Are We Seeing the Rise of (White) Christian Nationalism?

pro-Trump rioters with a large cross

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The ideology could be more pervasive, and dangerous, than you realize.

There was a time when, at some high schools, those wearing W.W.J.D. — or “What Would Jesus Do” — bracelets were considered popular, maybe even cool. But even if that ‘90s-era accessory doesn’t make a comeback, its ethos hints at an ideology that’s starting to gain ground, this time as part of an extreme political movement.

Though its origins date back to 1690, an increasing number of politicians — including, very prominently, Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene — are promoting what’s known as “Christian nationalism,” essentially the idea that America was founded by Christians as a Christian nation, and that all of its institutions, laws, and values are based on Christianity.

The ideology and political movement encompass different degrees of intensity, and University of Oklahoma sociologist Samuel Perry says Rep. Taylor Greene represents the extreme of that spectrum. For starters, the far-right congresswoman, an ardent supporter of former President Trump, has repeatedly called on Republicans to embrace the term, even emblazoning it on T-shirts and selling them online. But she’s not the only sitting member of Congress to champion its ideals: North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn described Capitol Hill politics as a “spiritual battle” against Democrats, while Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert advocated for dismantling America’s long-held tradition of separating church and state that’s protected under the U.S. Constitution

“Democrats and most Americans are suspicious toward explicit Christian nationalist ideology,” Perry, who studies Christian nationalism, tells KCM. “But the radical right is now saying, ‘Well, if the left hates it, then it must be really good.’”

If the term sounds unfamiliar, you’ve probably still caught glimpses of it during the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection when rioters marched up to the Capitol building by a crowd carrying bibles and crosses, while calling for the results of the 2020 election to be overthrown. One man, since identified as Jacob Chansley, or the “QAnon shaman,” even held an impromptu prayer after taking over the Senate chamber to thank God “for allowing the United States of America to be reborn.”

“We can’t fully understand what happened on January 6th without understanding the role of Christian nationalism,” says investigative journalist Katherine Stewart, the author of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism. She says the movement’s influence on the riot was two-fold: Many of the insurrectionists thought Trump’s defeat was against God’s will, and “the networks of Christian nationalism spread election lies.” 

This isn’t the first time the ideology has fueled violence in recent years: Experts say it was also at the center of the violent far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia five years ago. Hundreds of white supremacists and neo-Nazis descended on the city to protest the decision to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The nation watched in horror as the group carried tiki torches, chanting “Jews will not replace us” and “white lives matter” before later clashing with counterprotesters. That’s where you can see the intersection between white nationalism and Christian nationalism on full display, according to Robert P. Jones, the president and founder of the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute. 

“It’s important to add ‘white’ to the front of Christian nationalism because it’s really is an ethnoreligious identity,” says Jones, the author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. “It’s this combination of whiteness and Christian identity that gets melded together and understands itself to be the ‘real’ Americans.”

But how are other Christians responding? Some are vehemently rejecting this link between Christian nationalism and their religious beliefs: A petition condemning Rep. Greene’s promotion of “Christian nationalism” garnered over 10,000 signatures. This comes after the congresswoman contended that Christian nationalism was “a good thing” while speaking to the conservative Turning Point USA Student Action Summit last weekend. In response, a social-justice-focused activist group called Faithful America, which launched the petition, described Christian nationalism as a “betrayal of our faith.”

“As her siblings in Christ, we condemn Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene for her repeated abuse and misuse of our faith to seize power, we reject the Christian nationalist claim that America is a Christian nation, and we oppose all efforts to divide Americans and turn back the clock on equal rights,” the petition states.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) speaks during a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol April 28, 2022 in Washington (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Though some religious leaders have been quick to reject it, Christian nationalism isn’t only being embraced by religious extremists. It’s becoming more mainstream among conservative Americans, says Perry, particularly those who are white and who may not even be strongly religious themselves. 

“We’re finding that in some ways, you actually don’t even need to be a committed Christian yourself to subscribe to this ideology,” says Perry, who studies Christian nationalism. “You just have to be pro-Christian ethnocultural and believe that those values, principles, and foundations are the keys to our prosperity.”

The re-emergence of Christian nationalism also comes at a time when America’s becoming not only more diverse, but also increasingly secular. A Pew Research Center poll found that roughly 3 in 10 adults identify as religiously unaffiliated. Christians still make up the majority, but their numbers are dropping (making up 63 percent of the U.S. population in 2021, down from 75 percent a decade ago). But just because Americans are becoming less religious overall, the rise of Christian nationalism shouldn’t be ignored. 

“I would argue that as this group becomes a little bit smaller, their perception that they are persecuted increases and they become more militant, potentially more radicalized, and therein lies the danger,” Perry says. “You have a very motivated group of people, who will work pretty sneakily to establish themselves and make sure that they can’t be marginalized in any way.” 

Experts believe that now more than ever, Americans need to recommit themselves to what unites us: Democracy, something some advocates worry is under threat amid rollbacks on voting laws, including limits on in-person and early voting. 

“Our society needs some kind of baseline shared values to function well,” says Perry. “But because we have a Constitution and principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, there’s no indication that that has to be our common Judeo-Christian or Christian heritage.”