Hiding in Plain Sight:
Christian Nationalism’s Threat to Faith Freedom for All
The U.S. Constitution was enacted “in Order to form a more perfect Union,” and serves as the founding generation’s clarion call to all succeeding generations: The union isn’t perfect, and we must do our part to make it more so. When it comes to protecting religious freedom for all, that means building on the promise of Article VI of the Constitution (No Religious Test Clause) and the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment (No Establishment and Free Exercise). These provisions were monumental steps towards a government that protects religious freedom for all. They were the product of a debate among a founding generation who sought to forge a new path that would save the young republic from the devastating effects (which they had seen firsthand) of combining the coercive power of government with the zeal of religious authority.
Each generation has the chance to expand religious freedom so that all people may share in the promise that we are equal without regard to religion. Each generation also has its challenges. Unfortunately, the biggest threat to religious freedom in the United States today strikes at the very heart of our country’s bedrock commitment to the idea that we are a country devoted to religious freedom for all. This threat is Christian nationalism. Religious nationalism is not unique to the United States or Christianity, but its expression in the United States is harming the foundation of our constitutional system, as well as the health and vitality of the Christian faith.
Broadly speaking, Christian nationalism is a political ideology that seeks to merge Christian and American identities. It suggests that “real” Americans are Christian and that “true” Christians hold a particular view of America and share opinions on certain issues. In reality, the Christian gospel transcends political ideology, and students of American history know that since our colonial days people of various faith traditions and the nonreligious have contributed to the success of the United States.
The “Christian” in Christian nationalism is more about ethno-national identity than religion. “Nationalism” goes beyond patriotism to demand loyalty to a political leader, party or system above all else — including one’s theological beliefs and family ties. It is helpful to think of Christian nationalism as a sliding scale that influences Americans to different degrees as opposed to a binary choice between either being a Christian nationalist or not.
Christian nationalism is not a branch of Christianity. It is not a fringe theology. It is an insidious political ideology that uses the language of Christianity to hide its attack on religious freedom. It seeks a preference in law and culture for a narrow subset of Americans and justifies disenfranchisement and violence against others. Christian nationalism co-opts Christian imagery and language to spread a gospel of power instead of a gospel of love.
This article cannot address all expressions and nuances of Christian nationalism, so it will focus on three that most directly threaten religious freedom: reliance on the “Christian nation” myth, the blending of religious and political authority, and the legitimization of personal and political violence.
Saying the U.S. is a “Christian nation” is a persistent American myth, and it is not a harmless rhetorical trope. Demographically, 63% of Americans self-identify as Christian, but there is a wide gap between stating that the country has a majority-Christian population and that the country is a “Christian nation.” The myth is used to claim that government advancement of Christianity is what the founders intended, and that claim tends to undercut the freedom of others.
Here’s one way researchers describe the “Christian nation” myth:
America was founded as a Christian nation by (white) men who were “traditional” Christians, who based the nation’s founding documents on “Christian principles.” The United States is blessed by God, which is why it has been so successful; and the nation has a special role to play in God’s plan for humanity. But these blessings are threatened by cultural degradation from “un-American” influences both inside and outside our borders.
The myth of the U.S. being a Christian nation is easily dispelled by a cursory review of American history, but it perniciously persists. Its threat to religious freedom is not simply the repeating of a false history — the myth is fundamentally incompatible with the Constitution. Unlike state constitutions, the U.S. Constitution contains no references to God or a supreme being. The federal Constitution also broke with the tradition of religious tests contained in many of the colonial charters and state constitutions when it explicitly banned religious tests for federal office in Article VI. Additionally, the freedoms encapsulated in the First Amendment are not limited in any way to Christians. While there are plenty of constitutional controversies, on this point there is only clarity: the text of the U.S. Constitution created a secular government for citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs.
Peddlers of the “Christian nation” myth try to muddy this clarity by creating an idyllic world in which all of the founders shared the same Christian beliefs and never contemplated the religious pluralism of our modern society. Article VI, however, sparked much controversy in the state ratifying conventions, precisely because it opened the door to a future in which “A Turk, a Jew, a Rom[an] Catholic, and what is worse than all, a Universal[ist], may be President of the United States.” Those in the founding generation who wanted a “Christian nation” lost the debate, and we should not allow a false narrative to change the outcome.
Christian nationalism’s second threat to religious freedom is its merging of religious and secular authority. Political power needs legitimacy to maintain control, and legitimacy can be drawn from different places. Religious nationalism provides a unique source of authority by giving a leader or government unwavering moral support for its policies. Since it ultimately pursues power, religious nationalism does not have room for prophets who seek to hold the government to a higher standard, only yes-men interested in blessing government action. The veneer of Christianity is the tool of Christian nationalism, not the robust religion with teachings that challenge secular governments. For example, the Christian Bible contains numerous teachings that would be difficult to implement as public policy, including lending at no interest to fellow citizens (Deuteronomy 23:19), offering your shirt to someone who has taken your coat (Luke 6:29), ending all wars between nations (Isaiah 2:4), and forgiving a wrong seventy-seven times (Matthew 18:22).
One expression of this merging of authorities in the American context is the use of Christian language to compel political unity. Religious language and imagery is common in American civic life, and not all examples are harmful. Politicians and nominees should be as open as they want about their faith and religious practices. While they should never be forced to disclose a religious affiliation, it can be appropriate for voters to ask how the religious viewpoints of office-holders might influence their decision-making while in office.
The line is potentially crossed when politicians use a personally moving religious practice as a call to unify the country. One example of this is prayers and hymns at important government events like the presidential inauguration. Religious hymns have been sung at many inaugurations over the years, including at the most recent one, which featured Garth Brooks’s moving rendition of “Amazing Grace.” “Amazing Grace” is one of the most beloved Christian hymns because it is a beautiful story of salvation for a slave trader turned abolitionist that somehow remains relevant 250 years later. It is not a song of patriotism or American values. This makes it difficult to say what its role was at the ceremony peacefully transferring civil power from one duly elected president to the next. It appears to be using a Christian message of God’s redemption to unify all Americans in the political sphere, regardless of their personal religious beliefs.
The line is definitely crossed when politicians misquote Scripture, redirecting verses that should apply to God or Jesus to American civic life. In his August 2020 speech at the Republican National Convention, Vice President Mike Pence removed “Jesus” from a verse to substitute a reference to the American flag. Instead of “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith,” Pence said, “Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents. Let’s fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire. And let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith and freedom.”
Like President Biden, Vice President Pence is a man of deep faith, which made the decision to replace “Jesus” with “Old Glory and all she represents” all the more noticeable. It is also one of the best encapsulations of the language of Christian nationalism: using a Scripture reference that sounds familiar and may ring true to insiders (“let’s fix our eyes … author and perfecter of our faith”) but switches the allegiance from the sacred to the secular. This reinforces the idea that ”you and I are part of the same tribe,” and manipulates the audience in a way that equates political objectives with religious devotion.
2018 featured an even more troubling misuse of Scripture when Attorney General Jeff Sessions included Romans 13 in a speech about why people should obey the laws of the government. In his capacity as chief law enforcement officer for the federal government, Sessions told a room full of law enforcement officials: “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.” At the time, the Trump administration was under intense criticism, including from some religious leaders who were typically allies, over its immigration policy that required the separation of families at the southern border.
Sessions seemed to be using Romans 13 as a cudgel to end the criticism of the controversial policy. To question the policy was now to question God. A secular democracy that draws its authority from “We, the people” cannot function if “the Bible says so” is used to cut off policy debates and dialogue. People of all faiths and none have the right and responsibility to bring their worldview into the public square to advocate for and against policies, but the government cannot co-opt the language of the majoritarian faith and then use it to demand compliance with its unpopular policies.
Christian nationalism’s third threat to religious freedom is its legitimation of personal and political violence. Like other “isms,” Christian nationalism is pervasive, insidious and infects all aspects of American life. It often overlaps with racism and authoritarianism and can be used to justify violence against religious or political others. The problems of racism and white supremacy are bigger than Christian nationalism, but they cannot be defeated without dismantling it.
This more sinister expression of Christian nationalism was part of the motivation for shootings at several houses of worship, including those at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and Chabad of Poway synagogue near San Diego, California. Both shooters belonged to Christian churches and wove Christian language into their writings justifying their violence against worshippers at a Black church and Jewish synagogue.
When Christian nationalism threatens the physical safety of those simply seeking to worship with their community of faith, religious freedom is obviously threatened. We also cannot turn a blind eye to the political violence inspired, at least in part, by Christian nationalism.
One of the most shocking features of the January 6 insurrection was the prominence of Christian imagery and language juxtaposed against the actions of the rioters, which included vandalizing the Capitol and calling for the hanging of the sitting vice president. Rioters signed the impromptu gallows erected at the Capitol with “amen,” “God bless the USA,” and “in God we trust.” Wooden crosses, cross necklaces, and crosses on flags and posters were ubiquitous throughout the violent mob. When a prayer was offered in the Senate chamber to bless their actions, several attackers bowed their heads in prayer; some even removed their hats; others paused their rifling through the Senators’ desks and belongings (which had been abandoned as the Senators fled the chamber for safety).
The mass murderer at the Tops grocery store in Buffalo, New York, wrote that he was not a Christian, did not believe in Jesus and did not seek God’s forgiveness. But he also wrote that he sought to live out “Christian values,” which for him apparently included committing a massacre in a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Christian nationalism explains some of this violent disconnect between the values of Christianity and “Christian values.” The Buffalo shooter is perhaps the most explicit example of Christian nationalism providing cover for white supremacy. The shooter’s manifesto makes clear that, for him, an essential element of “whiteness” is defending white culture, which is inextricably tied to a view of Christian values that justifies white supremacy and hatred of others.
This decoupling of Christian values from the Christian faith is not new. Christian leaders and religious polls have discussed the disconnect between Christian identity and Christian belief and what that means for churches. Secular polling data confirms this secularization of religious labels in American society. In a recent survey, more than 15% of those who checked the box identifying as “Christian” and nearly 19% of those who specifically claimed to be “born-again” or “evangelical” also said they belonged to a non-Christian religion or were secular. Christian nationalism provides one way to follow “Christian values” without believing in the resurrected Christ.
In order to succeed, Christian nationalism needs a carefully curated version of history that tells a story of a country founded by Christians to protect Christian values. It must ignore the clearly secular nature of the U.S. Constitution that gives no favoritism to Christians in citizenship or ability to hold office. It uses religious language to redirect religious devotion to an unquestioning commitment to the civil government and to bind all Americans, regardless of their personal religious affiliation, under the banner of Christian nationalism. Finally, it must downplay the stories and contributions of Native Americans, Black Americans, immigrant communities, religious minorities, those without a religious affiliation, and all others who undercut this narrative that places white Christians front-and-center for the nation’s founding and future success.Christians have a unique role to play in dismantling this ideology that seeks to transform the gospel of God’s love for humanity into a gospel of earthly power over humanity. All Americans, regardless of religion or political persuasion, have a role to play in defending democracy against this threat to religious freedom, which is not confined to the courtroom or legislative chamber. We all must learn to recognize and confront Christian nationalism in our classrooms, churches and communities so that the United States may remain a beacon of religious freedom for all. ♦
The Rev. Jennifer Hawks is associate general counsel at BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty), the organization leading the Christians Against Christian Nationalism campaign. Hawks earned degrees at George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University, University of Mississippi School of Law and Mississippi College.
Hawks, Jennifer. “Hiding in Plain Sight: Christian Nationalism’s Threat to Faith Freedom for All.” Canopy Forum, July 7, 2022. https://canopyforum.org/2022/07/07/hiding-in-plain-sight-christian-nationalisms-threat-to-faith-freedom-for-all/