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Once More re: the Uselessness of “Christian Nationalism”

February 13th, 2023 | 6 min read

By Jake Meador

Let’s do this one more time.

We live in a moment with (somehow!) a uniquely cursed discourse concerning religion and politics. Much of this is connected to “Christian nationalism.” The problem here is that the term as it gets used is extremely under-defined. Because of this under-definition, it gets used promiscuously by a variety of parties and it becomes very difficult to discuss because virtually every statement you can make about “Christian nationalism” is falsifiable.

For example, some its proponents will present as right wingers with a backbone, the sorts who courageously stand up to the libs, all the while stuffing all sorts of racial stuff into their vision of a “nation,” thereby smuggling white supremacism into their project and introducing it into the political theology of their otherwise relatively normal right-wing readers.

Meanwhile, CN opponents often sound as if they believe that anyone who thinks their Christian faith should inform their politics in non-WEIRD progressive ways is a QAnon believer who stormed the capital on 1/6 and who hangs on every word that proceeds from the mouth of Tucker Carlson.

To take an example from just this past week, you wouldn’t know it from the tweet, but this guy’s own book is built around a study that found that 67% of Black Protestants support Christian nationalism and that African Americans are actually more likely to support Christian nationalism than are white Americans:

The simplest thing to do to get around this problem is actually dig into the survey questions and data that are used in the sociological studies looking at “Christian nationalism.” If you do, two things immediately stand out:

  • Some of the questions that supposedly indicate support for “Christian nationalism” basically read as a proxy for “should a Christian’s religious beliefs inform their political beliefs at all?”
  • Christian people of color routinely score relatively high for CN.

These are some of the survey questions in the survey data used in the Perry/Whitehead book:

  • “The federal government should advocate Christian values.”
  • “The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces.”
  • “The federal government should allow prayer in public schools.”

Obviously there is a wide range in how people might answer these questions. But note that none of these questions really have anything to do with the idea of setting up some kind of Franco-style Christian theocracy or integralist church state.

Rather, all three of those questions concern things that have been relatively normal parts of American public life for a great deal of America’s history. You can, of course, still object to all of those things. But what is in view with survey questions of that sort is, at most, a soft mere Christian “establishmentarianism” of the kind that was extremely common in this nation for much of our history.

To be fair, there are other questions that do signal something more than a kind of soft Protestant establishment pre-war liberalism. But if “Christian nationalism” is this alarming, radically illiberal thing it supposedly is, the questions being asked to identify its presence should reflect that, not merely signal support for what was a fairly normal element of classic liberal American beliefs until the past 60 years.

That said, the recent PRRI survey is even worse. For example, it presents these statements to its respondents:

  • “US laws should be based on Christian values”
  • “If the US moves away from our Christian foundations, we will not have a country anymore”
  • “God has called Christians to exercise dominion over all areas of American society”

Again, you can find all three of those ideas to be repugnant and morally dubious. But you can also affirm all of those ideas and still have a quite robust liberalism undergirding your political vision. Indeed, John Adams—a drafter of the Declaration of Independence, our second president, and a unitarian who loathed historic orthodoxy regarding the doctrine of God famously said something extremely similar to that second statement.

What happens in the aftermath of these sorts of surveys is that the study will be announced—”x percent of white evangelicals support Christian nationalism.” Then the definition of Christian nationalism for the purpose of public conversation is shifted away from the more banal questions posed in the survey. Instead, “Christian nationalism,” becomes a short hand for white supremacy, QAnon support, support for the 1/6 insurrectionists, and so on. But this is all exceedingly manipulative. You can’t present such a mixed bundle of questions as those used in these surveys, some of which indicate more fringe beliefs and others more mainstream Christian beliefs, and then run with those findings to construct some narrative to suit a political project. Or, well, you can, but it’s not honest.

Also, as was already mentioned above, if you actually dig into the data that Perry and Whitehead use in their book, you’ll find, for example, that Black Protestants are the second biggest supporters of “Christian Nationalism,” after white Evangelicals and, in fact, that Black Americans are more likely to support “Christian Nationalism” than are white Americans. Likewise, in the most recent data from PRRI, you’ll see that every surveyed group made up of Protestant people of color support CN at higher rates than do, for instance, white Catholics.

Here is where it gets interesting, I think: If a kind of basic support for Christian presence in the public square and in law, along the lines of what our nation has had at points in its past, is all that many people think they’re affirming when they are said to affirm “CN,” then it suggests some interesting possibilities.

Namely, might it be possible to bring together a coalition of Protestant people of color and white Protestants who find common cause around a platform that is socially conservative, fiscally pro-worker and pro-family, that is concerned with public justice and that seeks to pursue and promote a moral public square marked by Christian commitments? This project has been abandoned by many for understandable reasons. And yet the problems such a project ought to address remain with us and, if anything, have become sharper.

The difficulty, of course, is that while Black Protestant leaders like Charlie Dates are willing to be quite frank in condemning much of the sex and gender nonsense at play in our culture, white Protestants have persistently been reluctant to take a similarly frank line about the racial injustices vexing our society. And so here we have been stuck.

But we don’t have to stay that way. There are many reasons to think that a coalition of orthodox Protestants concerned with the integrity of the family, care for the unborn, and a core commitment to economic and racial justice could well be viable, if trust could be repaired and, in particular, if white leaders (and the donors to predominantly white institutions) were willing to resist the shame tactics favored by reactionary conservatives. Indeed, when one considers the demographic winter coming for both American Catholics and American Evangelicals (given the mass dechurching of millennials especially) and the subsequent institutional collapse that will follow, there may be a good case that the future of the church in America depends upon the formation, preservation, and growth of just such a coalition.

But we could press the point a bit further. There’s something almost precious about American progressives finding time to complain about conservative illiberalism when they aren’t otherwise busy suing florists and bakers. Even so, those who fear an illiberal future are correct in their fear. We need some species of liberalism to prevail at the end of this culture war, if only so that mercy can become a core political good in American society. Given the mental health crises now facing our nation, I suspect that our nation will learn to be merciful or we will, eventually, cease to exist.

But how can liberalism be coherently preserved? It may be the case that a Christian Augustinian liberalism of the sort that the coalition I just described could rally around, is actually liberalism’s best hope in post-Trump America.

Addendum: You should also read this thread from Michael about the even more extensive problems with that PRRI study in particular:

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).