Christian nationalism is more influential than ever within the Republican Party, even as Americans overall increasingly reject the movement and its beliefs, experts tell Grid.
Fewer Americans overall purport to believe America is a “Christian nation” that should be governed by Biblically-derived laws, both core beliefs of Christian nationalism. Americans, including other Christians, in large majorities support causes like abortion access and marriage equality, which Christian nationalists staunchly oppose.
And Christianity is shrinking overall, as a share of the total population. If current trends continue, Americans who identify as Christians could fall below 50 percent in coming decades.
By contrast, a majority of GOP voters endorse declaring the United States “a Christian nation,” a central tenet of the far-right, quasi-theocratic movement, according to a new University of Maryland poll. The movement coalesced around former president Donald Trump, particularly around his 2020 election loss and the baseless campaign to declare that election tainted.
Christian nationalism is based on a rejection of history, a negation of pluralism, and commitment to repressive and exclusionary government.J.L. Tomlin, historian and lecturer, University of North Texas
While that effort failed, it energized the movement and prompted Republican politicians to increasingly lean in to Christian nationalist rhetoric. At least one even embraces the “Christian nationalist” label others long eschewed.
The movement notched one historic victory this June: the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Some have called the court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson’s Women’s Health Organization “the crowning achievement” of the Christian Nationalist movement.
At the same time, the movement has been repeatedly stained by violence. The siege of the U.S. Capitol in Jan. 6, 2021, was infused with Christian nationalist imagery, slogans and invocations, experts and observers have noted, and the movement has been identified as an inspiration for mass shootings. While the movement has inspired terrible violence, not all Christian nationalists embrace violence as a tool to achieve their goals, they caution.
With the midterms favoring Republican candidates, the dwindling Christian nationalist movement nevertheless stands to enjoy remarkable political influence in the near term. For example:
- Republican lawmakers who identify with or align themselves with Christian nationalism stand to gain power with the GOP’s expected retaking of the majority in the House of Representatives.
- Republican politicians, including and especially Trump, lean heavily on Christian Nationalist rhetoric and symbolism, including allusions to violence.
- Trump acolytes, whose celebrity status was minted during the “Stop the Steal” movement, have been barnstorming the country with revival-style events that mix Christian Nationalist messages with “Stop the Steal” propaganda and even nods to QAnon.
- Dozens of prominent right-wing thinkers signed a manifesto declaring “public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private.”
- The movement has spawned a network of activist groups, that mix firearms and calls to violence into their missions and messages.
What’s most concerning, experts say, is that when the movement is predictably overcome by popular opinion, its leaders have attempted to discredit democratic institutions, including the electoral process itself, in attempts to secure power. In other cases, experts say the movement has inspired believers to violence, from mass shootings to the Jan. 6 insurrection. And the experts warn that each Christian Nationalist victory can create a feedback loop, further alienating the most hardcore believers and convincing them they are under assault, leading to a more radical and militant base.
“Christian nationalism is based on a rejection of history, a negation of pluralism, and commitment to repressive and exclusionary government,” said J.L. Tomlin, historian and lecturer at the University of North Texas. “It is antithetical to democracy.”
“These are people who are disloyal to our Constitution, who want to impose a Christian theocracy on the rest of us,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based group that advocates for the separation of church and state.
Another expert put it bluntly: “Breaking American democracy isn’t an unintended side effect of Christian nationalism. It is the point of the project.”
Onward, Christian soldier
Expect more Christian nationalist policy proposals, campaigning, messaging, rallies and protests in the coming weeks and months.
Several lawmakers with Christian nationalist views will be elevated to influential roles if Republicans reclaim the House this November as expected.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who sells “Proud Christian Nationalist” T-shirts on her website, was stripped of her committee assignments last year over her violent, conspiracy-laced rhetoric. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the presumptive Speaker in a GOP-controlled House, has said he would reverse that move.
Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), who has dismissed the separation of church and state as “junk,” was elected as Communications Chair for the powerful House Freedom Caucus in January. The Freedom Caucus features several members who, according to the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s research, have embraced Christian nationalist beliefs.
The caucus includes roughly a dozen lawmakers involved with efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), chair of the Freedom Caucus, mixes conspiratorial and religious rhetoric into his political speeches. None of the members named in this article responded to requests for comment from Grid.
The likely Republican candidates for president, Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, are engaging with Christian Nationalism as the election draws closer.
“Put on the full armor of God. Stand firm against the left’s schemes. You will face flaming arrows, but if you have the shield of faith, you will overcome them, and in Florida we walk the line here,” DeSantis recently told an audience at Hillsdale College, a conservative, Christian institution in southern Michigan. As others pointed out, DeSantis was altering a biblical passage, Ephesians 6, replacing the original “devil’s schemes” with “the left’s schemes.”
Trump, meanwhile, has been elevating outright QAnon and Christian nationalist posts on his social media platform to his millions of followers. At a campaign event in Ohio, the Episcopal priest Rev. Nathan Empsall observed that you could easily mistake the political rally for an evangelical megachurch event.
Trump acolytes are spreading the message of Christian nationalism, mixed with “Stop the Steal” conspiracy rhetoric, in a series of popular road shows known as the ReAwaken America Tour. Led by former Army lieutenant general Michael Flynn and others, the multicity tour mixes Christian preachers, election deniers, QAnon influencers, far-right celebrities and covid skeptics.
It features events like “America Is a Covenant Nation | God Chose Israel. America Chose God” and “Why Now Is the Time to Act without Fear and Hesitation to Save This God-given Republic.”
In June, dozens of prominent right-wing thinkers from the Conservative Partnership Institute, the Claremont Institute, the Manhattan Institute and others signed onto a manifesto for Trump-era conservatism that explicitly called for all “public life” in America to be based on a purported Christian morality, including the operation of governments and other institutions. The signers include billionaire Peter Thiel, former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, and former Senator Jim Demint.
“It is tempting to point out,” wrote the Washington Post’s David von Drehle, that the manifesto “has an awful lot in common with fascism.”
The resurgence in Christian Nationalism has also spawned organized offshoot groups. With names like the “Rod of Iron Ministries” and “Black Robe Regiment,” they evoke imagery of the Revolutionary War, even as they attack bedrock Constitutional principles like the separation of church and state. All declined inquiries from Grid to comment for this story.
- Black Robe Regiment — Several groups use the historical allusion in their name, and historians argue they intentionally misinterpret and manipulate the actual ideology of the pro-Revolutionary clergy members. The largest is led by Pastor Dan Fisher, a former Oklahoma state representative who occasionally dresses like a Revolutionary War officer. Fisher uses Christian nationalist language to encourage pastors to “reclaim America” and lead their congregations to war against perceived enemies.
- Rod of Iron Ministries — Rod of Iron is a U.S.-based apocalyptic church that believes the AR-15 is a “divine instrument for enforcing God’s will.” Its leader, Hyung Jin “Sean” Moon, wears a crown made of bullets, and often wears a “Black Robe Regiment” patch during sermons. The church leans heavily on Christian nationalist rhetoric, as well as “stolen election” lies. It holds an annual “Freedom Festival” that has featured Steve Bannon as a speaker. The founder has ties to MAGA world, including the Trump sons.
- New Columbia Movement — This is a Catholic group that seeks to establish “a shining city on a hill united in the Social Kingship of Christ,” an “America reborn as a model of Christian society and fellowship.” The group’s social media targets younger Americans. In October 2021, the group released a video attempting to reclaim the term “Christian Nationalist.” The group, organized in geographic chapters, has protested Pride events. In images on social media, the group does not appear armed.
The movement has inspired violence, perhaps unsurprising for an ideology steeped in allusions to and calls for violence. It came to a head Jan. 6, 2021.
“If you believe your god has anointed specific candidates to hold power, it doesn’t matter how much evidence there was that an election was fair. That collision means violence is inevitable,” said Andrew Seidel, a constitutional and civil rights attorney who wrote a book on Christian Nationalism. “God chose this candidate, how could he have lost? It has to be fraud, it has to be a rigged election.”
The events of the day, including Trump’s rally on the Ellipse and the Capitol siege, were infused with Christian nationalist rhetoric and symbolism.
Prior to the violent assault, speakers on the stage at the Ellipse on January 6th marshalled Christian themes and violent rhetoric.
Pastor Paula White-Cain, a televangelist and chair of an evangelical advisory board under Trump, opened the day’s events. White-Cain, who had previously claimed that “demonic confederacies” were “attempting to steal the election from Trump,” used her speech that morning to call for “holy boldness,” and to ask God to “overturn every adversary against democracy.” She called on the crowd to “secure his [Trump’s] destiny” and “be his rear guard.” As the Capitol was being stormed, White-Cain tweeted a denunciation of violence.
In an emailed response to Grid, White-Cain wrote that “accusing normal or traditional Christians of being ‘Christian Nationalists’ is solely a political tactic.”
“Sure, there are a small group of Christians who have extreme views,” she wrote, “and we condemn them.”
Freedom Caucus member Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), who wore body armor under his clothing during his speech, told the crowd, “We are not gonna let them continue to corrupt our elections and steal from us our God-given right to control our nation’s destiny.” Brooks did not comment for this article, but has denied inciting violence.
An 8-foot wooden cross was erected at the Capitol that day, and prayer circles were held around it during the violence, according to a report by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Footage from the siege shows Christian-themed flags carried by rioters inside the Capitol and on the Senate floor.
“Christian nationalists created the permission structure for the Jan. 6 insurrection,” said Seidel, who has been warning of the rise of Christian Nationalism for years. “It was the moment in the ‘Scooby-Doo’ episode where the mask is ripped off.”
Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, started a grassroots effort called Christians Against Christian Nationalism three years ago. After the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, where a man inspired by Christian nationalist rhetoric killed 11 people, Tyler and her colleagues had had enough.
“That was the final straw; we thought we had to do something,” Tyler said, “This is becoming increasingly dangerous, particularly for our neighbors who are not Christians, and we need to try to put some language around what we’re seeing that will help people identify Christian Nationalism in order to push back against it and ultimately dismantle it.”
Thanks to Dave Tepps for copy editing this article.