I realize that I wrote about Christian nationalism already a few months ago. This week, however, I am returning to that theme once again. I find it has particular U.S. religious and socio-political relevance today. I will not just repeat earlier observations…
In February 2022, during a Center for American Progress (Washington, DC) interview, with Amanda Tyler, the U.S. American lawyer and executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) in Washington, D.C., Tyler said “The single biggest threat to religious freedom in the United States today is Christian nationalism.” Christian nationalists advocate a revisionist historical view of the United States and insist that the United States was established as an explicitly Christian nation.
The January 6th hearings in the United States, have reminded us once again about the role played by Christian nationalism in the 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in Washington DC. As they stormed the Capitol, the rioters brandished Bibles, wooden crosses, Christian flags, and signs declaring “Jesus Saves.” They conflated patriotism with Christianity, as they chanted Christian hymns and cried out to God to overturn the 2020 presidential election results and “save” the country.
Breaching the Senate chamber, Jacob Angeli (born Jacob Anthony Angeli Chansley in 1988) the horn-wearing, self-proclaimed “QAnon Shaman” led the rioters in prayer. He thanked God for “allowing the United States of America to be reborn” and for “allowing us to get rid of the communists, the globalists, and the traitors within our government.” He saw the uprising as an opportunity to send a clear message to the enemies of God: “this is our country, not theirs.”
In fact the U.S.A. was not founded as a Christian country. The U.S. Constitution is a totally secular document. It contains no mention of Christianity or of Jesus Christ. The Constitution refers to religion only twice: in the First Amendment, which bars laws “respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and in Article VI, which prohibits “religious tests” for public office. Both of these provisions are evidence that the country was not founded as an officially Christian country.
Historically, the United States has always been marked by religious pluralism and diversity. Religion in the United States began with the religious and spiritual practices of Native Americans. English colonialists – including my paternal ancestors — arriving in the seventeenth century were Christians. The history of the first Jewish people in Colonial America begins with their arrival as early as the 1650s. Historians argue that Muslims first arrived in the Americas in the early 16th century in present-day New Mexico and Arizona. All analysts agree that the first migration consisted of African slaves. Most slaves who tried to maintain Islamic religious practices after their arrival were forcibly converted to Christianity. In the mid-seventeenth century, Ottoman Muslims immigrated with other European immigrants. Archives from the American Revolutionary War indicate that Muslims also fought on the American side. Estimates of up to two hundred and ninety-two Muslims served in the Union military during the American Civil War.
The religious landscape of the United States continues to change at a rapid pace. According to the Pew Research Center, self-identified Christians made up 63% of the U.S. population in 2021, down from 75% a decade earlier. The religiously unaffiliated share of the U.S. population now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009. The Jewish population is at about 2%. The U.S. Muslim population is now over 1.1%. Islam is the world’s fastest-growing religion and is forecasted to grow faster than Christianity by 2050.
Nevertheless, looking ahead four months from now to the 2022 midterm elections, religion, especially far-right Christianity will be a key issue.
Many far-right evangelical Christians viewed the 2000 presidential election of George W. Bush, as the 43rd President of the United States, as the direct work of God. Repaying his election supporters, President Bush created the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives and Centers for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in eleven Federal agencies. In 2016, Christian nationalists had a huge influence in electing Donald Trump as the 45th U.S. president, believing he was their only hope to “keep America Christian.”
In the midterm elections on Tuesday November 8, 2022, all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 35 of the 100 seats in the U.S. Senate will be up for election. Thirty-nine state and territorial gubernatorial elections will also be up for election. And politics and religion will be front-page news.
Already in Pennsylvania, by way of example, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Doug Mastriano (state senator, retired Army colonel, and a prominent figure in Donald Trump’s futile efforts to overturn the 2020 election results) has displayed his religious fervor in his midterm elections campaign speeches. When he won his primary in May 2022, the Associated Press described his victory celebration as an “evangelical worship service.” Mastriano quoted the Bible and warned about the “darkness” of the Democrats. His rhetoric is just one example of the ever dangerous ideology of Christian Nationalism. Mastriano thinks that the United States has run into difficult times because U.S. Americans have abandoned godly ways. Mastriano objects to Covid vaccine mandates, gay rights, transgender anything, critical race theory, and any restrictions on gun ownership.
Addressing a far-right conference “Patriots Arise,” that mixed Christian beliefs with conspiracy theories, Mastriano spoke about what he saw as the true Christian identity of the United States. He said it was time for U.S. Christians to reclaim their political power. He stressed that the U.S. separation of church and state was a myth. “In November” he said “ we are going to take our state back, my God will make it so.”
Some of Idaho’s Republican 2022 primaries for the Legislature were won by candidates touting far-right Christian values or sharing priorities with Christian nationalists, such as banning transgender athletes. U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who uses the biblical phrase to be “a watchman on the wall” against those seeking to “destroy our faith,” easily won her primary.
So how much influence does Christian nationalism have on American politics today? And how big a threat does it pose to U.S. democracy? Some of my Catholic socio-political observers see more of a threat from the powerful conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei and its attempt to install something like a U.S. Catholic theocracy via the U.S. Supreme Court. Yes, there is something quite disturbing about the five hardline U.S. Catholic justices (Amy Coney Barrett, John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, and Samuel Alito) who have links to the extreme far-right Catholic group. Opus Dei is dangerous and the most controversial group in the Catholic Church today. It’s history parallels that of Francisco Franco’s conservative dictatorship in Spain. Opus Dei members were appointed ministers in Franco’s government. Critics see this as indication of the organization’s penetration into the highest levels of Spain’s Fascist regime. Nevertheless, the U.S. journalist John L. Allen Jr. and the Italian journalist Vittorio Messori claim that Opus Dei as an institution was neither pro-Franco nor anti-Franco. (This is an ongoing historical discussion.) Pope John Paul II, who viewed the organization with favor, established it as a personal prelature, a part of the socio-administrative organization of the Catholic Church. And, critics note that John Paul II pushed through an unusually swift canonization of the founder of Opus Dei, the right-wing and controversial priest Josemaría Escrivá (1902 – 1975), because Opus Dei had bailed out the Vatican Bank with $250 million in 1985. He was canonized in 2002 by Pope John Paul II.
In the United States, The Eternal Word Television Network, more commonly known by its initials EWTN, is a U.S.Catholic cable television network with strong backing by Opus Dei. The current Archbishop of Los Angeles, José Horacio Gómez, is president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Archbishop Gómez did his doctorate in theology at the University of Navarre, the Opus Dei university in Spain, was ordained an Opus Dei priest in Spain in 1978, and was named “vicar” of Opus Dei in Texas in 1999. Archbishop Gomez’s Catholic bishop supporters are a group of zealots who in 2016 turned a blind eye to Donald Trump’s behavior. Yet today they consider President Biden a bad Catholic who should not be allowed to go to Communion. And they want to punish the new president for his support of legalized abortion, gay rights, and birth control.
Whether by a theocracy or through Christian nationalism, the aim of far-right U.S. Christian activists is to eliminate the traditional U.S. separation of church and state. Representative Lauren Boebert, a Republican representing the western part of Colorado, said recently at Cornerstone Christian Center, a church near Aspen: “I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk.” People in the congregation rose to their feet in applause.
The ascension of far-right politicians and midterm election candidates comes amid a wave of actions across the country that advance the cultural priorities of far-right Christians. The most significant is the June 24, 2022 Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. (Right now I am thinking about the bishop who said: “Our prayers for the last 49 years have been answered by the Supreme Court.”) That decision raises the specter of state regulation of other health care decisions, including those regarding contraception, end-of-life care, respect for LGBTQ people, in vitro fertilization, and other fertility treatments. Common forms of birth control including IUDs and emergency contraception are already being targeted by some states as “abortifacients.” State laws declaring that life begins at fertilization will potentially endow thousands of frozen embryos with rights and impose impossible burdens on both fertility centers and their clients.
Christian nationalism idealizes a mythic view of the United States in which “real” U.S. Americans—white, native-born, mostly Protestant —maintain control over access to U.S. society’s social, cultural, and political institutions. And “others” must remain in their proper place. Many U.S. far-right conservatives — especially far-right whites — feel more threatened than in past decades. Obama’s election, as the first Black president, was a clear sign that the country has become more racially diverse and is destined to become even more so.
Sociologist Andrew Whitehead, Associate Professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, defines Christian nationalism as “a cultural framework that is all about trying to advocate for a fusion between Christianity — as they define it — and American civic life.”
On “Rumble,” a popular far-right video site, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene from Georgia urged her followers to be proud of “Christian nationalism” as a way to fight “globalists,” the “border crisis,” and “lies about gender.” She stressed: “While the media is going to lie about you and label Christian nationalism, I’m going to tell you right now, they are the liars.”
The Texas attorney and author, Rick Green, who heads a group called the “Patriot Academy” runs “biblical citizenship” training programs in hundreds of churches to instill the belief that America was founded on Christian values. Biblical citizenship emphasizes the idea that the Founding Fathers, as well as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, were divinely inspired documents. Strangely, Rick Green insists that “separation of church and state is not actually part of the First Amendment but was an idea that Thomas Jefferson articulated later in one of his letters.”
The Patriots Arise event, where Doug Mastriano spoke, opened with a video of conspiracy theories related to QAnon that prophesied that “control systems” including “media propaganda, the child trafficking, and the slave economy” would “crumble down.” A robotic voice-over forecast a “great awakening” and an image of a guillotine blade accompanied a promise of “executions, justice, and victory.”
Nevertheless, according to the Pew Research Center, declaring the United States a Christian nation and working to end U.S. federal enforcement of the separation of church and state are minority views among U.S. American adults. While support for church-state integration is above average among Republicans and white evangelicals, and far-right Catholics, many U.S. American Christians see that integration as a perversion of faith that elevates nation over God. But I wonder who pays attention to them. Many seem so silent.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says quite clearly that the country shall have no official religion. U.S. Americans have been debating where to draw the line between religion and government since the country’s founding. The debate recently resurfaced with three new Supreme Court rulings over: religious symbols on public property, prayer in public schools, and state subsidies for religious schools.
Nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults (73%) say religion should be kept separate from government policies.
Today, nevertheless, there is a vocal U.S. far-right Christian fringe vying for power. The November 2022 midterm elections will be significant.
The idea that these extreme right-wing Christians are inconsequential or unimportant because most U.S. Americans don’t believe them ignores the fact that, over time, they can shift the national socio-political focus and become part of mainstream political thinking. We should not forget that many, at first innocuous movements throughout history, like National Socialism in Germany, eventually merged into inhumane and destructive mainstream movements. Why? Because people – for various reasons — allowed them to grow and take control. Such a process used to take decades but now thanks to Internet and mass media it has been greatly accelerated and is almost instantaneous. On the Internet, falsehoods can spread more quickly and be repeated more frequently. Fox News, for example, broadcasts conspiracies to millions of viewers. For too many people objective truth doesn’t matter. Only subjective belief.
So we observe, we judge, and we act. We don’t have to be prophets of doom. We do need to join with others and think clearly and work constructively.
P.S. For those who might be interested, here are three helpful historical perspectives about Christian nationalism in the United States.
- The Power Worshippers by Katherine Stewart (Bloomsbury, 2020). Stewart reveals the inner workings and leading personalities of a movement that has turned religion into a tool for domination. She exposes a dense network of think tanks, advocacy groups, and pastoral organizations embedded in a rapidly expanding community of international alliances and united not by any central command but by a shared, anti-democratic vision and a common will to power. She follows the money that fuels this movement, tracing much of it to a cadre of super-wealthy, ultraconservative donors and family foundations.
- Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry (Oxford University Press, 2020). It points to the phenomenon of “Christian nationalism,” the belief that the United States is – and should be – a Christian nation. At its heart, Christian nationalism demands that we must preserve a particular kind of social order, an order in which everyone – Christians and non-Christians, native-born and immigrants, whites and minorities, men and women – recognizes their “proper” place in society.
- The Neo-Catholics: Implementing Christian Nationalism in America by Betty Clermont (Clarity Press, 2009). Betty’s well researched book examines how neoconservatives in the Republican Party forged a nexus with powerful right wing Catholics that would change the face of American Catholicism, the structuring of social policy in the United States, and the American agenda in the world.