In the United States, much of the conversation around faith is dominated by conservative voices, voices that often argue for policies that restrict the rights of people in our communities. Through Progressive Voices of Faith, Pacific School of Religion (PSR) seeks to amplify the faith-based perspectives of progressives on politically and culturally relevant issues.
Christian nationalism as a political ideology assumes that in the U.S. Christians should receive special cultural and legal treatment and has historically been connected to White supremacy. The nonpartisan, independent research organization Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that Christian nationalist beliefs are associated with five core attitudes: anti-Black racism, antisemitic views, anti-immigrant views, anti-Muslim views, and patriarchal understandings of traditional gender roles. With over half of Republicans showing support for Christian nationalism, it’s sure to be a factor in the 2024 elections.
This month we asked PSR’s faculty, students, staff, alumnx, and board for their thoughts on the rise of Christian nationalism.
While almost 70% of respondents identified as Christian, only 13% view the U.S. as a Christian nation. Most cited our First Amendment’s guarantee of separation of Church and State as the most obvious reason. Alumnx Rebecca Littlejohn added, “We’re not supposed to be [a Christian nation] and if we were supposed to be, we’re failing miserably.”
PSR professor Leonard McMahon added, “Both historically and culturally, the United States has always been religiously diverse. However, an American ‘civil religion,’ an informal, superficial blend of puritanical faith and nationalistic symbolism, is regarded by some as evidence of Christian roots, a spurious claim at best.”
Alumnx, board member, and executive pastor at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, Rev. Dr. John Vaughn said, “The nation is founded and shaped by Christianity, but we are so much more than that as a nation.”
Many, however, said there were Christian ideals that the U.S. government should embody, like caring for the poor, and the marginalized. Multiple people pointed to John 13: 34-35: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
PSR Dean Susan Abraham shared a counterpoint, saying, “Every instance of religion in governmental processes becomes distorted. Individuals in any government can be religious, but modern governments and democracies need a space that is not ‘controlled’ by religion.”
When asked if they were worried about the rise of Christian nationalism almost everyone in the PSR community said they were either very (82%), or somewhat (16%) worried.
Murry Evans, PSR’s Vice President of Enrollment and Marketing, warned of the dangers of intertwining religious identity with political agendas, saying that, “While it’s essential for people of faith to engage in political discourse, the elevation of one nation or political ideology to a position of divine favor risks distorting the true message of the Gospel and alienating those who do not share the same religious beliefs.”
Alumnx Kent Gilbert has a front row seat to the rise of Christian nationalism working as a Christian lobbyist actively opposing most other Christian groups and their advocacy of Christian nationalist policy. “The conflation of power, Christian flag waving, and greed is staggering,” he said.
For alumnx Bob Lawrence the worry is deeply personal: “As an openly gay person, I am rarely considered to be the same faith as a Christian nationalist even though I am an ordained Christian minister.”
Many saw a deep connection between growing racial diversity, gains in visibility and rights for LGBTQ+ people, and a shrinking White Christian majority, and this most recent rise in Christian nationalism.
PSR President David Vásquez-Levy laid out the case clearly: “The rise of Christian Nationalism in the United States, and of other forms of religious nationalism elsewhere in the world, comes from the exploitation of a dominant group’s fear of losing power. In the case of Christianity, it takes the experiences of a persecuted rag-tag group living under Roman occupation who were trying to assert their nascent understanding of God being on the side of the oppressed and uses it to describe the most powerful nation in the world. That is deeply dangerous. It denies privilege, and whitewashes actions that are antithetical to the tradition they claim to represent by relying on violence, exclusion, and the hatred of the diversity God has created.”
“Christian nationalism doesn’t come out of nowhere,” current student Allison van Tilborgh added. “Christian nationalists are clearly hurting. They feel they’ve been cheated. The issue is that they point to those with the least power (POC, women, immigrants, etc.) rather than those in power who are actually responsible for their worsening condition.”
When asked how they speak to others about the dangers of Christian Nationalism, current student and PSR’s Associate Director of Community Engaged Learning Grace Gilliam said, “My first response is to emphatically proclaim that Christian Nationalism is NOT CHRISTIAN, it is the antithesis of following the teaching of Christ. As a person of color, I am tired of needing to explain all of these hypocritical covers for White Supremacy.”
Some, like current student Rabbah Rona Matlow, are very engaged in the fight: “As a trans activist, nearly everything I write, say and do is focused on countering this threat.”
One alumnx said she felt powerless in the face of the deep divisions in this country saying she speaks, “With tears, for I do not believe those who are Christian nationalists want to hear nor learn.”
Professor McMahon counseled looking for the middle ground, saying, “My Christian life is rooted in the mystery of faith, not the anxiety of nationalism. I believe that the church must always stand apart in loving critique, speaking truth to power.”
Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow, an alumnx and managing director of CLGS, had a clear prescription, saying, “I believe the key to help people to see their neighbor as themselves is to show how the “Love of the Law” (the intent of scripture) is greater than the “Letter of the Law” (what is written on the page).”
In fact, many pointed out that the separation of church and state has deep roots in the Bible itself, quoting Matthew 22:21: “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Evans shared the sentiment of many in the community by saying, “I believe in the importance of promoting justice, equality, and compassion while also advocating for the separation of church and state. Christians should prioritize the values of love, humility, and empathy in their interactions with people of different faiths and beliefs, striving to build bridges of understanding and cooperation rather than creating division or exclusion.”
Interested in expanding your understanding of Christian Nationalism? Check out these books and resources shared by the PSR community.
Websites & Articles
A Christian’s Thoughts on the Problem of Christian Nationalism — Bill McKibben
How America Got So Mean — David Brooks
The REAL Problem with Christian Nationalism Skye Jethani
Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation — Kristin Kobes Du Mez
White Poverty: How Exposing Myths About Race and Class Can Reconstruct American Democracy (June 2024) — William J. Barber II
How to Be an Antiracist — Ibram X. Kendi
Revolution of Values: Reclaiming Public Faith for the Common Good — Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
Between the World and Me — Ta-Nehisi Coates
Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present — Ruth Ben-Ghiat
The Open Veins of Latin America — Eduardo Galeano