My academic focus for many years has been religion and values in US society. Still very much a US American, my Fourth of July reflections last week drifted from the July 4th 1776 Declaration of Independence to the December 15th 1791 First Amendment to the US Constitution.
The First Amendment prevents the government from making laws that regulate an establishment of religion, or that prohibit the free exercise of religion, or abridge the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, and the freedom.of assembly.
Today of course – contrary to the First Amendment — one hears increased rumblings about US Christian Nationalism which is an anti-democratic notion that the United States is a nation by and for Christians alone.
In his book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America,Kevin M. Kruse, professor of history at Princeton University, argues: “Demographically speaking, America certainly resembled a ‘nation of Christians’ at the time of its founding and has ever since. But it’s a rather different proposition to claim that the founders established the new American government as a ‘Christian nation.’ Clearly, they did not.”
My paternal ancestors, who arrived in Pennsylvania in 1684, were Quaker Christians from Cheshire, England. But, when thinking about US American history, too many people forget about the original indigenous Americans with their own religious practices, and the fact that, along with Christians, many of the initial immigrants to the North American colonies actually had Jewish and Muslim backgrounds. There have been Jewish communities in the United States since colonial times. They were primarily immigrants from Brazil, England, and the Netherlands (Amsterdam). About Muslim “immigrants,” scholars estimate that as many as 30% of the African slaves brought to the US from West and Central African countries like Gambia and Cameroon, were Muslim.
Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826), author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States from 1801 to 1809, was most comfortable not with Christianity but with philosophical Deism, based on rational thought without any reliance on revealed religions or religious authority. He also coined the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut. In her book Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation, Amanda Porterfield, emerita professor of religion at Florida State University, makes this observation about religion and Thomas Jefferson: “Jefferson explained his support for religious freedom in practical terms: ‘It does me no injury for my neighbor to believe in twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.'”
If the founders had not made their stance on this “Christian nation” issue clear enough in the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, they certainly did so in Article 11 of the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli. Begun by George Washington, signed by John Adams and ratified unanimously by a Senate still half-filled with signers of the Constitution, this treaty announced firmly and flatly to the world that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
Nevertheless, last week Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley displayed his Christian nationalism (and historical ignorance) when he tweeted a quote falsely attributed to a “Founding Father” claiming the United States was founded “on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” In September last year, during a speech titled “Biblical Revolution” at the National Conservatism conference in Miami, Hawley said “We are a revolutionary nation precisely because we are the heirs of the revolution of the Bible…. Without the Bible, there is no America.”
During the 1950s, US President Dwight David Eisenhower (1880 – 1969), who was president from 1953 to 1961, revolutionized the role of religion in US political culture, by inventing new traditions from presidential inaugural prayers to the National Prayer Breakfast. During his administration Congress added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 and in 1956 made “In God We Trust” the country’s first official motto. Eisenhower by the way was the only president ever to have been baptized while in office. On February 1, 1953, just 10 days after his inauguration, Eisenhower was baptized and welcomed into the National Presbyterian Church.
At its core, the notion of Christian nationalism threatens the principle of the separation of church and state and really undermines religion as well as the state. I would strongly argue that separation of church and state really protects the “church.” Christian nationalism is a virus that also threatens a number of countries around the world, especially as more countries shift to the far right. I can think immediately of Brazil, Hungary, Poland, and, most alarmingly, Russia.
The Russian Orthodox Church, for example, thanks to Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill (Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev, born in 1946) has established close ties with the Kremlin. Kirill now enjoys the personal patronage of President Vladimir Putin (b. 1952). The patriarch endorsed Putin’s election in 2012 and calls Putin’s presidency “God’s miracle.” Patriarch Kirill stresses that Putin today is fighting the Antichrist and working to preserve “Christian civilization” against the secular decadence of the West. Part of that secular decadence, according to Kirill, is support for globalization, same-sex marriage, and “feminism” because it proclaims “the pseudo-freedom of women outside of marriage and outside of the family.”
As reported in the press on both sides of the Atlantic, Patriarch Kirill publicly backed Russia’s “special peacekeeping operation” days after the February 24, 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. “We have entered into a struggle,” he said “that has not a physical, but a metaphysical significance.” Kirill reassured Russian soldiers, fighting in Ukraine, that “sacrifice in the course of carrying out your military duty washes away all sins.” His exhortation reminded me of Pope Urban II (c.1035 – 1099) when he preached the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont on November 27, 1095. There Pope Urban told the crusaders “Undertake this journey eagerly for the remission of your sins, and be assured of the reward of imperishable glory in the Kingdom of Heaven”
For many on the “religious right” in the United States, Putin is very much admired as an authoritarian defender of a Christian civilization against secularism and particularly against Islam. But is it truly Christian? And is it really civilization? The sincerity of Putin’s Christianity has been strongly rejected by Sergei Pugachev (b. 1963), a Russian Orthodox Christian and a former member of the Russian president’s inner circle. In recent years, nevertheless, Putin has increasingly highlighted his own religiosity by doing things like wearing a silver cross around his neck, kissing icons, and well publicized frequent participation in Russian Orthodox services. Putin regards as his spiritual destiny the rebuilding of a Moscow-based Christendom. He and Patriarch Kirill see Russian Orthodoxy as the guardian of the “true faith” in contrast to Western Catholicism and Protestantism. I suggest Vladimir Putin is simply using Russian Orthodoxy the same way the Roman Emperor Constantine (c. 272 – 337) used Christianity: to promote his political goals. I doubt that Constantine really cared that much about genuine Christian belief. I doubt that Vladimir does either.
Thinking about next year’s US presidential campaign, I am sure Christian nationalists will be very active. I am a committed Christian and still very much a US American but I find US Christian nationalism too much associated with racism, white supremacy, and political violence. Once seen as a fringe viewpoint, Christian nationalism now has a foothold in American politics, particularly in the contemporary Republican Party, according to a 2023 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Brookings Institution. More than half of today’s Republicans believe the country should be a strictly Christian nation, either adhering to the ideals of Christian nationalism (21%) or sympathizing with those views (33%).
As the United States has become less white and less Christian, supporters of White Christian nationalism want to hold on to their cultural and political power. Under 18 non-Hispanic White Americans in the US, according to the Pew Research Center, were already a minority as of 2020 and it is projected that non-Hispanic Whites overall will become a minority within the US by 2045. About 64% of US Americans call themselves Christian today. Fifty years ago that number was 90%. The number of US Christians continues to decline
According to the PRRI survey, 50% of Christian nationalism adherents, and nearly 4 in 10 sympathizers, said they support the idea of an authoritarian leader in order to keep “Christian values” in society. As Robert P. Jones, the president and founder of the nonpartisan PRRI, stressed when the survey results were published in February 2023 “… a sizeable minority is not only willing to declare themselves opposed to pluralism and democracy — but are also willing to say, ‘I am willing to fight and either kill or harm my fellow Americans to keep it that way.'”
According to Nilay Saiya, assistant professor of public policy and global affairs at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and author of The Global Politics of Jesus: A Christian Case for Church-State Separation, “Christian nationalist rhetoric is deeply cloaked in threat narratives, prompting efforts to retain Christianity’s hegemonic status, sometimes through violence.” And, according to the to PRRI/Brookings Institution data, 40% of Christian nationalism supporters believe that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”
Christian nationalism is a Christian challenge at home and abroad, because it is not Christian. As Christians, we are bound to Christ, not by citizenship but by faith. Far too often, linking religious authority with political authority leads to the oppression of marginalized groups and the spiritual impoverishment of religion.
As Christians, we must speak in one voice condemning Christian nationalism because it is a deceptive and dangerous distortion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.