your blog post intriguing. I think Christian Nationalism’s threat to democracy is not talked about enough., given the sheer number of people that support or accommodate the ideology. It’s disheartening that so many preachers across the country abuse their platform to push a political agenda. The Patriot Church is just one of the more ridiculous examples. I saw a Pew Research study from 2016 that said nearly two-thirds of church-goers heard their clergy discuss at least one social or political issue. Of course, topics vary from homosexuality, abortion, immigration, the environment, and others, and positions on this issues also vary. What surprised me from this study, however, was the number of clergies willing to support or denounce a particular candidate from the pulpit, around 14%. This is especially surprising given that it’s ILLEGAL for tax-exempt non-profit organizations like churches to do this. In addition, about one-third of the issues heard related to religious liberty, that worship is facing some sort of repression. Around 22% and 20% against abortion and homosexuality, respectively. And this is before Donald Trump was even elected.
Most Evangelicals were not turned away from organized religion when Trump hit the scene. In fact, it seems as though Trump converted non-Evangelicals into Evangelicalism.
From Pew Research Center: “Contrary to what some may have expected, a new analysis of Pew Research Center survey data finds that there has been no large-scale departure from evangelicalism among White Americans. In fact, there is solid evidence that White Americans who viewed Trump favorably and did not identify as evangelicals in 2016 were much more likely than White Trump skeptics to begin identifying as born-again or evangelical Protestants by 2020 (Smith 2021).”
In addition, Trump actually GAINED support among white evangelicals between 2016 and 2020, going from taking 77% of their vote to 84%. Clearly, the evangelicals believe that Trump is fighting for them, regardless of how he holds his Bible.
For a religion that (at least used to) condemns false idols, the evangelical obsession with Trump can be a real head-scratcher. But when you consider that many of these people feel their standing in society is slipping, it begins to make more sense. While Trump makes bizarre statements like Biden wanting to “take away God,” the number of Christians in America is steadily decreasing. As our society becomes more and more progressive, it only seems natural that we face backlash from “old-school” Christians with more traditional values. But as this group of Christians feel increasingly threatened, the lengths that they will go to to maintain their standing remain to be seen. We already saw them represented on January 6th. As this phony culture war wages on, we can only imagine how many will be willing to fight it.
I feel like Falwell may have been worth mentioning in this blog post. I see him as the pioneer of this version of “faith and flag” conservatism. Again, great writing on a very serious issue.
Whoops I forgot to add my sources
Neal, this was a great post! The topic is extremely relevant today and you have a very nice writing style. I have thought about Christian nationalism a lot recently after reading a great book on the topic called “The Founding Myth” by Andrew L. Seidel. I think that Christian Nationalism in America is particularly dangerous because it is almost so normalized that many see it as innocuous. It seems that many politicians play up their religious side, engaging in a kind of performative Christianity to make themselves more electable and at the same time, doubling down on the narrative that this is a Christian Nation founded by and for Christians, but in their kindness, have been tolerant of other religions. This facade of tolerance overlays a dangerous assumption that Christianity is the default and that others are inherent second-class or less legitimate.I think part of this is because of poor education and cultural motif that bolster this claim, including having “In God We Trust” on our money and “Under God” on the pledge of allegiance, both of which were late additions made in the 1950s for overtly political reasons. I would argue that even those without Christian Nationalist leanings would be as comfortable with the gods of other religions being equally introduced, yet have no problem with the current conditions. Some may say that these are harmless or purely aesthetic, but even subtle favoritisms shown lend legitimacy to that religion over others. This legitimacy skews the assumptions of democratic conversation in their direction and, over time and with increasing frequency, undermines the true democratic process. I totally agree about the persecution complex and the good “us” vs the evil “them” mindset and how that contributes to either the tolerance or outright support of authoritarian “savior” figures such as Donald Trump.