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American Christian Nationalism: What is It? What Should We Think About It?
An accurate definition and measurement of American Christian nationalism reveal that it is problematic, but not nearly as problematic as some critics claim
By Mark David Hall
While there are a handful of articles and books written by academics that make a good faith attempt to understand Christian nationalism in America, these have been drowned out by a flood of articles, books and reports about its dangers. In the words of Georgetown professor Paul D. Miller, most of the existing works on the subject “are rather extreme and almost comical examples of beating up on straw men—or would be, if they weren’t also fear-mongering scurrilous libel masquerading as scholarship.”
I have been highly critical of the polemical literature, and critical of the scholarly literature. In previous essays on the subject, I have expressed dissatisfaction with current definitions and the authors’ assessments of the “threat” that Christian nationalism poses to the country. But I never deny that American Christian nationalism exists and is problematic. But how exactly should we define America’s brand of Christian nationalism—and should we fear its potential impact on American democracy?
In the United States, Christian nationalism is best understood as the view that the country was founded as a Christian nation and consequently, the federal government should protect and promote Christianity in special ways. Christian nationalists usually believe that other faiths should be tolerated, but that the national government does not need to treat all religions equally.
Earlier attempts to measure American Christian nationalism conflate it with lack of support for the strict separation of church and state. But one can support religious exemptions, religious monuments on public land and even voluntary student prayer in public schools without being a Christian nationalist—at least as I define the concept.
A recent Pew survey does a particularly good job of measuring American Christian nationalism. According to it, 18% of Americans believe that the U.S. Constitution was “inspired by God [and] reflects God’s vision for America.” Slightly fewer say that the federal government should declare the U.S. a Christian nation. And three in 10 citizens believe that public school teachers should be allowed to lead students in Christian prayers.
Taken together, these survey results shows that around two out of every 10 Americans are sympathetic to Christian nationalist messages. And although I personally disagree with all three statements, I am not troubled by these survey results because they don’t threaten America’s constitutional system in a significant way.
Consider the first statement: I love the United States Constitution, and I have argued that many of its authors were influenced by Christian ideas. But I am not prepared to say that it was “inspired by God.” Perhaps it was, but how are we to know? But affirming this proposition has little relevance for contemporary law or public policy.
Next, for the federal government to declare the U.S. a Christian nation would be imprudent and off-putting to the 37% of Americans who do not identify themselves as Christian, but it is not clear that these citizens would be harmed in any material way. Currently, every American state constitution references a deity, and in the context in which they were written, there is little doubt that they reference the Christian God. For instance, the third paragraph in the Massachusetts Constitution reads:
We, therefore, the people of Massachusetts, acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the goodness of the great Legislator of the universe, in affording us, in the course of His providence, an opportunity, deliberately and peaceably, without fraud, violence or surprise, of entering into an original, explicit, and solemn compact with each other; and of forming a new constitution of civil government, for ourselves and posterity; and devoutly imploring His direction in so interesting a design, do agree upon, ordain and establish the following Declaration of Rights, and Frame of Government, as the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
If Massachusetts were to rewrite its constitution, I would recommend removing this language, because what was inoffensive in 1780 would be divisive today. But all Americans live under state constitutions with such language and generally enjoy religious liberty and are treated equally as a matter of law. Should the national government take the imprudent step of declaring America to be a Christian nation, there is little reason to think this would change.
And finally, fifty years ago, the Supreme Court declared teacher-led prayer in public schools to be unconstitutional; and rightly so. The state-written invocation in question read: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.” Note that the prayer is not distinctively Christian, although it favors monotheism over polytheism and atheism. But a half-century ago, the vast majority of Americans adhered (at least nominally) to monotheistic faiths, so the offense given by these prayers was minimal.
Some school children have religious objections to saying the Pledge of Allegiance, and yet teachers continue to have students recite it. The Supreme Court has said this practice is permissible, so long as students who object to saying the Pledge are permitted to excuse themselves. In the unlikely event that the Supreme Court permitted teachers to lead students in prayer, presumably students who did not want to participate could decline to do so. It is not clear that these students would be harmed any more than students who decline to say the Pledge of Allegiance are harmed.
So in short: The belief that the U.S. Constitution is inspired by God has little relevance for law and public policy, and if the national government declared the United States to be a Christian nation and allowed public school teachers to lead children in prayer, the harms would be minimal. Nevertheless, there are at least two excellent reasons to reject the second two policies.
First, America was founded on the principle that all citizens are equal. To be sure, the nation has often neglected to live up to this commitment. But with respect to religious equality, America’s founders drafted and ratified a Constitution that bans religious tests for federal office, and they adopted the First Amendment which prohibits the creation of an established church. To be faithful to this principle, we must reject government policies that seem to (or actually do) favor one faith over others.
Second, Christians should reject both policies for biblical and theological reasons. Believers owe our ultimate loyalty to our Creator, and we must never conflate our country with God. And the Golden Rule requires us to treat others as we would like to be treated. Would Christians like the federal government to declare the United States a Jewish, Hindu or Islamic nation? If not, we should not support declaring it to be a Christian one. The same logic applies to teacher-led prayer in public schools.
American Christian nationalism is real, and it is problematic, but it hardly threatens the survival of America’s constitutional order. Our response to the phenomenon needs to be proportionate to the threat it poses—a principle almost every critic ignores.