We tend to think of Christian nationalism, the political ideology based on the belief that the country’s authentic identity lies in its Christian roots and in the perpetuation of Christian privilege, as having burst upon the scene to accompany and facilitate the rise of Donald Trump. But as Philip Gorski and Samuel Perry explain in The Flag and the Cross, Christian nationalism—white Christian nationalism, to be more accurate, since the ideology has no place for nonwhites—is “one of the oldest and most powerful currents in American politics.” They trace it back to the New England Puritans’ wars against the indigenous groups who dared to stand in the way of the claim by self-described chosen people to their new Promised Land, and follow it through the Lost Cause of a post–Civil War South destined to “rise again”—a Christological narrative of crucifixion and redemption “crucial to understanding contemporary claims of Christian victimhood and vengeance among white Christian nationalists.” The drive for western expansion, aptly known as Manifest Destiny, was widely understood as part of a divine plan handed to those who would “civilize” an entire continent.
According to a recent Pew Research poll, 60 percent of Americans believe the country was founded to be a Christian nation, and nearly half (including 81 percent of white evangelicals) think it should be one today. Whether that has changed over the course of US history is beside the point: what’s new is the contemporary political and social salience of Christian nationalism. As mainline Protestantism has faded, David Hollinger observes in Christianity’s American Fate,
Christianity has become an instrument for the most politically, culturally, and theologically reactionary Americans. White evangelical Protestants were an indispensable foundation for Donald Trump’s presidency and have become the core of the Republican Party’s electoral strength. They are the most conspicuous advocates of “Christian nationalism.”…Most of Christianity’s symbolic capital has been seized by a segment of the population committed to ideas about the Bible, the family, and civics that most other Americans reject.
How did this happen? Gorski and Perry, Hollinger, and David Sehat in This Earthly Frame agree that the answer lies in white evangelicals’ response to the profound cultural changes the country experienced during the second half of the twentieth century. That may sound obvious, but with varied approaches, these three books offer insights that are both illuminating and alarming.
The Flag and the Cross deals most directly with white Christian nationalism as a political force. The authors are sociologists, Gorski at Yale and Perry at the University of Oklahoma. Their conclusions are based largely on data from surveys they devised and conducted from 2019 through 2021. At the heart of their analysis is a “Christian nationalism scale” based on respondents’ level of agreement with seven statements that include “The success of the United States is part of God’s plan” and “The federal government should advocate Christian values.”
This scale is one axis on a series of charts showing how Christian nationalist beliefs correlate with attitudes about life in today’s United States. For example, Gorski and Perry asked people to estimate “how much discrimination” whites and Blacks would experience in the coming year. Black respondents, no matter where they fell on the Christian nationalism scale, offered similar predictions: low for whites and high for Blacks. For white respondents, the results were dramatically different: the higher on the Christian nationalist scale they were, the greater their expectation of antiwhite discrimination and a correspondingly lower expectation of discrimination against Blacks. “White Christian nationalists sincerely believe that whites and Christians are the most persecuted groups in America,” the authors conclude. This is a belief, they emphasize, with political consequences: “White Christian nationalism is a ‘deep story’ about America’s past and a vision of its future. It includes cherished assumptions about what America was and is, but also what it should be.”
The data also demonstrate the sometimes surprising results of the merging of religious and political identities. To take one example: nearly 80 percent of white evangelicals adhere to an “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution—the belief that the Constitution must be interpreted according to how its framers’ words would have been understood in their time, which David Cole in these pages recently called a “charade.”1 Why nonlawyers should have any fixed notion of how to interpret the Constitution might seem puzzling, but the data explain it. Seventy percent of white evangelicals believe the Constitution to be divinely inspired; constitutional and biblical literalism thus go hand in hand. This finding helps illuminate why obeisance to “originalism” has been demanded of Republican judicial nominees ever since this distinctly unoriginal doctrine was invented during the Reagan era. The current Supreme Court majority used it (inconsistently) to justify its reasoning in last year’s abortion and Second Amendment decisions.
Gorski and Perry offer a portrait of the Tea Party movement—which dominated Republican politics during the early Obama years with a platform of tax cuts, “liberty,” and opposition to the Affordable Care Act—to show that when religious and political identities merge, politics takes precedence. Of those who identified with the Tea Party, which reached its peak in 2011–2012 and has now been largely subsumed into Trump’s MAGA movement, more than half believe that America “is currently and has always been a Christian nation.” Yet on measures of individual religious behavior such as church attendance, this group scored notably lower than other elements of the religious right. “In other words, the myth of a Christian nation was far more important to them than Christianity itself,” the authors observe. “‘Christian’ instead functions as a cultural identity marker, one that separates ‘us’ from ‘them.’”
And who are “them”? They are “outsiders who wish to take what’s rightfully ours,” whether by asserting rights to equal citizenship, arriving from a foreign country, impugning the country’s history, or just voting. “Christian nationalism is the strongest predictor that white Americans believe we already make it too easy to vote in this country,” Gorski and Perry find. It may seem simplistic to interpret Republican hysteria over voter “fraud” as a dog whistle about too many of the wrong people voting, yet it’s nearly impossible to interpret it any other way.
The Flag and the Cross deciphers other white Christian nationalist beliefs in which race is deeply embedded in a way that is thoroughly obscure to outsiders. With echoes of the Tea Party movement, half the members of which identified as evangelical, these include a fervent belief in free market capitalism and a deep suspicion of anything that might lead to “collectivism.” As Gorski and Perry explain it, this economic view “presumes that one’s lot in life is a result of one’s personal choices—and only those choices. Historical and social contexts are irrelevant,” meaning among other things that the legacy of slavery has no claim on the privileges of whites, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is a danger to the country’s authentic identity. In a 2021 survey, the authors asked people to identify the groups or ideas they found most threatening. The response given by those who scored highest on the white Christian nationalism scale was unexpected: they saw the greatest threat as coming not from atheists or Muslims but from “socialists.”
Trump understands the dog-whistle power of “socialism.” At an Evangelicals for Trump rally in January 2020, he warned that “the extreme left in America is trying to replace religion with government and replace God with socialism.” He promised the crowd that “America will never be a socialist country, ever,” because “America was not built by religion-hating socialists.” The union of politics and religion was complete. Almost exactly a year later, insurrectionists festooned with Christian nationalist symbols stormed the Capitol.
Christianity’s American Fate and This Earthly Frame are most usefully read for their accounts of how white evangelicals assumed their current place in the American religious landscape. Hollinger, an emeritus professor of history at UC Berkeley, sets out to explain the “evangelical takeover of Christian real estate.” He views evangelicalism’s rise largely as a reaction to the midcentury liberalization of the American Protestant establishment. Sehat, a professor of intellectual and cultural history at Georgia State, pays particular attention to the Supreme Court and to the almost inevitable response that its decades-long “stumbling toward secularism” eventually provoked among those for whom the secular order was a profound threat.
Where these two accounts meet, and where they intersect with and supplement The Flag and the Cross, is on the issue of race. According to Hollinger, once the mainline Protestant churches joined the movement for racial equality during the 1960s, their “fate” was essentially sealed:
Evangelicalism created a safe harbor for white people who wanted to be counted as Christians without having to accept what ecumenical leaders said were the social obligations demanded by the gospel, especially the imperative to extend civil equality to nonwhites.
In other words, the evangelical churches provided a conservative refuge, and it didn’t take long before evangelicals also found refuge in the Republican Party.
Hollinger notes that while Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy”—the effort to pry white southerners away from their traditional home in the Democratic Party by nurturing their segregationist sympathies—is viewed as an important episode in the country’s racial history, it had profound implications for religion as well: “The Republican Party’s pursuit of the Southern Strategy resulted in the gradual but ever tightening connection between Republicans and white evangelicals.” It is hard to overstate the influence that the charismatic Billy Graham, “America’s pastor,” exerted during the Nixon years, his influence enhanced by his highly visible place at the president’s table. Anyone who doubts that a gulf opened in that period between the ecumenical churches and Graham’s millions need only read his response to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in August 1963. Asked when he thought “little white children…will walk hand in hand with little Black children,” Graham replied, “Only when Christ comes again.”
Hollinger uses the term “ecumenical” rather than “mainline” to refer to the denominations that made up the old Protestant establishment, noting that the “mainline” label was “already anachronistic by the 1970s” as they were hemorrhaging members. He offers a nuanced account of the forces that led these churches to shed their provincialism and find a new, if contested, place in a changing country. A chapter devoted to Jewish immigration begins with a twenty-line paragraph naming leading figures in every line of work, from the arts to politics and science—Albert Einstein, George Gershwin, Philip Roth, Beverly Sills, Carl Sagan, and dozens more. “Every person on this list of culturally prominent Americans was born to at least one Jewish parent, and in most cases two, and thus, no matter what their personal intentions, participated in a demographic challenge to Protestant cultural hegemony,” Hollinger writes. The idea of a Christian America “was harder to maintain as non-Christians occupied more and more cultural space.”
At the same time, Protestant missionaries were traveling the globe by the tens of thousands in the 1920s and 1930s to bring the gospel to the non-Christian world. In what Hollinger calls “the missionary boomerang,” these committed Christians returned with new ideas about the world and its diversity of people, persuaded that “the rest of humanity was more than a needy expanse, awaiting the benevolence and supervision of American Protestants.” Many, particularly the graduates of elite universities, became “vocal advocates of tolerance and inclusion.”2
Evangelicalism grew as a “point-by-point response to the modernizing initiatives of ecumenicals,” Hollinger argues. It also filled the emptying pews of established Protestant churches. It’s not that traditional Protestants became evangelicals. Rather, they became “post-Protestants,” following their modernity out the door. Membership in the ecumenical denominations reached a high point by the 1960s, after which it began to decline, slowly at first and then at an accelerating pace. In 1976, 31 percent of the American population were members of the ecumenical churches. By 2018 that figure had dropped to 12 percent. And in a twist of history, evangelicals became active missionaries, a calling that ecumenical Protestants had long since left behind. Their missions achieved notable success in parts of Africa and Latin America, with the result that “solidarity with the Christians of the Global South ended up enhancing evangelical claims to speak for Christianity.”
Catholicism appears only glancingly in these three books, since US Catholics have historically not embraced Christian nationalism to the same degree as Protestants. In fact, Catholicism was foreign to the Christian nationalist vision; Hollinger titles one chapter “A Country Protestant on Steroids.” (It’s ironic that the law of church and state is now being shaped—one might say deformed—by six Supreme Court justices who were raised in the Catholic Church.) Nonetheless, Sehat, in This Earthly Frame, points to one moment with profound implications for the place of religion in public life.
In early 1959, edging toward his presidential run, John F. Kennedy needed to allay Protestant suspicions about his Catholicism. He gave an interview to Fletcher Knebel of Look magazine, who asked him what influence his religion would have on him if he were elected. Kennedy answered:
Whatever one’s religion in his private life may be, for the officeholder, nothing takes precedence over his oath to uphold the Constitution and all its parts—including the First Amendment and the strict separation of church and state.
In his account of the interview, published that March under the headline “Democratic Forecast: A Catholic in 1960,” Knebel described Kennedy’s theme as “religion is personal, politics are public, and the twain need never meet and conflict.” (Kennedy’s much better known appearance at a convention of Protestant ministers in Houston came later, after he had secured the Democratic nomination.)
Religion is personal: that was not the Catholic view by any measure. Kennedy, evidently to his surprise, was widely denounced by the church hierarchy for his failure to recognize that an officeholder was “answerable to God for actions whether public or private,” as one Catholic publication put it. And it is not the view held by evangelicals today. The recourse that Kennedy sought in the privatization of religion not only no longer satisfies; it is seen as a provocation by those who insist that faith is meant to be lived out loud.
That private religion will not suffice was the argument behind the Supreme Court’s startling decision last summer in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, which upheld the right of a football coach at a public high school to thank God from the fifty-yard line, in full view of the stands. It was also the explicit theme of Justice Samuel Alito’s speech in July to a conference in Rome organized by the University of Notre Dame. Alito drew a distinction between mere “freedom of worship” and real “religious liberty.” Freedom of worship, he explained, means only
freedom to do these things that you like to do in the privacy of your home, or in your church or your synagogue or your mosque or your temple. But when you step outside into the public square, in the light of day, you had better behave yourself like a good secular citizen.
Evangelicals are no more satisfied than Alito with simply being good secular citizens. Sehat examines the Court’s valorization of “privacy” and offers a fresh analysis of the fallout from grounding the reproductive rights rulings, beginning with Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), on a right to privacy. Griswold, in his view, did more than recognize a right to birth control, which by that time was already legal in all but two states. He sees the decision’s significance as endorsing, albeit implicitly, a “political philosophy” of individual autonomy that’s separate from religious norms, just as Roe v. Wade eight years later effectively “announced an abandonment of the role of the state in defining and defending an official morality.” Sehat’s valuable insight is that these privacy decisions were about something deeper than birth control and abortion, or even about the ability of women to control their reproductive destiny. They amounted to “a repudiation of the social significance of religion in determining moral norms at the hands of the state.” In Roe, as evangelicals instinctively understood, “American secularism reached its apotheosis.” And so began secularism’s decline.
Of course, the Supreme Court was not a solitary participant in these debates, and Sehat makes no such claim. But it was involved in creating a “secular order” that “decentered the dominant place of Christianity and relegated religion to the private realm along with other moral issues that an individual might confront.” Yet what it really meant to recognize and respect religion as a private realm was far from obvious. What had appeared as a settlement of a sort unraveled in a mind-bending series of changes in the meaning of privacy.
For liberals, privacy became double-edged as conservatives deployed it as a shield for discrimination. Didn’t the owner of a lunch counter have the right to refuse service to anyone he didn’t care to serve? The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was aimed in large measure at removing this supposed privacy shield from public accommodations. (The issue is back in new form in the current Supreme Court term with 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, a case on whether a business owner can use a religious objection to same-sex marriage to refuse wedding-related services to LGBTQ couples.)
And then the idea of privacy shifted yet again. Starting in the 1960s, conservatives seized on it to support private schools, as a refuge from desegregation or from secular society. For religious conservatives, the ultimate privacy claim became a claim of individual conscience, deployed to justify exemption from a legal or civic duty. Pluralism, once deemed a threat to Christian dominance, became useful when joined with privacy. “Now, pluralism could be used to demand the public recognition of private religious belief via the language of religious freedom,” Sehat smartly observes.
The constitutional scholar Reva Siegel has coined a term for this kind of appropriation: preservation through transformation. The Supreme Court has adopted this shape-shifting with enthusiasm, and Sehat is on strong ground in tracing recent decisions that have elevated private religious claims over what would have been regarded not too long ago as the common good. The notion of religious freedom has become, he asserts, “institutionalized in such a way that a gesture to religious conscience granted nearly automatic exemption from law.”
A prime example is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, enacted in response to a Supreme Court decision that in the absence of overt antireligious discrimination, the First Amendment’s free exercise clause affords no exemption to those who claim a religious reason for not complying with a generally applicable law. A broad multireligious coalition, including liberal religious leaders who were alarmed at the decision’s implications for minority faiths, pushed the law to overwhelming passage in Congress. Decades later, it is being used to great effect by conservative Christians. It was, for instance, the basis for the Court’s 2014 ruling in the Hobby Lobby case granting the Christian owner of a nationwide retail chain an exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement to include contraception coverage in the employee health plan.
The image of the “Jesus Saves” and “Proud American Christian” banners that members of the mob carried on January 6, 2021, is indelible, but also misleading.3 It’s not that Christian nationalism presents no real threat to American democracy—it does. It’s not that such violence won’t recur—it might. The problem is that a one-dimensional focus on that shocking event diverts us from recognizing Christian nationalism in its less violent manifestations and calling it out when we see it: public funding of religious schools in the name of equality; social policy turned to serve Christian doctrine; nondiscrimination principles abandoned in deference to religious objectors, whether individual or institutional. These threats to long-held assumptions about how the country works are not theoretical. They are happening now, in partnership with the Supreme Court.
One example: In November 2022, celebrating his reelection, Oklahoma’s Republican governor, Kevin Stitt, offered up his state to Christianity. “Father, we just claim Oklahoma for you,” he intoned.
Every square inch, we claim it for you in the name of Jesus. Father, we can do nothing apart from you…. We just thank you, we claim Oklahoma for you, as the authority that I have as governor, and the spiritual authority and the physical authority that you give me. I claim Oklahoma for you, that we will be a light to our country and to the world right here in our state.
Why wasn’t that astonishing statement headline news from coast to coast? It was barely noticed. In May 2019 Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama invoked the deity while signing a bill to ban abortion—a gesture by then so common that it attracted no public attention.
In Christianity’s American Fate, Hollinger observes:
One might suppose that we live in a world of either/or: either religious ideas are relevant to public policy and thus subject to critical discussion, or they are not relevant and thus not a topic for debate. But instead, we live in a world of both/and: religious ideas are both relevant to public policy and excluded from critical evaluation.
Each of these books offers a path to greater understanding of how a transformation occurring in full view over decades escaped the notice of many who watched in bafflement and horror as the events of January 6 unfolded. Rather than another January 6, the greater threat that Christian nationalism poses to American society may be, as these books warn us, its normalization.
Hollinger published a book on the unexpected effect of the foreign missions, Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America (Princeton University Press, 2017). ↩
The extensive use of Christian slogans and imagery by the mob was documented in “Christian Nationalism and the January 6 Insurrection,” a sixty-three-page report by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the Freedom from Religion Foundation, published in early 2022. ↩